MW Cook

an ex-evangelical doing a year of living christianly

Category: review

Christianly Book Review: Life at the End of Us Vs Them by Marcus Peter Rempel

images“The warnings I offer here do not come out of a superior religion but out of a failed religion

Marcus Peter Rempel’s book, “Life at the End of Us vs Them,” is a seriously thought-provoking view of Christianity and its place in our “strange, endtime world.” Drawing on René Girard and Ivan Illich, Rempel presents a view of the Cross that necessarily undermines any power structure that would try to build on it.

The crucifixion of Christ, he argues, is not best seen as a judicial act of substitutionary atonement. Instead, it is something like God identifying with the most marginalized individuals, the most hated outcasts, the people who society crucifies. “It is by taking on the viewpoint of those it marginalizes that Cross-formed culture comes to be accurately mapped, and more justly remade” (13). Rempel takes this understanding, and applies it to his relationships with “those who are his other: women, queer folk, refugees, Muslims, atheists, and Indigenous people.”

Here’s what I like about this view of the Cross: it reminds you of everything at once. It reminds you that you are part of the system that crucifies innocents. At the same time, it offers to forgive you. And it bids you pick up your cross, and follow in that way of looking at the world–that the “least of these” is, somehow, the Christ. It shifts the view from Us-Them to I-Thou. Frankly, it reminds us that Jesus never meant to convert the world. Yes, he meant for his Way to go out into all the world, but not to colonize it. Not to become the oppressor.

The Cross will always glare accusingly at any system or person that tries to use it as a tool of oppression. It undermines all sacred violence. It perpetually strips the sacred cloth from the temple, showing it to be empty. The violence we thought we did in God’s name was actually against his own son. All persecution persecutes the Christ. Christianity as a religion, Rempel argues, has failed insofar as it has been complicit in violence.

At least, that’s how it could work. From what I read on the Internets, I don’t see a reconciliation between Church and the vulnerable anytime soon. If it’s possible, though, for follows of Christ to sit with the very marginalized instead of always being seen beside the oppression, this book gives clues on how it will be done.

I heartily recommend this book to people who want to take the Bible seriously and are troubled by the dissonance between Church and Christ. If you believe that substitutionary atonement is the only correct way of understanding the Cross, you will probably balk at a lot of what Rempel has to say. Consider, though, that both Scripture and Church have cast the Cross in different lights to glean fresh insights from that wonderful tragic event. Rempel offers a light that the Church today would do well to meditate on, even if she can’t swallow the whole thing.

Christianly Book Review #3: The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes

Puritan writings are an acquired taste. I loved them while I was a Believer, and was growing an impressive library of Puritan Paperbacks. As my faith began to deconstruct, I went through a misguided minimalistic phase and purged nearly all my books. I regretted it almost immediately. Then I found Richard Sibbes’ The Bruised Reed in a thrift shop last year.

richard_sibbesPuritan spirituality is rigorous, promising great reward for those who walk the path and predicting serious trouble for those who won’t. The Bruised Reed is full of beautiful, comforting words. But there’s a lot I can’t resonate with anymore. Reading it was a bitter and beautiful reminder of the complex and rigorous spirituality I loved, devoted to “the constant progress of Christ’s gracious power, until he has set up an absolute government in us which shall prevail over all corruptions” (77).

If you’re a Believer, consider the Puritans. They had many of blind spots, and sometimes great ignorance. But nuggets of wisdom are almost everywhere you look, and the Puritans were keen on growing wisdom. Despite some serious problems (you’ll see them if you read them) the Puritans plowed a fertile field for spiritual gleanings.

This book speaks to me from the strangest place; in a form I love, Sibbes presents a path I cannot follow. I read it with a pen in hand (because that’s how you have to read the Puritans), so I’ll share a few lines that struck me, without comment or context.

Truth fears nothing so much as concealment, and desires nothing so much as clearly to be laid open to the view of all. (27)

Let men take heed of taking up Satan’s office, in misrepresenting the good actions of others. (32)

Men must not be too curious in prying into the weaknesses of others. …The strongest are readiest to bear with the infirmities of the weak. … The Holy Ghost is content to dwell in smoky, offensive souls. (33)

What is the gospel itself but a merciful moderation, in which Christ’s obedience is esteemed ours, and our sins laid upon him, wherein God, from being a judge, becomes our Father, pardoning our sins and accepting our obedience, though feeble and blemished? (36)

Under this gracious covenant, sincerity is perfection. (37)

It is better that the water should run somewhat muddily than not run at all. (42)

It is better to enjoy the benefit of light, though with smoke, than to be altogether in the dark. (49)

Sin against conscience is as a thief in the candle, which spoils our joy, and thereby weakens our strength. (61)

