Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Tag: christianity

Heroes and Villains

John Calvin was a hero, they told me.  I didn’t argue.  It wasn’t my place to argue.  It was my place to listen.  And so John Calvin was a hero.

He was clever, you see.  A pioneer of sorts.  One of the first and brightest to read the Book the way they told me it was meant to be read.  He was a hero.  Like Martin Luther.

It bothered me that he killed a man, though.  Bothered me that he thought folks who disagreed with him ought to die.  But he was a product of his culture.  He can’t be fully blamed.  He just used worldly weapons in a spiritual war.  When you put it that way, it doesn’t seem like that big a deal.

Though I bet Michael Servitus thought it was a big deal.

And, sure, Martin Luther was a misogynist and anti-semite.  Well, he was a product of his culture, too.  Can’t be too harsh on him.  Or on Jonathan Edwards for his owning of slaves for that matter.  Products of their culture.  Innocent, in their own ways.  Heroes still, I suppose.

Mother Theresa, on the other hand, was not a hero, they said.  Sure she poured herself out for the ‘least of these’.  Sure she inspired millions and eased the sufferings of countless invisible people.  But she was the wrong kind of Christian.  Roman Catholic.  Damned.  In hell, despite her service.  That’s what they said.

Gandhi is another one who isn’t a hero.  Sure, he championed non-violent resistance against the forces of evil.  Sure, he fought against oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression.  But, like Theresa, he was one of ‘them’, not ‘us’.  Hindu.  Blind.  Damned and in hell, despite his service.  That’s what they said.

Is it any wonder?

Is it any wonder they talk about us like they do?

Is it any wonder I felt the need to [………]?

We forgive the murderers and slave owners because they thought like we do.

We condemn the compassionate souls because of a rosary and a dash of vermillion upon the forehead.

Heroes and Villains

John Calvin was a hero, they told me.  I didn’t argue.  It wasn’t my place to argue.  It was my place to listen.  And so John Calvin was a hero.

He was clever, you see.  A pioneer of sorts.  One of the first and brightest to read the Book the way they told me it was meant to be read.  He was a hero.  Like Martin Luther.

It bothered me that he killed a man, though.  Bothered me that he thought folks who disagreed with him ought to die.  But he was a product of his culture.  He can’t be fully blamed.  He just used worldly weapons in a spiritual war.  When you put it that way, it doesn’t seem like that big a deal.

Though I bet Michael Servitus thought it was a big deal.

And, sure, Martin Luther was a misogynist and anti-semite.  Well, he was a product of his culture, too.  Can’t be too harsh on him.  Or on Jonathan Edwards for his owning of slaves for that matter.  Products of their culture.  Innocent, in their own ways.  Heroes still, I suppose.

Mother Theresa, on the other hand, was not a hero, they said.  Sure she poured herself out for the ‘least of these’.  Sure she inspired millions and eased the sufferings of countless invisible people.  But she was the wrong kind of Christian.  Roman Catholic.  Damned.  In hell, despite her service.  That’s what they said.

Gandhi is another one who isn’t a hero.  Sure, he championed non-violent resistance against the forces of evil.  Sure, he fought against oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression.  But, like Theresa, he was one of ‘them’, not ‘us’.  Hindu.  Blind.  Damned and in hell, despite his service.  That’s what they said.

Is it any wonder?

Is it any wonder they talk about us like they do?

Is it any wonder I felt the need to [………]?

We forgive the murderers and slave owners because they thought like we do.

We condemn the compassionate souls because of a rosary and a dash of vermillion upon the forehead.

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.

Kierkegaard on Christian Scholarship

“The matter is quite simple. The bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”

― Søren Kierkegaard, Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard

Thich Nhat Hanh on Generosity

When you hammer a nail into a board and accidentally strike your finger, you take care of it immediately. The right hand never says to the left hand, “I am doing charitable work for you.” It just does whatever it can to help – giving first aid, compassion, and concern. In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, the practice of dana is like this. We do whatever we can to benefit others without seeing ourselves as helpers and the others as the helped. This is the spirit of non-self.

– Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ

New Testament Gathering Principles

    Dr. Zaius, you silly orangutan.

Three monkeys

     I preach sometimes. I grew up in a nifty restorationist denomination that was formed in an attempt to get back to ‘New Testament Gathering Principles’. The founders figured that the organized church had drifted pretty far from the pattern of being Christ’s body that he had originally laid down. Sounds good, eh?

