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The Cult of Cool: Rejecting Relevance and Pursuing Faithfulness

Monday, October 01, 2007

[this article was previously published by Kate Bowman Johnston in Koinoinia, the magazine of the Association for Christian Student Development.]

In the PBS Frontline documentary The Merchants of Cool, journalist Douglas Rushkoff takes us inside a research facility that tracks trends via “cool hunting.” We see marketers performing an interactive exercise with a group of young boys. They show the teenagers corporate logos and celebrity photos and ask them to comment on the perception and reputation of each among their friends. After silently verifying agreement amongst themselves, the boys deem each “cool” or “uncool.”

When I speak to Christian audiences, whether students or professionals, I use the same exercise with a twist. I project images of Christians who are in the public eye, and I ask the audience to tell me whether these people are “cool” or “uncool.” The responses are eerily universal. Bono: cool. Pat Robertson: uncool. Switchfoot: cool. Carman: So uncool that he’s cool. Ned Flanders: a toss-up, since Flanders himself is not cool, but The Simpsons is.

After this battery of images, we assess what our responses actually mean. What do the “cool” Christians have in common? Usually non-conformity, edginess, a slight air of rebellion against the evangelical subculture. What do the “uncool” Christians have in common? They’re boring, they’re often corporate, they play by the rules and never deviate.

The point of this exercise is to demonstrate that Christians are just as susceptible to the lure of coolness as anyone else. Consciously or not, we identify ourselves with what we consider to be cool while differentiating ourselves from that which we consider uncool. But we tend to make a mistake in addition to this. Because “cool” is today’s currency for attention and acclaim, we have convinced ourselves that being cool can make the world pay attention to our message.

In recent years, cool has become something of an idol for many evangelicals, especially young ones like our students, as well as for older people who think an aura of cool can help them tap into a particular demographic. By way of example, perhaps those of us in Student Development found the youth pastor in the recent hit movie Saved! to be an all-too-familiar archetype of what happens when you try too hard to be cool…?

In a slim book called In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen describes the three temptations of Jesus as the temptations to be relevant, to be powerful, and to be spectacular. These are our temptations, too. There is a great deal of pressure in churches today to be “effective,” which we mistakenly believe can only be done with relevance, power, and spectacular displays of both. And what is “cool” if not relevant, powerful, and spectacular?

I think this is a problem – not because the traits and behaviors we consider cool are bad in and of themselves, but because ultimately cool is an illusion. It is a smoke and mirrors trick, an unattainable unreality.

I’ve been using the word “cool” a lot so far, but what does it actually mean? What is cool, anyway?

When I last gave this talk, we were coincidentally just a few miles away from the geographic birthplace of cool: James Dean was born in Fairmount, Indiana, in 1931. But it wasn’t until 1955, when Rebel Without a Cause came out, that cool was truly born. When that movie hit the cinemas, youth culture exploded into middle-class white America, and so did the concept of cool.

In Dean and his contemporaries, cool was embodied by the very same characteristics we attributed earlier to prominent evangelicals today. Dean was dangerous, edgy, rebellious, a loner, misunderstood, a rugged individual. He played by no one’s rules but his own.

To flesh out why these traits and actions became synonymous with cool, I want to turn to Thomas Frank’s helpful discussion of it.  Frank is a cultural critic whose most recent book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, was highly sought after following the 2004 election.  In an earlier volume, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and Hip Consumerism, he theorizes that “cool” emerged as a consequence of the 1950s boom in mass production and technology-driven mass culture. With those developments came the fear of becoming a cog in a machine, unrecognizable, disposable, assimilated into the Borg. Conformity was simultaneously championed and feared, and Frank says its evils “are most conveniently summarized with images of 1950s suburban correctness: sedate music, sexual repression, deference to authority, Red Scares, and smiling white people standing in line to go to church” (p. )

By the 1960s, this fear of conformity had been transformed, through advertising and media, into what Frank calls “the countercultural idea: a bleak picture of repressive, homogeneous society and a prescription of transgression, rebellion, and liberation of desire as the solution.” Advertisers began to use themes of individuality, rebellion, and nonconformity as selling points, because they played on the anxiety of the public – and anxiety, more than anything else, moves product.

