Admit it: you want to be cool.
On your way home from work, canned ghetto-rage from a neighboring car pounds syncopated coolness through your windshield. Suddenly you feel uncool and you hate the feeling. So you lean back in your seat and put a meaner look on your face, in case the car-stereo guy glances over and sees you.
You go to a party, and you’re greeted with songs that reduce you to a piece of meat. But nobody else seems to mind, so you don’t leave, even when they start showing pornography on the big screen. After all, you don’t want to look like you don’t get it.
Maybe you buy magazines and listen to music you don’t even like because you’re afraid of being out of the loop. Maybe you ingratiate yourself to rude jerks because you want them to think you’re cool. Maybe as a teenager you starved yourself skinny because it was the thing to do; and now as an adult it’s no longer cool to hurt yourself, but you can’t stop.
You know better than this; with your head you understand that this insecurity has no basis in reality. But your gut is way ahead of your mind on this one, driven by deeply rooted ghosts of shame, fear and loneliness.
This book is about those ghosts. It’s about cool.
Cool is all around us, saturating our culture. We can’t escape it. Cool informs both our mundane activities and our significant decisions. It is an attitude, a habit, a worldview, a feeling. Sometimes we control cool, but sometimes it controls us. And sometimes, cool reduces us to extras in somebody else’s fantasy—passers-by to whom he or she can feel superior.
Cool appears in myriad and contradictory forms.
• Teenage rebellion provokes the adult world’s fears of irrelevance.
• The for-profit advertising world sells images of cool to exploit our insecurities.
• The jaded, cynical response to advertising, an anti-cool, ultimately is the same animal in a different hide.
• There’s even cool Christianity: a resolute disassociation from embarrassing churches or older Christians.
I’ve been around cool my whole life, like just about everyone else in today’s world, sometimes observing cool from a distance, and sometimes, in spite of myself, trying wholeheartedly to be cool. I was born in the western United States into a healthy family. Cool was not a value in my home, but authentic and courageous action most certainly was. My parents were young enough that by the time I wanted to be cool, they could remember cool’s appeal and were able to uncover cool delusions for me.
When I was nine, my family left the United States for a seven-year missionary stint in Switzerland. There I lived an exciting urban life in a profoundly multiethnic world. We lived in the metropolis of Zurich during my adolescent years, before returning to the States in the early 1990s.
My relationship with cool was fairly standard through my early grades in school, which is to say I lived in it, near it and aware of it. Everything changed for me in an instant, however, midway through a chewing-out at the hands of my high school Latin teacher.
Nothing says “establishment” quite like Latin class, and at my school eight semesters were required. My friends and I were typical teenagers to Herr Roth, antagonizing him at every opportunity. One day I pushed him over the edge. When class was dismissed, he pulled me into the hallway. I was terrified, but with all the other kids walking by, I needed to compose myself quickly. The man yelled at me for twenty minutes straight. I can only guess what he was saying— probably things like “You’re wasting your life”—because I wasn’t really listening. I was too busy demonstrating, via body language, that I didn’t care how angry he was.
Then it happened. Suddenly I realized, I’m trying to be cool.
At that moment, I understood that cool doesn’t reside in objects or people; it is a tool that can be wielded. Furthermore, I understood that this was an incredible and possibly dangerous secret to power and influence. More thought was needed, so I wiped the smirk off my face and let Herr Roth finish. It worked. He calmed down within seconds of feeling that he was being listened to.
It was as if scales had fallen out of my eyes. The entire world (which is to say, the entire high school scene) felt different. I could manipulate people with something as simple as body language—and I could just as easily be manipulated. On that day, cool became a subject of my curiosity.
I’ve had my eyes wide open since that moment with Herr Roth. I have learned that cool is far more powerful than we realize, and that like the ring of power in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, most of us don’t have the mental strength to wield it. More often, cool wields us.
Cool is not innocent. Cool is the sunglasses we wear so people don’t see that we’re lonely, frightened or ashamed. It can alienate us from community, family and God. We’re so attuned to cool that we can hardly imagine life without it.
