Is Christianity Cool?

This is the title of chapter one of the book I am writing, and it’s the underlying question of the whole thing. I don’t expect to answer it definitively in the book, but 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. The book I am writing will treat it as such, and will not approach it in any sort of bifurcated, black-and-white manner. 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.

I’m writing the book not to position myself as some sort of expert or to make some audacious claim about anything, but because I love Christianity and the church. I want to see her thrive, expand, and be all that she can be in the world. I want to see the cause of Christ advanced and nut muddled up. And this topic—the relationship of the church to the notion of “cool”—strikes me as a vitally important topic that needs to be addressed with tenderness, nuance, and–when appropriate–constructive rebuke. I hope to spark some necessary conversations, discourse, and soul-searching. And I don’t care if it’s all hopelessly uncool.

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15 responses to “Is Christianity Cool?

  1. is christianity cool?
    yes
    and no

    great post!
    good luck and God’s inspiration on your book!

  2. Perhaps what makes “cool” so hard to define is its subjectivity. What I find to be cool might not be what others around me find hip, trendy, or fashionable…which makes me either irrelevant or the trendiest person around. What also makes this difficult is the wide varieties and disparities of Christianity. Which is cooler for a 20-something hipster: a non-denominational emerging-type church, or a 150-year-old Greek Orthodox church?

    It seems to me that the only constant in coolness is in what you’ve stated: if you have to really ask, or if the person/idea is really trying hard, then it’s probably not cool. What makes something cool is its ability to confidently transcend mediocrity through originality.

  3. The two questions I think are really interesting here:

    1. Is the message affected by its medium? and is that true wrt the Gospel and cool?

    2. what do we do w/ (eg.) Sufjan’s self-consciousness of his own coolness, or more accurately Welcome Wagon’s same self-consciousness (despite the fact that it’s still very organic, as you put it)? Is that irony?

    3. And what place does cool, hipster irony have in all this? If you haven’t already, you really need to read the David Foster Wallace essay Welcome Wagon mentioned in their essay w/ Relevant (http://www.relevantmagazine.com/pc_article.php?id=7710). I think the essay has MASSIVE implications for Christian hipsters, and really does a good job of capturing the tension of irony and sincerity that many of us live in (and that Welcome Wagon seem to embody).

  4. But what we really want, is for you to write a book that will show us how to be the guy in the graphic at the top of this post. So hip it hurts!

  5. I’m not so sure that ‘cool’ is all that mysterious or ethereal. It’s strictly codified— it’s being rebellious to societal norms in a way that conforms to societal ideas of rebellion.

  6. cool is more easily (and perhaps more appropriately) attributable to individuals than to discrete ideologies.

  7. Tim, isn’t being cool – based on your definition – or hip still trying to be rebellious in a way that differs – or, well, rebels against – from cultural standards of rebellion? Hence, what is cool during one time isn’t during another – think the 80’s.

  8. What I mean is that cool is a derivative function of culture— that’s precisely why what was cool during the 80s isn’t cool today, because culture today is different from culture in the 80s. Rebellion that differs from contemporaneous cultural standards of rebellion isn’t cool, it’s weird or outdated or eccentric. Just for e.g., a man may dress as a woman for strictly political & sociocultural rebellious reasons, but this isn’t in any way cool. As well, because of fragmented culture, what is cool within one societal niche may not be cool in the culture writ large, or in other niches— but is still cool within that niche because of the specific cultural expectations therein.

  9. Will- the guy in the above picture is Jay Bakker–hipster mashup child of evangelical superstars Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker! That pic is from a Kenneth Cole ad, for which he is a model.

  10. Is Christianity cool?

    I don’t know. What I do know is that it is contrary to practically every natural selfish and sinful instinct we have. Christianity is so amazing because it really makes no sense to fallen human souls. It’s just crazy enough to work.

    That’s my take on it. Make of it what you will.

  11. If you have any questions about coolness, I’d like to offer myself up as the leading expert. Seriously, I’m just about as cool as they come. Also, have you read “Blue Like Jazz”? Donald Miller? This is reminding me of some of his conversations…

  12. i am so interested in your book…it sounds like you’re really putting a lot of great thought into how all of this actually works together and you’re asking a lot of good questions that i kind of find myself wondering sometimes. for me, it is a struggle to find the balance between “being cool and hip” while still living IN this world and trying to be the so-called “light” that we are called to be as christians while not being OF the world… keep writing!!

  13. I’m really intrigued by your approach, Brett, because it’s very charitable to everyone involved, which is not at all easy. I have a difficult time with cool Christians in general because I see so many of them living vain, shallow lives. (Forgive me for lacking charity here — I just don’t know what to say but to say it plainly.) They want their friends to like them, to receive a nice pat on the head from the surrounding culture that says, “Good Christian, nice Christian! You’re not like those scary fundamentalists. You drink and cuss and go to shows with us.” And these same people (I often among them) invite their friends to come to church and meet Jesus, but no one wants to — other than an interesting socio-cultural phenomenon, their friends don’t really care about Jesus because they don’t see the He makes any difference to their lives.

    This is broad-stroke stuff here, but I see it a lot.

    The other disturbing thing about “cool” Christians is the emphasis on what is temporal — sort of like the indie-music obsession with discovering a band before anyone else does and being defined by these discoveries. What is eternally valuable about the music as art — its meaning and significance — remains for someone who listens to it for more than vanity’s sake, but for the hipster, it’s consumed and disposed of. It’s a shallow way to live.

    Finally, it really, really bothers me when people try to make Jesus cool. I get that we have to present a winsome witness, but what is eternal (beauty, truth, goodness… and all that is unseen, according to Paul) remains, despite trends and contexts. It may be my own issue, but the hipster gloss of Jesus-as-radical-socialist seems to miss the point more often than not and try to co-opt Jesus to support a lifestyle or fashion, which just seems… cheap. And shallow. It’s like how everybody loved Johnny Cash after the American recordings came out, and when they posthumously released his cover of “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” (where the message is a call to repentance), they had celebrities like Kate Moss dancing around in their underwear. It was ridiculous, silly, and distracting from the man and his music. I think Christian hipsters often do the same thing to Jesus in trying to be cool.

  14. I wonder if you painting with a brush that is a bit too wide. There seems to be a difference between people who want to use the latest trend to sell christianity, and those people who cannot help but see Christianity impact their life in all aspects. It seems like there is a missing missiological component of your examination.
    The real questions seems to be “can Christ claim cool as part of his kingdom?”
    You should check out Harvie Conn.

  15. Have you tried just checking yahoo answers? If you count “rates as good” points, then yes, Christianity is cool by 3 votes; but if you only count actual responses (since responders can rate other responses as good or bad) then they are tied. Also, I didn’t take into account any possible sarcasm in my tally of responses.

    So…. given a margin of error, I think it’s safe to say that Christianity is… “sortof cool”.

    However, from my own religious point of view, I’d say that since Christians are supposed to be “in the world but not of it” and “aliens in a strange land” and how Christians seem to validate their beliefs by the way that they are persecuted; I’d personally say that it isn’t cool, it was never meant to be cool, and it shouldn’t be cool. Christians should be more worried about being “real”. “Cool” is defined as being “conformable” and “fashionably attractive or impressive”. I’m sure Jesus had neither of those things in mind while he was hanging on the cross.

    Here’s your answer as presented by yahoo:
    http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20110612061834AAdR9PT

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