I first saw Cool Jesus in the form of a shiny little picture—the Protestant version of a holy card—that a Sunday school teacher gave me as a prize for memorizing Bible verses. He smiled blindingly out of a sun-tanned face under masses of ‘70s rock star hair. Sometimes when he starts annoying me, I remind him of that picture. He blushes and digs at the carpet with the toe of His Chuck Taylor All-Stars. “Aw, dude, you know,” he says sheepishly. “That wasn’t one of my best looks.” But he gets over it. Cool Jesus is just way too cool to be embarrassed for long.
At least his hair’s improved. He lost the layers and cut it shorter so he could pass in the megachurches where he spends most of his time. They’re into the manly thing now. “They’re right about me, you know,” He tells me, flashing a row of dazzlingly white teeth so perfect he could advertise the wonders of chemically advanced toothpaste. “I was pretty manly back in the day. I still like to fish.”
Cool Jesus is right by my side all the time. He’s there when I wake up in the morning, hovering over my bed with his big smile hanging out and a huge mug of steaming coffee touching my nose. “Hey,” he says. He never says “good morning;” he says that’s a meaningless formula. I swat him away. “Come on, Cool Jesus, you know I can’t drink coffee,” I grumble. “It makes me nervous.”
'If you Catholics would just see the light and have a real relationship with me, you wouldn’t need that dogma,' Cool Jesus says dismissively.
He shakes his head, takes a big swallow of the coffee, and forces the mug into my hand. “You just need to chill out, chica,” he grins.
Lately he’s been wearing the Chuck Taylor All-Stars less and the Birkenstocks more. I tell him it’s a bad mistake. Chucks are so retro, and retro is so in. But he’s thinking that Birkenstocks make him seem more down-to-earth, and he’s obsessed with seeming down-to-earth.
“Look, man,” I yell, “you’re God, and you’re here. What could be more down-to-earth than that?”
He just shakes his head at me as usual and smiles his big, warm smile, a smile so sweet it hits me in the gut like a slug of—well, like a slug. “You’ve got to quit thinking of me that way, chica,” He says, punching my shoulder playfully.
“Like what? Like God?”
Cool Jesus laughs a lot. “You’ve got it all wrong, all wrong,” he says, but he never tells me what’s right.
He wears the Birkenstocks with a backwards baseball cap, cut-offs, and a big shirt with a picture of himself on it saying “Whassup?” Or he spikes his hair with gel, trims his beard into a little goatee, and accessorizes with a leather wristband lined in fake leopard fur. On those days he shines up his Doc Martens and hangs out at GWAR shows with a Bible, the cross on his choker nearly slicing his Adam’s apple in two. He is so cool. He quotes The Ragamuffin Gospel and “Repo Man” in the same slightly marijuana-scented breath. All the hip young things want to buy him shots. They still don’t believe in him, but when I point that out he whips out his copy of The Message and reads off barely recognizable verses to the effect that prostitutes and tax collectors will get into the Kingdom of Heaven before the Pharisees. Then he gives me a wistful, piercingly sweet look, and I know that I am a Pharisee.
Cool Jesus hovers and interrupts when I try to pray. When I use a prayer book, he tells me, “C’mon, don’t be so ritualistic!” When I use a rosary, he mutters about “vain repetition,” but not too loudly because he has a rosary hanging from His rear view mirror. When I pray with words of my own, he says that Jabez guy was really great, and asks me if I wouldn’t like more money.
‘Look, man,’ I yell, ‘you’re God, and you’re here. What could be more down-to-earth than that?’
When we walk down the street together, Cool Jesus is so close His Levi’s rub my arm and give me rug-burn. “Couldja move over?” I snap.
“Whatsamatter? Don’t want to be seen with me?” He puts his arm around me. It’s amazingly heavy; he spends a lot of time in the gym pumping iron.
Lately he’s started to tell me that I must not really be “saved.”
Saved for what, I ask flippantly.
For me, he says. And I shudder.
We’re on our way to a worship service, the kind where instead of a choir they have a praise team. I’m a full head shorter than the guys in front of me and can’t see through the forest of waving arms and splayed fingers, so I give up on the lyrics projected on the wall and just sort of nod off on the loudness of the music. I have a hard time hearing the sermon, too, with all these women in shorts lounging around talking to each other like it’s coffee hour at Starbuck’s. Cool Jesus says this shows their comfort level with him. He looks down at my skirt and pantyhose and snickers. “Look at the way you dress to come to my house! You judge by externals whereas Papa and I see the heart.”
He hates my church. “Oh, Catholics,” He says dismissively, waving his hand. I notice he has an image of his own crucified self tattooed on his bicep, tribal-looking, abstracted, more like some frightening esoteric rash than a symbol of faith. “If you could just get washed in my spirit, you wouldn’t need all that dead ritual, chica. You could just keep the good ritual that really helps people and then maybe, I don’t know, everybody would get so deep and spiritual they’d speak in tongues or make End Times prophecies or something really awesome like that.”
When I use a prayer book, he tells me, 'C’mon, don’t be so ritualistic!' When I use a rosary, he mutters about 'vain repetition.'
“I thought I got washed in your spirit at baptism.”
“That was the enemy—the enemy told you that.”
