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Of Cigarettes, Christianity, and Cool

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The following is a guest post by Richard Becker.

I heard on the news that the FDA is getting all fired up about regulating e-cigarettes – possibly even banning them outright for youngsters.

Why? E-cigs may not have the risks associated with ordinary cigarette smoke, but they’re still a vehicle for delivering nicotine – an addictive stimulant. Plus, there’s plenty of fear that e-cigarettes and “vaping” could make old-fashioned smoking “cool” again – disaster! Here’s from a story in the New Republic:

Tobacco control advocates worry that any effort to “normalize” even the rituals of smoking, as with e-cigs, could undermine hard-won battles to ban public smoking, re-establish smoking as cool, and lead to youth-directed marketing.

After all that hard work on the part of the feds and the healthcare workers to make smoking uncool, there’s a real possibility that it will suddenly get hip again.

Here’s the thing, though: Smoking is still cool. It never stopped being cool. It didn’t matter how many pictures of diseased lungs you showed kids, smoking’s allure never diminished. Heck, I’m a nurse with experience in cancer and hospice care, and an ex-smoker, and I even still think it’s cool.

You see, it’s not the nicotine so much as the culture – something Hilaire Belloc understood apparently. Here he is using a smoking analogy to make a point about Arianism:

To give a man the history of tobacco, to give him the chemical formula (if there be such a thing) for nicotine, is not to make him understand what is meant by the smell of tobacco and the effects of smoking it.

Think of Humphrey Bogart and James Dean. Steve McQueen and, well, pretty much every actor (and actress) from the previous era (i.e., my era). They all smoked – on camera – and it was very cool.

Of course, that was back when smoking on screen didn’t land you an automatic “R” rating for your movie, thus walling you off from impressionable youngsters. But I’m not so sure today’s impressionable youngsters are so backward that they’re not still picking up the message (and images) that smoking is associated with coolness, despite the “R” ratings. Celebrities still smoke, after all, and they’ll still be seen doing so by our kids even if it’s not on the silver screen.

Smoking has always been associated with membership in the adult world – especially that upper echelon of adulthood in which serious issues and important matters cause so much stress that chemical stimulants (like nicotine delivered via smoke) are required to handle it all. Smokers were like Holden Caulfields, and if Holden’s angst appealed to you, so did his approach to managing it. Even if you avoided smoking yourself, you still secretly longed to be part of the angst-ridden clique that coped by lighting up.

What was true then is true today: Cool often trumps truth, and no amount of public health marketing and browbeating will change that.

Note to evangelists, catechists, and youth ministers: The same principle applies to the Gospel. And forget the hype surrounding our new cool Pope. There’s simply no way to make Christianity itself cool, and you’ll discover that those outside the church have already figured this out.

But, really, it’s not a remarkable finding. Just walk into any Catholic church, and you’ll see behind the altar a guy being tortured to death. That’s who Christians worship, that’s our God. There’s simply no way to make that cool.

In fact, it’s totally uncool. It’s about sacrifice and martyrdom. It’s about meekness and turning the other cheek. It’s about kissing lepers and loving the enemy and taking care of the poor even when the poor resent your care.

And it’s also about a whole range of related causes and positions that are bound to offend just about everyone – things like the right to life, the defense of traditional marriage, rational immigration reform, abolishing the death penalty, and sane alternatives to perpetual war.

We need to quit kidding ourselves, especially when we’re reaching out to teens and young adults. Like smoking cessation, Christianity will never be able to count on the coolness factor. But truth? As Chesterton wrote of his own conversion:

The difficulty of explaining ‘why I am a Catholic’ is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.

Of course, our Lord said it first – and better: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Cool – like vaping – has no staying power. Truth and freedom, on the other hand, never go out of style.

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8 People Replies to “Of Cigarettes, Christianity, and Cool”

  1. If thumb sucking wasn’t socially unacceptable (in adults and some children no less) we’d have a lot less smokers and, who knows, maybe more Christians! 🙂

  2. Matthew

    In college we would pray outside of a Planned Parenthood in Pittsburgh. Right next door happened to be a homosexual night club. During the 40 days for Life at wee hours in the morning when the club would close many of the patrons would come and heckle us….until we offered them a cigarette. Then we would have 3 1/2 minutes to tell them who we were and what went on next to their night club. Not all, or even most agreed with us, but most were happy to talk. Thanks cigarettes.

  3. Some excellent points and I agree in the main. But I think The Boondock Saints came pretty close. 😉

  4. Great column! I wrote a book titled The War on Smokers and the Rise of the Nanny State. I’ve linked your excellent article to my book’s facebook page.

  5. Patrick

    I find I have to disagree with you, though perhaps it stems largely from your conclusions regarding cultural views on Christianity being framed in the context of far-right protestant groups in the United States, most of which are closely aligned with far-right political movements. Surely those aren’t going to ever receive any kind of mainstream popularity, but that is not the case for mainline reformed churches or even the Catholic Church the world over.

    There is evidence to suggest a growing trend among younger generations showing greater affinity towards the beliefs of their grandparents (and possibly great grandparents) rather than their own parents. In this sense, Christianity may well become cool again. I’ve heard at least one British priest say as much based on some articles from The Times. While the overall numbers in many churches there are not positive, this is largely due to demographics, but those demographics show a trend towards parishes being filled with twenty-somethings and octogenarians.

    1. “There is evidence to suggest a growing trend among younger generations showing greater affinity towards the beliefs of their grandparents (and possibly great grandparents) rather than their own parents. In this sense, Christianity may well become cool again.”

      Indeed, I’ve seen evidence of that as well, but I’d modify the observation a bit. I’ve seen a fair amount of evidence that the very well educated young (thanks to the Internet), followed by the left behind Gap Generation members in the pews, are much more knowledgeable on the Faith than the Spirit of Vatican Two boomers who still grasp for power everywhere. It makes for a lot of disgruntled young and younger middle age parishioners who long for the orthodox Masses of days prior while sitting through yet another guitar Mass.


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