     I decided to preach on New Testament gathering principles last week. If you drop by in one of the churches from my denomination there’s a chance you’ll hear a sermon with this title. It’s pretty popular. I can’t count how many of them I heard growing up. Usually they’re about how we need to say ‘assembly’ instead of ‘church’ or how women aren’t allowed to talk or lead or go around without doilies on their head. I wanted to get a bit closer to the core in my sermon, though. Here’s some gathering principles I shared:

  • Famous for Love – John 13:34-35; 15:12. A quick Google search shows that the top four adjectives for describing evangelicals are ‘Insane,’ ‘Crazy,’ ‘Dangerous,’ and ‘Scary.’ Jesus said that people would know we were with him if we were famous for love.
  • Devoted to the Apostle’s Teaching – Acts 2:42. What did they teach? The same stuff that Jesus taught. Love. More love. Lots of love. The kind of love that leads you to die for strangers and enemies. Devoted to that.
  • Community – Acts 2:44-46; 4:32. No, not the wildly funny TV show. Living with such a sense of unity that we share everything we have. No private property. Like having a wildly big family. Most churches are clubs that meet on Sunday. The pattern was a community of people who lived and loved together all the time.
  • Productive, Risky Social Action – Acts 4:34. People quote Jesus in saying that the poor will always be with us as an excuse not to help eliminate poverty. It’s a good thing Jesus is still alive, otherwise I think he’d be turning over in his grave to hear such talk. The first followers eliminated poverty amongst their circles. It was risky, but it worked. Good pattern.
  • Making Disciples – Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 2:47. Not converts. Jesus never tried to get the Samaritan woman to convert to Judaism. His call was never convert. It was follow. Repent. Walk. Move. He didn’t come so that our theological statements could be more logically consistent than a Muslim’s. He came to reproduce.

     My people left the Anglican church because their leaders were more concerned with robes and ceremonies than they were with the things that Jesus said. I hope that we can always be moving in a restorationist direction, or else we’ll find ourselves, like Dr. Zaius, pushing truth away because it comes in a different box than we’re used to

Short Story – The Sodomite

This is a new one. I’ve been wanting to write it for a while but was never really able to make it work until just now. And I think it works now. It’s a bit of an exercise in trying to understand myself and my thoughts about life, Jesus and everything good. I was raised in a very conservative religious environment and have been moving toward something different over the past few years. The Sodomite is a bit of a parody of some very popular modern Christian parables linking the idea of substitutional atonement with a judge condemning a guilty crook and then serving his sentence. Anyway, enjoy it and pass it alone!

I Stand Alone, I Stand Alone

I heard the tune as whispered on the wind. It was elusive, though familiar. Like the opening theme to a cartoon you watched as a child. It was there, somewhere, but I couldn’t quite hum it. I had to get closer.

I walked across a green plain in the direction I thought it came from. It grew louder as I went, as did the sense of familiarity. It was a tune from my childhood, familiar as water. Off in the distance I saw something grow out of the plain. A hill, wide and tall, the tip of which I could not clearly see. And the song grew louder still and I thought I could grasp a few of the words.

I quickened my pace and saw that the hill was not truly a hill, but a pile of objects. Books. Books of every shape and kind. Large and ancient hardcovered tomes along with magazines and tracts and paperbacks and novels and comics. I stood at the foot of the hill for a moment and peered toward the summit. The song was definitely coming from the top. And it was louder now, though not much clearer. The familiarity tickled and tormented me. I had to know the song.

And so I started to climb.

I caught sight of many of the titles as I went up. They intrigued me. Many of the books I had read and some I had enjoyed. Others I did not know and still others I had read and rejected. I took note of some titles. “In-crowd mentality” by I.M. Choosen. “Systematic Theology” by Goddat Wright. “Western Comforts” by W.B. Rich.

The song grew louder as the air grew thin and I grew lightheaded. I found I could not think clearly at this altitude. I tried to focus my thoughts by reading other titles. “Doing to Others Before they Do to You.” “Choosing Your Favorite -ism.” “Economic Justifications.” “The Individualistic Life.” “Hollywood Drama.” “Democracy” (I liked that one). “10 Days to Blind Confidence” (I think I had read that one). “How to Dismantle Anything.” There was a chart listing the top ten spiritual professions. I had memorized that at one point, I recalled. “North American Values and Their Enemies.” “Capitalism.” And scores and scores others.