He sneaks into my bedroom while I’m asleep and slides copies of Relevant magazine under my pillow. He sticks condom ads in my copy of Theology of the Body and draws a mustache on the image of his mother that’s hanging next to my bed. I confront him about this.
“After I covered for you when you pinned the ‘I’m a fag’ sign to the back of Father’s chasuble, you owe me,” I say furiously. “And now, not only are you dissing your own mother –”
“Man, just because I turned some water into grape juice for my mom once, you guys want to tie me to her apron strings,” he complains.
“It was wine.”
“It was not wine. I would never turn water into wine.”
“Why not? You drink it often enough. I heard you last night, drunk and singing—”
“That wasn’t wine, it was beer!”
“Whatever. You still turned that water into wine.”
“I did not. That was a mistranslation. I would never have turned water into wine, because then people would think it was okay to use wine for communion—”
“What’s wrong with using wine for communion?”
“Dude man, you’re supposed to use grape juice, man. What about all the, like, recovering alcoholics who go to church?”
“In case you’ve forgotten, I’m a recovering alcoholic. And I just skip the wine and eat the wafer.”
“That’s not cool.”
“Why not? You are entirely present in a single particle of either species, Body and Blood, soul and divinity—”
“That’s the trouble with you Catholics, man. You’re always using man-made dogmas to exclude people from my table.” He smiles a big, inclusive smile, and I see every tooth in his head. “If you Catholics would just see the light and have a real relationship with me, you wouldn’t need that dogma, chica,” he says fervently. He moves closer to me, and I can see the light, all right—shining off of his capped teeth, and he’s so close I can smell his minty breath. I hope he doesn’t try to hug me. “You Catholics think dogma is the only truth there is, man.”
“What about when St. Thomas Aquinas had a vision of God? He said of his Summa that it was all straw—and—”
Cool Jesus squirms impatiently. The very idea of a theologian, even one experiencing the Beatific Vision, gives him hives.
Besides, his hormones distract Him from philosophical conversations. He just read a book that tells girls to imagine Jesus as Jack from the movie “Titanic,” and now he’s burning with enthusiasm to be every girl’s dream boyfriend. I know he’s been out with several women from a really progressive church downtown. He came in so late one night that I called him on it, and he gave me an incredulous look.
'I’m the Bridegroom!' he yelled. 'I’m all erotic and stuff, man! Read the Song of Solomon...'
“I’m the Bridegroom!” He yelled. “I’m all erotic and stuff, man! Read the Song of Solomon! Lots of honey and, and boobs and crap. Real believers are sexy! Where in my Word does it say you have to be celibate, anyway?”
“Nowhere,” I snarled, “but where does it say the Son of Man fornicates with every Bible-slinging strumpet in the hood?”
“Judge not lest ye be judged,” He sniffed defensively.
I can’t remember when it was that Cool Jesus first started coming around like this. Was he always there? Did he exist for years in a dormant form, needing only the right environment to spring into life, like those “sea monkeys” you used to see advertised in the back of comic books? I saw him in the ‘80s, throwing his body waves around and leering seductively out of bad Christian rock videos. I saw him on billboards in the ‘90s, wearing a WWJD? t-shirt and a grape juice mustache, holding up a little communion cup and posing the question, “Got saved?” These days he’s even been seen sharing communion with Muslim clerics. “Hey, man, whosoever believeth in me and all that,” he beams when questioned on this. Don’t tell him that Muslims only think he was a great prophet. He’ll just tell you that you don’t get it.
For more than two decades, Cool Jesus has been dogging my heels. He says I’m his special project. I asked him if it was like that verse that says "the Lord chasteneth whom He loveth", and he laid into me for thinking the Lord should love me more than other people. “You must think you’re special,” he said.
“Well, you just said—”
“Oh, sweetie,” He cooed tenderly, “there are none so blind as those who will not see!”
But what I will not see, He’ll never tell.
“You just need to love more, chica, you just need to read my Word more and just, you know, hear my voice. You just need to like, feel it, you know.”
“Feel My love, man. Hear my voice and you’ll like, feel it. Like, deep down inside.”
The other day, in the toy department at Wal-Mart, I saw a row of hot lavender boxes with cellophane fronts on a shelf. “Cool Jesus” they said in puffy letters, and through all those cellophane windows, I saw my old friend smiling at me with those shiny, happy teeth. There he was—rows and rows of him—all different, all so cool in their various cool outfits. All saying, “I am it.” I looked and looked for the real Jesus, and then I noticed they were all the same—all cool.
The very idea of a theologian, even one experiencing the Beatific Vision, gives Cool Jesus hives.
I glanced at the nearest “Cool Jesus” box and noticed that the doll inside was staring at me in a particularly fixed way. The white smile in the brown face somehow made him look like no first century Jew the world has ever seen. When I pulled the string that stuck out of the box, he started talking in his tinny little voice full of every all-American smile ever smiled by a jerk on TV.
“Come on, chica, take me home and learn from me,” he pleaded, “for I am cool and groovy of heart. Just let go and feel my love.”
“Do you know what you sound like?” I asked.
“Feel my love,” he pleaded.
“You sound like a high school date rapist,” I said.
“Feel my love,” He bleated.
I gave him one last look before I turned around and started heading toward the section where they sell power tools. He says I need to feel God’s love, and he’s right. I do. Maybe I would—if C.J. would only shut up.