Advertisers today still know this, so anxiety about one’s coolness has only changed by degree. Obviously, mass culture has become so mass that it is global. It is everywhere. We literally cannot escape advertising. Douglas Rushkoff calls it “a world made of marketing,” and goes on to point out that the typical American teenager will encounter and process over 3,000 discreet advertisements per day—and 10 million by the time they’re 18. (This figure, by the way, was drawn from a study done very early in this new century, just as the Internet was hitting its stride. By now, the number of ads has grown exponentially.) Beyond blatant ads, television, films, and the Internet all feature integrated elements designed to sell “cool.”

Today, the “world made of marketing” still stars the rebel who is cooler than cool. But there is a problem: by and large, cool is communicated to us through the very institutions against which we are meant to be rebelling. Here’s how Frank puts it:

Today there are few things more beloved of our mass media than the figure of the           cultural rebel, the defiant individualist resisting the mandates of the machine civilization. Whether he is an athlete decked out in a mohawk and multiple-pierced ears, a policeman who plays by his own rules, an actor on a motorcycle, … a soldier of fortune with explosive bow and arrow, a long-haired alienated cowboy gunning down square cowboys, or a rock star in leather jacket and sunglasses, he has become the paramount cliché of our popular entertainment, the preeminent symbol of the system he is supposed to be subverting. (p. 227 - 228)

These days, who is it that makes the rules about what’s cool? Advertisers and corporations have formed a symbiotic relationship with teenagers and college students. Rushkoff calls it “an enclosed feedback loop.” The deal goes something like this, according to cultural critic Marc Crispin Miller:

The MTV machine does listen very carefully to children. In rather the same way—if I can put it controversially—as Dr. Goebbels, [Hitler’s] ministry of propaganda, listened to the German people. Propagandists have to listen to their audience very, very closely. When corporate revenues depend on being ahead of the curve, you have to listen, you have to know exactly what they want and exactly what they’re thinking so that you can give them what you want them to have. Now that’s an important distinction. The MTV machine doesn’t listen to the young so that it can make the young happier. It doesn’t listen to the young so it can come up with startling new kinds of music, for example. The MTV machine tunes in so it can figure out how to pitch what Viacom has to sell to those kids. Now the young tend to be presented always and everywhere with what is in a way the most seductive thing there is, and that’s a mirror. There’s a mirror held up to them all the time. It’s the mirror as constructed by advertising and TV, but it’s the mirror that tells you that you are all there is to be, or you could be, if you bought what we have to sell.  (The Merchants of Cool)

Obviously, cool has come a long and troubling way since James Dean was branded as its first representative. It is a commodity, and we buy it like it’s going out of style – which, of course, it is. That’s how cool works. Like all other commodities, the underlying premise is that you can never have enough or be enough. Cool is constantly changing, and so to keep up with it, you always have to buy more, although as soon as you do, the trends change again and leave you in the dust. You have to become a hip consumer.

By the way, do not be fooled into believing that because you are no longer a teenager or a student, you’re exempt from the world made of marketing. It is so pervasive that none of us can escape it. Examining these issues is crucial to your role not only as a Student Development professional but as a Christian, because this is the world that we live in as well.  It is our responsibility to discern it and learn to navigate it and inhabit it well, so that we can equip students to go and do likewise. No more sticking our heads in the sand!

See, it was once possible for Christians to entertain the illusion that we didn’t have to deal with such worldly concerns as advertising and coolness. (Of course, that was always an illusion, but it was a tenable one for a long time.) Did God care whether or not you were cool? Of course not, God wanted good Christian boys and girls to behave themselves and definitely not resist authority or listen to rock music or wear Mohawks. I’m sure any of you reading this could testify that among your students, this is certainly not true today – at least not the part about rock music and wearing a Mohawk.

So what changed? When did evangelical Christians get the idea that it was important to care about being cool, and even that coolness can be a virtue?

The fact is, Christians changed right along with everyone else, just in our own self-imposed alternate universe. Because despite the stereotype, evangelicals are not exactly the squares we’re made out to be – at least not when it comes to technology. Stephen Prothero’s Washington Post review of Heather Hendershot’s book Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture, points out:

Far from Luddites, evangelicals were early adopters of the holy trinity of 20th-century technologies: radio, television and the Internet.” (2004, p. B9).  And here, Hendershot argues that, despite their reputation as anti-modern rubes, evangelicals have actually embraced for decades “any ‘modern’ means that could be used to spread the Gospel.”” (2004, p. B9)

So it’s not the technologies Christians are afraid of – it’s the content. Technology itself is considered neutral – a mere vehicle for a message that can be either positive or negative, holy or sinful. Mainstream culture is sin-infested, evangelicals supposed, so why not create a holy alternative?

