When did we make it our obsession to be liked by everyone so that we go out of our way to project images that will please them? I speak not of the youngsters here. I’m talking about grown people who, like shallow adolescents with feeble self-esteem, take special pains to present images of themselves (their views, priorities, attitudes) that conform slavishly to the latest trends of a fickle culture. The nervous pressure to “fit in” or belong to the right crowd has always been a rite of passage and to some extent to be expected in young people. It becomes astronomically more pathetic in adults.
What do I mean? Well we can start with the wider view and then narrow it down to the confines of the Church. In my lifetime thus far a massive ongoing revolution in technology has fueled the advent of a kind of new world. In this world, unlike the one of your grandparents, everybody is easily and readily connected, can communicate at once in real time from any place, and thus is more transparent to the world than ever before. Cameras catch what we do and say, billions of pieces of our correspondence are recorded minute by minute. The saying that “image is everything” has new meaning now. It’s not just the famous who project and maintain an image. Everybody has some kind of online image, culled from all of their photos, likes, tweets, friends, reports of their daily activities, etc.
This new world has also seen the growth of an unfortunate trend that has usually gone by the name of “political correctness,” referring to heightened sensitivity about what you say and whom it might offend. With image being so important, and every word being recorded, the landscape has become a dangerous minefield. Public persons – esp. politicians – say less than ever, just to avoid stepping on a mine & seeing their reputations blown apart in the instant it takes for the report of it to travel across the world.
What this has to do with being “cool” may not be immediately apparent. You may think of “cool” in more specific ways that date back through the years. I’m being more general about it. Don’t think of “cool” the way the Fonz used it on Happy Days (for those old enough). Ideas of what is hip or cool (or whatever other word you choose to employ) are usually associated with images, from archetypal images like James Dean to farcical ones like the fictional Zoolander character. But I’m referring to an image we present that is not so much about appearance and style of dress. Think of being cool or hip more simply as being in the flow of current ways of thinking, as not in any way standing out or going against the present prevailing views of things. It is subscribing to or agreeing with all of the positions that all the “cool kids” take on the questions or issues of the day.
This kind of pressure causes people who come from more conservative social backgrounds to repudiate the ways of their upbringing once they’ve entered a social climate in which those ways are deemed old fashioned (or worse). The fear of uncoolness in this regard makes some people fall all over themselves in the desperate attempt to seem like they’re on the right side of things. Witness the regular parade of self-flagellating public figures in the last several years, doing penance by way of a public statement or press conference, forced to undergo the pitiful walk of shame because of something they said in passing, a joke made in poor taste, something overheard by somebody twenty years ago. Imagine what an incredible force of nature is required to cause people of such towering arrogance to humiliate themselves in this way, whether their penance is sincere or not. Alas, the terrifying risk of falling out of favor with the cool crowd is a fate worse than the public shame they are willing to endure.
People in entertainment are especially susceptible to these forces. Notoriously anxious about their images, usually deriving their insatiable drive for success in large part from a vacuous deficit of self-esteem, entertainers are generally the kinds of personality-types with the highest sensitivity for the perception of cool and the degree to which they are measuring up to the standard. Any time I learn of a prominent entertainer (in television, movies, the music industry, etc.) whose views do not square with those of the majority cool crowd, I take note. I typically assume that those individuals, as exceptions to the rule, possess a kind of self-assurance that is rare in their circles.
But why should it be rare? Isn’t part of maturity just the very sort of self-actualization that allows a person to begin to perceive things for him/herself, to make judgments and decisions based on reasons of better substance than social pressure, and to bear the responsibility and consequences for those judgments and decisions, regardless of what social pressure or cultural flack it brings? The great social reformers that command so much respect and nostalgia were of just this sort. They were confident enough in their positions to withstand the withering heat of public backlash. Most of them were completely uncool by the majority opinions of their time.
This should tell us something. The neurosis to be accepted by our culture and to maintain an image that keeps up with current coolness standards is a sign of weakness. It shows us to be people who are not comfortable in our own skin, who cannot make up our own minds and maintain convictions based on the truth or rightness of those convictions (rather than based on social pressures to conform).
Fixing our gaze on the Christian subculture we can see the same phenomenon at work. The most common sentiment I get from people raised in fairly traditional Christian families is that they are in so many ways “better” than that now. It simply isn’t “cool” to have come from that background, but you can overcome the taint of this unfortunate history by public repudiation if you work at it. Note that I am not talking simply about changing some of your views as you grow older. Everyone does that to one degree or another. I am talking about a particular attitude related to perceived degrees of ‘coolness’ by contemporary social standards. Many of those who have so dramatically distanced themselves from conservative childhoods have done so primarily for the sake of social and peer influences. Many of them cannot construct a meaningful argument as to why. The causes are mostly non-rational ones. It just feels more in step with things to move away from the conservative ways of thinking.
And so in droves people with conservative church upbringings have adopted a posture of coolness that keeps them out of trouble where their overall image is concerned. Some are now cool in the larger secular sense and others are ‘Christian cool’. The former simply cast off their upbringing and jump into the friendly current of contemporary thought. They may remain “spiritual” in some way (by self-description) but they no longer make pretense of being Christian. They are likely, when discussing their backgrounds, to talk about their conservative evangelical roots in semi-endearing but patronizing terms, seeing it all as quaint while being amazed that they actually used to think that way. Of course some of them are less cutesy about it and express self-loathing about their conservative upbringing.
