Hip and cool are related even though John Leland in Hip: The History argues that hip and cool should be treated as distinct constructs. However, given the relationship between hip and cool we should, at least once in this series, wrestle with the question:
Is Christianity cool?
Similar to hip, the concept of cool originated in the African populations who found themselves in America. Robert Farris Thompson, in his seminal essay An Aesthetic of the Cool, traces the notion of "cool" to West Africa. Thompson notes that the American notion of cool does show a superficial similarity with the roots of cool in African cultures. That is, when applied to individuals cool implies emotional composure. Synonyms of cool are composed, unruffled, nonchalant, detached, and imperturbable.
But the African notion of cool has thicker and richer meanings than mere emotional reserve. Specifically, Thompson shows that cool is a deep social, political and religious construct. Cool is rooted in African notions of social stability, balance, healing, newness, rebirth and purity. For example, Thompson cites research by Richard Henderson with the Onitsha Igbo culture. In the Onitsha Igbo culture a homicide in a village makes the land "hot." The land only "cools" when peace is restored: "The 'fiery surface' then cools down to habitable temperature, after the parties involved have bound their lives and reestablished social purity and coolness in reconciliation." (An Aesthetic of the Cool, p. 64)
In short, the African notion of cool seems very similar to the Hebrew notion of Shalom. If so, then Christianity can be cool. In fact, Christianity actively seeks to be cool.
But what about the more common meaning of cool? Again, the more common notion is that cool is an individualistic trait referring to emotional control and reserve. We speak of people being "cool" under fire or keeping a "cool" head in a crisis. Interestingly, this trait seems to be prized by adolescents. Think of that cultural text on coolness known as Happy Days. Fonzie was the incarnation of cool. Cool shows up right at the start of Happy Days, at the 1:48 mark of the pilot episode:
What is the appeal of Fonzie? Well, adolescents, we all know, tend to be emotionally dramatic and experience a great deal of stress, turmoil and angst. In episode after episode Richie Cunningham and his friends are classic examples of this teen hysteria. In contrast to Richie and his friends, Fonzie is cool. He is slow, deliberate, in control and steady. This calmness is prized by Richie and his friends and by adolescents generally. Feeling chronically upset adolescents seek the place of cool. They crave a location of peace and Shalom.
In short, American cool implies a kind of stoicism. If so, can Christianity be cool like Fonzie? Many have noted the similarities between Christianity and the writings of the Greek and Roman stoic philosophers. Clearly, Jesus appears to be Fonzie-cool in many of the gospel stories. When people are worried, scared or generally freaking out, Jesus is steady and calm. Jesus is cool.
But many have noted that if we compare the deaths of Jesus and Socrates we see divergences between Christianity and Greek stoic ideals. Where Socrates accepts death bravely, even casually, Jesus weeps blood in the garden. Socrates welcomes death where Jesus asks that the cup of death be taken away. Jesus is nowhere near cool in Gethsemane.
Is Jesus' lack of cool in facing death a signal that Christianity, in the end, can't be cool? It seems that stoical composure, being cool, isn't the foundational emotional ideal of Christianity.
But is that any shame? Jesus' loss of composure in the garden seems to be an important difference between Christianity and stoicism. Specifically, Jesus' loss of cool, his hot emotional lament, seems to suggest that facets of life are objectively bad. Consequently, being cool in the face of death, evil or suffering isn't an appropriate response. In fact, being cool in the face of objective evil or brokenness is form of denial, a withdrawal from life. Jesus isn't weak in the garden. He's showing the truth. Death isn't a good or neutral. Death is bad. Jesus shows that. Socrates doesn't.
In short, to weep and lament appears, on the surface at least, to be a loss of cool. A failure of stoical reserve. But that pathos might be a reflection of the deeper African notion of cool. If the root meaning of cool is one of harmony, new creation and Shalom then a loss of composure is the properly cool response. A recognition that cool isn't a subjective stoical stance but a craving for and a participation in an objective reality that is yet-to-be. Christianity is eschatologically cool.
So let's revisit the question. Is Christianity cool? Yes, but not in the way we might think. Of course, Christians can be Fonzie cool. Facing death and hardship with peace and equanimity. But Christianity is also very hot, showing the full range of human emotions in the face of evil and suffering. But this apparent loss of cool isn't a failure or a weakness. Rather, lament and righteous rage are motivated by the deepest notions of cool, that this world isn't what is should be and it would be a failure for us to become emotionally disengaged. By participating emotionally in this world we move into an richer eschatological cool. A hoped for cool. But a cool that I also experience right now when I find or create peace and reconciliation.
Is Christianity cool? The answer, I think, is yes.