Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Category: review

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?

Innocence Lost

I used to stare at this painting every time I visited my artist friends in Peterborough. It’s the kind of painting that grabs by the throat with silky fingers and demands to be gazed at.

My wife must have noticed, because she secretly bought it for me this month.

Paintings used to confuse me. I can look at stories and film and draw meaning from them pretty naturally, but I couldn’t do that with paintings. Until one day I was asking my artist friend what the rules were.
“What rules?” she said.
“The rules in interpreting art. How do I know what the artist is trying to communicate? Do colours mean something? Shapes? Help me out here.” Can you sense my desperate need to have everything defined and quantified?
“No rules, silly. Don’t try to figure out what the artist was trying to say. What is the piece saying to you.
Sounds simple, eh? Probably something you already knew. But it changed everything for me. I could suddenly see life in an art form I hadn’t understood. I think that’s when I really fell in love with this one.

Go check out Needle and Nest Design. Buy something. Leave an encouraging comment. Pick up some inspiration for your own journey. I sure did. Love you, Ben and Mel.

I looked up at the sky
    for I was innocent and fearless
And the sky opened herself to me and showed me glorious things.
    Things of sunshine
    Things of green
    Things of life and light and lovelies uncountable.
And everything was bright and beautiful.
    I looked with the longing on a child, my scarlet hair flying in the wind.
    I drank with reckless abandon, caring not for the cliche.
    In my hunger.
    In my desire.
    In passion, pure and pleasured.
Oh, it was good.

I looked up at the sky
For the sky had died.
Silent stony streams with flowed dryly beneath me.
    I tilted my head to the heavens, lips parted in desire for something loved and lost.
    Hair torn by unknown hands, dipped in oil I could not rinse.
My thirst abandoned me.
    and my hunger

Twit. Twitter. Tweet.
    Red, flitting and flying about.
    It landed before me, upon the crooked finger of a branch clinging to life.
    I wanted to touch.
    I wanted to reach.
    But I remembered the taint upon my head.
Twit. Twitter. Tweet.
    It bore its own mark
    yet was beautiful still.
    Yet was beautiful still.
    Yet loved still.
Am I still lovely?
Am I still beautiful?
I am pale and thin. I am sick and stained. But do you still look upon me with desire?
    (for the good is greater than the taint)
    (and the root is purer than the branch)
    (and dare not say otherwise, bride)
I looked up again, the bird was full of love and taint together.
    May I touch your bird?
    (darling, it was for that reason i sent him)

Review: The Way of Kings – Brandon Sanderson

Even after all these centuries, seeing a thunderclast up close made Kalak shiver. The beast’s hand was as long as a man was tall. He’d been killed by hands like those before, and it hadn’t been pleasant.
Of course, dying rarely was.

Even without his contribution to The Wheel of Time, Brandon Sanderson is a valuable voice in the realm of fantasy. The Way of Kings, the first book in The Stormlight Archive, is his first shot at something with a scope as large as The Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice and Fire. I was a little wary as I picked it up.

I shouldn’t have been.

Like all of his books, the magic system is delicately defined and clever. But unlike books like Mistborn, the world is huge. I was worried about that only because when you read something with so many PoV characters you tend to love some and hate others. That’s what we all found with the Wheel of Time, right? (Oh no, not another Elayne chapter!) But with The Way of Kings I was surprised to see that I wanted to know what was happening with every character.

I enjoy how Sanderson is never afraid of pitting philosophies against each other in his works. Just like in Mistborn he examines concepts of sin vs purity, atheism vs religion and mortality vs ascendancy. And he does it all in ways that do not seem trite or preachy.

The Way of Kings tells the tale of a world at war from the point of view of warring surgeons, thieving scholars and mournful killers. The plot is deep and intricate. The characters are living and lovable. The cultures are many and true. I’m excited to see where this series will go. Pick it up. You won’t regret it.


– “Well, I myself find that respect is like manure. Use it where needed, and growth will flourish. Spread it on too thick, and things just start to smell.”

– “This last year in particular, you’ve become to be the person the others all claim that they are. Can’t you see how intriguing that makes you?”

– “You wonder why I reject the devotaries.”
“I do.”
“Most of them seek to stop the questions.”

