Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Month: May, 2010

Insidious

The pope was in Portugal a little while ago to give his traditional Mass at Fatima’s Sanctuary. While giving his speech he denounced homosexual marriage and said that it was one of “today’s most insidious and dangerous threats to the common good.”

Does that get you thinking? It gets me thinking. Here’s what I started thinking:

What are today’s greatest threats to the common good?

Here’s the list I brainstormed:

  • Nuclear Proliferation. There are about 22,000 nuclear warheads in the world. Apparently it would only take 500-600 warheads to kill every human on the planet. That’s too bad, eh? And now that wild countries like North Korea, Iran and Pakistan are getting their hands on the things, it seems pretty stressful. It’s a good thing Obama is taking steps to get rid of them, but it still feels like a threat to the common good to have these thing laying around, eh?
  • Extreme Global Poverty. I think I’ve mentioned this one before. 53% of all deaths in the world are hunger-related. That’s 35 million or so. I figure anything that accounts for more than half of all deaths is a hefty threat, don’t you? This is even more threatening than nuclear proliferation, I think. At least the nukes aren’t killing us yet. Hunger is.
  • Religious Violence. 85 people died a few days ago in Pakistan because they prayed in the wrong kind of mosque. I search for words to use against the sorts of people who choose violence to solve religious disagreements. I found the words, but I imagine I’d lose a lot of my audience if I actually used them. They are not nice words.
  • Malice. Ah, malice. That deep, enigmatic urge that drives man to hurt man. Can you imagine what the world would be like without it? I bet it’d be pretty good. Think of all the things that would go away! Violence, passive-agressive stuff, spite, all gone! Malice may be just about the worst urge a person can have. Would you call it a threat to the common good? I should hope so.
  • War. Armed, violent conflict between nations. The only sure outcome of war is dead people. And since war is always on a national level, it’s usually a lot of dead people. And whenever something leads to a lot of dead people, I consider it a threat to the common good, don’t you?
  • Ignorance. Great evil is often born out of ignorance. Some of the textbooks at the school I taught at in Pakistan said that 9/11 was pulled off by Israel in an attempt to get the US to destroy the Muslim world. This, of course, is breeding a new generation of young people who consider the West to be an implacable enemy. This gives birth to Taliban. This sucks.
  • I look at this list, coming just off the top of my ill-informed head, and I find a desire to ask one question of the Pope: “Amid these insidious and dangerous threats to the common good, where does homosexual marriage fit?”

    Eating Less

    I have a forty minute drive to work. Forty minutes on a good day. Which, to be honest, is most days because I work nights and only creepy vampires like myself are on the highway at 11pm on a weeknight. The drive used to seriously bother me. Inefficient, y’know? Forty minutes of doing nothing. So I started getting audiobooks and throwing them on my phone to listen to. I consumed the entire Harry Potter series (fun), a little less than half of His Dark Materials (dumb) and part two of A Song of Ice and Fire (epic). I figured so much consumption of fiction would help keep my own creative juices flowing. Clever, eh?

    Not so much, it turns out.

    Driving was my only moment of solitude. I live with people and tasks. When I’m at home I’m with the family. When I’m out I’m with friends. When I at the library or work, I have tasks. Only in the car am I alone and idle. And that’s a good thing.

    Creative Benefits of Solitude

  • Your ideas can ferment. Like a fine wine, ideas are never good as soon as they are mixed. They need to sit and grow and mingle within your head. Solitude lets them do this without allowing outside pollutants in.
  • Your mind can rest. Sometimes you’re just too tired to think. A bit of solitude is a break from stress, worry and tasks. And when you rest, you always tend to work better.
  • Your stress can dissipate. Not only can you rest, but when you are alone you can see your stresses a little clearer and they usually tend to get smaller for the seeing. Stress fades when we are not continually reminded of the things to be stressed about.
  • You can hear the Muse. She speaks softly, after all.
  • Not Fulfilling Your Promises

    I like stories. But you know that.

    Lost had a great story for a while. A lot of people thought it started to get death chills around the second season, but I didn’t think so. Sure, there were a few plot holes and a few things done out of character, but all in all I still appreciated it up to the end. It was everything a good fantasy should be. Convoluted, full of deep, interesting characters, incredible setting. Good stuff all around. We were all very excited for the finale.

