Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Month: January, 2011

Ariel’s Story #7 – The Pool

     I came to the park. I was surprised to see how much had changed. And doubly surprised to feel how much had remained the same.
     The grass around the pool was cleaner by far. There were uniformed men and women with bags going around and collecting the garbage. Other uniformed men and women carried sticks, which they used to encourage the homeless to move along and not make trouble (or a mess). Because of their efforts the area had a crisp, clean look to it. The people were well dressed, if a little subdued. It made it more comfortable, truth be told. It’s hard to engage in meaningful spiritual duties while unfortunates are distracting you with their temporal problems.
     But while the park had certainly changed, the pool itself, at first look, seemed the same. The gates still surrounded the stairs down to the water. Though above the archways, new symbols had been carved in. I found the one of bread and descended.
     I was not alone. The gate of bread seemed to be the entrance for many devotees. As I went down and saw the pool clearly I became confused. The water, for one, seemed just as dirty as it had the last time I was there. The smell, even, was nearly the same. And in the centre of the pool stood a man, holding something in the water with his right hand. He moved and shook the water with his left, and it seemed he sent different types of ripples to each section of shore.
     I drew close to the water. It was the water that was important for me. I touched it and, alas, it was the exact same oily, useless stuff of before. I looked out to the man holding that thing in the water and wondered.
     I tried cleaning my hand off, on the ground and walked back up the stairs to the park. I found a tree and sat beneath it.
     A man passed by who had the look of a fellow with wisdom.
     “Sir,” I called out to him, “please, where is the fountain?”
     “Why, it’s right here my son.” He pointed back to the cistern.
     “But I was just there, and the water is as foul as it has ever been.” I held up my hand to show him the oil stain. “I was told that Sume and her husband had done away with its filth and built a clean fountain. Why is it still here? But even that is not the most important thing in my mind in this moment. I only want to see Sume. And, if at all possible, her husband. Can you help me?”
     He cocked his head to the side. “Dear son. You can most certainly meet the bride and husband. But you must be part of one before you can meet the other. The fountain is fresh and clear, in truth. But you must approach it from the right direction.”
     “All this I was told by a man in town. And I entered the way he bid. The way of bread.”
     He had a look of utmost sorrow and pity. “My son, I fear that man was a deceiver sent by the enemy. That is not the right gate. Enter with me by the way of the Fish. The fish, you see, is the oldest symbol of the bride and her husband. From that direction the water will be clear and crystal to you. And you shall clearly see both the bride and husband.”
     I was about to object at this point, for it made no sense that approaching a place from the south rather than the west would have any impact on the nature of the place itself. But then I recalled that this dream was very much like an allegorical fantasy story. And in fanstasy stories strange things may happen. So I took his outstretched (oily) hand and walked with him to the fish gate.
     For a moment, as we descended, the sun reflected on the surface of the water in a way that made it seem clear. But it was only a moment. And the stench washed over me again and the pool was as dirty as ever. The man who held my hand did not seem to notice this. And he smiled as if showing me something difference from what I had seen through the Bread gate.
     “Not only is the water clear and holy,” he said, “but also you can clearly see the bride and husband there in the centre of it all.” He pointed to the man, still stirring the pool and holding something in the water with his right hand.
     “That man there is the husband?”
     “Of course.”
     “But I see only him. Where is Sume? Where is the bride?”
     His eyes judged me as I asked. I thought he wouldn’t answer. But he did, eventually. “Can you not see her? He lovingly holds her in his right hand.”

A New Kind of Christian(ity) – Part 2

There were a lot of things that I hadn’t considered about the Jesus life before reading these books.

First, and perhaps most foundational, I was convinced that our way of looking at the Bible is wrong. McLaren argues that the Bible is not a constitution, answer-book, love letter from God or instruction book for life. And he’s right. It’s a divinely-inspired library of God’s dealings with man. To view it as a constitution is dishonest and, it seems to me, just as bad as the way liberal scholars view it as a dead scholastic work.

Second, I was convinced that his model of Christian education is far better than the models we have been working with so far. Our models focus on knowledge as paramount. Jesus’ school focused on living with and following Jesus. On doing things, not just learning things. If you have A New Kind of Christian you can check out his view of seminary starting on pg. 232.

I was convinced that, generally, instead of looking straight at Jesus in the Bible, we look a Jesus first through the lens of Paul. And we look at Paul through the lens of Augustine. And we look at Augustine through the lens of Aquinas. And we look at Aquinas through the lens of Luther or Erasmus, depending on where our denomination lies. And down the line until we get to whatever preacher is our hero today. And I was convinced that this was a very, very bad thing.

In short, I do not call these writings dangerous. I call them helpful. I call them insightful. I call them off-base here and there, but not dangerous. Not damning. Not worth calling someone a son of the devil.

