Cool Factor, Part 3

April 30, 2005

I think I may have blogged my way into a corner.

I just realized that, in this post, what I really wanted to do is rant about how the “cool crowd” mentality that I first encountered in my adolescence is finding its way into my generation’s faith communities. Then I realized that (a) I was going to be entirely too categorical, (b) I was probably talking about myself as much as anyone else, and (c) I was probably going to be unfair and uncharitable about the whole thing, and – worse yet – I was directing a lot of that toward people that I love, who are my fellow disciples in the Kingdom.

So now I feel guilty about the whole thing, and I also feel a little trapped – frankly – because I don’t quite know how to get from here to the place where I want to go, which is to examine this whole issue in light of the mission of Jesus to the outcasts of society.

So I want to make my point here as gently and fairly as possible, and then move on. And I’ll just ask that – if this seems too incoherent –you keep reading because I really do think that I’ll have something worthwhile (and understandable) to say in the next post on this subject.

Here goes.

I’ve talked to (and/or heard about) a lot of folks – roughly my age – who are having trouble making relationships with other believers. They are going to the places where they would expect to find them: to the right churches and to the right classes. But, they will state frankly, while they feel nominally accepted into a group, they also sense that any significant degree of intimacy with the members at the core of the group is impossible.

The perception these folks often have is that they simply aren’t cool enough to fit in. And, for them, its like High School all over again: they feel worthless and unloved in a place that should, ironically, be the last place where such a thing would happen.

But here’s the catch. the relationships in the “insider” crowd aren’t as solid as they appear. Truth is, while there may be a core set of relationships within the group, the reason the people in the “core” aren’t really interested in forming new relationships is because they are struggling to maintain the ones they already have. They don’t really feel the sense of acceptance that others think they have found, so they feel the need to work harder at it.

In that sense, the whole pursuit of being part of the inner crowd is just another variation of the age-old struggle that is depicted in Ecclesiastes. People seek riches; they turn out to be meaningless. People seek wisdom; it turns out to be meaningless. People seek sexual gratification; it turns out to be hollow. People seek to be “cool”; it turns out to be elusive and empty. Even the people who seem to have been accepted into the inner circle don’t think of themselves that way. They still don’t feel the acceptance that even the outsiders seek.

Worse yet, because you can only maintain your status in the group by appearing to have your act together, there really isn’t any intimacy. There is constant anxiety over whether this financial struggle or that sexual sin from the past ought to be disclosed. After all, it doesn’t look like anyone else has those problems, does it?

I used to think that the solution to this problem is for people to be more open to new relationships and to not make decisions about what relationships they will form based solely on how acceptance into that relationship will make them feel about themselves. And I guess that I still believe that to some extent. But here’s the conviction that’s starting to take hold of me: the underlying expectation that the “insiders” and the “outsiders” bring to the table – that I can feel cool if I can just have a good relationship with the right people – is fundamentally flawed.

No peer relationship is going to fix insecurities. Never has. Never will. When you’re in your thirties, you ought to know that by now. It’s a vain pursuit when you look to a human relationship to fix problems that find their roots in the fall of man.

Meaningful, deep relationships with other Christians is possible. But to find them, we have to do all of the things that we’ve come to believe – since High School – constitute relational suicide. Vulnerabilty, openness, confession. Those are the things that drive such relationships. And, frankly, there are some people who seem really cool who are just not going to be interested in having a relationship with you when you take that path. So be ready.

And now for the point I really wanted to get at today.

Maybe – just maybe – churches and bible classes don’t exist to give me a comfortable place where I can go and find a group of friends that will accept me. Maybe what the Enemy wants is for me to become so obsessed with this empty struggle to feel cool that I focus all of my energies on trying to fit (or keep my status) in with the right crowd.

And maybe – I know this sounds crazy – but maybe, we will find real power in our relationships with our peers not within the walls of our churches, sitting in padded chairs with coffee cups in hand, but when we leave those walls and hit the streets, ready to engage in the mission of Jesus…

Next entry: Becoming Uncool for the Uncool.


Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse

April 26, 2005

For those of you who are part of the Families of Faith study in The Revelation, and who need a little break from the mind-bending mysteries of the last book in scripture, check out The Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse, which is currently being offered in the Relevant bookstore.

I haven’t read it, but this book looks hilarious. If you want to see a sample of its contents, follow the link in the last paragraph, and read through some of the entries in the sample chapter called the “Apocalyptionary.”

I like the style of this book. Both fun and educational. Dare I say that it looks “cool”? (Ohhhh, maybe not…)

The Cool Factor, Part 2

April 25, 2005

Funny thing about High School. Its been almost 22 years since I graduated. I live in a different city now. I am a husband and father. I practice law. But there is a sense in which a part of me never left.