My hands grew cold as I crawled through the clouds. Finally, as I reached the top, I found the source of the familiar tune. There stood a man, his eyes closed and his fists clentched in the posture of a child trying to wish something true. And the song came clearly:

The B-I-B-L-E
Yes, that’s the Book for me.
I stand alone on the Word of God.
I stand alone on the Word of God.
I stand alone on the Word of God.

“Oi, friend!” I called out with a shiver in my voice. “I think you’re standing in the wrong place for this song! For I have seen many books, some I like and others I like less, but I cannot help but think that none of them are the Word of God.”

The man stopped singing only for the time it took to open an eye, shoot a hostile look at me, and continue his chanting.

“I stand alone on the Word of God! I stand alone on the Word of God!”

And suddenly the mount we were on heaved and shook. I clutched tight and watched as a few books toppled down to the ground below. But I remained firm for the moment. The chanting man did not seem to notice. I realized that the foundation he and I were standing on was not stable.

“I say!” I called out. “I fear this is not an ideal place to stand. I’m heading down. Perhaps if we both descend together it will be less risky for the both of us.”

Again he did little but curl his lip at me and continue his chanting. I thought to stay with him, but another tremor from below made me certain that I was in a precarious place. And so I descended, slipping and bruising myself along the way.

I arrived at the bottom, still hearing his words in my head. In that moment they reminded me of similar words spoken by others in ages past. I recalled some chanting about The Temple of the Lord. Whatever happened to those people, I wondered.

I was half a mile off when I heard a horrible crash behind me. I turned and saw that mighty tower of books collapsing upon itself. And I wept.

Things I Wonder

Sometimes I just sit there and I wonder.

  • I wonder what would happen if the Church today made a point of sharing all their resources and living in close quarters like the Church did when the Spirit and the Apostles were running the show. Would things be better?
  • I wonder what would happen if the Church stopped spending 75% of its money on buildings, pastors and insurance and spent it on fighting destitution like the early Church did. Would we really wipe out poverty like the economists say we would?
  • I wonder what would happen if missionaries dropped their titles and benefits and tried making disciples instead of converts. Would more people start following Jesus?
  • I wonder what would happen if I really did sell everything superfluous and gave it to the poor. Would my life really be permanently hindered for lack of things?
  • I wonder what would happen if I tried to embrace Paul as he says “You are saved by faith alone” and James when he said “You are not saved by faith alone.” Would my brain explode?
  • I wonder what would happen if we sold the church building and used the money to save starving kids. Would we still get together on Sundays?
  • I wonder if we stopped being missionaries, and starting just living in strange countries and, while there, spread love and Jesus around. Would that be enough?
  • I wonder if the many things I own are good for me, or bad. Would Jesus have bought all the toys in my house?
  • I wonder what would happen if I tried to live out the Sermon on the Mount instead of trying to explain why it couldn’t possibly mean what it seems to mean. Would that be so bad?
  • I wonder what would happen if I stopped wondering and put these things to the test. Would I win?
  • You Can’t Define a Story

    People use the word Gospel a lot in my circles. We talk about knowing the Gospel, understanding the Gospel, defining the Gospel. I’ve heard many a preacher talk about how important it is to have a thorough understanding of the Gospel and a right definition of it. But, funnily, usually they don’t actually come through and define it for me. That always bothered me, y’know? Because, how the heck am I supposed to go to heaven if I can’t define the Gospel? Some people try, though. I’ve heard people say that ‘Believe of the Lord Jesus Christ’ is the Gospel. Remember that story? When the jailer wanted to know what he needed to do to be saved? But was that really the Gospel? Or was it just the answer to the jailer’s question?

    It hit me today, though. I figured out what the Gospel was. Are you ready for it? Here it goes:

    Good News (or story)

    We made up the word, eh? We couldn’t figure out how to translate the Greek word so we made up one. Clever of us.

    But, of course, I can’t leave it there. That would be cheating. Even though I know that the word Gospel is no more or less than Good News (or story), I still ought to figure out what that good story is.

    Boom! Epiphany! I’m on a roll today! I figured out what the Good News is! It’s right there in the beginning of the New Testament! What is the first book called?

    The Gospel According to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John

    What is the Gospel? The whole story. The whole deal. All of it. That’s why preachers stumble when they try to define it (and not leave out any of the details that, left out, will damn you). That’s why Jesus never even tried to define it. You can’t define a story. You can’t define a life. The Gospel is the whole Good News (or story) of Jesus and everything that he is.

    Good luck putting a tag on that!