catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 17 :: 2003.09.12 — 2003.09.25


Coolness kills community

Yesterday was the first day of school—a special day for freshmen to walk through their class schedules. Each freshman class looked the same. Rows and rows of kids all trying their best to get an early start on being cool. This means of course, that they were all trying to look unimpressed, uninterested, and condescending. I felt pity for them. In the course of four years of high school, some of them will learn to be themselves and find their place in the community, but the vast majority will serve the god of coolness and be alone to graduation and beyond.

Think about your ultimate example of cool. I am 37 years old, so my coolness icons are a little dusty—I think of James Dean, Indiana Jones, maybe a young Mick Jagger. Your examples may be more recent or more ancient, but I am betting we are still talking about the same thing: someone who is cool has to stand alone and look good. Looking good seems to always mean spending a lot of money and time to look casual—as if you didn’t spend a lot of money and time looking the way you do. Someone who is cool has an attitude. The attitude says that they can manage on their own, don’t need any help from anyone else, thanks. It is an attitude that sneers at many aspects of society—conventionality, domesticity, community, safety, family, education, monogamy, religion, and at anyone older or younger than them. In fact, the default for coolness is to sneer. If you aren’t sure whether a fellow human being is cool, if you don’t know whether an activity is cool, you sneer.

So essentially, being cool means leaning against a wall, looking good, laughing at the rest of the world, and showing no interest in anything or anybody. If this is what high school students (and many adults) hold up as an ideal, should we be surprised that our society tends toward being apathetic, uninterested, and unlearned?

And it is a poise that offers so little freedom. Those who are cool cannot laugh until they make snorting noises out of their noses, for to do so would ruin the image. Cool people cannot run through the rain with wild abandon, hooting and jumping in puddles. Again, it would ruin the image. Cool people cannot pick up an instrument they have never played before and make a set of truly horrendous noises. Cool people cannot cry with someone else. Cool people usually need to stay quiet. If they talk, they might say the wrong thing and ruin the image. Cool people cannot be seen with anyone who is less cool than them—which rules out all people who are older than them, younger than them, poorly dressed, fat, balding, or goofy. Imagine a life without all the people you know who fit into one or more of these categories. That doesn’t leave you much of a community to be a part of.

But apart from the fact that a cool life is lacking in freedom, it also runs counter to so many aspects of a Christian life.

Coolness is individualistic. To be cool is to be on your own. To neither need help from others nor offer it. Because it is so focused on appearance, it tends to be narcissistic and self-centered. Other people exist to be an audience, to be the subject of mockery, and to serve food and drinks. This distorts any sort of relationship between males and females into something that is simply more self-love and has little chance for success. In contrast, Christianity is a religion of community, not just within the church, but reaching out to the larger culture too.

Coolness cannot be content. Take a look through an Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue (if you can afford to buy one). If you can look past the nudity, you will see an awful lot of unhappy people, all working like crazy to be cool and be happy. The catalogue is almost abusive in its editorial content, proclaiming in the question and answer section, for example, that its readers are stupid and need to lose some weight. Cool people will always need to lose some weight. Sex and alcohol are parades as part of the good life, but they seem to offer little real satisfaction. The catalogue doesn’t even claim to offer a happy life, but it does imply that since your current life is so embarrassingly dorky, you might as well at least try to be cool.

Coolness allows no other gods before it, especially God. If you are cool, you are not singing praises to anybody, because it might drown out the praises to you. If you are cool you are not reading your Bible or admiring God’s creation with awe and wonder because these things make you vulnerable to being uncool. It is cool to be interested in issues of social justice so that you can give the appearance of caring for the world, but to actually work for social justice brings you into contact with the uncool—street people, the poor, people who are the wrong color, and so on. Whereas we might expect a Christian to work hard for social justice, but do so quietly, coolness proclaims itself loudly, while actually doing very little.

If all this is true, why do so many teenagers (and adults too) spend so much time and effort trying to be cool? Probably because the messages of coolness are being crammed down our throats by a huge media machine that needs us unsatisfied (so we are interested in buying something), unreflective (so we can actually believing that what we wear will change who we are), and unfulfilled (so that when the clothes don’t make us happy, we return to the beginning and start the process over.)

So I am actually arguing that nerdiness, dorkiness, or being a spazz or a geek can make your life more free, more enjoyable, and more useful to the Kingdom. We need to help others step off the treadmill and join us for a satisfying walk through God’s creation, talking to each other and belly-laughing and making embarrassing snorting sounds at the beauty of it all.

Jesus wasn’t cool and he wasn’t a nerd. He wasn’t a jock or a spazz or a goth or a geek. Jesus was a bridge. He spoke to tax-collectors and prostitutes and encouraged people from different worlds to come together. He reminded us that the Samaritan is our neighbor, too.

And the good news, of course, is that there have always been those who follow him and break barriers. The athlete who hangs with the geeks. The cheerleader who realizes the futility of a life based just on appearance. The kid who doesn’t fit into a category. The people who link hands and arms across the social divisions of high school to connect the community. We need to encourage the teens we know to think outside the guises they are handed and be who they are—all children of the Lord.



Discussion topic: Overcoming coolness

How have you overcome (or tried to) the desire to be cool? How can we help teen-agers overcome coolness?

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