In your average Coldstone ice cream shop, you have your pedestrian tastes (strawberry and chocolate) and some esoteric ones (tastefully outside the box). N.D. Wilson, author of the new book, Death By Living, is on the faculty of an interesting educational venture out in Idaho called New St. Andrews College. He writes fantasy fiction for children, stream of consciousness things (like this) to help adults chew thoughtfully in different ways on big questions that demand God as an answer. He also skillfully parodies things like the “Left Behind” series. He appreciates Robb White, the children’s author, as a gritty historical chronicler of tales that express commendable virtue in the midst of a flawed world. His own writing style approaches that of a linguistic Cirque du Soleil. N.D. Wilson is pralines and cream in literary form. Not to everyone’s taste but true to the literary artist God is making him. But really good to those who get his “flavor.” Death By Living will not be for everyone and that’s okay. What book, aside from the Bible, is?
Wilson sets out to deal with issues and questions that everyone is interested in – like quality and meaning in life. Most of us don’t think seriously until we’ve packed away five decades or so and start thinking about legacy. How much better to start living intentionally before our own leaves start to fall. He takes seriously past, present and future. In dealing with the present, Wilson’s writing muscles show up best. His language has a way of captivating and, more strongly, compelling us to lock into our present. God is upholding galaxies while we check our text messages. His fingerprints on our lives and worlds go unnoticed because we’re distracted by urgent, yet ultimately unimportant, things lifting us out of our moment and numbing our taste for the things meant to make life sweet, stir up yearning for something or Someone beyond the front of our nose and filled with grace. “…standing on a cliff watching an angry gray sea pound the rock? Tasting cold salt on your lips from the spray while the wind lashes your legs? Those moments in life when we realize that we are standing in open jaws…” Read something like that and just try to think about running to the barber shop or picking up the dry cleaning.
When Paul described, “…forgetting what lies behind and straining toward what lies ahead…” (Phil 3:13), he wasn’t feeding into an amnesia erasing one’s whole history; he actually recalled large chunks of his own. As both a player and an aficionado of jazz, I get it. Nothing is really new. Every jazz musician stands on the shoulders of many who came before. They don’t even have to talk about it; it shows up in the influences heard in their own playing emanating out of years of listening and thousands of hours of playing that ingrain the beauty of others into our own music. Wilson sees this in everyone’s life as part of the image of God in us. As major life transitions come, we often deceive ourselves that we enter the next stage or chapter as a blank slate when nothing could be farther from the truth. Wilson does a lot of intense remembering of his own childhood, not out of nostalgia (even though it’s there) but to draw the strands of past voices together to see what God might be saying now. Israel, in the Old Testament, repeatedly is told by Moses and the prophets to “remember.” What? God – His acts, His person, His stirring of their minds and hearts. They forgot their past and that brought Babylon into their future.
One interesting feature of Wilson’s looking back is how he often reflects back on his toys. A rubber cowboy comes to mind. As I had scads of these and loved them, maybe that’s why. But more than one toy from childhood surfaces in the text. Actually I think Wilson still has all his toys, not just tucked away in a box in an attic, but close at hand both for himself and his children.
Beyond reminiscing about his toys, Wilson runs his finger along the backbone of his own family, tracing the people and the happenings who deposited the seeds of grace in the lives gone before him. In doing so, he encourages us to do the same (maybe even writing some thank you notes or reconnecting as we can while we can). These stories toward the end of the book stand as some of the most moving writing Wilson does. When the storyteller absorbs us into the narrative until we forget a story is being told because not only are we in it but we’re spurred to simultaneously recall story fragments of our own, this is good stuff. Wilson tells stories very well.
Wilson, in thinking future, thinks of the goodness of death. A consequence of sin? Yes, but “Because of death, we can run a good race. We can fight the good fight. Completion exists…Time marches us to death, and together they strip our hands. But there is a Man there, beside the grave, collecting all our grime, stripping more than hands – stripping hearts (and minds and souls). He assembles a burden like no other. He ran His own race…For three decades He ran toward death. And when He reached it, He could say what all mortals needed said. It is finished. and He went, along with that burden, into a hole.”
So where does Wilson take us and leave us? “Taste every one of time’s moments. Swallow. Taste the next. Drink the water. It is no good left in the glass. (italics mine) Sweat and struggle. Run. Fight. Receive. Give. Be grateful even for death, for the ticking clock counting down on you.” These aren’t the screechy words of a self-help cheerleader but the sound of vigor thriving on the lips of those who follow Jesus Christ who, being God and all, can satisfy the stirrings of taste He arouses, be it the strawberry and chocolate crowd or those unique moments when some pralines and cream hit the spot.
For more on Death by Living, visit the Patheos Book Club here.
David Swartz pastors Bethel Baptist Church in Roseville, Michigan. He thinks that jazz is sacred music, that books are better company than most people, and that university towns rock. He blogs at geezeronthequad.com.