Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Month: April, 2010

A Fantastic Place

Sometimes, I’m self-conscious about the kind of books I read.

There are two kinds of books out there, in popular understanding. Just like there are two kinds of movies and two kinds of foods and two kinds of high school tracks. Academic and applied. Gourmet and common. Critical and popular. High and low. Good and not-nearly-so-good.

These divisions don’t really exist, of course. And they ruin things. They try to make me think that I ought to like Agnes Grey better than The Final Empire. I mean, Agnes Grey is a classic (whatever that means). The Final Empire is about a metal-magic teen who needs to kill a god. But I don’t. The Final Empire (and the rest of the Mistborn series) was better. It’s hard to tell people that, though. Because fantasy sounds trite (though it isn’t).

I love fantasy. And I don’t want to be ashamed of my love for fantasy. So I drew up a list of the great and wonderful place of fantasy in literature:

  • Fantasy is closer to real life than the world we think we live in. Pop-secularism sees a drab, boring world, devoid of the wonderful, fantastic or glorious. Our culture gives birth to unverifiable dogmas that always seem to begin with “There’s no such thing as…” Fantasy gives us mystery back. Or, rather, it reminds us of the mystery we lost. It reminds us that fairies do, indeed, exist.
  • Fantasy helps us rejoice in the mundane. G.K. Chesterton suggested that one reason there are fantastic things in stories is so we can see how fantastic things actually are around us. A river of gold, he says, reminds us that rivers are actually filled with something more wondrous: water.
  • Perhaps better than any other genre, fantasy is able to embody truth. Fantasy is like a magnifying glass in its analysis. Courage is best seen and understood, not by one man fighting another, but by a weak, uneducated hobbit attacking the immortal dark lord of Mordor. Love is best seen and understood, not through a girl willing to marry a secure man, but by a girl willing to marry the Dragon Reborn, who is damned to kin-slaying madness.
  • Fantasy is beautiful. Those who read fantasy will tell you, it’s not the funny names or magic spells that draw us. It’s the glory of it all. The beauty in the idyllic origins of the world in The Silmarillion. The glory of the One Power in The Wheel of Time. The depth of character in the many protagonists of A Song of Ice and Fire.
  • Fantasy teaches us to open our minds and accept that we know nothing. You see that theme in nearly every fantasy. Frodo must open up and see that there is more to the world beyond the Shire. Rand Al’thor must realize that the petty morals of his youth are too small for the world. Vin must see that Allomancy is not shadowy witchcraft, but something deep, true and beautiful.
  • Own what you love. If you love it, I think I don’t have the right to call it trite or base.

    Up at Night #10 – Intellectual Dishonesty

    Well, it actually doesn’t keep me up at night. I sleep well in spite of the staggering dishonesty I convince my brain to partake in. But the fact that this does not keep me up at night, keeps me up at night.

    Examples:
    – I think that it’s pretty important to be born from above. This is because when someone came and privately asked Jesus for spiritual advice, that’s what he told him (John 3). And he made it sound serious, too. And when Jesus says something serious, I find it very logical to pay attention to it.
    – Conversely, I do not seem to think it’s all that important to help the poor, even though Jesus and many prophets and apostles said we should (Proverbs 19:17, 1 John 3:17, James 1:27, and exactly one jillion more quotes). I may talk about it a lot, but I never seem to translate the talk into the kind of action Jesus suggested. Funny, eh?

    Of course, I’m comparing apples to oranges, aren’t I? I mean, in John 3, Jesus was talking about salvation! Not morality. He was telling Nic how to enter into that wild and awesome Kingdom of Heaven that he was always talking about. It’s different, right?

    I thought it was. I hoped it was. But I’m not so sure anymore.

    Remember the rich young ruler who asked how to get to heaven (Luke 18:18-23)? Jesus says, be good. The guy replies, I am! Jesus says, go sell everything and give it to the poor. Then you’re in.

    Hmm.

    Thankfully I’m a clever person. I have a solution. I can postulate that Jesus had a deeper, not-so-obvious spiritual meaning when he told that young ruler-guy to sell his stuff. I can probably postulate a good enough meaning that I won’t actually have to do anything. Maybe I’ll just say that Jesus meant he ought to be willing to sell his crap. Yeah. It’s a heart issue, right? I can be willing to do that. So long as I don’t have to actually do it.

    And what about when Jesus talks in Matthew 25:31-46? That one’s tougher. Jesus says that he’s going to gather everyone up and reject anyone who didn’t help the poor. What can I do about that one?

    Hmm

    Oh! I got it! We are saved by faith, not works! Paul trumps Jesus! QED!

    I hate it when my sarcasm is uncomfortably close to how I really live. I wonder in how many more places of my life I’m willfully blind and dishonest.