This book is an attempt to imagine such a life: it is a search for a better way, an uncool we can live with; an uncool that will free us up to live healthy, authentic lives.
TO DEFINE IS TO LIMIT
But what is cool anyway? For a passion so prominent in our hearts, we barely notice it, or think about it. We watch our tempers, we control our appetites, and we surrender our jealousies to God, but cool flies below our radar. Where did it come from? How does it affect our community? What does cool want? Is it merely a hangover from adolescence? Or is it something bigger?
One of the difficulties in defining cool is the word’s near omnipresence in contemporary American English. We say “cool” as a generic term of approval. It can mean spontaneous, clever, slick, fashionable, high-tech, successful or original. Cool is a compliment; “That’s cool,” in fact, was the most common response people had when I told them I was writing this book.
In their book Cool Rules: Anatomy of an Attitude, Dick Pountain and David Robins supply a definition for cool: an attitude of permanent, private rebellion . I think this needs to be taken further. In this book I am defining cool as the private performance of rebellion for rebellion’s sake .
First of all, cool is private . It is individualistic from beginning to end, even when small groups of in-the-know insiders are involved: even in tight-knit cliques, membership is less about faithful friendship and looking out for each other, and more about excluding outsiders.
Second, cool is a performance. Cool exists to show off to an uncool audience. And since performance is always immediate, cool does not care about yesterday or tomorrow, only about right now.
Third, cool is about rebellion. Cool communicates categorical disrespect for authority. Cool accepts no limits on behavior and no limits on identity, insisting instead on an individual authority to define oneself, and to know others without being known. That’s why sunglasses are cool. They allow the wearers to look at the world without revealing who they are.
Finally, cool’s rebellion is for its own sake . There are many reasons that people rebel, from injustice to petty disagreements, but normal rebellion ends when the conflict is resolved. Not so with cool: cool shows universal contempt for authority, extending across all space and time: Cool is never done being cool. Since this contempt for authority applies to tradition and current affairs alike, we can say that cool exists outside of time.
In the long run—the view from eternity—living only for the moment is less than shallow: it’s inhuman. We are created for community, for family, for spiritual life, all of which relate to the past and the future. Real relationships extend backward in time (our memories) and forward into the future (our hopes and fears). Living for the moment is an obstacle to spiritual and social health. Basically, whether pursued individually or collectively, cool is antisocial.
African American teenagers, white frat boys, gospel singers, athletes and French rioters can all embody mutually exclusive strains of cool but have a story in common: the private performance of rebellion for rebellion’s sake. This story is important if we are to understand cool, since a person or group determined to be cool will shrug off attempts to understand them. In A Portrait of Dorian Gray , Oscar Wilde’s Henry Wotton responds to a simple question—“What are you?”—in a decidedly twenty-first century way: “To define is to limit.” In other words, if you find out who I am, you might be able to call my bluff. The self-assured hipster may be revealed as a scared and lonely kid. The rebel without a cause may be exposed as a senseless car crash waiting to happen.
If we are going to live whole, healthy lives, we’re going to have to step away from the shame and fear we hide behind cool. Authentic faith is uncool in the sense that it is unashamed. Christians are far richer than the empty bravado behind cool because our story is a great story: a God dies to give us life in abundance. And once we’ve begun to live uncool, our story will get ever sweeter.
THE STORY OF COOL
The story of cool is, to a significant extent, the story of race in America. From the slave economy and the industrial revolution, to the Civil Rights movement and the cultural revolutions of the sixties, to twenty-first century pop culture, American cool and American racism were born together and have grown up together. Cool as we know it was born at the shadowy intersection of black and white America, as African slaves (and later, African Americans) asserted their humanity against vehement white assertions to the contrary: “The circumstances we find ourselves in are absurd.” One slave spiritual asserted humanity and God’s justice at once, in a manner that could not have been unthreatening to slaveholders:
Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel,
And why not every man?
