The Strong Spines of the Uncool
April 10, 2019
I’m almost through reading Mark Edmundson’s thought-provoking work, The Heart of Humanities: Reading, Writing, Teaching, and I just came across a line that really sums up the theme of his whole book:
“’The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re not cool.’”
He is quoting from Lester Bangs, a character in the movie Almost Famous. Lester is on the phone with his aspiring rock journalist friend, William Miller, who is telling him about the band members he is doing a profile on and how chummy they are being with him. “Don’t buy it, says Bangs. ‘They make you feel cool. And hey. I met you. You are not cool.’” Bangs reminds his friend who he is and is not; but that’s a good thing, he says. “‘We’re uncool’” He wears it like a badge. Edmundson elaborates, “and though uncool people don’t get the girl, being uncool can help you develop a little spine. It’s too easy out there for the handsome and the hip---their work never lasts.” That’s when he lays down Lester Bangs’ line about the true currency of uncoolness. Edmundson builds on this, saying the best teachers are the uncool ones, “because really good teaching is about not seeing the world the way everyone else does.”
The whole 459-page book really leads up to this line. When making the argument in "Why Read?", he laments that Americans are always watching screens which serve as narcotics to deaden our souls. And what are we watching?---the culture of cool. It’s all an advertisement. Even the actual commercials don’t describe the products anymore as much as the type of person they will supposedly make us. We are all expected to want to conform. In our postmillennial consumer culture, we “buy in order to be. Watch (coolly) so as to learn how to be worthy of being watched (while being cool).” This isn’t a currency we can trust.
So, why read? Edmundson builds the case that reading good literature takes us into different worlds, offering us different truths. These too are truths that we must challenge, asking ourselves what it would mean to live accordingly. Good literature ignites the reciprocity of good readers who not only interpret the literature well, but let it interpret them. We discover our own preconceived notions, what is meaningful to us, and how we think about things. It’s all so uncool.
So is writing. “It usually means putting something down, looking in the mirror that is judgement, finding yourself ugly, and living with it.” I really could identify with the section where he discusses the rituals writers go through before they can get into the zone to do their work. Some of these protocols can be quite weird, he says, as we are trying to transition from a state of “habitual self”, which is the necessary state “we need to inhabit most of the time…Habitual self drives the car and gets bodies, including its own, to various places at agreed-on times. It gathers the groceries and chops them…it pays the bills and takes care of kids and parents and schmoozes at the post office. It takes obligations related to death and taxes with some degree of seriousness.
But habitual self cannot write to save its life.” Since habitual self sounds like a machine when it tries to write, many writers have rituals of trying to transition to reflective, creative-juices-flowing self.
As a side note, rereading that section diagnosed the manuscript hangover I have been experiencing this week. All this time that I have spent trying to get a book out of my head and onto paper is also an investment in transitioning from habitual self into another world of sorts. It’s a passionate world. And then you push the send button. Habitual world all feels so, well, more habitual than before. Do I dare speak my book life into a conversation? When I do, I notice how it all sounds so terribly uncool. The content in it challenges the conformity that I find myself living back in habitual world.
Both Edmundson’s affirmation of the uncool and his entertaining riff on rituals to escape the habitual self speak to a purposeful move towards transformed consciousness---one that has currency and produces lasting work. This is encouraging. It also makes me reflect more on the evangelical subculture, especially as we see it unfold on our screens. Everyone wants to be cool, so much so that we look to our screens to tell us how to be. Christians are also on the alert against cool, even as we produce our own brand of it. Reformedish ministries and media often gain a following when they take a stand against a prevailing unbiblical conformity in the church. But what so often happens is a slide into constructing their own value systems in which their tribe is expected to conform. They too become just another brand with weakening currency. What may have originated with a strong spine, a challenging voice that needs to be heard, weakens as it builds likes and excludes others asking the difficult questions. Sadly, many intricacies to a conversation, debate, or issue get overlooked in the name of coolness, or faux belonging. Because that’s what coolness is. That’s what Lester Bangs was telling his friend: you don’t really belong; they don’t genuinely like you---the you I know. Don’t buy it.
Genuine community needs strong spines that continue to strength train. If the church is always reforming to Scripture, then we should expect periods where transformed consciousness is needed. Do we find genuine community in the evangelical subculture? We certainly don’t find it on our screens. True transformation happens when we are discipled in a local covenant community through the means of grace God provides to give us Christ and his blessings. There we find literature that has the power to interpret and transform us. And we can never exhaust our learning, discovery, and delight in it.
There is a type of conformity that is good. But it doesn’t result in the bland coolness of the culture. When we align ourselves in obedience to the good in which we have been created for we find true belonging, genuine community, and unique personhood. He gives us strong spines. Ones that bend, move, and stretch rather than grow stiff. And he authorizes us to speak of him.