– “Just an idle comment, nothing more.” He reached over, laying a hand on Kaladin’s shoulder. “My comments are often idle. I never can get them to do any solid work.”

Review: Sabriel – Garth Nix

It was little more than three miles from the Wall into the Old Kingdom, but that was enough. Noonday sunshine could be seen on the other side of the Wall in Ancelstierre, and not a cloud in sight. Here, there was a clouded sunset, and a steady rain had just begun to fall, coming faster than the tents could be raised.

I didn’t find out this was technically a young adult novel until after I finished it. And I’m glad of that. Sometimes the labels people put on a book taint it before you get a chance to read it.

Sabriel is a fantasy about the daughter of an undead-slaying necromancer. Raised in a setting that feels like 20th-century earth, she is forced to leave school behind and seek her father deep within the Old Kingdom, a place rich with danger, magic and undead nasty thingies. Sabriel is full of great settings and intrigue. The most attractive part for me was the depth of the world and magics that made it.

The world is divided into two places. Ancelstierre, which is similar to earth a hundred years ago, and the Old Kingdom. They are separated by a great wall which holds back the undead yuckies and magics that try to pour down from the Old Kingdom.

The story was great. The plot was completely driven by the characters and deep. The writing, however, was a little clunky now and then, and that tend to be distracting. Also, the story was told strictly from the point of view of Sabriel herself. Usually I resonate with a book better when there are multiple views points to distract me. But I think that’s more of a failing with me than it is with the book. It’s the first in a series, and I still haven’t decided if I’m going to plunge ahead and get the rest of them. But if you like fantasy and teen novels and deeper-than-usual-coming-of-age tales, give Sabriel a whirl.


Death and what came after death was no great mystery to Sabriel. She just wished it was.

Fear and realization of ignorance were strong medicines against stupid pride.

Review – Introspection – P.J. Tremblay

For 23 years, I had been living the life of someone else. For 2 years, I became intentionally undone. For 2 years, I initiated the development of my true identity. This year, only the strongest songs of that on-going journey have reached this album.

I don’t usually dare reviewing music. I find it hard to say anything intelligent about most music because it’s like trying to comment on an art form that I know next to nothing about. But I recently realized that you don’t need to say intelligent things to say worthwhile things, so on we go!

I just got this album and it’s been playing in my car non-stop. Loving it. You know how a lot of artists seem to have just one kind of song that they repackage again and again? Not this guy. Each song stands apart from the rest, truly original. I sat for about half and hour trying to figure out which genre to list it under on my iTunes. It refuses to confirm to any box, which I guess it really the point.

The whole album is the story of the artist’s journey from a superficial existence toward something authentic, real and ultimately much more satisfying than anything artificial could be. As I listened to it for the first time I resonated with so many of his feelings and observations. I think this album will really connect with anyone who has felt that their life is heading in the wrong way and there needs to be a change. Especially with people who have already started to make that change.

Even without the lyrics which chronicle the journeys of the artist, the music itself is soothing and energizing. Head over to the artist’s site and buy it! You won’t regret it, I swear. Good stuff, Phil. Good freakin’ stuff.


Is it just me, or is it so absurd that elephants have gone unheard?
I can’t live like this now, communicate with me somehow
I am not your enemy
I just see things differently
Too much time’s been spent in fear
You can at least respect me here
– Is This Thing On?

Breathe the breeze
And just seize the seas
Just leave the worry to someone who aint free… that aint me
– Free

I lived oh so Christianly, devout as I could ever be
Lived a way that would look alright, but I was so lost inside
I’m not strong, I’m just not afraid of being weak

So I took all the things in my life that were stained and threw them out my door
Started new with a genuineness that gives me peace for evermore
I’m not strong, I’m just not afraid of being weak
– I’m Not Strong, I’m Just Not Afraid of Being Weak

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
– The CarTune Song

Review: Imaginary Jesus – Matt Mikalatos

Jesus and I sometimes grab lunch at the Red and Black Cafe on Twelfth and Oak.