    Review: Mutluluk (Bliss)

    BlissI devoted a lot of my time and limited brain power to this post. It’s been hard. Very, very hard.

    I could write a hundred posts on this film. And I don’t think I’m exaggerating (too much). I could open it up and keep on analyzing it for years. I could talk about how I walked away from it a different person from who I was when I sat down to watch it.

    I could look at it from a cinematic point of view and tell you about the ridiculously great acting and shots and score. Or I could look at it from an artistic point of view and tell you about the symbolism as each character chooses (or is chosen) to break free from whatever they break free from. Or I could look at it from an emotional point of view and tell you how the story woos, seduces and beds your soul, all the while both destroying and enlivening it.

    But I can’t tell you any of that. I can’t give you a cookie here. To tell you about this film will dishonor it. I cannot tell anything but this: Watch it!

    Get up, right now, and go to the nearest video store. Rent this movie. You’ll thank me. I promise.

    You Can’t Define a Story

    People use the word Gospel a lot in my circles. We talk about knowing the Gospel, understanding the Gospel, defining the Gospel. I’ve heard many a preacher talk about how important it is to have a thorough understanding of the Gospel and a right definition of it. But, funnily, usually they don’t actually come through and define it for me. That always bothered me, y’know? Because, how the heck am I supposed to go to heaven if I can’t define the Gospel? Some people try, though. I’ve heard people say that ‘Believe of the Lord Jesus Christ’ is the Gospel. Remember that story? When the jailer wanted to know what he needed to do to be saved? But was that really the Gospel? Or was it just the answer to the jailer’s question?

    It hit me today, though. I figured out what the Gospel was. Are you ready for it? Here it goes:

    Good News (or story)

    We made up the word, eh? We couldn’t figure out how to translate the Greek word so we made up one. Clever of us.

    But, of course, I can’t leave it there. That would be cheating. Even though I know that the word Gospel is no more or less than Good News (or story), I still ought to figure out what that good story is.

    Boom! Epiphany! I’m on a roll today! I figured out what the Good News is! It’s right there in the beginning of the New Testament! What is the first book called?

    The Gospel According to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John

    What is the Gospel? The whole story. The whole deal. All of it. That’s why preachers stumble when they try to define it (and not leave out any of the details that, left out, will damn you). That’s why Jesus never even tried to define it. You can’t define a story. You can’t define a life. The Gospel is the whole Good News (or story) of Jesus and everything that he is.

    Good luck putting a tag on that!

    Don’t [think/read/watch] this!

    Okay, so I’m cruising around the net and I come across this video (I tried to embed it but it didn’t take…)

    I thought to myself, ‘Ah! Mohler! I’ve heard of him. He’s a Southern Baptist and he did that Together For The Gospel thing I’ve heard good things about, so I’ll watch this video!’

    Watch it if you want, but it’s a very painful hour long. I made it about 15 minutes before I had to turn it off.

    It’s a panel discussion, which sounds cool. All eyes are up front. What deep issue are they talking about? What encouraging truth are they opening their minds and mouths to grant to us?

    Brian McLaren is serpentine child of the devil and going to hell (35:49). He’s written a book that’s disgusting and laughably silly (13:42).

    Now, I’ve heard of this McLaren guy before. I don’t really know anything about him (other than that he’s very, very baaaaad). So when I come across a video like this my first reaction is, ‘Wow. I need to read this book they’re ripping apart!’

    I had heard of the book. I think Driscoll said bad things about it. So I bought it. Don’t tell anyone, but it seems like a decent book (go check it out). It’s a novel, and the worst criticism I could come up with (and I tried really hard to criticize it) was that the characters were two-dimensional and I was pretty sure the author wrote himself as the sly Jamaican (but who wouldn’t want to be a sly Jamaican, really?)

    It was so decent, I thought, that I couldn’t understand why there was such a to-do about it. So I checked out the video again.

    It turns out, the video is about ‘A New Kind Of Christianity.’ I, unfortunately, bought ‘A New Kind Of Christian.’ Tee hee. Oops. Wrong book. So I actually don’t know a thing about the book they are criticizing (yet).

    So I guess I shouldn’t really be saying anything. I guess the book they are talking about could very well be just as evil as they say it is. And maybe it is worth filling an hour over.

    Now, I understand that people feel the need to debate. Of course! Why not? If a famous guy writes a book and you disagree with it, you ought to talk about that. But why do we need to be such jerks about it? Why fill a church for a hour to talk about it? And, most importantly, why oh why can’t you actually deal with his claims instead of calling him liberal and post-modern and all the other buzzwords that we associate with ‘bad?’ When McLaren calls the Flood genocide (15:39), why can’t you explain that it wasn’t (if it wasn’t)? When you say that his book is against the Bible (33:25) can you tell me how it is against the Bible? Or maybe I should just take your word for it.