    If you haven’t watched it yet, and you’re planning to, you ought to stop reading now, by the way.

    My first thought after watching the finale was this: They lied to me.

    The series made a few promises, you see. Not explicitly, of course, but by introducing the sorts of questions they did, they implied that they would answer them. Is Claire really crazy? Where did the island come from? Why did the light do what it did? What is the freakin’ island?

    And they answered none of these questions. All they told us was what the alternate universe was (and that was unsatisfactory, too. It’s the afterlife? And yet people died there?). Matt was not pleased.

    It was kinda like a Stephen King novel. Great concept. Amazing beginning and middle. But something happened at the end. Something not good. It seemed lazy, to me. And a bad ending ruins everything. I cannot bring myself to care about the story or characters anymore. There is no point. The Lost universe was damaged with such a weak ending. If a story’s ending doesn’t match the middle, it messes everything up. The endings to Mistborn and Eye of the World completed and wrapped the entire tale up in a glorious package. Lost’s ending didn’t finish the job. It was like getting a present without proper wrapping. Or getting a great piece of electronics with shoddy batteries.

    If you make stories, pay attention to your endings. Sweat for your endings. The end is the part people remember. And now my memories of Lost will be less than fond.

    Revisiting the Wolves

    I’m working through a preaching series on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. And so I have read it more than a few times over the past few months. And nearly every time I go through it I am blown away. Pick it up, read it through. Matthew 5-7. It’ll only take a few minutes.

    Wild, eh? It’s so clear and simple and sharp. Its scandalous ethic embodies love to such a perfect measure that I have never heard a sermon that referenced it without trying to weaken it.

    Yes, Jesus said we shouldn’t go to church if we know we have relationship problems that need fixing, but since our bodies are the gifts we lay at the altar, that doesn’t really apply to us.
    Yes, Jesus said that we should turn the other cheek, but since he mentioned being slapped on the right cheek [insert poorly researched and irrelevant cultural info], he didn’t really mean it.
    Yes, Jesus said to give to whoever asks of us, but since one of his allegorical parables involved people taking care of money, we don’t actually need to do it.

    On and on it goes. I’m no theologian, but it almost seems like an attack on the direct and simple teachings of Jesus, eh?

    The neat thing is what he said near the end, and I’ve already alluded to it on this blog. False prophets and fruit.

    Picture this: Jesus has just finished unpacking and defining his ethic in the simplest, plainest language possible. The only way to screw this up is to have serious vested interests. He anticipates, I think, that others will hear the sermon and spread / explain it (as if it needed any explaining!). And so he gives us this criteria by which we can tell if someone is really on board with him or not. Fruit. Outworkings. The stuff you see.

    Apply that to the sermon and what do we have?

    A man claiming to speak for God is a liar if his ethic does not match up with Jesus’.

    I’m not suggesting, of course, that if we’re not perfect we’re false prophets. I’m suggesting that when we explain away and neuter the direct, simple and honest ethics of Jesus, we are false prophets. Wolves. Diseased. Blood-thirsty. Very very bad.

    Is that scary? I think so. It’s scary because it’s so very subtle.

    The wolves are dressed like sheep! You can tell if someone is off-base instantly if his off-based-ness is due to a wild and incorrect philosophy. But when the philosophy and doctrine is right but the ethic is off you can hardly ever tell.

    On a Dirty Rock

    I sit on a dirty rock beside the dirty creek in Toronto. A pile of dark foam gathers to my right, bouncing against my rock, trying to get downstream. The water is brown and smells of something old and dusty. A busy street flows across the creek at my left, honking and rushing. Bits of garbage litter the shore behind me. This is a dirty place. This is a place abused.

    And yet, glory dwells here.

    The glory is resilient. Despite the unnatural stains that garb it, the rock upon which I sit is solid, older than any nation, prouder than any man. Here it sat before I was born and here it will sit when I have turned to dust. Upon its face I see imprints of the life that flourished before my kind set foot on this land. Glory.

    The water flows, made no less graceful for the silt and crud it is forced to carry. It dips and dives, vaults and jumps over stone and boulder. Nothing bars its way. Nothing can mar its ever-shifting skin. It is the great serpent of God; the true Leviathan that is tamed only by the one that made it. Glory.

