Sunday, August 14

Ask God: Excerpts from an Advice Column

This was actually a paper that I wrote for class. It was enjoyable and enlightened some issues that are critical both to teenagers and to people in general.

Dear God,
I’ve been wondering for some time now about popularity, or as we call it, “coolness.” You seem to have a great understanding of just about everything. Can you tell me what coolness is? Maybe if I understand it better, I’ll be able to do it easier.

-Trying to be cool

Dear Trying,
Strictly speaking, coolness is a gauge of temperature, but understanding what you really mean, I would suggest that the coolness which you refer to, the gauge of popularity, works very much the same as does its counterpart. Coolness, in terms of temperature, does not actually exist. All temperatures are measured in heat, thus, what you call “cool” is actually an absence of heat. Likewise, coolness, in terms of popularity, does not really exist. It is simply the absence of wisdom. Anticipating piles of mail filling my inbox with questions about why it is wisdom and not some other trait, I will simply address the issue now. Popularity, as you will discover later, does not matter nearly so much as you presume. When you are young, it is everything, but as you grow older, it loses its significance and you realize the important things are character, friendship, love, charity, etc. It takes wisdom to recognize true value, however, which is why some never truly do escape the felt need for popularity. If you can accept now that popularity is not important, which is a wise thing to do, you will find that it stops mattering to you.
To specifically answer your question, “What is coolness?” I will say that cool is nearly as undefinable as I am. Of course, everyone understands perfectly what it is. You interpret it at face value. It is its own definition. Cool is cool. Its meaning has morphed so many times that its true character is hardly decipherable. It is nebulous, constantly shifting, one day meaning one thing and the next day meaning the opposite. That is why it is so hard to define. It’s almost like Calvinball, it never means the same thing twice. In addition to changing meanings frequently, its meaning also varies by culture and clique. Most closely, it is simply a gauge of popularity, as I have said before, but of course even that definition is lacking because different groups, who are not popular with each other, find entirely different things “cool.” For example, football players really think their sport a noble art, but there are many artists, writers, actors, and computer techies who think football is comparable to losing a tooth. Those football players, in turn, can’t grasp the interest these others take in their respected fields.

Dear God,
I attend a Christian school, and I always have. After reading last week’s inquiry, I realized that coolness in the Christian school is very different from coolness in the public school. Most Christian school kids are considered uncool by those from public schools. Why is that?
-Curious about cool

Dear Curious,
The reason for the difference in understandings of coolness in the public and Christian schools is a difference in what they esteem. The Christian school puts a good deal of emphasis on me, an emphasis which the public school does not share. A fair number of public school students do not even believe in me, and they consider anyone who does to be very daft indeed. It is no wonder they do not equate the same things with coolness that you do. You do not share the same ideals. People who live in cold climates have an intimate fondness for warm clothes, while people in warm climates like to wear as little as possible. What they each imagine as ideal, the other finds abhorrent. Similarly, you cannot expect people whose beliefs do not involve me to find anything related to me worthwhile.
On a deeper level, Christians have perpetuated their own unpopularity. For reasons that make very little sense to me, Christianity is the only selective culture of which the members are proud to be a part only when they are with other members, and even then, sometimes, they are ashamed of themselves. Those outside the culture have simply accepted the Christians’ self-appraisal. In other words, if you want to be called Sam, your friends will probably call you Sam. But it is interesting to note that the rules of their religion and the ashamedness associated therewith change as they move away from the context of their culture. It is as if a turkey sandwich were only a turkey sandwich when it was still in the deli section with all the other turkey sandwiches and once you take it out of the store it becomes a bratwurst. As one of your own television shows has said, “A horse is a horse of course of course,” and the underlying warrant is that it never becomes anything else, a fish or camel or head of broccoli, but that is of course what Christians sometimes wish to do. I might revise the song to say, “A Christian is a Christian of course of course, unless of course that Christian is amongst his nonreligious friends for then he will amalgamate.” I don’t think the syllabic rhythm of that will work as well, however.
Notwithstanding that, this principle plays out in Christian students by making them feel the dichotomy between their religion and what is, by common definition, cool. A lot of teenagers think that I am uncool, but Christian students have been raised to believe that I am very important. Their problem then, as you can probably identify from experience, is that Christian students don’t know how to be Christian and popular at the same time, since the two seem to be at odds. They grow up learning to love me, but the world tells them that that is uncool. They don’t want to be uncool, but they don’t want to be impious, and they can’t find a balance between the two. It is difficult for teenagers to embrace Christianity because, in their minds, it dilutes their popularity. They have identified, in some vague sense, what is cool, and they believe that, by definition, I am not cool. They want to be liked by other people and they want to be liked by me and they don’t know how to do both at once, so consequently, they do neither very well at all. What this leads to is only hypocrisy – a lot of people saying one thing and then living the opposite, people who pretend to be religious to please me and pretend to be unreligious to please their friends. In other words, turkey sandwiches trying to be bratwursts or horses trying to be rocks. Your generation has an inordinate number of people vying simultaneously to say, “I am Christian; hear me roar,” and “I’m not with them.” In the end, what it amounts to is precisely what I told Trying in last week’s column. Stop worrying about cool and cool will stop worrying you.