    I like book reviews. I go by them all the time. But I can’t go by this one because I feel like they are spending most of their time mocking the book (and its writer/readers) instead of deconstructing it. It was as if they were hired to judge a new piece of technology and, instead of talking about the in and outs of it, they just called it stupid with different adjectives for an hour.

    But, again, I haven’t read the thing (nor have I finished the video. An hour of criticism takes a lot out of you). So I shouldn’t be saying anything at all, should I?

    Of course, most people (like me) who criticize the Emergent Conversation haven’t read any books written by people who are actually part of that conversation. Most people (like me) have just listened to Mohler and Driscoll and come to accept what they think about the movement. Does anyone else find this a little dishonest?

    It reminds me about when I was in KLBC and I attacked The Prayer of Jabez without reading it. Sorry Bruce, I shouldn’t have done that. And McLaren, I’ll read your stuff before I say anything bad about you. And even after I read it, I’ll try to be nice.

    Review: Blood – The Last Vampire


    When I first heard about Twilight, I have to admit I was a little excited. I didn’t know anything about the story, of course, I just knew it involved vampires. I’ve always thought that the vampire myth had a lot of potential in it, but I had never seen any work (film, novel or otherwise [except maybe for one RPG I used to play]) come close to unlocking it. I thought (stupidly) that Twilight might have done that.

    NOPE!

    I was horribly disappointed (of course), not only because the book (and film) delivered nearly nothing good, but also because they spawned an army of vampire-media that seemed even worse. I was about to give up on my hopes of finding anything vampire-related that was worth the myth it built itself on.

    And then I found Blood – The Last Vampire. The title sounds a little corny (I’m sure it sounds much cooler in Japanese), but the film blew my mind.

    It’s quite short – just over an hour. But in that hour the full greatness of the vampire myth was unpacked. No, not really unpacked. More like, the lid creaked open a crack and let a tiny bit of quality out, giving pleasure and a deep longing for some.

    Saya is the last vampire, though she is never called that in the film (Which is a good thing. The best way to destroy a vampire film is to use the word vampire). She works for the American government and hunts human-devouring demons in Japan. The audience gets to see one of her missions, in which she infiltrates an American high school in Japan and hunts down a couple of demons that have been spotted there.

    What makes Blood so good?
    First, Saya is just about the deepest vampire character I’ve ever come across. In every other film vampires are portrayed as sexy, playful beings who are full of adolescent pettiness. That portrayal, though, makes no sense when you think about it. Even though Edward, for example, is trapped in a teenage body, he is not a teenager. He’s, what, a hundred and fifty years old? Does it really make sense for a hundred-year-old guy to be attracted to a teenager? What are they going to talk about? Boy bands? Heck, it would be hard for him to have the patience to deal with immature 50-year-olds. Sorry girls, but Edward is just about the dumbest vampire I’ve ever seen.
    Saya pulls of the centuries-old vampire in a teenage body perfectly. She is not playful. She is not sexy. She is frustrated, unsympathetic and perma-pissed. Just as a vampire should be. You can see her frustration and annoyance with the children she is pretending to fit in with. She’s a real vampire.
    Another great thing about Blood is the depth of the world its set in. Even though we only get to hang out with Saya for an hour, we can tell that there is a lot beneath the surface with her and her world. So many things are alluded to that are never fully answered. I’m not going to go into details, for spoiler’s sake, but the setting is deep. And that’s an amazing achievement when you consider how short the film is.
    Just like Princess Mononoke, Blood does not resolve. And the manner in which it refuses to resolve is achingly well played. You leave the film begging for a sequel (on a related note, there is a series [Blood+] which is inspired by the movie. Never seen it though, so no comment).
    One of my favorite aspects is Saya herself. She is simply not your average heroine. It’s very hard to love her. You get the impression that she’s a very evil person and she’s not sexy or fun like most heroines tend to be. She’s complicated and intense. She’s merciless and hates pretty much everyone (I think), but she’s fighting for the right side (I think). Like Princess Mononoke (and the Bible), it’s not a classic Good vs. Evil fight. Its something deeper.

    Of course, one good question to ask is why do I like the fact that Saya is (really) a bad person? Because the heart of the vampire myth is evil. Vampires cannot be sexy and fun because they are evil. And evil can never be (permanently) sexy or fun. Evil must always give way to frustration and monotony. Which is why the Interview With The Vampire series works so well. You may think it would be fun to be immortal and strong. But the evil you need to take on in order to become that way kills any goodness that you might have gained.

    So forget Edward. Saya is the real deal. And while she will never fall in love with a cute boy or giggle or anything like that, she will faithfully portray the vampire myth, as depressing as it is. And it’s better that way. We see the horror of personal evil clearer that way.