If you want to know what High School was like in the eighties, rent a copy of The Breakfast Club. Its all there: all the various “groups” of kids. They were a little different in West Texas than in the movie, but it still worked the same. Everyone’s group resented everyone else’s. There was a center group of cool kids, and a second circle of kids who wanted to be a part of that group. And hormone-related angst ran amok throughout the entire population.

Sociologists now call the core group and the surrounding circle of people trying to break-in “alphas” and “betas.” Its a pretty sad way of living, but its been the way it works for teenagers for at least a quarter-century.

The problem is that the whole “cool crowd” thing didn’t completely end after High School. That’s why Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion is yet another powerful film for me. It illustrates just that point: some of us continued to care about the whole “whose in” and “whose out” issue long after we quit stocking Clearasil in our medicine cabinets.

Those who know me might think – based on these observations – that for me, things have gotten worse, since I seemingly didn’t care about this stuff in high school. But it really hasn’t changed that much. In High School I was pretty good about acting like I didn’t care about such issues. The thing was, I really did. I just did a good job of acting like it didn’t matter to me. I think I even managed to fool myself into believing that I didn’t care. I was secretly thinking that if I tried hard enough to appear that it didn’t matter to me, I would take on a kind-of “supergeek rebel” coolness of my own. But it never seemed to work out too well. Nerds just weren’t cool by anyone’s standards in the pre-Bill Gates days.

Today, I’m not as good at fooling myself into thinking that I don’t care. Life can do that to you. And now I’m being forced to face up to the fact that I do care. I still care about how people judge me based on what crowd I run with, because I think that somehow those associations change my worth as a human.

Thats meant to be a confession as much as an observation. I can think of few things that are more un-Jesus-like than concern about fitting in with the right crowd, especially when the cost is to ignore the outsiders. I hope that, on the other side of four decades of life, I’m generally successful in identifying and resisting the effects of this urge, but its still there, inviting me to look at my place in the world in the most shallow of ways.

And I haven’t even made it to the worst part, yet. The worst part is that this urge has a tendency to rear its ugly head in the place where it can do the most damage: a community of faith.

Somebody actually said this to me once about a Bible class I was attending: “I think I’ll go here ’cause I guess its where all the cool people are.”

This person was joking, I think, so I don’t think the remark was meant to be taken seriously. But I can’t stop reflecting on this observation, because there is a part of me that believes, for some of us it is all too true…

Next: Coolness in the Consumer Church Culture

The Cool Factor, Part 1

April 23, 2005

Here is a story about a day on which my world changed.

When I entered seventh grade, my first year of Junior High School, nobody warned me that things were going to be different. Either that, or somebody tried and I didn’t listen because I was too busy playing with my G.I. Joes or watching the Six Million Dollar Man.

I was going to play football. Not only was I going to play football. I was going to be the starting quarterback for the seventh grade team – number 12, like Roger Staubach – and, whether we won or lost, I was going to have lots of fun doing this with my friends, just like we had when we played tag football in my front yard the year before.

Boy, was I wrong.

First, my coaches didn’t have the insight to recognize my natural ability at the position of quarterback. Apparently, athletic ability counted a lot more than my overwhelming intelligence at that position. So I got put at linebacker. Second, they didn’t even understand that I was supposed to be a starter. So, when the Thursday of our first game rolled around, I ended up spending most of the game standing on the sidelines watching the people that had played tag football with me for the last few years have all the fun.

The game was pretty uninteresting, too. For 22 minutes, nobody scored. And 22 minutes was most of the game, since we only played six-minute quarters.

At literally the last minute, a new kid in school named Cory (actually, his name wasn’t Cory – I’m changing the names to protect the innocent here), who had been placed at the position of starting running back, broke through the line and scored something like a forty yard touchdown.

It was kind-of exciting, I thought. I wasn’t on the field at the time, but I had been involved in at least 3-4 plays, so I made my contribution. And WE had won, so surely WE would celebrate that victory the next day.

I’ll never forget lunch period on the following day. The first thing I noticed was that girls – I mean LOTS of girls – had surrounded Cory like he was Joe Namath or somebody. He was just sitting there at a picnic table, his legs stretched out in front of him, and his arms spread along the edge of the table. He acted like he owned the school.

My tag football friends had also formed a circle, talking about their experiences during the game, and – if we were lucky – a few of the rest of us non-starters were allowed to stand at the edge of those conversations, if we would just remember to be quiet and respectful while we listened to the tales of their gridiron exploits. The rabble that was comprised of the non-players, on the other hand, were not even allowed to listen.

