The Tyranny of Cool

It was probably in 2003 or 32004 while I was doing youth ministry in Augusta, GA. that I first talked of “the tyranny of cool.” Off the cuff, I was probably thinking in terms of hyperbole. I wanted to use language  that would convey the destructive quest of seeking to be cool. Freedom was the goal. Being a teenager is hard and they needed to hear they don’t need to make it harder by worrying about how cool they are. Or how cool everyone else thinks they are.

They were teenagers.

But in the evangelical world in which I swim, the same is true for adults. Like adolescents pining for attention and jockeying for position, young adults, mostly men – many of them pastors – take their message of what is cool public.

The tyranny of cool shames those who would not consult the experts on how to dress cool. By looking down on them. Indeed, even we Christians find it easy to say there is no greek or hebrew but cannot articulate “there are no crocs or toms.”

The tyranny of cool is a totalitarian regime dictating the movements and thoughts of all who live under its thumb. The church should be a sanctuary for all who long for freedom. But it’s not always. It is far too often another outpost of the gospel of cool which trades the robe of Christ’s righteousness by which we are justified for the threadbare of what is acceptable.

Every tyrannical regime has a propaganda machine bent on pushing all who would resist its will into conforming. Novelty, humor, being above it all and high walls enforcing the boundaries of celebrity are weapons in this authoritarian militaristic government. They have wielded our digital world with brand-named ferocity.

For years I sought to smuggle teenagers out through painful means. (Often those daring enough would be picked off by enemy snipers.) But who will set the adults free? Who will free them? Pastors? But the pastors now are hemmed in…in the name of being relevant.

We can’t even claim our first parent’s sin. They wanted to be like God. We just wanna be cool.

I’m Thinking About Dying

I’m thinking about dying.

Not suicide. I like living. And that is why I’m thinking about dying. I guess it happens to everyone around my age. I’m 38, which isn’t old but I do turn 39 this year. And that feels old. Actually the only thing I really don’t like about getting older is the dying part. And diapers, which I actually fear more than death, itself.

Getting older has many advantages. The distance between now and High School is ever growing and for that I am thankful. Wisdom does come with age. And you have money. People call you ‘sir.’

But dying is the hard part.

When I was a youth pastor, I was into dying. You know, making kids feel bad because there are martyrs in China and “all you want to do is drink beer and play ball.” I probably said that. So we talked about death a lot. Dying to self. Dying to sin. Dying one day soon…”sooner than you know.” I probably said that too. All these are important subjects but I was obsessed with the idea. And I admit it was because it got their attention.

Driver’s Ed was the coolest non-class I ever took. Not sure why, but there were two teachers and I guess they gave us grades but I remember mostly sitting in the classroom teacherless and some guy flicking pennies at me. This hurt but I preferred this treatment over a real class with work. And a teacher. I do remember driving around in an American me-maw car with a brake in the passenger floorboard and then going through drive-thrus of fast food places on Roebuck Parkway. I liked fast food.

The creepiest part about the ‘class’ was the pictures shown to us of mangled teenagers in mangled cars. Polaroids. Slides. Flannelgraph. Blood was the common theme. The point was to scare us into driving slower and more careful and without alcohol. But the teachers seemed to love this part of the class the most. I remember boredom on the part of the instructors being the consistent tone. But when they brought out these pictures the room was electrified…like driver’s ed porn.  Maybe it would have scared kids from the suburbs in the ’80s but all my friends were watching Faces and Death by this time. Most of the guys were not grossed out or freaked out in the least. They were entertained.

I was the ministry equivalent of the driver’s ed teacher in High School.

So I used videos and stories from books about martyrs who put the paltry faith of my hormonal teens to shame. It worked sometimes. I kept their attention. They were even entertained a little.

But back to me. I know Paul says dying is gain and all but something inside me tells me that I should not be in a hurry for it. I like it here. When I wake up in the morning and my wife is beside me…well, that’s what I want to happen everyday. Death is the end of that. I know we have the promise of something greater. But, I’m mot sure I am supposed to want it more than waking up next to Bethany.

For many, I have just finally proved to be a carnal person. But, I mean, if we are supposed to just want to go to heaven above all things, how come we eat? Wouldn’t it just be OK to stop feeding our bodies and then eventually die? I know it sounds painful but we are also supposed to move toward suffering too, right?

I think that cover on the spare tire of my teenage next door neighbor’s jeep is right. Life is good. And Death is not good. No one celebrates cancer and heart attacks and strokes and fatal car wrecks (well, my driver’s ed teacher really liked showing us those pictures). We may be glad someone has gone on to be with God. That’s certainly pretty great. But death? It’s a reminder of how bad things really are.

Death should revolt me, and not only because I don’t like the idea of someone else marrying my wife if I die sometime soon. If my neighbor’s tire is right and life is good, then death is a problem.  It ends marriages, friendships, puts holes in communities. It creates fatherless children and mothers with holes in their hearts the size of a toddler bed.

So my thoughts about dying are not the romanticized notions they once were. There is a lot to leave behind. Sure, I know God is greater than life. And I know the promise of the gospel is that death has been conquered. But he gave us life and he placed me where I am for a reason. He’s smart that way. Guilt should not be the result of being in no hurry to go. We all have those folks in our life who can utter, “I’m ready to die and be in heaven.” And they mean it. I always feel guilty on the inside because lunch is coming and I like lunch. But I nod on the outside and I make that sound all Baptists learn at an early age to show we agree with something really spiritual and profound. You know, the sound you made a few paragraphs back.

So there’s a tension. We should live while we are here. Be present and faithful where we are. All the time recognizing that Death is not the way things were meant to be. But also realizing that death has no more sting. It is now because of Another’s death, death is the next great adventure. Either Dumbledore or Gandalf said that. I can’t keep the two apart.