Would I recommend the books? To some people. Not all. The problem with books by famous people is that there will always be a large group of people who only pick up a book in order to discredit it. They have the attitude that says “I am going to put down this book with the same beliefs I had when I picked it up.” So I could not, with a clear conscience, recommend these books to people who think this way. It would be a waste. It would do nothing but create more bad feelings. And the Christian community has enough bad feelings already. But for anyone else, for anyone with a mind to learn and a heart to move forward in their understanding of Jesus, for those people I say “Don’t be afraid of these books. They won’t hurt you. Use your mind as you read them. Take profit from the things you judge as true. Toss out the things you judge as false. Don’t be distracted by the things that don’t matter. You’re clever enough to do that. You don’t need to be afraid of being put under an evil magic spell.”

I get that a lot of folks will disagree with me. That’s fine. I’m betting the coming comment discussion will be informative for everyone.

It’s funny, though. One of the accusations that people who don’t hate McLaren and the Emergent conversation get is that they are trying too hard to be politically correct. But, in the circles I have grown up in and still live in, the most politically incorrect thing I can do mention these books without condemning them.

A New Kind of Christian(ity) – Part 1

I’ve put this off for a while.

When I arrived back in Canada two years ago, my conservative circles were abuzz with a new heretic. When I left it was people like Gregory Boyd and Clark Pinnock. Suddenly there was a new kid on the block: Brian McLaren. And instead of talking about Open Theism, everyone was talking about Post-Modernism and the Emergent Church. I, of course, had no clue about any of it, so I kept my mouth shut.

It was Al Mohler who got me interested. He posted a video of him and a few buddies spending an hour talking about McLaren. They called him harsh things. “The slyest snake in the garden and the son of his father the devil” is the one that sticks in my head. And let’s be honest, folks, after an intro like that I felt I had no choice but to buy his book!

I got A New Kind of Christian. I read it. My heart sank. It’s a novel about a confused pastor who has eye-opening talks with a university professor. McLaren uses the plot to test and showcase the way he’s looking at where Christianity is going. My heart sank, not because it was full of filth and heresy. But because it’s the kind of novel I could have written myself. Trite characters and shallow plot lines and all.

So I found out the book that earned McLaren the title ‘son of the devil’ was not actually A New Kind of Christian but A New Kind of Christianity. “Ah ha!” I thought. “He wasn’t much of a devil back in 2001, but now, with the new book in 2010, he must have crossed the line!

But, while there were certainly less things McLaren was able to convince me of in the new book, I still found him insightful. Profound where he was right, and insightful in at least pointing out the problem where he was wrong.

A great deal of what was in those books I already held to.

I had already been convinced that Jesus’ mission was much, much more than the simple fire escape for people who prayed the sinner’s prayer. It was to set in motion the redemption of the entire created order. Too long have we settled for getting ‘saved’ and living the rest of our days separated from outsiders in our ivory towers. The world is busted and it’s our job to fix it, from top to bottom, here and now.

I had already been convinced that there is far too much demonizing in the church. We pull facts from the Bible, arbitrarily set certain ones up as foundational and verbally condemn to hell the people who question them.

I had already been convinced that people can disagree with things that the fundamentalist world calls foundational and still be vibrant, life-filled followers of Jesus. I may disagree with folks who believe in evolution or disbelieve in an eternal hell. But they can still follow Jesus and be a part of the kingdom of God just as much as a more orthodox person. And it’s not just because they have a case for their views (and they do have a case). It’s because those things are not the things Jesus came to die and live for.

I had already been convinced that the true Jesus life was something higher than our churches and theologies and arguments and preachings. McLaren was able to express it much better than I could. And so I’m thankful for that.

In two days the second half of this review will be up. It’s already written, I just didn’t like the idea of a thousand-word blog post. My views on these books become more controversial in the next post. So if you’re hoping to comment, maybe waiting until the next installment is a good idea.

Fighting Dirty

There are a lot of sites that give well-meaning guidelines on how to effectively argue a point online without fighting dirty. This is, I suppose, good and useful if your goal is to exchange ideas in an honest and open way. But what about the 90% of us who just want to win? Well, brothers and sisters, this post is for you.

How to Win Online Arguments Through Dirty Fighting

  • Cite the Nazis. Or Hitler or Stalin or any other historical figure that everyone hates. Find something, anything, in common with whatever you are arguing against and the Nazis and throw that comparison out in public. Watch your opponent stammer and stutter and try to denounce his Nazi leanings.
  • Use emotionally charged language. Don’t call the opposing view immoral. Call it abominable. Don’t call your opponent wrong. Call him the slyest snake in the field just like his father the devil. Don’t suggest that the opposing idea had little foundation. Call it cowardly. Word your arguments in such a way so as to make the readers angry.
  • Write very long posts. If your post is long enough your opponent will not be able to spend the time needed to read and rationally reply to it. He might give up, leaving you with the last word. Even if he doesn’t it’s unlikely he’ll be able to respond to every point in your super-long post and you’ll be able to dance from point to point without letting him get a decent argument in.
  • Make large claims without bothering to back them up. 95% of statistics are just made up. Do you believe me? Of course you do! Is it true? It doesn’t matter! All that matters is that your readers think you are right. And when your statement is bold and confident, who could doubt you?
  • Point out deficiencies in the opposing view’s poster-child. Every view has a hero. And every hero has a weakness. Find the weakness and you can topple the hero, then the view. Did he cheat on his wife? Then how can I trust his views on biology? Does he never recycle? Then how can he interpret Revelation properly? Any hero and any weakness will do.
  • Wrong by association. This is a weaker version of the Nazi strategy and sometimes even more effective. Find any group that holds your opponents views. Make sure it’s a group that your opponent would have issue with and call him whatever it is. For example, if your opponent loves Macs prove that the Ku Klux Klan also loves Macs and that he must be a Klansman himself for his love of Macs.
  • Mockery. Nothing says “you’re wrong” like a snide remark. Your audience cannot take seriously any point that is under ridicule. In a debate a witty mock is worth more than three reasonable arguments.

