Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Month: April, 2012

On a Free Mind

     We rarely set our minds free.

     Usually we yoke them to distractions that force them to walk paths that deepen into ruts. We keep them running alongside music and books and socializing and gaming and movies and all those other wonderful things that I love so much. Those things are wonderful. But our minds need to be free sometimes. They need to graze and get free-range goodness. They need to explore those strange, sensual forests off to the sides of the road.

     To walk without destination or entertainment. To sit alone in the coffee shop and wonder about the beautiful strangers around. To let your mind run freely around.

     It will most likely stare at you once you let it loose for the first time. It won’t be used to this freedom and it may not remember what to do about it. But given time, it will remember and take off running into the woods. What will it bring back? Something good, to be sure.

     The mind that has been chained and entertained and focused for too long is afraid of being free. That’s one of the reasons we sit down to write or paint and compose and nothing comes. Not only that, but a deep feeling of revulsion sometimes arises. Sometimes we look at the page and say “Dear god, I do not want to do this.” Our minds have become domesticated. They are not longer the vibrant, proud wolves of the wildernesses. They are chihuahuas. Pretty. Cute. But bred for uselessness and novelty.

     So let your mind go, now and then. Resist the urge, once in a while, to read a book or listen to music or play a game just to ‘pass the time.’ Why would you want the time to pass? You’ve only got a little bit of it, and when it’s out, you’re dead.

He Who Loves

     I read, many years ago, that real, lasting happiness is only found in the worship of God. John Piper calls it Christian hedonism. I latched onto this idea immediately. I had just become a Calvinist and Piper was one of my heroes. Not only that, but the concept looked sound, according to the Bible, which I viewed as a sort of instruction book for life at the time.

     So I set about trying to find happiness in the worship of God. I was told, and I believed, that the two most important ways of touching God were reading the Bible devotionally and praying.

     I gave it my all. I got up at six every morning to spend the first dark hour of the day ‘alone with God.’ I said prayers and wrote prayers and sang prayers. I tried all the spiritual disciplines. I fasted once every couple months. I preached in churches and on street corners. I studied old and new theological books. I did it all.

     None of it worked.

     Oh, I had some good times. Prayer would sometimes lift me into a deep level of connection with the divine. The Bible, especially the words of Jesus, would sometimes enrich my soul and wake up my spirit. But those times were exceptional. Rare. Adrenal, not coronary.

     It became hard, so I tried harder. I did street evangelism and vowed to become a missionary to a scary Muslim country. But that made things worse.

     I was not a hypocrite. I was honest. I honestly thought that true happiness could only be found in the ‘Christ centered’ life I was living. And that was my message as I preached in the churches and streets of Peterborough, Toronto, Welland, and, eventually, Pakistan. But I wasn’t experiencing it. I promised others that they would, and I made them believe I was. But I was mostly empty.

     I don’t know when it changed. I don’t know when I started drifting away from the evangelical Calvinism I had so loved. But I eventually came to a startling realization.

     He who loves, knows God.

     Connection to the joy-giving source of life does not come from reading holy books a certain number of times. Spirituality is not measured by how many prayers you utter in the dark mornings while the world sleeps so sinfully. It does not come through sermons or songs or having the right theology or going to the right churches or temples or mosques. It comes from love.

     And not just a general love. Not the effortless love that everyone has. Not the love that is willing to protect friends and family. It comes from the powerful, Christ-borne love that strives to protect enemies. The love that is never willing to punish, but to forgive and reconcile an infinite amount of times. The love that paves the narrow road that leads to life.

     And then what happened?

     When most people talk about their Christian journey, they usually emphasize their struggles. How they still fight against depression and sin and their commitment to live a Jesus life. How they still can’t seem to hold into the joy of God in a consistent way.

     I don’t talk like that anymore. Because my happiness is finally real. I found it buried in a field, and I went out and sold everything I had for it. I took it home and put it in my heart. I no longer experience long periods of darkness and depression punctuated by flashes of joy. Now it’s long, extended flashes of joy, once in a while punctuated with down-time. It wasn’t religion or Christianity or positive thinking that changed me. It was love. Just love. It makes many of the old songs I sang in my fundamentalist Sunday School so much more powerful than I could have ever imagined:

And I’m so happy,
So very happy,
I’ve got the love of Jesus in my heart.