    More Golden Compass Thoughts

    Lyra, the main character of the series, is a young girl. Now, each children’s series seems to have children who are special in some way. Harry Potter is good on a broom. The Paperbag Princess is deft at tricking dragons. Ponyo is full of rebellious love. But Lyra’s skill is very unusual for the hero of a children’s book. Her skill is lying.

    Time and time again her uncanny ability to create a false story saves her and the people she loves. She seriously has some sort of super-human skill when it comes to lying. And the narrator suggests that she is such a good liar because she lacks a deep imagination.

    When a person has a good imagination she will be able to think up so many wonderful details that would add great depth and realism to a story. Unfortunately, many details tend to give the liar away. We can all tell when somebody starts babbling that they are trying to hide something. But a girl with no imagination will not be bothered to weigh her story down with details. And so Lyra’s lack of imagination helps here.

    I find the connection between lying and imagination so interesting. On the one hand, without a good imagination you cannot (I think) be a good storyteller. But when you try to tell a story and pass it off for truth, your imagination will get in the way.

    I wonder, if we think about this metaphysically, if this is because imagination is inherently good while deceit is inherently bad. It’s a hard fit; putting imagination and lies together. They don’t like each other much. A good imagination always tells the truth of a thing, those its packaging may be false. A lie tries to cover the truth and keep it from the hearer. The imagination doesn’t seem to like that.

    Rich Words

    It’s been a while since I listened to a lot of Rich Mullins. So now, as I’m trying to put his tracks on more and more, the greatness of his music that grabbed me in the beginning is grabbing me again.

    I was watching a biographical DVD for him the other day called Homeless Man. It’s wild, go check it out. Rich Mullins was a hero. Here’s a quote from him:

    Jesus said whatever you do to the least of these my brothers you’ve done it to me. And this is what I’ve come to think. That if I want to identify fully with Jesus Christ, who I claim to be my savior and Lord, the best way that I can do that is to identify with the poor. This I know will go against the teachings of all the popular evangelical preachers. But they’re just wrong. They’re not bad, they’re just wrong. Christianity is not about building an absolutely secure little niche in the world where you can live with your perfect little wife and your perfect little children in a beautiful little house where you have no gays or minority groups anywhere near you. Christianity is about learning to love like Jesus loved and Jesus loved the poor and Jesus loved the broken.

    Yay for heroes like Rich Mullins.

    No Longer Just A Game

    I just finished Speaker for the Dead.

    The book was a breath of fresh air. It’s been a long time since I’ve read something both so amazingly enjoyable and so profound. I know that I’m not supposed to feel this way, but it was definitely better than Ender’s Game. The simple prose toyed with my emotions the entire time. You’d be surprised how saddened I was over the fight of the main character with one of his longest friends.

    And the depth was great. It is one of those books that changes you a bit once you’re done. Here’s my favorite line:

    How suddenly we find the flesh of God within us after all, when we thought that we were only made of dust.

    That came to me at a great time. I’ve always leaned toward a Reformed view of things so I tend to have a pretty negative view on the human condition, what with the soul-cancer of sin and all. But here I’m reminded of that awful and wonderful truth: Though I am dust, the flesh of God dwells in me. Though I am sick the creative power that told the story of the unmade universe into being is part of me.

    And if that doesn’t brighten your day, I don’t know what will!

    If you’ve never read a science fiction, go grab Ender’s Game and take the series to the end. You’ll be glad you did.

    A Tangled Webb

    I get depressed sometimes when I look around. I think that the news and those commercials with starving brown kids affect me a little more than they do most people. Not because I’m more sensitive or loving. Just because I’ve lived in those kinds of places. I get sad when I look at my digital oven and moving car and think about my cousins and in-laws who live under a thatched roof. Or when I think about my greatest danger being getting to and from work while my friend Tal-ban is driving a taxi in Pakistan’s northern areas. Also, I have a great imagination, so I can very clearly picture what it might feel like to have my father’s shop blown up by protesters or have my family killed in a war that they were not fighting.

    All this can get debilitating, I think. Even in the Bible we read things like a time for war … a time to die. There is a time for everything, y’know? There is even a time for murder and hate and genocide and religious violence and immoral politics.

    But this, too, shall be made right.

    There oughtn’t be a time for war and death and sorrow and pain. But for now there is a time for it. But it shall be made right.

    I wonder, then, if we will help usher in that time? Or shall we sit back and watch?

    Of course, none of this will touch any of us unless we love. We were made to love. Isn’t love great? Sometimes I get upset because my wife is away, but then I think about the people she loves over there and I think about how much love she is pouring into that place. And then things get better (also, I sometimes just sit and stare at this picture).
    Check out my wife’s widow project: i117