I hope this list has been beneficial. Can you think of any other ways to make your point look its best, regards of the cost to truth?

Ariel’s Story #6 – Return

     You cannot notice how foolish a smile looks when you first see it. But think, for a moment, and picture a smile in your mind’s eye. The lips are pulled tightly back and up, intruding on the cheeks. The eyes are wide. The teeth show forth in a manner not so dissimilar to a snarl. It is strange, when you dwell on it. Almost grotesque.
     But those are things you never notice. For when you see someone smile you find a similar smile is forced upon you. And with that smile comes those motions of joy that cry down your ever self-conscious reason and say “Hush now! I’ll not allow your base inhibitions and arbitrary judgements stand in the way of this joy I feel! You say I am silly? Foolish? Those words have no meaning to be now that I am in the throes of joy. So stand back while I pull tight these muscles in my face and show my teeth to the world. For I am happy and all is right.”
     And so at the feast I did not notice the sweaty, red-faced foolishness in the smiles of my peers. I did not notice the many chunks of food stuck in the mouths and beards of those who ate with me. For we were all happy. We rejoiced in the Bride and in her Husband and we felt, with a calm, violent certainty, that a new age of light and love was being ushered in. An age in which the fetid pool would be drained and done away with. An age in which all the buildings would be cleaned and opened for all to dwell together in peace and love and laughter. An age to end the ages. An age after which nothing could follow, for if things are ever truly and completely made right there can be nothing left in the cosmos to set them wrong.
     And so, with my head flung back in laughter at some happy jest I’ll never remember, I was pulled out from my dream and found myself alone and awake in bed.
     It hurt to be pulled from such a happy dream, I don’t mind telling you. And I tried, as we all do, to fall back asleep to pick up the dream where I left off. But that never works, as we all know. And so I rose and entered the grey world.

     It was many years before I slept again.

     I knew at once where I was. It was the air that gave it away. The air in that place is thinner than ours. But not thin in the same high altitudes are thin. More like the quality of being ethereal. But I cannot convey it rightly.
     I stood by the gate and nostalgia washed over me. There were the apartments. There was the road. There were the people walking to and fro, just as I recalled. Though, not quite as I recalled. There were many more people than before. Indeed, I was tempted to call the place a town, though the word seemed to die in my mind, as though it did not belong.
     But though I could not call it a town, it seemed to have grown many of the trappings that come with the success of urbanization. For one, there were police. Police are easy to spot no matter what culture you are in or what uniform they wear. It’s the way they look at the people around them. A look that searches. A look that tests to see where you are deviant and whether that deviancy is enough to make you delinquent.
     For another, there were ads pasted in every place ads could be pasted. Everywhere from large billboards up on the sides of the high-rises to the smaller posters pasted to the side of construction walls. And, wonder of wonders, each and every one of them was themed after that wonderful girl and amazing moment so long ago: Sume el Raj.
     I imagined that much more time had passed in Isht Drowl than it had in my world. This was not very surprising, really, because I had read many a fantasy novel and knew that sort of thing was to be expected. And since I had already adjusted to this idea I took as my next task the examination of what great blessings her crowning and ruling power had given to the town.
     I stopped a man working in the street. He greeted me with a smile so wild I thought it must be fake. But, of course, that was wrong of me. For this was the land of Sume, and there was no reason for me to doubt the sincerity of the good fellow.
     “Excuse me, sir,” I said, “but I’ve been away for a very long time and I am wondering where I could find Sume el Raj. And, perhaps, if he is still here, her husband.”
     “Both Sume and her beloved are still in town,” he said. “But you’ll need to meet the one before you can become part of the other. Do you know the fountain in the centre of the park?”
     “Fountain? No. I remember only a broken, fetid cistern there.”
     “Ah, but that was before the marriage, no? Today that cistern has been taken down and a glorious fountain has been erected in its place, kept pure for those who enter on Sume’s terms.”
     “A fountain?! How wonderful! Thank you, sir, I’ll go to it immediately. Will Sume be there?”
     “Aye, she’s there. But take care you enter by the right gate. The gate with the true symbol of Sume on it.”
     I paused. “What symbol is that?”
     “The bread, of course. Symbolic of the bread of life the beloved gave to Sume. And that she now gives to us. Godspeed to you!”
     And so I went.