Pacifism and My Violent Book

     I’m a pacifist. Not a passive-ist. A pacifist. I am against violence in all forms for any reasons. Strange, eh?

     I wrote a book that has a lot of violence in it. Bad guys killing and harming good guys. Good guys killing and harming bad guys. Alignment-unknown guys killing and harming … everyone. Blood and death and harm and stuff. It almost makes you wonder how I reconcile that with my beliefs.

     I also tend to enjoy media that has violence in it. Game of Thrones is probably my favourite show in TV right now. And if you’ve ever seen a more violence show, I’d be surprised. And I’d ask what kind of sick cable channel you are subscribing to. Most of the books I read have violence. Every video game I play involves blowing something up.

     So what gives, Matt? You some kind of ridiculous hypocrite or something?

     Probably. But not for that reason.

     I find violence reprehensible because of the suffering it causes and the damage it does to the violent’s soul. But I cannot deny that violence has been a part of the human experience ever since we crawled out of the goop. I’d be willing to bet that everyone has an ancestor who took lives through violence. It’s engrained in us. That’s one of the reasons most people find the idea of pacifism so repulsive.

     Art is not idealized life. It’s elevated life. Art (literature, paintings, performances, TV shows, etc) needs to show every true aspect of life. And one of the most basic and foundational truths about the lives we live, is violence and death. Like Hemingway said, “All stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true-story teller who would keep that from you.”

     A writer, or any other artist, has no right to keep from his or her reader those things he disagrees with. That’s one of the reasons why I find it very difficult to reader Christian novels. They are sterile. There is no shit, only poop. And it’s not poop that ever hits the fan.

     I hate violence in any situation. But it’s a part of life, so it needs to go in the stories I make. Just like I hate malice and conflict and suffering and sickness and cancer. These horrid things are all around us. The writer who leaves them out of his book had better have a good reason for it.

Review: The Pillars of the Earth

“The small boys came early to the hanging.”

     My mother recommended this to me ages ago. I meant to read it. Really, mom, I did. But I forgot. I picked it up recently on a whim and did not remember a thing that my mom had said about it. And I’m really glad about that. Because if I had known what it was about, I probably would have left it alone.

     The Pillars of the Earth is a historical fiction about cathedral building.

     Erm… yay?

     Let’s be honest, it sounds crazy-boring. Most churches are boring. Old churches are even more boring. Building old churches sounds so boring that I feel like poking my eye just to get a distraction. And on top of all that, the book is nearly a thousand pages long. Wow.

     I’m so very glad that I had forgotten what the book was about.

     The author, Ken Follett, grabs you by the throat in his first line. And he doesn’t let go until the book is ending. His story is huge and he gives you characters to love and hate by the handful. And then he puts those characters through the grinder. What else could you ask for in a novel?

     In the end, the novel is about the inevitability of human suffering and the unbeatable human spirit that has been slowly, painfully, but assuredly making the world a better place.

     There is something very special about the book that makes you care about something you have no interest in. I don’t care about building churches. Even big churches. But Tom Builder cared. Prior Philip cared. And since I cared about Tom Builder and Prior Philip, suddenly I cared about their big church.

     The Pillars of the Earth is a great read. Its scope is huge, dealing every human struggle from intimate marital relationships to battles between kings and popes. Pick it up. You’ll love it. I swear.

The State-Sponsored Murder of Love

     Jesus was killed.

     My tradition has always looked at his execution from an abstract, theological point of view. We talk about God getting stuck in a sort of cosmic loop-hole where his previous promise to kill sinners works against his desire to let them live, so he works out a deal with his son in which killing his son makes it so he can let sinners who understand this theological concept off the hook.

     But I find myself looking at it from a different point of view this year.

     Jesus was a different sort of fellow. He refused to accept the conventions of who was ‘us’ and who was ‘them’. He would befriend hookers and foreigners and heretics. He undermined the religious and civil establishment by commanding people to call no one father or teacher or master. He starting knocking the legs out under the power of the empire by telling people to love their enemies and to never repay evil for evil. He upset the commercial establishment by clearing the businessmen from the temple and by telling folks to share everything they had until there were no poor people left. He told people that the Utopian Kingdom of God was within their grasp.