    The rubbish-clad shore behind me pulses with life. The magical mix we ignobly call dirt pushes forth green glory, and transforms the dead into the living. Under every rock the spark of life flourishes. Each towering tree is birthed from this stable, ever-changing womb upon which we walk and from which we draw our own life. Glory.

    The glory is resilient. We have tried so long to kill it. We have tried to poison it, strangle it, replace it with our own infantile forgeries made of dead wood and concrete. But the dead cannot replace the living. A water tank cannot outdo the stream. And a concrete bench can never compare to this prehistoric throne of glory upon which I sit, here beside the dirty creek.

    Three Seconds in Sanghar

    What do you get with three seconds in Sanghar? The same thing you get when you smell that fish frying on the skillet – desire.

    I want to go back to Pakistan, anyone want to come?

    I have never really understood why I like living in Pakistan. It’s not a very comfortable place. But, after thinking about it, I think I’ve found a handful of reasons.

  • Pakistan is real. Life is what it is. Sweat. Sorrow. Dirt. It’s not sterile or cut off from the natural world. It’s a part of it.
  • Pakistan is full of people. In Canada I get the feeling that people are incidental. Others just happen to exist. I don’t bother them and they don’t bother me. But Pakistan is peopled. I cannot exist without deep relationships. I cannot built an ivory tower for myself.
  • Pakistan is raw. The problems are not superficial. There is no worrying about what to take to a dinner party. If there are worries (and there are) they are about what will be eaten tomorrow or how to get to Karachi this month.
  • Pakistan makes me strong. It’s harsh. The weather is harsh. The food is harsh. The economy is harsh. That’s good for me. That’s good for my family.
  • Pakistan is beautiful. I’m not talking about the glory of the mountains and northern places. I’m talking about the raw, rugged beauty of the arid wastes. The harsh farming fields where life-giving crops struggle and fight to live. The dance of live and death played out on a harsh landscape. There is something appealing to it.
  • Pakistan is loving. My province is a hub for sufism, which is the mystical, hippy-ish branch of Islam. And wow, the Sufis love. They love like mad. They love each other, neighbours and strangers. They even love foreign white folks like me.
  • I could think of other reasons, but that’s enough for now. You should visit.

    Barking

    Have you ever looked up the definition for cynic? The origin of the word is related to dog. Woof woof.

    I used to be a cynic. A certain part of it still lives in me, though I honestly try to kill it. A cynic, I think, is generally a pessimistic person who assumes the worst for everyone. You know, the kind of guy who is certain that everyone is motivated by they own greed and self-interest and protests against it in a very contemptuous way. As much as I loved my time at Bible college, I think it made me quite cynical.

    I don’t think cynics ever change the world, as much as they’d like to. They’re too…mean. They’re too pessimistic. They’re too unlike Jesus, who advocated for wild optimism (see Matthew 7:7-8). The key to changing the world, I think, lies in lifestyle. Unconventional living wins over cynical remarks.

    Why unconventional living works better than cynicism.

  • Cynicism has its roots in anger. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but either is used in anger, they only hurt the wielder. You cannot be a cynic without being angry. Yes, there is a time for anger, but cynicism is born and nursed on anger and anger alone. Lifestyle, though, is multi-faceted and pregnant with much more power than angry rhetoric can muster.
  • Cynicism is impotent. First, it cannot change the world because the cynical man is too cynical to lift a hopeful finger to help. Second, cynicism never converts anybody. Few people comes to care about things because someone called them names and used angry words about it. Change is inspired through life. The pen is not mightier than a living example.
  • Cynicism is toxic. It’s hard to hang out with the cynical because nothing is good to them. Cynicism is rooted in pessimism and its only happy when its ranting. The cynical mindset poisons everything, expanding and growing until there is nothing sound left in the world. It kills where is spreads. Lifestyle, though, gives new hope and life wherever is spreads. It’s unfortunate that it’s harder to give it root.
  • Cynicism destroys work ethic. This is because it’s so damned easy (I use that word literally). Anyone can be a cynic just like anyone can be a critic. All you need is a little dissatisfaction. Lifestyle breeds discipline, because it forces you to work for the glory you yearn for.
  • Cynicism is arrogant. To be a cynic you need to assume everyone out there is motivate by pure self-interest. Except for you, of course. You and the people you look up to. But everyone else is evil. Lifestyle refuses to comment on the complex inner workings of others because it recognizes that my own inner workings are complex. Why would anyone else’s be less so?
  • Cynics are not happy people. How can you be happy when you’re the only sane person in the world? How can you enjoy life when it’s full of crap? When there is no tangible hope? But living the change you want to see brings joy because fruit does come.
  • Cynicism is mostly barking at a problem. Teeth bared, ears flattened. Lots of noise. Lots of disturbance. Lifestyle is walking up to the problem, calmly and quietly, and taking a big bite.