Again, remember this, that Christ rules us by a spirit of love, from a sense of his love, whereby his commandments are easy to us. He leads us by his free Spirit, a Spirit of liberty. His subjects are voluntaries. (81)

Those, therefore, that are enemies of knowledge help Satan and antichrist, whose kingdom, like Satan’s, is a kingdom of darkness. (85)

No wicked man can be a wise man. (90)

Love once kindled is strong as death. (97)

What the heart likes best, the mind studies most. (103)

It has been a successful way of corrupting the judgment, to begin by withdrawing love. (103)

See a flame in a spark, a tree in a seed. See great things in little beginnings. (124)

 

Christianly Book Review #2: Intimacy With God by Thomas Keating

I spent a few years as a Cognitive Science major, mostly because it spoke to the kind of spirituality I used to pursue: very introspective and interested in mental/spiritual/emotional growth. I first heard about Thomas Keating’s book on Christian Centering Prayer, “Intimacy With God,” while doing a paper on the similarities and differences between meditative practises and prayer. This year of living christianly is a good opportunity to finally read it.

Here’s how Thomas Keating lays his prayer out:

  1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
  2. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.
  3. When you become away of thoughts, return ever so gently to the sacred word.
  4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes (16).

The idea is to “gently establish an attitude of waiting upon the Lord with loving attentiveness” (43). I’ve found it to be a difficult practise to keep up, perhaps because it doesn’t have the same, er, cultural flavour as the evangelical disciplines I’m used to. Also, training intention is a different skill from training attention–one of the goals of mindfulness meditation. So while I think Christian Centering Prayer could be really useful for some people, it’s not super palatable for my evangelical tastes. Has anyone else tried it?

Gods and Dogs: A Review of André Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs

I tend to start my judgment of a book on two points: how long it takes to finish reading, and the opening line. I read all 171 pages of Fifteen Dogs in two days, and its opening line is great: “One evening in Toronto, the gods Apollo and Hermes were at the Wheat Sheaf Tavern.” A crisp sentence that puts two of our favourite gods in Toronto’s oldest tavern sets the stage for an engrossing modern myth.

Apollo and Hermes have a friendly argument about whether or not humans are very special, as far as mortals go. Hermes thinks we are. Apollo not so much. In the course of the evening, after five Sleemans each, they make a bet.

Apollo wagers “that animals–any animal you chose–would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they had human intelligence.” Hermes takes the bet, “on condition that if, at the end of its life, even one of the creatures is happy, I win.” On the way home, walking down King Street, they pass a veterinarian clinic. The fifteen dogs staying overnight receive human intelligence, and quickly figure out how to open their cages and escape.

The story is enticing. Each of the fifteen dogs has to negotiate their relationship with the sudden intelligence they have been given. Like the classic myths, Fifteen Dogs can be dark and violent. For this reason I wouldn’t recommend the book to dog lovers per se. It’s an apologue (a moral fable with an animal cast), not one of those tender tales of human-animal bonding. Fifteen Dogs is probably best suited to people interested in Toronto, classical mythology, and those nagging existential questions of humanity.

Like any good fantasy novel, there are maps in the beginning. The setting is integral. The dogs leave the vet’s clinic as if through a portal and the Toronto they emerge into is charged with the fantastic. My apartment is just a couple blocks from High Park, where much of the story takes place. Walks downs Roncesvalles and along the beach will be different, having gotten a dog’s-eye view of it. Or rather, a dog’s-nose view, because some of the most evocative moments are olfactory scenes of the beach in summer and the park in spring. If you’re from Toronto, Fifteen Dogs might enrich your city. I mean, who wouldn’t want a drink where Hermes and Apollo frequent?

The gods are Greek, thus capricious, unpredictable, and often distant. They aren’t in the business of making everything alright in the end and don’t have a habit of saving people. The gods in Fifteen Dogs are the same ones who pestered Odysseus and brought down Troy. The novel may not be The Iliad, but it fits nicely in the lineage.

Some books tell a good story, some explore big ideas. Fifteen Dogs manages both. Despite the initiating wager, the real interest of the book is not the pros and cons of human intelligence. “Really, it was a matter of pure chance who died happy and who did not. Which is why, of course, [Apollo] and Hermes had bet on the outcome in the first place.” The bet sets up a more subtle philosophical discussion. Now, if you don’t care for philosophical discussion, don’t let that push you off. The story stands on its own and the philosophy doesn’t get in the way. But if you’re up for it, the dogs have to deal with questions like:

  • What happens when you recognize the cruelty in the activities you love?
  • What happens when you realize something you love cannot last?
  • What happens when you recognize the gulf between yours ideas and your actions?
  • What happens when you chance so much you can’t remember who the real you is?
  • And on it goes.