     They had to kill him, of course.

     Not only that, they had to break his message.

     So now, instead of a Jesus who was willing to die before kill, we have a Jesus who blesses our soldiers and weapons manufacturers while condemning bartenders. It’s an easy thing to do. Watch.

     First, we take the premise from Romans 13 that the government is established by God. Then we remember that, while Jesus made it abundantly clear that our only attitude and actions toward our enemies should be love and kindness, God is allowed killing anyone he wants. So when the government tells us to kill, it’s okay! So long as you do it without hating the people in ‘your heart’, as Luther says, “Soldiers, as Christians, should indeed love those enemies – not hate them, hold malice against them, or mistreat captives or civilians – but they have an authorization to do what soldiers have to do.”

     And all the other things that led Jesus to the cross, we steer away from. Instead of eating with hookers and heretics, we rail against them. Instead of turning over the tables of unjust businessmen who use religion as a means of profit and oppress their workers, we support Walmart and Wall Street while condemning the people trying to change the system. Instead of forgiveness, we call for punishment. Instead of rehabilitation, we call for death. Instead of freedom, we set certain men as higher than ourselves, call them ‘government’ and put on fancy clothes and ribbons while we go off killing their enemies.

     That sort of Jesus never would have gone to a cross. He would have started a profitable career in politics.

     But the real love of Jesus threatens everything. It threatens our wealth and safety. It’s risky. It’s full of uncertainties. It’ll kill half the people who sign up for it. But it’s also the only way to life. Jesus proved it.

Thoughts on Thirty

     It happened.

     I’ve been dreading it for five years. I never thought it would come, but it did. I’m thirty.

     I think about death a lot. Most spiritual people seem to be fine with the idea of dying. Not me. Hate it. Rage against it. Thirty feels like a hefty victory for the Dark Stranger.

     And while the icy talons of my own mortality are certainly gripping tighter now, I was surprised to find that thirty greeted me with some very positive realizations.

     The first was the final end to a worldview that had been dying for a while. Since leaving high school, I’ve had reoccurring dreams where I find myself wandering the halls of Centennial Secondary School, lost and late for class. When I finally get to my class (always some kind of History with Mr. Oliver), I discover that I didn’t do any homework. And the rest of the dream is filled with shame and embarrassment as Oliver stares me down.

     On the night before my thirtieth birthday, I had the dream again. But it was different. I was still kinda lost and I still hadn’t done my homework. But I didn’t care. It was my homework to do, after all. It was my learning to get. I was not under the authority of the teachers in this new dream. The school was my place.

     So as I stand in the world, an excitable thirty-year-old, I realize I am not a child. I am no one’s ward. I am a man. An adult. And I do not think that man needs men to govern him. I am free. Under no one’s authority except for those who I chose to look up to. It seems simple enough, and the concept has been coming to me for a while, but it finally hit me hard on April first.

     The second wonderful gift of being thirty was the newly-discovered fact that I am now legally able to be ridiculous. You see, like alcohol and smoking, being ridiculous requires a certain amount of wisdom to enjoy responsibly. I did not realize this, but it turns out thirty is the age at which you may indulge in ridiculousness as will. Excellent. Thanks to the local seller of Prem for pointing this out.

     So, as a responsible ridiculous person, I have decided to sit down and plan out my ridiculousity for the coming year. Here are the ridiculous things I hope to complete before I turn thirty-one:

  • Write another novel. It will be my third. Stories are the best, most accessible and primal way of viewing and explaining the universe and the human condition. Every good story is true, even the ones that never happened.
  • Learn Calculus. Mathematics are the other way of viewing and explaining the universe. It’s less earthy and accessible, but I’ve been told it’s higher and more spiritual. And I’ve wanted to learn math for a long time. It’s nice that I’m finally allowed, legally.
  • Fix my body. Not that it’s broken, of course. But it could work better. And now that it’s getting older, I need it to function as best as it can.
  • Fix my soul. That one is a bit broken, though not as much as it used to be. And there is nothing–NOTHING–that does the soul better than throwing love around in every direction.

     What are you going to do when you get old enough to be ridiculous?