Sermon: Beneath the Cool

06.01.2014    Preaching Text: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” (1Peter 4:12)

When I was in junior high school, or thereabouts, I often would judge certain people, situations, or things to be “cool.” Eventually this slang term went out of fashion, to be replaced by God knows what, maybe “hip,” though I can’t honestly recall.

But then, to my horror, it came back – and with a vengeance! For probably 30 years now it has served as the go-to designation for anything thought to be grand or wonderful. I, however, have not used the word since, oh, maybe 1965 or so, unless, of course, we’re talking about ambient temperatures.

So why the aversion? Well, for one thing, the word seems to capture in a single syllable the spirit of our times, where increasingly we’re urged to be detached, disinterested, and subversive. The “transgressive” is lauded in academia as the veritable bee’s knees! (Though Chesterton once wisely argued against taking down any fence unless you know why it was put up in the first place!) But the real benefit of cool, if truth be told, is to avoid life’s worst possible fate – to be deemed uncool.

A state of cool involves the all-consuming effort to be counter-cultural, to reject any aspect of settled life that could be perceived as “square” (to use an old 50’s beatnik term!). Square might be defined as those values, beliefs, mores, and institutions older than, say, the advent of Instagram (see, I’ve once again dated myself).

Being cool is like adolescence. Perpetual adolescence. But on a much grander scale. To be cool, at any age, is to reject all that came before, to be aloof from any preexisting standard or norm or belief. Cool presumes liberation, the setting of oneself apart from the masses, while declaring oneself smarter, more creative, and, last but not least, morally superior.

Unfortunately, this studied stance betrays precisely its opposite. While giving off the appearance of depth and insight, cool more often than not suggests shallow narcissism, a desperate, attention-seeking contrariness masquerading as seriousness.

In 1 Peter we are told that Christians will face opposition, that they will be reviled and that they will suffer. The assurance, however, is that in and through it all Christ’s spirit of glory will be with them.

Today, of course, at least in the United States, we don’t face the sort of opposition early Christians faced (though this certainly cannot be said of certain parts of our world today).

Opposition to Christianity, for us, is more subtle, though nonetheless real. If I’m right, Christianity and the church is routinely dismissed, if but unconsciously, as uncool and therefore irrelevant. Let’s face it, attending church is uncool. It is redolent of old, antiquated ideas and beliefs. It’s as hip as watching re-runs of The Brady Bunch, minus the retro-cool.

Yet just beneath the surface of such flippant disdain lies something profound, which, in my view, the contemporary church largely overlooks. Instead, the church vainly attempts to project itself as cool. The message to our “cultured despisers” is that, unlike some churches at least, we really are cool and, more than that, we plan to be even cooler in the future! This, of course, ignores the rather obvious fact that the church has never been cool, nor will it ever be (thanks be to God!).

What lies behind contemporary misgivings about Christianity and the church goes much deeper, and has to do with the many unanswered questions about humanity’s most basic, primordial desire: knowing and experiencing the living God.

Just the other day I was talking with a church member who, like many here today, has children who were brought up in the church but who no longer attend as adults. She didn’t mention the uncool factor (that’s my little contribution to the conversation!), but the busy-ness of modern life, what with both parents working and all the scheduled sporting events on Sunday mornings, etc.

Though I’m certain these do play a role, I wonder whether beneath these stated reasons there might be something deeper going on. Do your children have questions or disagreements with the church and what it stands for, I asked? What about its theology? Has the church ever disappointed them in any way? She conceded that at least some of this was likely the case.

Because we face subtle though often intimidating opposition from many today, we are reluctant to present firm arguments in Christianity’s defense. As I said last week, we are very clear about what we don’t believe, but not nearly as able to define what we do believe. Partly, as I say, this is because we fear being perceived as uncool to a culture that clearly sees us as such.

Over the past few months I’ve talked about the account in Luke of Jesus sending out 70 of his disciples to evangelize. In discussing this in Bible Study awhile back, Howard Streifford, when asked what effect the reading conjures up, said “urgency.”

Can you imagine the same scenario today? What urgency is there when we can’t state what it is we have to offer? Would people be excited to jump on board when all we can say is what we’re against?

The church today, as in the past, may not be cool, but it offers timeless truths about the deepest and most sacred aspects of life. It addresses honestly and sympathetically the human condition, and offers love, hope, and depth of meaning.

Which is to say that you and I may not be cool, but we embody something far better – the truth of a life lived as Christians. No, most of us are not famous or celebrated, nor would anyone define us as cool.

But we’re better than cool. We’re simple, humble, honest, admittedly imperfect, caring, loving human beings who in quiet ways form the backbone of society, of life. By the steady habits and undramatic ways we play by the rules, rear families, earn livings, help neighbors, and love and worship God, we honor both God and humanity.

There’s a bumper sticker (you may have seen it) based on a book title which reads: “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” as if making history is the point of life. (Yes, I know there are times when rebellion is warranted, but as a general prescription for life?)

Were we, finally, to embrace wholeheartedly the intrinsic power of a life simply lived, we would offer the best possible reason for Christianity there is. Amen.