Of Cigarettes, Christianity, and Cool


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.

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at The Catholic Gentleman.
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Rick Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. He serves on the nursing faculty at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. You can find more of Rick’s writing on his blog, God-Haunted Lunatic, and his Facebook page.

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