Brendan Cook's Column

Articles -- mainly fictional -- by Brendan Cook. Raised a Baha'i, Brendan was refused formal membership in the Canadian Baha'i community when he applied as an adult.

Second Thoughts on Peter Khan

I first wrote about one of Peter Khan’s addresses more than four years ago. I was concerned at the time because he was part of the highest administrative body in the Baha’i Faith and because his words were being studied in my community. This time around, my attitude has changed. I don’t know what’s being studied in the Toronto Baha’i community these days, and I don’t care that Peter Khan remains a member of the Universal House of Justice. I’m writing now because I see something to learn in Peter Khan’s latest address. His speech is instructive because it illustrates the religious impulse at its worst. In the space of a few words, he makes his listeners an offer which is at once deeply immoral and profoundly false. He promises us something that we can never have in exchange for something that we should never give up. More explicitly than many religious leaders, Peter Khan appeals to the less admirable aspects of the human personality.  And all of us can profit from considering how he does this.

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Response to Peter Khan's talk "The Tests of the West"

Response to Peter Khan's talk The Tests of the West delivered at the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette, September 23, 1995

When Peter Khan delivered his talk On the Nature of Tests at the Wilmette temple in 1995, I am not sure even he knew how great the response to his words would be. He may not have anticipated that his little speech would continue to be read by so many people after he had given it. I have decided to write this because in my own Baha’i community of Toronto in 2005, the reach of Peter Khan’s words has proven long indeed. Rather than being set aside and forgotten, On the Nature of Tests is being read and studied at informal gatherings in my city. It has become a starting point for the discussion of a number of issues currently facing the faith. While all discussion, by its nature, is valuable, the reading of Peter Khan’s letter also demands a response. Peter Khan addressed his talk to North American Baha’is, and so as a North American Baha’i I feel I have the right to answer it.

On the Nature of Tests deserves a reply because the message that it presents to the believers on this continent is, in essence, one of fear. In trying to reach his audience, Peter Khan’s main instrument is fear: fear of people, fear of ideas, and fear of the modern world. I am only an individual believer, and I do not know how much my word counts against one of the most distinguished modern representatives of the faith, but in so much that my opinion still matters, I owe it to my conscience to respond. For thousands of years up until the present day, religious leaders have tormented the faithful with words of fear. Sin and the damnation of hellfire have been the favorite tools of priestly castes from one generation to the next and in every culture the chief source of their authority. I have decided to write this because I believe that fear has no place in religion, especially this one. As no religion in the past, the Baha’i faith is built on hope, and it is in the spirit of hope that I want to answer Peter Khan.

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The Emperor's New Clothes

So you think you’ve heard this story before? Really? Well then, you can stop reading right now and put it away. If you’re sure you know what happens, you don’t need to look at it again. Go ahead and read something else. There are all sorts of important documents on the latest Five Year Plan that demand your attention. Read them more than once—you can always learn something new from Farzam Arbab or Paul Lample. Intensive Programs of Growth may seem simple, but believe me when I say that understanding them takes longer than you guess. How long? Let’s just say your next two years of weekends are booked.

Still here? That’s fine, but you need to understand the rules. If you want to stay with this story, you’ll have to accept right now that you don’t know it. You don’t know what happens and you don’t know how it turns out. You might think you do, but you’d be wrong. Sure, some parts are familiar, but there are also a few surprises in store. It’s a famous story, but then there’s a problem with that too. Because, you see, most of the people who tell it get it wrong. Even the brothers Grimm or whoever it was two hundred years ago, even they messed it up. They somehow managed to leave out all the bits that make it interesting. I’m not saying my telling is perfect, but it’s a lot better than anything they did. At least all the important parts are there.

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The Strange Story of Max the Infallible Donkey

They say not much happens in small towns, and being raised in one myself I can say I believe it. Maybe it isn’t any different in the big cities; maybe people who grow up in Toronto or Montreal don’t have many stories to tell either. But I don’t know about that. I was born out West, on the Saskatchewan prairie, and I know first hand how dull things can be. The years are long in farming country, and just about anything qualifies as far as excitement goes. Even today the best you’ve got is basic cable, and everyone knows there’s never anything on. But then it’s maybe because things are so quiet that whenever something out of the ordinary does happen, the people remember it for a long time. Which is how I first heard the story of Max, the infallible donkey. It happened long ago, in the 1930's, but the old-timers were still talking about it fifty years later, when I was a boy. Even somewhere less remote what happened with Max would have seemed incredible, but in Saskatchewan they don’t forget something like that for generations.

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A Journey to Absurdistan

Although I have not traveled as often or as widely as many people I know, I have seen some things which others perhaps have not. And in discussing the vital questions of the Baha’i Faith, I am put in mind more and more of a visit that I made several years ago to Central Asia. Specifically, I recall a conversation I had when I attended services at a temple in Absurdistan. Little mentioned or even heard of today, Absurdistan is a small, semi-autonomous mountain region, wedged somewhere between Hoshiarpur and the Himachal Pradesh. It is rarely visited, and I have heard that many of the travelers who come there are reluctant to leave.

The temple itself was nothing unusual. Anyone who has seen the lovely gurudwaras of Northern India can already imagine the brightly decorated altar that graced the center of the hall. And the hymns sung by the three musicians to the accompaniment of sitar and tablas were much like what can be heard throughout the region. What caught my attention, however, were the devotions of the various people who came to pay their respects over the course of the morning. Nowhere else have I seen such diversity of worship. Some who approached the altar knelt, others bowed their heads, others lay prostrate before it, while some sat perfectly still. Some wore richly decorated fabrics, while others were clothed as simply as possible. And the gifts of food or money or tiny trinkets that were laid before the altar were as different as the worshippers who brought them. This seemed so strange to me that I immediately became curious to know the reason.

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