In the twentieth century, as racism emerged as slavery’s successor, W. E. B. Du Bois would write:
It is a particular sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others. . . . One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife—this longing . . . to merge his double self into a better and truer self.
In some cases African Americans flipped this courageous resistance against exclusion into an inverted exclusion: “You whites may think you’re in control, but I see a bigger picture, and thus I am more in control than you are.” Several splinter groups of the Nation of Islam, for instance, have held that black people are gods and whites are devils.
Poor whites, themselves outsiders in the predominant society and often barely removed from peasantry and slavery themselves, recognized the language of supremacy being communicated by blacks and responded in kind, offering their own version of exclusionary assertion. Kathleen Neal Cleaver explains from the example of Irish immigrants:
Early in the nineteenth century, it was an open question among the native born white Protestants whether these Celtic immigrants belonged to the white race. . . . The imperative driving Irish workers to define themselves as whites, despite their hatred of the British and distaste for their American descendants, was that “public and psychological wage” that whiteness promised to desperate immigrants in an industrializing society that held them in contempt.
The poorest of the whites were the ones with the most day-to-day contact with blacks. White fear of interracial marriage, among other factors, caused racial tension to intensify in the early twentieth century.
In such an environment jazz emerged. Secular, sexual and drawing a large white audience, it is no surprise jazz was divisive—the object of parental terror and youthful rebellion. Cool came into its own in the Jazz Age between the first and second World Wars; after rock and roll gave whites a cool music that sounded much more familiar to their ears, things really got going.
By the early 1960s, American youth were sold on cool, and advertisers began to sell it to them. Thomas Frank notes, in The Conquest of Cool : “The ads . . . had an uncanny ability to cut through the overblown advertising rhetoric of the 1950s . . . to appeal directly to the powerful but unmentionable public fears of conformity, of manipulation, of fraud, and of powerlessness, and to sell products by so doing.”
Advertising nurtured a new—and particularly potent—permutation of cool: radical individualism. Frank continues, “The basic task . . . [is] not to encourage conformity but a never-ending rebellion against whatever it is that everyone else is doing, a forced and exaggerated individualism.” A better descriptor of cool would be hard to find, yet Frank is talking about corporate capitalism.
ADVERTISING AND ISOLATION
Today most people’s contact with cool comes through mass media and consumer society. But such contact is fleeting; cool’s power lies in part in its inscrutability—it’s gone the second you reach it. Cultural observers say that we live in a day and age in which our very identities are only surfaces. And when we live superficially—when we live only in the moment, when we are what we consume—we put ourselves at the disposal of whoever has the courage to wield the past and the ambition to shape the future. Advertisers convince us of our ignorance so that they can add mystery to their products.
Cool is the most powerful spiritual environment possible for advertisers. Not even the cradle or the marriage bed are off-limits to marketing campaigns. All relations—save those involving brand-loyalty—are subjected to the coolness of rebellion. We are communal creatures, but advertisers target individuals, because individuals—all alone in the world, or at least the store—are more susceptible to messages of being incomplete without the consumer product in question. It is by dividing communities into collections of individuals that advertisers conquer consumer resistance.
Communities identify via their clothes; consumers individuate via clothes. Communities make their own music; individual consumers buy it. Communities don’t require half the commodities needed by collections of individuals. Cool marketing thus sells the image of belonging to, and inclusion in, the product being sold, rather than a real community. For example, whereas the standards for beauty are rooted in memory and thus community, fashion offers an individualized consumer product (such as an item of clothing) that brands its wearers with supposed status and wealth.
Similarly, cool sexuality prefers pornography to love. Pamela Paul writes, “Many women today, particularly college students, consider the production and consumption of pornography a form of sexpositive activism.” Cool sexuality is a bizarre combination of control and libertarianism. Real love is about more than one person and more than one moment, whereas porn is all about control. I can turn on the computer and turn it off whenever I want; I can control the relationship on my own terms.
Real love is about other people, and therefore by definition not about control. As the Song of Songs says, “Love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty fire” (Song of Songs 8:6). Love—real love—is in a whole other league than cool. Cool cares less about love and more about freedom. The fact that societies establish sexual boundaries to protect men, women and children doesn’t bother cool. Cool rebels against all boundaries— even the ultimate boundary of death.