Dear God,
I read last week’s column through several times, and I think you’ve missed a very key point. There is a very real difference between reality and perception. What I mean is, there are a lot of Christian students, at least, the ones I know are like this, who feel uncool because of their religion, but people actually like them very much. Their view of popularity is almost a form of “voluntary poverty,” as Paul Bettany said in “A Knight’s Tale” (do you follow movies up there?).

-Thinking you’re losing your touch

Dear Thinking,
You make an excellent point. I did not address it last week because Curious did not specifically ask about it. There is a definite distinction between how cool Christians are to those around them and how cool they feel they are to those around them. In the end, it is really inconsequential. You will only ever be as cool, or as religious for that matter, as you want to be. It is very much in the mind. It actually is, though many will deny it to their graves, possible to be both cool and religious at once because the thing people don’t like about Christians is that, either, they, Christians, condemn them, nonChristians, for every questionable thing they do while doing equally questionable things themselves, or they, Christians, live the way they should but shove the Bible down other’s throats. I never prescribed either of those methods, but people are desperate to invent their own canon. You may see from this illustration that the best balance is simply to be yourself and let others be themselves. If you are Christian, be Christian, and let those who are not Christian, be not Christian. By insisting on your own ideology, you simply drive others away. You shouldn’t worry about them finding me; that’s my job.

Dear God,
I’m a Christian school student and I’ve been following this column for several weeks now. Someone recently asked me, “Have you ever done anything wrong ever in your entire life? Ever lied to your parents? Ever cheated on homework? Ever been angry at your brother or sister? Ever wondered what it felt like to be drunk? But those are stupid questions. Obviously, you haven’t. Your angelic sheen is a dead give away.” You and I both know that I’m not perfect (you probably know better than I), but how can I be good without being a goody goody.

-Confused about goodness

Dear Confused,
What you are asking is essentially, “Is it ever alright to place the importance of coolness above the importance of goodness?” Phrased that way, I think you will see that the answer is no. But to address the issue at its root, they are either bitter because they cannot be as good as you and they would like to be, in which case you should continue to be friendly and they will come around, or they are not interested in me at all, in which case you should not worry about what they think. As a general rule, you should never worry about what anyone thinks. That is perhaps the greatest downfall of the Christian school. There are a great deal of people worried about what a great deal of other people think about them. They want to be the shoe that fits the foot perfectly, but they don’t know what sort of foot they are approaching. In other words, a lot of people spend their time trying to be what other people want them to be when even these other people do not know what that is. And, of course, simultaneously, this second group of people is trying to be what the first group wants them to be, and the whole conglomerate of them becomes something like a dog chasing its tail. Except that the dog is also telling its tale to become, intermittently, a turkey sandwich and a bratwurst.

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