I found this one free on the Kindle site. I love free books, don’t you? It’s about a man who finds out that the Jesus he’s been hanging out with since childhood is not actually the real Jesus, but one of many imaginary Jesuses. He then embarks on a quest with the Apostle Peter, a talking donkey and an ex-hooker to find the real Jesus. It’s full of great humor, wild wit and a lot of great ‘aha’ moments. All in all, it was a good read. Entertaining and thoughtful all at once. It keeps you kinda guessing, too. Because every once in a while you’ll encounter a Jesus who you think is the real one, only to find out that he was an imaginary one, too.

I really have only one negative thing to say about it. The book (accidentally, I think) enforces the popular idea that if a part of your understanding of Jesus is off, you’re following the ‘wrong’ Jesus.

The argument usually goes like this. Someone says, ‘Hey, do you know Frank?’
‘Oh yeah, I know Frank. He’s an accountant, right?’
‘No, he’s a banker. You must be talking about a different Frank.’
And the concept gets applied to Jesus. So anyone with a wrong (or different) understanding of anything from hell to the atonement to election to depravity is said to believe in the wrong Jesus.

But, I think, if we were talking about Frank, the conversation would be more like this:
‘Hey, do you know Frank?’
‘Oh yeah, I know Frank. He’s an accountant, right?’
‘No, he’s a banker. He works at First National.’
‘Really? Are you sure?’
‘Well, I think so. Let’s find out for certain.’

Just because I think he’s an accountant and you think he’s a banker doesn’t mean we’re talking about different people. We just have different ideas about him. Heck, for all we know, maybe Frank is an IRS agent. But I’m pretty sure we are both talking about the same guy.

But Imaginary Jesus is certainly worth a read. It’s witty, fun and playful. Check it out.


“But do you know what it looks like when Jesus walks up to someone and says, ‘Follow me’? When I first started to follow him, I didn’t know he was God. I didn’t know he was the only way to God. I didn’t pray to say that I believed it with all my heart. None of that.”

The first century smelled like what Christians call a “men’s retreat.” This is when men leave their wives and children for several days, go to the mountains, and yell at each other, “Stop neglecting your wife and children!”

“So you’re saying that if I was, for instance, your disciple-”
“You wouldn’t need to find a bathroom,” the donkey said, “because you’re walking on a perfectly fine road.”

Pete said, “Even without the promise of eternal life, I gave up everything to follow him. I didn’t know him well. But I knew him well enough.”

How do you deal with a God who breaks all the rules that your confident, well-meaning friends have told you he will follow?

“You think you’re got to have all the answers. Why can’t there be mysteries once in a while? It’s okay not to know the answer.”

Review: World War Z – Max Brooks

It goes by many names: “The Crisis,” “The Dark Years,” “The Walking Plague,” as well as newer and more “hip” titles such as “World War Z” or “Z War One.” I personally dislike this last moniker as it implies an inevitable “Z War Two.” For me, it will always be “The Zombie War.”

I bought the book on a whim. Until I started reading it I was afraid that I had wasted my five bucks. Great myths and genres always have a higher than normal chance of being bastardized. Zombies, vampires and the like are creatures with a deep mythos about them and that mythos has been abused again and again in film and literature. So, yeah, I was worried I had wasted five bucks.

The book is written as a historical account of a world-wide zombie outbreak and the war that followed. The narrator travels the world after the war ends, collecting stories from different survivors, gathering a wide view of what the war was like for people in different stations and nations and cultures.

It was a good read. Gritty and realistic but not overtly depressing, as a world-wide zombie invasion would be. My only struggle was the complete lack of any real protagonist to fall in love with. But the originality of the storytelling made up for it with me. It was a risky book to write, I think, being so very different. But it was a risk that paid off. Five bucks well spent.


Most people don’t believe something can happen until it already has. That’s not stupidity or weakness, that’s just human nature. I don’t blame anyone for not believing.

Imagine a group of people all staring at writing on a wall, everyone congratulating one another on reading the words correctly. But behind that group is a mirror whose image shows the writing’s true message. No one looks at the mirror. No one thinks it’s necessary.

We were taught since birth to bear the burden of our grandfathers’ shame. We were taught that, even if we wore a uniform, that our first sworn duty was to our conscience, no matter what the consequences.

Lies are neither bad nor good. Like a fire they can either keep you warm or burn you to death, depending on how they’re used.

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.