All of a sudden, I realized the world had become a much different place. I didn’t have a word for it yet, but I would soon learn that “cool” was not just a word that people used to describe Fonzie. It was a concept, elusive though it might be to define, that would come into play in virtually all of the peer relationships that I would have for the next six years, and beyond…

Coolness and Celebrity Culture

April 22, 2005

As promised, here is a reflection from Don Miller. This one still has my head spinning:

I was wondering the other day, why it is that we turn pop figures
into idols? I have a theory, of course. I think that we have this need to be
cool, that there is the undercurrent in society that says some people are cool
and some people aren’t. And it is very, very important that we are cool. So,
when we find somebody who is cool on television or radio, we associate ourselves
with this person to feel valid ourselves. And the problem I have with this is
that we rarely know what the person believes whom we are associating ourselves
with. The problem with this is that it indicates there is less value in what
people believe, what they stand for; it only matters that they are cool. In
other words, who cares what I believe about life, I only care that I am
cool. Because in the end, the undercurrent running through culture is not giving
people value based upon what they believe…

The thing I have to work on in myself is the issue of belief. Ghandi believed Jesus when He said to turn the other cheek. Ghandi brought down the British Empire, deeply injured the caste system, and changed the world. Mother Teresa believed Jesus when He said everybody was priceless, event he ugly ones, the smelly ones, and Mother Teresa changed the world by showing them that a human being can be selfless. Peter finally believed the gospel after he got yelled at by Paul. Peter and Paul changed the world by starting small churches in godless towns.

Eminem believes he is a better rapper than other rappers. Profound. Lets all follow Eminem.

Here is the trick, and here is my point. Satan, who I believe exists as much as I
believe Jesus exists, wants us to believe meaningless things for meaningless reasons. Can you imagine if Christians actually believed that God was trying to rescue us from the pit of our own self-addiction? Can you imagine? Can you imagine what Americans would do if they understood over half the world was living in poverty? …If we believed the right things, the true things, there wouldn’t be very many problems on earth.

But the trouble with deep belief is that it costs something. And there is something inside me, some selfish beast of a subtle thing that doesn’t like the truth at all because it carries responsiblity, and if I actually believe these things I have to do something about them.

There’s so much to say about this. There are directions Miller didn’t explore that I want to take this idea. Questions about how the “coolness” culture interacts – probably in destructive ways – in faith communities, especially my own, and I hope to write on some of those ideas later.

Thats the beauty of Miller’s authentic, conversational style. It not only makes it point, but it inspires open, self-reflection.

Jazz Was Never So Blue

April 20, 2005

I’ve been taking some time off this week, and during that time, I’ve been reading through Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz. I picked it up last week because I had heard a lot of good things about it from a lot of different people, and I have not been disappointed.

Authenticity. That is what I love about this book. It is a book about faith in the midst of postmodern culture, about the struggles that Miller has experienced, and about the way he has responded to those struggles. Miller is unflenchingly honest, particularly about his shortcomings. But, it is out of those places – places of weakness – that he has encountered the power of the Kingdom.

Although he is very well-read, Miller doesn’t dispense the Yoda-like wisdom of a Dallas Willard or C.S. Lewis. Nor is he a powerful storyteller, akin to Eldredge or Lucado. He’s just real. And honest. And all about living in the moment.

I’ll probably post some samples from the book at a later point. The danger, frankly, for the next few days, is that Donald Miller quotes will take over this blog. He has so much more to say that is worthwhile than I do.

In the meantime, has anyone else been blown away by the hits that the new Pope is taking in the media? I realize that the Pope is not a politician, but at least a new President gets 100 days or so before people start evaluating his performance. I’ve been left speechless at the way the American media is running story after story suggesting that he will not advance certain social agendas that are consistent with leftward-oriented politics. None of the media outlets seem to have anything positve to say about this guy.

Whats up with that?

Reading Scripture Spiritually

April 15, 2005

Take a few minutes to reflect on this nugget of wisdom from Henri Nouwen:
“Reading often means gathering information, acquiring new insight and knowledge, and mastering a new field. It can lead us to degrees, diplomas, and certificates. Spiritual reading, however, is different. It means not simply reading about spiritual things but also reading about spiritual things in a spiritual way. That requires a willingness not just to read but to be read, not just to master but to be mastered by words. As long as we read the Bible or a spiritual book simply to acquire knowledge, our reading does not help us in our spiritual lives. We can become very knowledgeable about spiritual matters without becoming truly spiritual people.

As we read spiritually about spiritual things, we open our hearts to God’s voice. Sometimes we must be willing to put down the book we are reading and just listen to what God is saying to us through its words.”