The latter group comprises the ‘Christian cool’ crowd. They have not thrown it all overboard and opted for secular humanism (or something trendy among their new social circle like generic spirituality or maybe Wicca). No, these hipsters still identify as Christians (or at least an updated, cooler-sounding word for it, like “Christ-followers”), but they are almost equally hasty in stiff-arming and turning their noses up from the dreaded fundamentalism of their younger lives.
I reiterate that this phenomenon is more than mere changes in theology or interpretation. There is no doubt that a lot of what well-meaning ultra-conservative churches in certain places teach and practice (and drill into their people and enforce with vigor) is extra-biblical at best and ridiculous or even harmful at worst. So it’s not that a person has come to see certain elements of her background as false teaching or as a little nutty. Once again, I am identifying a certain way of presenting oneself, in image, a demeanor, a posture if you will, a spirit of superiority based on being more “with it” by today’s standards. These are people who have fled from the holier-than-thou settings of their hyper-conservative backgrounds to a brand new cooler-than-thou spirituality of the cultural moment.
The surprising thing about some of the Christian cool kids of today is the sense of disdain they feel for the form of religion in which they were bred. It is not merely that they have moved away from this or that teaching (e.g., they were brought up dispensationalist but they hold another view today), nor is it just that their childhood church was of the overly rigid type (e.g., they forbade dancing, taught that alcohol was evil, etc.). The hipster mentality of some of these former fundies cloaks a deeper and more personal sense of resentment, one I still do not really understand.
To put it into perspective, there exist a lot of people in the world who are former-x’s, where x represents something that was indeed oppressive. Worst case examples might include those rare persons who have escaped the cultish freak-state of N. Korea, or who were brought up under something like the Taliban. Less egregious examples could be ex-Scientologists now stalked, cut off from everyone, threatened with legal action, and harassed to no end. In all such cases, the former-x who has now moved on with his or her life may be forgiven for harboring extremely ill feelings against the controlling tyranny under which he or she was raised. People like this may never be rid of a lingering sense of disgust because of the permanent memories of manipulation, cruelty or abuses involved, and who can blame them?
The Christian, however, who was raised in the super-conservative family and/or church but who has discovered the way of coolness, is not exactly in the same camp. What atrocities are haunting his memories such that he would look upon conservative evangelicalism as if it were Al-Qaeda or the KKK? What causes the Christian hipster with the fundamentalist upbringing to lash out with spiteful sarcasm against all things conservative? After all the ex-fundie often holds most of the same core beliefs as before. She probably holds to core Christian doctrines, is probably still against abortion, still supportive of hard-working sacrificial missionary work in faraway places, still sings praise music every Sunday, and so on.
The issue is not so much core beliefs. Beliefs aside, now she feels like she’s more acceptable, more presentable to the present culture. Now she feels prouder of her spirituality and more confident that she will escape the scorn of the greater public perception. The image she has of herself and that she hopes is apparent to others is of someone who is still cool, even though a Christian. Now when her secular co-workers heap the coals of vitriol upon evil right-wingers, she can say, “I know, right?” She has cut all former ties with anything remotely like her former conservatism and is untethered from the dead weight of its supreme uncoolness. Like her peers, she looks down her nose at the past generations of people about whom she knows only a little bit, and most of it misshapen negative caricatures based on the self-congratulatory but ever-popular idea that we are so much more civilized, peace-loving and tolerant than all of those barbarians who came before us.
My point in all of this is rather simple: We are far too easily swayed by public perception. Notions of what is cool are transitory. They don’t last and afterward they often end up looking silly. Like a burp into the wind, today’s prevailing hipster image will be dissipated and gone quickly. Why be so enslaved to something so shallow and impermanent as contemporary images of what is culturally cool? The masses make for a fickle slave master. They will have you doing a different dance next week when the tune has changed for reasons that are nowhere near rational.
Growing up entails thinking for yourself, as is so often said, examining critically the teaching you received in your younger days as well as the teaching of the present culture. The stubborn fundamentalist condemns the present culture without engaging it, while blindly clinging to his ways without entertaining any questions or challenges. The modern hipster does just the opposite. One implies that everything handed down to him must be right, the other that it must be wrong. But a kneejerk rejection of your conservative rearing is as foolish as a mindless allegiance to it; and an uncritical embrace of the shared cultural feelings of the moment is as naïve as a broad-brush condemnation of anything outside your narrow tradition.
If Christians were worth the name, we would be more interested in the truth of things than trying to prostitute ourselves before a corrupt and confused culture for the sake of their temporary acceptance. Image matters, for sure, but the precarious coolness factor should be way down the list of important components of your image. Where certain points of view are, for the moment anyway, unpopular, there is always the universal recognition of respect for those who pursue the truth at personal cost. Daniel Defoe famously wrote, “He who has the truth on his side is a fool as well as a coward if he is afraid to own it because of other men’s opinions.” The Church shows her weakness and lack of depth when the source of her self-esteem gets so misplaced that she starts hankering to be one of the cool kids. It’s like if your mother showed up at your school dance with hair & clothes made to match the current fashions, pretending to talk with the slang of your friends – and not as a practical joke. It would be just about the worst image she could project. You would not think she’s cool and you certainly would not respect her more. You would rightly see it as sad and pathetic.