Death by Living: Life Lessons from the Pen of N.D. Wilson

Sometimes ordinary words and grandios ideas put on their Sunday best and go dancing, a tango of poetry and prose, and the journey is as important as the destination.

N.D. Wilson’s latest book, Death by Living: Life Is Meant to Be Spent, is like that.  I found myself closing the covers but continuing the conversation, my imagination inflamed by Wilson’s vibrant storytelling.

Lacking the denouement of a novel, Death by Living is Wilson’s personal journal, an intimate recounting of life lived and lessons learned.  He wanders through the stories of his past (“Eyes Back”), into the present, setting some of his cogent reflections against the backdrop of cities he’s visited:  Jerusalem, London, Rome.

It was in Rome where Wilson found the inspiration for his title:  Leading his children down the steps into the Mamertine Prison, the wet and dark space where the apostle Peter was held before he was crucified, and where the apostle Paul was held before he was beheaded, he reflected on the apostles’ vigor and their mission:

“Two men who had burned with furious light, two foxes who had raced through the vineyard with torches tied to their tails by Christ Himself—that great Samson.  In this place they had waited for death, for the finish lines to their races, for the last flurry of blows in their fight—they fought well to the end. 

They had reached their deaths by living.”

Walking through what he calls “the Pope’s hallway” (most certainly the long halls of the Vatican Museums), hallways awash in medieval beauty and artistic abundance, Wilson reflects on his own place in the plan of Creation.  “I am museum exhibit number however-many-people-you-have-ever-seen-in-your-life,” he writes.  “I was made.  I am a picture of God (imago dei).  Of His Son (grafted into the new Adam).  I am a hangnail in the larger picture of His Son’s bride, the church.  (I live in Idaho; a hangnail is generous.)”

In the “pope’s hallway”, Wilson imagines the fiery creativity which spurred God to create the world, the universe, the cosmos, and a single man:

God—the God who bowled the fire in the sky, who spun the moon and flung the stars, who parted the waters, who feathered the birds and scaled the fish and furred bears, who called up trees, who invented fruit and bats and oceans and wind and lightning and gave Jupiter a red cowlick for an eye—that God challenged Himself.  He made a pile of dust on the ground in a garden and He decided to make a picture of Himself.   

He fell short.  (In a frozen frame.)

…I am more than a painting, because I do not sit in time.  I am a failed portrait of God, but this is no frozen frame.  He hasn’t finished.  And He never will.  He cannot fall short, because He will never stop His mouth. 

We are dust.  We are the challenge of the dust.  Mix dust with breath.  Picture God.

If you are an aficionado of poetry and theology, if you like energetic words assembled into a good read, you’ll enjoy Death by Living.


N.D. Wilson is author of the best-selling Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl and is currently a Fellow of Literature at New Saint Andrews College, where he teaches freshmen how to play with words.  He describes himself as a “professional daydreamer and occasional screenwriter.”  He and his wife have five children.