Paul Grant is a historian of cool. He knows where cool comes from, what’s the opposite of cool and how to be cool. He knows what makes cool, um, cool. “Although cool has a history, it likes to think of itself as forever young, or not having a history,” he says.
Cool, he writes in his book i>Blessed are the Uncool (InterVarsity Press), came to the U.S. from Africa and is derived from the Yoruba word “itetu,” which means to perform a complex task without breaking a sweat.
Cool saturates our culture. “It is an attitude, a habit, a worldview, a feeling,” he says. He defines modern cool as “the private performance of rebellion for rebellion’s sake.” It’s the exhilaration of being oppositional. Cool is contrary. “Cool is the crack cocaine of rebellion,” he says. “Whenever there’s authority to be transgressed, cool shows up.”
Paul, a staff writer and editor for InterVarsity’s urbana.org website, realizes that rebellion is part of the landscape for staff who work on college campuses. The young are always ready to take on the system. And rebellion isn’t always wrong, because the system isn’t always right.
But rebellion for rebellion’s sake can be a trap. And cool’s saturation in our culture belies it’s danger. “Cool is far more powerful than we realize,” he says. “And like the ring of power in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, most of us don’t have the mental strength to wield it. More often, cool wields us.”
Paul contends that Jesus is not necessarily cool, despite his image as a counter-cultural figure. “Jesus was primarily a dutiful son, not a raging rebel,” he says. Our version of rebellion is a shallow one compared to Jesus.” For Paul, the opposite of cool is compassion; refusing to suffer, self-giving instead of self protecting.
For a modern contrast between cool and compassion, Paul focuses on Martin Luther King Jr. and Elvis Presley. Both launched their careers in 1954: King, in Montgomery, Alabama, to take on a new pastorate and eventually the leadership of a bus boycott, and Presley, in Memphis, Mississippi, to make a record of his new style of entertainment, rock and roll music.
For Martin Luther King, rebellion was not cool. “He was hated; he was scared. But he did it because God had called him to it,” Paul says. “Rebellion is a serious matter for God. King had a vision for a new reality.”
“On the other hand, the promises of rock music are empty,” he continues. “Transgression leads to boredom and loneliness. That’s where the church comes in. Christ loved us while we were yet sinners.”
There’s a strain of cool in the Christian faith which disassociates itself from old-fashioned churches and older Christians but it’s a mistake for the Christian church to try to be cool. “If we’re cool they mock us, if we aren’t they’ll mock us anyway,” he says. “The world is going to mock the church, no matter what.” He believes the world wants a church that has the capacity for compassion and intuitively understands what the church is all about.
“Cool contradicts so many of the best reasons to follow Christ, it’s a wonder I ever thought I could bridge the two,” he reflects. “Human life is about relationships, but cool prefers control. Real love is about belonging, but cool demands freedom. Cool involves being numb; faith allows us to feel the world more deeply.”
Paul Grant’s talk about Christianity and cool is this week’s InterVarsity podcast. You can access the talk on InterVarsity’s audio resources page.