In short, Fifteen Dogs is about fifteen dogs who become humanly reasonable one night, and they handle it just as well and poorly as the rest of us do. But since they’re dogs and live in a very realistic Toronto, we are able to see the humanity in them a little clearer than we tend to see it in ourselves. The book grabbed my attention from the very beginning, and it held on until the end like I was a chew toy. It explores deep human truths without getting preachy and brings an authentic sense of Greek myth into a very local-feeling Toronto. I heartily recommend it to anyone who didn’t cry during Marley & Me.

Something to watch with the kids: Kubo and the Two Strings

I was impressed with the humour and melancholy, and how they both fit so well together in a children’s movie that managed to get both the honest bitterness and sweetness of real life into a myth for our times.

Damn, that sounds good.

And it should, because it’s a beautiful movie. No, not a movie. I’d go so far as to call it a film. A film that accepts the starkest realities of loss and death, while still laughing once in a while and learning to live meaningfully without the things you wish you could keep.

Kubo is a one-eyed boy who takes care of his mother while earning a living storytelling in the marketplace. He’s good at stories, because he can make origami heroes and monsters fight when he plays his shamisen. Looks awesome. Everything is more or less great until he stays out too late one night and his scary aunts show up and try to steal his eye. From there, it’s myth-making at its finest.

Go watch it with your kids. Though there’s a scary skeleton or two, so be advised about that.

Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed

Source: khaledhosseini.com

On a scale of 1 to 10, Khaled Hosseini’s third novel, And the Mountains Echoed, was Awesome-Sauce.  Here’s why:

  • The story is a wild ride that touches you right down in the viscerals with serious love and pain.
  • It has all the right elements that made The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns Awesome-Sauce: enticing, complex characters, powerfully real settings and delightful prose.
  • Hosseini pushes himself to tell a wider story than he has before, giving us more characters to invest in and telling a broader story that rightly shows the ripples of consequence choices of love, hate and neglect make.
  • The characters are deep and real. The reader understands the ones who hurt and sees the flaws in the ones who love.
  • When I finished reading it, I felt like a slightly different person. The way you feel after an awesome meal or workout.

Read Khaled Hosseini’s, And the Mountains Echoed. Some people have found it difficult to follow the story because of the relatively larger cast of characters. I say to you, try harder. It’ll be worth it.

Book Review: White Flour

On May 26, 2007, the Ku Klux Klan planned a march in Knoxville, Tennessee.  Opponents tried to figure out a way to oppose their racist, hateful messages without stooping to hatred themselves.  They decided to start a troop of clowns called the Coup Clutz Clowns who would intentionally misunderstand the Klan’s message and make gentle fun of it.

White Flour, by David LaMotte, tells that story in a picture book for children.

I was so excited when I first heard about this book.  I get a tad upset when I see some of the banal books out there that people try to push on children.  I swear if I see one more adaptation of Noah’s Ark I’m gonna snap.  I mean, what ding-dong thought that a story of divine genocide would be good for kids just because of the cute handful of animals that made it through the watery apocalypse?

But finally we have a book for children that is not patronizing.  A book that does not feel the need to dumb-down some of the most difficult dilemmas of life.  A book that tells our kids a story that they really need to hear.  The story of standing against violence and oppression without resorting to violence and oppression.  The story of using laughter and joy to combat hatred and bigotry.  The story of overcoming evil with good.  The story that shows that you don’t need fire in order to fight fire.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

– Martin Luther King Jr.

White Flour is an important book and I recommend it highly.  There are aspects of the story that parents will need to explain to their children, like what the KKK is all about and why it’s important to stand against messages of hate like theirs.  It’s important to me that my children see examples of people standing up against evil in pure, non-violent, non-hateful ways.  White Flour stands as a monument to a small group of people who found a Jesus-like way to push back the darkness of racism and hate.  I treasure this book and hope you all grab yourself a copy.

And what would be the lesson of that shiny southern day?
Can we understand the message that the clowns sought to convey?
Seems that when you’re fighting hatred, hatred’s not the thing to use!
So here’s to those who march in in their big red floppy shoes!

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.

Books You Should Read

Here are some of the best books I’ve read in the past year. Pick them up and love them.

