*This article was originally posted on 5/22/15.
Note: I have intentionally overused the word “cool” in this piece as a reflection of its overuse in today’s culture and to make a point.
Cool Jesus is a myth. As much as secular America, and sadly, too many mainline churches want him to exist, he doesn’t. In an effort to make Christianity more palatable and less offensive, Cool Jesus was created. This is the Jesus that is full of love and forgiveness, but that’s it. This is the Jesus that “hangs with sinners.” Cool Jesus has long hair, a scraggly beard, and wears Birkenstocks. He may even have a few tattoos.
The idea that Jesus came to “hang out with sinners”—and who wasn’t a sinner?—because they were somehow better than the Pharisees and religious leaders is nonsense. All of them were sinners. The main reason Jesus singled out the Pharisees is they didn’t think they had any sin in their lives; everyone else knew they were sinners—“God be merciful to me, the sinner!”—and it wasn’t necessary for Jesus to pile on. Cool Jesus not only doesn’t address your sin, he completely ignores or accepts it. So, the mantra of the churches has become, “come as you are, Jesus loves you.” Cool Jesus would never offend anyone or, God forbid, hurt their feelings and self-esteem. Yes Jesus loves you—most people not understanding the full meaning of love—but does he love your sin? Does he accept your sin? Didn’t he come to die for your sin? That seems to be a very serious price to pay for something that is insignificant and doesn’t really matter. So where did this Cool Jesus come from?
It all started with the societal upheaval and revolution that occurred in the 1960’s. The era was certainly about sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but it was much deeper than that. The 1960’s revolution was really about rebellion, rebelling against any authority figure; police, teachers, government, politicians, parents, church leaders, and even God. And against any constraints on behavior associated with any of these aforementioned groups. All of these authority figures began to be mocked in the popular culture and labeled as un-cool or as was the jargon of the times, “square.” Whereas movies used to portray these groups as positive role models, they began to be portrayed as mean, angry, intolerant, not hip, not with it, dullsville. And who wants to be labeled as that type of individual? Ultimately, if you weren’t considered cool, you were ostracized and ridiculed by those who were—and who determined who was cool is a mystery for sure—but the term came to mean so many things as to lose its original meaning altogether.
So the revolution created a Jesus who didn’t quite fit the traditional model. He became the subject of a musical play and movie, Jesus Christ Superstar. He was sung about by the Doobie Brothers, Jesus is Just Alright. And he was even associated with pot smoking by Brewer and Shipley in, One Toke over the Line (Sweet Jesus). “Hey Jesus, come on and hang out with us sinners. Somebody pass that joint over here.” Jesus was being transformed into Cool Jesus, even back then. But before the Cool Jesus was fully created, the un-cool authority figures had to become cool too.
Whereas teachers and professors were previously portrayed as eggheads, they soon began to wear a different persona and create a new, cool image. They grew their hair long, grew beards, switched from Ben Franklin to John Lennon style spectacles, and smoked an occasional joint. Instead of Mozart, Procol Harum was the new cool.
The clergy, pastors and priests, began to change their image as well, all in an effort to counter a perceived stereotype. In the movie The Poseidon Adventure, Gene Hackman’s character was a man of the cloth, but he wasn’t your typical version. He was relaxed, dressed down—no white collar, but instead a turtleneck—and he even cursed. He was strong, tough, and wore his passion on his sleeve. He was cool.
Parents too, wanted in on the act. Instead of being the authority figure in the house and playing the traditional role of parent, they wanted to be their child’s best friend. In order to accomplish this they had to forgo discipline and instead “understand” their child. Child psychologists were in, corporal punishment was out. Parents decided that since their children would “have sex anyway” they would set up a spare bedroom for the occasion, under adult supervision of course, rather than have the teen do it in the back seat of the family station wagon. The same for drinking and drugs; why wonder what your kid is doing at a party down the street, when you can host your own and supply the booze and drugs yourself. These parents may have turned into lousy parents, but they were now cool and their kids liked them.