Ever since the Garden of Eden, death has been a primary human preoccupation. The greatest story ever told is that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross gives us the power to transcend death. But thinking about the cross also connects us with Jesus’ defeat and humiliation. Can anyone seriously remain cool while meditating on a grisly crucifixion? Gangster fantasies like rapper 50 Cent’s project coolness by offering more fashionable, sexier myths of overcoming death. In “Many Men (Wish Death),” from the album Get Rich or Die Tryin’, 50 Cent writes:
Many men wish death upon me . . .
Better watch how you talk, when you talk about me
’Cause I’ll come and take your life away.
He makes the point more bluntly in the song “50 Bars”: “When I’m dead and gone, n——— gonna remember my name 50.” In other words, death can’t stop me.
Some pronounced the end of cool cynicism in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on America on September 11, 2001. Cynicism is a luxury for peacetime, the reasoning went. Even the satirical weekly The Onion dropped publication for a week.
But cool cynicism is harder to hijack than a mere airplane. Cool cynicism is a cult of insider knowledge. In a world where everything is for sale, cool cynicism protects itself by refusing to belong to anyone or anything. In 2006 Wal-Mart announced it would begin selling organically grown produce. The hostile response from people who would otherwise celebrate such a giant step for the environmental movement demonstrates two things: first, it’s easier to be against something than for its alternative; second and more important, something cool—say, eating organic food—becomes less cool when it’s embraced by something uncool—say, Wal-Mart.
Cynicism culminates in contempt for just about everything relationally good. Anticapitalist Kalle Lasn calls it “the dark side of cool”:
It’s part of the reason we watch too much TV and don’t bother to vote. It’s why we get stuck year after year in tedious, meaningless jobs. It’s why we’re bored so much of the time and become compulsive shoppers. To find a way out of cynicism is to find a way out of the postmodern malaise. On the far side of cynicism lies freedom.
Ultimately, Lasn says, “Cool is the opiate of our time, and . . . we have grown dependent on it to maintain our identities.” Real people are never cool; only their projected identities are. Smooth guys far too often have child support to pay. Fine dressers are often broke, party animals look a whole lot better at midnight than at four, and a lot of world-traveling backpackers are really just hiding from their parents.
Cool interferes with relationships and communities. Cool is “powerlessness, disconnection and shame.” The key word here is shame. Cool is about performance: if you act uncool in public, the trendiest clothes won’t help you. Peer pressure is a social device for enforcing conformity; the cool kids at a high school are not necessarily the rebels. They may well be the rich kids, the athletes or exclusive cliques such as the “Plastics” in the film Mean Girls.
In the film, Lindsey Lohan’s character is dropped into the teenage jungle of bourgeois Evanston, Illinois, after having spent most of her life in the tropical jungles of “Africa,” a faraway place never fully defined. Lohan’s parents are white scientists; her mother has taken a tenure-track job at Northwestern University.
Lohan initially observes her high school’s cliques with an outsider’s eye. As the only character capable of moving between groups, she is the only truly “cool” character in the film. She quickly throws her whole self into a decidedly insider project: dethroning the Plastics. Along the way she “loses her cool”—she begins to wear the Plastics’ persona, and the persona begins to wear her.
Peer pressure demands that everyone be the same. The implicit threat in peer pressure is humiliation: if you don’t dress like us or behave like us, we will shame you. But cool is more exclusive; being cool is less about conformity to the fashions of the day than about being the only one or ones in the know.
Cool starts off in rebellion but ends up in a mess. Lasn likens it to an addictive drug:
Cool is indispensable—and readily, endlessly dispersed. You can get it on every corner (for the right price), though it’s highly addictive and its effects are short-lived. If you’re here for cool today, you’ll almost certainly be back for more tomorrow.
Meanwhile, others are laughing their way to the bank. Take a look at TV, for instance. Big businesses don’t do anything if there’s no profit to be made. Yet televised entertainment still comes to your home for free. Where is the money?