  • House of Suns – Alastair Reynolds
    This may be my favourite sci-fi. It’s long and kind of hard to get into, but worth the effort it demands. It takes place six million years in the future and is one of the most insightful speculative fictions I’ve seen.
    “I was born in a house with a million rooms, built on a small, airless world on the edge of an empire of light and commerce that the adults called the Golden Hour, for a reason I did not yet grasp.”
  • A Dance With Dragons – George R.R. Martin
    I was reading this series long before the HBO program made it famous. It stands apart from any fantasy series I’ve read. It’s gritty and harsh. Instead of heroes and villains, Martin writes real people. Every hero has a bit of a villain within. And nearly every villain has a spark of good.
    “The night was rank with the smell of man. … Only man stripped the skins from other beasts and wore their hides and hair.”
  • Let the Right One In – John Ajvide Lindqvist
    This is how vampire novels were meant to be. If you’ve seen the movies, please put them out of your head. The book is so much more special. It’s dark and wonderfully tender at the same time.
    “Real love is to offer your life at the feet of another, and that’s what people today are incapable of.”
  • The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss
    The start of a unique fantasy series. Only two books are out right now. A hero tells the tale of how his life went from homeless boy to the most feared mage in the world.
    “But for most practical purposes Tarbean had two pieces: Waterside and Hillside. Waterside is where people are poor. That makes them beggards, thieves, and whores. Hillside is where people are rich. That makes them solicitors, politicians and courtesans.”
  • The Way of Kings – Brandson Sanderson
    Sanderson’s first book in his epic series. It shows a lot of promise and uncovers a hugely complex universe.
    “The hallmark of insecurity is bravado.”
  • True Love – Thich Nhat Hanh
    A non-fiction in which the meditative master unpacks his views of love and how to centre your mental and physical self. A useful point of view for anyone interested in spirituality.
    “So you can walk in such a way that the Kingdom of God possible in the here and now, in such a way that peace and hoy are possible today, in such a way that the Pure Land is available under your feet.”
  • A New Kind of Christian – Brian McLaren
    I was surprised at how closely this book traced my own spiritual journeys over the past four or six years. Insightful and useful, though the storytelling is weak.
    “Carol, I’m not sure how long I’ll last. I know this must be scary for
    you. I’m sorry.

There. Now I’ve shared with you. What books should I read next?

Albums that Deserve to be on Repeat

I always approach the subject of music … cautiously.

For one, I know next to nothing about it. Though not for lack of trying, really. I learned to play guitar, but without a chord sheet in front of me I’m useless. And don’t you dare ask me to tune the thing. Music doesn’t flow from me. I get it and I appreciate it. But it will never come from me.

Also, there is always an element of judgement that comes in when people talk about their favorite music. Claiming to like, say, Justin Bieber will get you either ridiculed or praised depending on where you happen to say it. So deep in the part of my brain that is still insecure and self-conscious, I fear judgement if my preferred musics are not cool enough for whatever crowd I’m talking to.

But some music is special. Some music has that neat ability to reach inside my creative centre and stroke it gently to life. And I want to share those albums that do that.

1) Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog – Joss Whedon

If you have not seen Joss Whedon’s classic short film, you are missing out. On life. Seriously. It’s a mere fortyish minutes long and it deserves to be watched. You can find the entire show on Youtube. It’s witty, zany and full of fun. It’s a creative masterpiece. Go watch it. Seriously, don’t finish reading this blog until you’ve seen it. It’s better than this blog. And so is its soundtrack.

2) Siren Song of the Counter Culture – Rise Against

A fellow can get used to anything. Even screaming. Rise Against has been a favorite since I first heard them in Pakistan. Their anger-charged music touches something primal and pure. That righteous dissatisfaction with a screwed-up system. I was seriously sad when I found out they are coming to Toronto the day I fly to Pakistan.

3) Introspection – pjt

I went to school with this guy. Isn’t that cool? This whole album is great. All the songs cry out for freedom and authenticity. “I don’t believe it’s right / to let others define your life / I can do anything I’m interested in / And I’m interested in all that I can do.”

4) Aaja Nachle – Salim and Sulaiman Merchant

This Bollywood gem is about a girl returning to her hometown to convince her conservative neighbours to put on a play. It’s a celebration of the creative spirit and every single song carries that flag. “Stand apart from the crowd / Show us your dreams / Show Me Your Jalwa (glory)”

5) The End is Near – Five Iron Frenzy

These guys were huge with the Christian white kids in the 90s. But don’t hold that against them. They are worthy in their own right and rise above the shameless preaching of a lot of their contemporaries. This is one of their last albums and, I think, their zenith.

6) Last Night on Earth – Noah and the Whale

It was hard to pick only one album for these guys. I’ve only known about them for a little while but I’m seriously in love with them. Their songs touch on every part of humanity, from it’s highest to its lowest.


7) First Love – Emmy the Great

Silky sweet voice and melancholy songs. What could be better? She just came out with a new album, too, though I haven’t had a chance to hear it yet. She lives up to her name.



8) Exodus – Bob Marley

You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t love Bob Marley, at least a little. His wild optimism and spirit of Love is infectious.

What songs and albums and artists have inspired you?