This accounts for the Contemporary Christian Music movement that began in the 1960s and still thrives today. Rock and roll was no longer devil music, it was a means to an end. Evangelicalism is its own culture industry, pumping out as many imitations of general market consumer products as the mainstream. Same medium, different message.

It seems inevitable, then, that the same kind of “hip consumerism” that infects the mainstream would eventually appear among Christians, as well. It started, I think, because there is so very much about American evangelical Christianity that is, in the eyes of the general public, tragically un-hip. If you have ever been a teenager, you know what this feels like. It is totally embarrassing. How many of us have yelled at a right-wing televangelist’s flickering televised image, “PLEASE SHUT UP! YOU’RE MAKING US LOOK BAD!”

And so, young Christians try to distance ourselves from such raving fundamentalists. We know that our friends, our non-Christian ones (or at least the ones we imagine ourselves making) won’t take us seriously – won’t take Jesus seriously – if we don’t differentiate ourselves from the way our elders have traditionally expressed their faith.

So we try to loosen up. But because of the elusive nature of cool, we experience the same anxiety as everyone else – only with an additional twist. Here’s how a young author named Patton Dodd, author of My Faith So Far, describes this:

Evangelical Christians can be an anxious lot.  We—especially those of us who grew up with two social circles (church youth group, and public school friends)—are fantastically worried about our status as cultural outsiders. We want to be in. We want to be relevant. But we know we are out. We fear we are irrelevant. We feel we have been given a terrible choice: either Michael Landon and Highway to Heaven orAngus Young and Highway to Hell. For us, Coolness and Goodness are completely polarized. All of the high school and college social terror that exists in the mind of every teenager is compounded for evangelicals. Do we have the right taste? Are our t-shirts hip? Is our hair long enough? We drink socially, if moderately.  We read novels. We watch all the independent films. We’re trying, really. (p. 1)

This is that nature of our double anxiety as Christians. We want to be cool, because being cool means being taken seriously. But we also want to be good, because being good means taking God seriously. Can we do both, we wonder? We can’t be cool by being good – remember our rebel consumer? Goodness is definitely not cool. But maybe, we think, we can be good by trying to be cool.

That’s where Relevant magazine comes in.

There is a lot that’s great and necessary about Relevant, a “lifestyle magazine” for evangelicals aged 18-34 that focuses on the latest in music, technology, movies, and popular culture in general. However, it is the most prominent example of the phenomenon I’m trying to illustrate, so that’s why I’m focusing on it—Relevant is a microcosm of cool. It functions as a lens to examine more closely some of the forces at work in American evangelicalism.

I have known Relevant’s editor for a long time, and I actually helped launch this magazine as an intern. I got involved with it because like so many, I was trying to resolve the tension between wanting to be a faithful Christian, while yearning to participate in popular culture.

That tension is a good tension. It is a necessary tension. For us today, it is the essence of figuring out what it means to be in the world, but not of it.

But Relevant tries to resolve that tension for us, by positioning itself squarely between the evangelical Christian subculture and mainstream culture, one foot in each. It fuses evangelical doctrine, traditional evangelical political perspectives, and a few select elements of Christian popular culture with slick, cutting-edge graphics; snarky, ironic humor; genuine celebrity interviews and endorsements; and reviews of all the latest gadgets, albums, and movies.

By all appearances, Relevant is just what young evangelicals are looking for. The reader maintains a sense of fidelity to Christian values without having to pass on being a hip consumer of popular culture. But there’s that phrase again – “hip consumer.”

Virtually the only thing Relevant does differently than other Christian publications is that it makes a more effective use of the language of hip consumerism. It contains basically the same content that Christian lifestyle publishing has been producing for years – treacle advice about romantic relationships, superficial reviews of albums. But in Relevant, that content is wrapped in hip package – the same strategy that today dominates mainstream mass culture, making us think we can control our anxiety by purchasing the latest representation of what we’re told is cool.

Thomas Frank puts it this way: “Hip consumerism recognizes the alienation, boredom and disgust engendered by the demands of modern consumer society, but it makes of those sentiments powerful imperatives of brand loyalty and accelerated consumption.” (p. 231) Similarly, Relevant recognizes the alienation, boredom, and disgust that young people often experience in evangelical subculture, but it transforms them into powerful persuasions for the Relevant brand and the products it promotes. It gives us a way to attempt coolness, but not at the expense of goodness, or so we think. Relevant eases our double anxiety.