    Bad Grapes

    False prophets. It sounds so scary, eh? The Old Testament says they should be killed. The New Testament isn’t much easier on them. They seem pretty bad.

    How do you tell someone is a false prophet? Most religious folks would say something like ‘anyone who teaches something about God that is not true.’ But I’ve never really been satisfied with that, have you? To me, God is just too … mysterious. He’s hard to pin down.

    Example:
    Is God omnipotent? Yes! Of course! In fact, why would you even ask a question like that?
    Can God forgive sins without the shedding of blood? No. Of course not. Yet another question that you shouldn’t ask!
    So is he still omnipotent even though he can’t forgive without killing something first? Uhh… Suddenly things are a little to complicated to be angry about certain disagreements.

    But who am I to argue for false prophets?

    And then I caught what Jesus said during his sermon.

    Beware of false prophets … You will recognize them by their fruits.

    I’ll be honest, that threw me for a loop. I always thought that false prophets were false because of their bad doctrine. But Jesus suggests that they are false and dangerous because of their bad fruit. That puts preachers and teachers and leaders into a whole new light.

    Back in KLBC, I had a list. It was my mighty list of things that itinerate preachers needed to say / not say in order for me to be willing to listen to them. Basically they had to say good things about people like Calvin, Piper, Edwards and every puritan while saying bad things about Wilkinson, popular worship music, popular books and anything else that was popular and/or new. That was how I judged whether someone was a false prophet or not. Pretty crappy list, eh?

    But if the best way to decide if someone is worth following is by his fruits, then we have a totally different list. It looks something like this:

    Is the leader:

  • Loving
  • Joyful
  • Peace-making
  • Patient
  • Kind
  • Good
  • Faithful
  • Gentle
  • Self-controlled
  • Just a few verses after Jesus points to this new list, he mentions how it’s going to be on the last day, and it throws everything into sharp perspective. He’s got people all around him, people who did mighty and famous works and prophecies. And Jesus rejects them all. Why? They were not nice people.

    On the last day, why do I suppose that Jesus will ask us to sign a statement of faith? Why do we think that we will get in based on how close our thoughts of God are to the infinite truth? Jesus never, as far as I can tell, equated theological correctness with goodness. He said pick up your cross and follow. Not just pick up your cross and agree.

    C’mon Kids

    I can remember parts of an argument I had while in a church (not my own) years ago. I can’t remember the topic, but I remember one guy getting owned. His opponents kept pushing him further and further back, forcing concession after concession. Finally they asked, “So why do you believe this at all?” The guy beamed in response and said with the pride of a triumphant lion, “Because I have the faith of a child!”

    The argument fizzled at that point.

    Growing up in religious circles I, like that guy, had always thought faith like a child meant unquestioning acceptance. But these days, I gotta say, unquestioning belief doesn’t seem like much of a virtue, does it? Do you think that’s what Jesus really meant when he told us that we needed to be like children (Matt. 18:1-3)?

    And then I had kids. And let me tell you, there is nothing unquestioning about them.

    What are children like?

