Is Christianity Cool?

4-20-2010

This is the title of chapter one of the book, and it’s the underlying question of the whole thing. It’s a question that begs to be explored, because it’s a question that is at least latently present in all the major movements and expressions of contemporary Christianity.

It’s a very complex question, to be sure. But that it is a complex question does not mean we should avoid talking about it and considering the very profound implications of the issues surrounding whatever answer we might give. Part of the problem in Christianity for the last several decades, I think, is that we’ve been unwilling to not only ask these questions but to wrestle seriously with them.

And so: Is Christianity Cool? In some ways it’s the leading question of our time, as evangelicals desperately try to keep their faith relevant in a rapidly changing culture. And most probably this question isn’t being explicitly asked, because to ask if something is cool automatically negates its coolness. Everyone who is or has ever been hip knows that coolness isn’t ever analyzed or spoken of in any way by those who possess it. Coolness is understood. It is mystery. It is contagious. And that last word is the key for many—especially those looking to sell something—seeking to tap into hip potential. Bridled cool is an economic cashcow. Translated to Christianity, cool is the currency whereby we must dispense the Gospel.

It is enormously interesting to me that we are so attracted and desirous of this thing called “cool,” but what is more intriguing to me is how exactly the search and adoption of coolness affects our lives. Is our longing to be fashionable, hip, stylish, and “ahead” of our peers benign? Or, if not, how does it affect our personhood (and, by extension, our Christianity) for good or ill?

The relative goodness or badness in the nature of “cool” is of utmost importance. Being stylish/trendy is certainly our society’s highest value, so the question we must ask as Christians is this: can we sustain integrity and substance in a world so driven by packaging? Must every work, every person, every message that seeks mass acceptance be form-fitted to the hieroglyphics of hip? Are the purposes and/or effects of cool compatible with those of Christianity? If we assume that “cool” necessarily connotes the notion of being elite, privileged, and somehow better than the masses, how can we reconcile the idea of “cool” with the idea of Christianity, which seems to beckon us away from self-aggrandizement of any and all kind?

Many will answer that making the church “cool” is simply a means to an end—a utilitarian approach to spreading the Gospel in a world where cool is the most efficient conduit of communication and transaction. If it is true that our culture today is most effectively reached through the channels of cool, does this mean Christianity’s message must be styled as such? What does this look like, and are there any alternatives? How does the Christian navigate in this climate without reducing the faith to an easy-to-swallow, hip-friendly phenomenon? Is the church’s future helped or hindered by an assimilation to cultural whims and fads?

We can all agree that the ultimate purpose of the church on earth is, as C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, “nothing else but to draw men into Christ.” But the challenging question is this: to what extent do we assume that men are drawn to Christ by the style in which He is presented to them? In other words, as the messengers of the gospel, are we to let the message speak for itself or must we jazz it up or package it in such a way that it is salient to the masses?

It is certainly appropriate that “packaging” is at the forefront of many church discussions today. In a world so obviously obsessed with style as a gateway to substance, we are right in viewing this as an important issue. But what are we losing when we start to sell Jesus as the ultimate in cool commodities?

Here’s another wrinkle: there are two very distinct categories of “hip” in today’s world: 1) The natural hip, and 2) The marketed hip. What I am speaking of above—about Christianity harnessing the horses of hip to help spread the message—is definitely the latter. When it’s about using cool to spread a message, it’s not naturally cool. Cool can never be authentic if it is a self-conscious activity (some might say, then, it is never authentic…).

But the majority of Christian hipsterdom is self-consciously so. This includes the churches that have candles everywhere and serve micro-brewed beer and cognac at potlucks to attract the rebellious young hipsters. These are the youth pastors who emphasize how God is all over things like The Sopranos, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and of course, U2. These are the Christians who like to speak of Jesus as a hippie countercultural activist who was a Che-esque revolutionary, and who probably would have smoked pot and listened to Radiohead were he on earth today. Essentially, this is a Christianity that bends over backward to be incredibly cool.

But in some instances, hip Christianity has been an organic phenomenon (that is, it hasn’t consciously striven to adopt some trend or characteristic of cool from the larger culture, but rather it has been a “first generation” cool that sets the trends of the larger culture and appears “cool” without really trying). Examples might be Daniel Smith (of the band Danielson Famile) or Sufjan Stevens—truly original artists who have embodied a certain strand of “indie/arthouse” style and subsequently launched many other talented, original Christian artists. I also think of people like Shane Claiborne, who—in efforts to live the humble life among the poor and downtrodden, Mother Theresa-style—has inadvertently framed Christianity in a “radical,” “progressive,” cool light.

Lest it sound like I am praising the Sufjans of the world and criticizing the, um, Toby Macs, let me just say: I’m not totally convinced that these “more authentic” Christian hipsters are substantively different than the inauthentic kind. At the end of the day, cool is cool—whether painstakingly strived for or halfway stumbled-upon.

And so there are many questions, many complexities. I haven’t got it all figured out. But I welcome your feedback.