The viewing public is not the industry’s primary customers. Loyal viewers, as measured by Nielsen ratings, are a commodity networks sell to advertising corporations. The more viewers the network can promise, and the more demographic information the network knows about those viewers, the higher the advertising rates the network can command.
The trouble is that after a while, the viewing public develops immunity to ads. We no longer believe the message that we need the advertised product. This consumer resistance forces advertisers to come up with new strategies for disorienting consumers’ psychological defenses. For years, for instance, business philosophers have advocated product “branding” as a way of bypassing critical consumer thought. But branding gradually loses its juice—consumers reclaim their critical faculties. So business thinkers such as Kevin Roberts suggest getting consumers to fall in love with the products being sold.
And on it goes. When the mind is no longer a strategic battleground for the consumer’s pocketbook, go for the gut. When the gut doesn’t work, go for the heart. In a marketplace such as this, with fragmented consumers, permanent rebellion becomes a reasonable response. Cool can feel like a safe harbor. That’s exactly why cool is the advertising El Dorado. Whoever owns cool owns the others. As long as advertisers can convince consumers that certain consumer products contain a coolness that eludes them, advertisers have the upper hand. Cool binds us to the products we buy, all the while preventing us from developing fully human relationships.
THE POWER OF LOVE
Cool contains enough contradictions and illusions to make one’s head spin. But those afterparty moments of honesty, when we know—really know—that we’re lost and going nowhere, are moments of opportunity. Weakness, not success, is our way out. When we feel lonely and vulnerable—when we feel uncool— God is inviting us to a whole life. When we look around and ask, “What am I doing with my life?” we can begin to live real lives.
We moved to Wisconsin while I was still in high school, and though I initially resisted— Wisconsin is far less cool than Zurich—I grew to enjoy the place, to the point where I am still here fourteen years later, while the rest of my family has returned to our homeland in the intermountain American west.
I went to college in Madison, at the University of Wisconsin. This large Big Ten school is one of the country’s most politically active, and is also one of the country’s most debauched party schools. Study hard, party hard, the campus culture says. The UW is thus an easy place to figure yourself out, if you don’t smoke your brains out first. I believe I chose the former.
In an environment dedicated to “ever encourag[ing] that fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found”—that’s the motto of the UW—I discovered that Jesus’ offer of “life to the full” (John 10:10) and Paul’s message that it was “for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1) were far more compelling and lifegiving than the cool culture around me. I found the beloved community of the church.
Here then is the crossroads we face: a cool moment, or a freeing, healthy life in Christ. We can’t have both. The church’s greatest power lies in its being the “beloved community”—the supernatural community created by none other than God himself through his Spirit. God’s love is the most deep-feeling, creative force in the universe, and the incredible truth is that this love lives in the church. In its sharing of Christ’s suffering, and in its practice of inclusive hospitality, the beloved community displays cool’s fundamental phoniness to the world. Cool in one corner, and the love God gives his followers in the other? It’s not even a fair fight. The beloved community shatters cool’s rebellion.
As God’s people living out the full life Jesus promised, the freedom Paul claimed for us, the beloved community must escape the cult of cool. We’re so used to pursuing cool that being uncool is scary. But what other honest option do we have? We have been given Jesus’ words of life, and stewarding those words in a world suffering the effects of cool is a serious matter. Jesus proved his kingship by dying as a contemptible criminal. Following his example, we can and must die to ourselves. We must die to cool. But when we open our hearts for Christ’s sake, we will live authentically: at the level of human suffering, as theologian Ray Aldred has said, because that is where God’s power is greatest. The sooner we understand the impossibility of the church’s being simultaneously cool and authentic, the better.
When we open our hearts for Christ’s sake, we will gain authenticity. God calls us sons and daughters. He can protect us and make us whole. He can make us into a family. Christian love is vulnerability before God, which for all its uncoolness is the very substance of abundant life, love and worship.
Love, not cool, is a life worth living.