Politicians, the most stodgy of all the groups, began to change over time as well. Instead of being men and women of character, integrity, and accomplishment, they soon cared more about how they could relate to and fit in with the pop culture. Clinton went on The Arsenio Hall Show and played his version of Heartbreak Hotel on the saxophone. But it wasn’t until he had “sex with that woman” in the White House that he earned his cool bona fides. Our current president, Obama, is known more for being a member of a “choom gang” than for any important papers or legislation. He too appears on the late night talk show circuit, yukking it up with the comedians. But hey, he’s cool. Lousy president, but cool.
In today’s churches, it’s all the rage to be cool; anything to get away from the old stereotypes. You want people to feel comfortable, so you do everything with that in mind. The preachers dress down on stage with designer jeans and the most hip outfits money can buy, even wearing their shirts fashionably tucked outside their trousers. They wouldn’t be caught dead in a dress shirt or khakis. The praise bands rival any rock band and their members are made up of hipsters sporting the most fad conscious tattoos and body piercings. The music is rock and roll, accompanied by a laser light show that would be welcome at any rock concert. And the announcements are made to be as inoffensive as possible.
“We are so, so, so, super happy that you are here with us today. We think you’ll find us to be the coolest church and most fun people around. All we ever do is smile and have fun. See? And don’t forget the coffee bar. And don’t forget to stop by the Next Steps Booth on your way out; we have a super, super, super, cool gift for you.”
I have news for these churches; you will never out-cool the world, nor should you want to. You can do all you want to make the sinner feel comfortable, but the minute you mention sin…Oh yeah, you don’t mention sin. And then there’s Cool Jesus.
But was Jesus really cool? Maybe I’m missing it, but somehow I don’t see him portrayed that way anywhere in scripture. He was actually pretty harsh and demanding, measured by today’s standards. And I find him to be an equal opportunity offender. Jesus made and makes everyone feel uncomfortable. How can you be in the presence of the Holy God of the universe and remain comfortable? John the Baptist forewarned the religious leaders that the Messiah was coming, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” We know they were bad guys–and of course deserved condemnation–but what about when Jesus addressed the rich young ruler, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” He actually told the poor rich guy he would have to forsake his current lifestyle in order to follow him. Are you kidding? Forsake my lifestyle? So not cool Jesus. And how about when he addressed his own disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake shall find it.” What do you mean give up my life? That’s not cool. Or when he said, “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Aren’t you a little too demanding Jesus? That isn’t cool. And here’s another indication that he expects us to repent from our old way of life when he said, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” There’s a reason John the Baptist and Jesus were preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And did you notice what happened to Zaccheus when Jesus came to visit him? He spent less than a day with Jesus and without being prompted, he publicly confessed all his wicked behavior and wanted to make things right. Just being in Jesus presence led Zaccheus to forsake his former way of life and repent.
Here’s the truth: Jesus didn’t come to be our therapist and enhance our self-esteem. He didn’t come to be our buddy and hang out. He came to be our Savior and Lord. He isn’t one of us. He’s not a peer; as if he was one of the guys from work that we run to the corner pub and have a couple of beers with. We’re sinners and he’s holy. Each week we sing songs of redemption, but what are we redeemed from? Cool Jesus never addresses the elephant in the room. If the Church refuses to talk about sin, then it should also shut up about the Savior, because without sin, there isn’t a need for a savior. Yes Jesus loves us, all of us. And yes Jesus hates our sin, all of our sin. The good news is, Jesus doesn’t expect you to clean up your life prior to coming to him. You can’t do it. What he does expect is that you recognize your sin. That you repent of your sin. That you forsake your former way of life, and when you seek out the Savior, bring your sins with you. And lay them at Jesus feet. He will accept you as you are and will forgive your sins. Now, that is cool indeed.