  • Children are relentless. They don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Heck, half the time they won’t even take ‘yes’ for an answer. You can’t dissuade them. You may be able to distract them, but you can’t just turn them off.
  • Children cannot tell the difference between sacred and secular. The world is one to them. There is no dualism. There is no high vs. low. There is only reality. It seems irreverent, but it’s honest. And, I wonder, maybe honesty is better and safer than reverence. Reverence has stopped us from asking too many important questions. And it’s funny, because I don’t remember God ever zapping someone for asking the wrong questions.
  • Children don’t know when they are asking inappropriate questions. The other day Joseph saw a large woman in the grocery store. He turned to me and asked, very loudly, ‘Papa, why is she so fat?’ Did she hear? You bet! Her response: ‘It’s true, though, isn’t it?’ Joe didn’t know he did anything wrong. And, when I think about it, I don’t think he did. It gave me a good opportunity to talk about sedentary living and poor diet (in private). And these days, he turns away cookies because he says he wants to grow up strong. Good thing he asked that inappropriate question.
  • Children change. One day the boy says ‘Girls are yuck!’ The next day…well, watch out! Kids never arrive. They are never static. And growing is not just more of the same with them. The boy doesn’t go from saying ‘girls are yuck’ to ‘girls are yuck for the following exegetical reasons…’ He turns completely around and starts liking girls. He contradicts his previous beliefs altogether. And no one thinks him deceitful for it because he is growing. Heck, if he didn’t change his views on girls we would be concerned.
  • Children can play with anyone. A Christian kid with a Muslim kid. A Republican kid with a Democrat kid. A kid from a homosexual home with a kid from a straight home. A fox with a hound. It’s only after we grow up that we accept the dark fact that we are only supposed to play with people who are similar to ourselves.
  • Children do not acknowledge, they exult. A child would never pray that typical prayer: ‘Lord, we acknowledge this, that, and the other truth about you.’ Even as an adult, it seems like a strange prayer. Instead, if the child is thinking about some wild and wonderful truth, he’ll get giddy and won’t shut up about it.
  • Is that what Jesus meant? I dunno. I’m still a kid in all this.

    A Different Kind of Terrorist

    Wanna see something bad? Skip to 1:44.

    (video may not show up for Facebook readers)

    I think Dan Fanelli may be a terrorist.

    Terrorism is the use of terror or fear as a means of coercion. The Taliban uses terror to further its political ideals. The Army of God uses terror to fight abortion. The Jewish Defense League uses terror to protect their interests. And Dan Fanelli is using fear of violence and foreigners in order to coerce people to vote for him. They are all terrorists. They are all bad.

    One of the worst things about any group using terrorism (violent or otherwise) is that it nearly always tends to bring out the worst in people. For example, when I hear about a group like the Army of God, who go around killing abortion doctors, I find myself getting so angry that I want to do violence. And violence + violence, is nearly always bad. I get ill-tempered and unreasonable. The group ruins my day whenever I think about them. They bring out the worst in me.

    On the exact opposite side, when some people hear about the Army of God they half-way sympathize with them. An eye for an eye, they say. The terrorist touches another nerve in them, a dangerous and irrational nerve that can be convinced to wink at murder. They can get normal, reasonable people to abandon reason.

    And dear Dan Fanelli has, of course, managed to bring out the worst in his viewers. For me, he’s steeled my heart against Republicans. That’s bad. That’s very bad, in fact. It’s unreasonable for me to feel anger toward his party just because of his idiocy.

    On the other side, he’s reinforced the deep fear of the others that most folks struggle with. It’s this sort of talk that makes people think North America was made for the white man. It’s this kind of talk that convinces people that a change in the lyrics to ‘O Canada’ is worth more vehement protest than the ways our standard of living is sucking the life out of the planet. It’s sad to hear (as I do all the time) intelligent people make derisive comments about people, cultures, religions and nations that they know nothing about. It’s sad how the news agencies that are covering this guy are not using any words stronger than ‘bold’ and ‘controversial’. It’s sad that he’s consider legitimate.

    Think about what Dan is saying.

    White people = less likely to be dangerous.
    Brown people = more likely to be dangerous.

    That is not a far step from

    White people = good.
    Brown people = bad.

    And that just makes me think of Kingdom Identity Ministries. Yuck, Dan. Very yuck.

    I’ll close on a lighter note. Here’s a funny quote I found on an article written by Dan Fanelli on the War on Terror. See if you can find the spelling mistake:

    First of all, we must realize that all passengers are NOT created equally! It is time to stop penalizing the patriotic American pubic when utilizing air traveling.

    Tee he he