But as usual, that means you have to pay to be cool.

So the pressure is on: Get the right t-shirt to show that you understand the irony of church legalism. “Bible thumper,” maybe, or “holy roller.” Maybe one that openly states, with boldness and a whiff of desperation, “I AM RELEVANT.” They look just like something from Urban Outfitters.

Buy the right albums to demonstrate that although you may have spent your youth jamming to Carman, you now recognize the pre-eminent brilliance that is Sigur Ros. Oh, you haven’t heard of them? Well, they’re kind of obscure. (Because remember, the more obscure the band, the cooler you look.)

Display your sensitivity and compassion and non-partisan nature by wearing a ONE campaign bracelet or slapping a bumper sticker on your car that declares, ambiguously, “Love wins.”

Pop in those white iPod earbuds so others will know you’re up to the minute with technology. So others will know that you’re no square. That you’re not one of those Christians.

Now, this is not to say that it’s innately bad to have an iPod or support the ONE campaign. But to believe that these things will somehow buy you social capital, make people take you and your message more seriously, is a lie. It is buying into the mistaken belief that relevance, power, and spectacular displays of both will make your Christian witness more effective, will help you “impact the world for Christ,” as the popular saying goes. But the quest for cool is a proverbial chasing after the wind. Next month, next year, it won’t be iPods, it’ll be something else. And you can never, ever be cool enough.

The question now is, what choice do we have? How do we break the cycle of consumption and the tyranny of cool? How do we resist the temptation to be relevant, to be powerful, to be spectacular?

Is our only choice to go back to the old ways – burning our “secular” CDs and wearing tidy outfits in order to demonstrate our fidelity to Christ?

No, I don’t think so. Others might suggest it – in fact, a recent issue of Relevant features an editorial that seems to critique readers for, ironically, being too much like the world. But “being in the world but not of the world” is not a binary endeavor. It is a both/and proposition.

That is why it is imperative that we develop a worldview that makes a home for movies and music and literature and fashion—things that are often seen as the embodiments of cool, but in reality are so much more. They are part of being human. Which, by the way, is a good thing.

Christians do not have a good track record when it comes to thoughtfully sifting through and discerning popular culture, because we tend to make it about easily compartmentalized choices. It is a lie that sin is “out there,” in the world, and that holiness is only found in the church. Every human being is sinful, and every human being is made in the image of God. Everything that human beings create contains both good and evil, because that is our nature, and so there is nothing that we can cast aside.

So as Christians, we must not cast aside what popular culture has to offer without a second glance. Some evangelicals are making great progress in this area; Taylor University, for instance, along with schools like Calvin and Messiah, are engaging with music and movies head-on, inviting mainstream artists to perform on their stages and discussing movies on their own terms, within the context of a biblical worldview. Following the ACSD conference in June this year, there seemed to be a great excitement growing among other Student Development workers to take up this mandate at their own schools.

But they’re not doing it to be cool. In that sense, we also must not embrace pop culture unequivocally as a badge of relevance, as an assurance that we are cool, especially because of the modern demands of being “hip consumers.” The truth lies somewhere in the middle, as we separate the wheat from the chaff. Cool is an illusion. The truth is so much bigger and more exciting than cool.


Dretzin, R. (Writer and Producer), Goodman, B. (Director and Producer), & Rushkoff, D. (Correspondent and Producer).  (2001).  The merchants of cool [Motion picture].  (Available from Public Broadcasting Service).

Frank, T., (1998).  The conquest of cool: Business culture, counterculture, and hip consumerism.  Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Hendershot, H., (2004).  Shaking the world for Jesus: Media and conservative evangelical culture.  Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Prothero, S. (2004, April 18). Marketing the messiah.  The Washigton Post, p. B9.

Dodd, P., (2004).  My faith so far: A story of conversion and confusion.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Dodd, P. (2004, November 17).  God’s awful music pure and clean. 
The Revealer.  Retrieved from

Kate Bowman Johnston just finished her three-year tenure as the Student Activities Coordinator at Calvin College. She now resides in Philadelphia, PA, where she is working towards a Masters in Library and Information Science.

I want to acknowledge my debt to Kevin Erickson, a student at Whitman College, who wrote his senior thesis about Frank, coolness, and Relevant magazine. He allowed me to use his research and observations in my talks about coolness. I have only begun to touch on his wisdom and insights here. Look for a general-market magazine article from Kevin in the next year, where he explores the phenomenon in greater depth!