Book Review: Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl (Nathan Wilson)

Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl: Wide-Eyed Wonder in God’s Spoken World
N. D. Wilson
Thomas Nelson, 2009 (affiliate)

Sometimes books, like the authors who write them, prove to be such a tangled mixture of wrong and right, beauty and deformity that I don’t know how to handle them. ND Wilson’s pithy, artistic revel through the problem of evil and good in our world provokes me to put electronic bits to electronic paper in an attempt to sort out how I feel about this book.

Without ruining any surprises for potential readers:  Nate Wilson sets out to discuss (observe? illuminate? illustrate? investigate?) the meaning of CREATION in a world so clearly broken and destroyed by sin.

His thesis is that our world, spoken into existence by the Eternal Word and held together “by His powerful word” (Colossians 1), is Cosmic-scale Art by the Master Artist.  The eternal, infinite God of the Universe stoops to paint Himself, His Image, in the layers and textures of Life in this cosmos, in all of its aspects. Consider the ant. Snicker at the snowflakes which heap themselves up on a winter night. Gasp in  horror at rodents and rabbits eaten by hawks and tsunamis. And Nietzsche.  The Lord God made them all. (Well, maybe not Nietzsche.)  We are all His poem, His Story.

First off, I have to say —  This is a beautifully-written book.  I get tired of people who hound me to read a book that turns out poorly written and ugly in the mouth. Artistry and Truth go hand-in-hand; otherwise, the Truth gets sent out wearing ill-fitting clothes and wondering why everyone is staring at Her as if she has toilet-paper trailing from a mismatched high-heel.  Nathan Wilson offers us soul-searching, thoughtful perspectives on sin and goodness and clothes them in a fresh, fashion-runway wardrobe.  He bounces between narrative, anecdote, quotation, and lightly-theological discussions. Puns abound. Clearly, Wilson observed the Great Author’s style in His Book and followed suit — no one has ever accused God of handing us a systematic theology text (though I get the impression many of my friends wish He had; it would make their inconsequential, long-winded arguments much simpler).

That said, my opinion must divide here.

I *love* Nathan Wilson’s “voice” in his writing.

I agree with so much of what he says, especially the chapters about the life hereafter (end of the book), both positive and negative; his imagery of the dead being “planted” in hope of the coming Life; the beauty of the creation around us as living, colorful, tactile parables of spiritual realities.  You gotta love the man’s chapter titles too: “The Problem of Evil and the Nonexistence of Shakespeare: A Paper by Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.”   I especially loved his personification of unimaginative cosmic materialistic science:  the god “Boom.”  I don’t think a non-theist would ever be convinced by his words, but passages like these were a lot of fun to read (in the same way that the MPs in the British Parliament like to cheer and chuckle when one of their own works over some muck on the other side of the podium):

If the world is fundamentally an accident, if in the beginning, there was no eternal personality, no eternal living Being, merely super-hot, hyper-dense I AM matter (with no space and no universe outside of itself) and if, wandering those hyper-dense, super tiny corridors of the Forever Matter, attending to its normal routine, there happened to be one little chemical that caught its toe and flopped into another very different chemical, and both of them said, “Oh crap,” in tiny voices and went deaf in the explosion, then when did the accident start making sense and why the hell do we have the Special Olympics?
Is it strange that an impersonal accident should start talking about itself, that shards of matter rocketing through space/time would start making burbling noises and pretend that they’re communicating with other shards, and that their burbling truthfully explained the accident? Is it strange to you that an accident would invent baseball and walruses and Englishmen?
If a hypothetical neutral observer had watched the birth of an ever-expanding universe from the womb of an accidental fireball, was he (or she or it) surprised when the explosion invented llamas?
You see, for me, llamas are entirely consistent with the personality of an easily amused God. A prank on the Andes and everyone who ever needed to use the long-necked, pack-sweaters. Surly, pompous, comically unaware of their own looks, spitters. Perfect. Tell me a story about the great god Boom. Tell me how he accidentally made llamas from hydrogen (pp 127-28).

Great stuff, right?

But Wilson and I break ranks almost everywhere he deals with the “problem of evil” (to use the theologians’ phrase).

Applied to daily living, I love what Wilson says. I agree that ants die because I step on them, so what if the tables turn and I’m the ant? OK, you got me. This world is messed up, but God holds the reins and anyone who names Christ and reads the Word learns that God promises He’s got this.  “Can disaster strike a city and God not be in it?” God says in Amos. Hard to argue with that. “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good” was Joseph’s explanation for his years of slavery in Egypt triggered by his brothers’ sin.

We call this Providence. When my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and I was 12, my mom asked for enough years of life to “raise” me. She got about 11 more sun-cycles out of the deal. None of us are bitter.
But the words that sing hope for the suffering soul turn ugly when Wilson uses them to explain God’s role in bringing evil to this planet in the first place. Essentially, “this is the best of all possible worlds.” Ah, Leibniz. Voltaire skewered your worldview 300 years ago.

Wilson, I’m disappointed…..

I won’t clutter this post with a review of the issues; I’ve mentioned it elsewhere on my blog and you can read for yourself in a good systematic theology (try Grudem’s).  Suffice to boil down the millennia of argumentation to this:
a) God is good
b) God is all-powerful (or sovereign or however you want to state it)
c) Evil exists

All argumentation about the existence of “evil” fights on that ground, at least within the ranks of Theism. Most of the time, people “solve” the problem by weakening one of those 3 propositions.  See, we’re left with the knotty problem that no human rationale can reconcile a) b) and c).  We can chuck one (or hide it or soften it) and be ok, but to hold all 3 at once — well, that’s what my professor Bell used to call “trying to carry 3 watermelons at one time.”  We humans just don’t have big enough brains to hold more than 2 at one time.

Wilson pulls a bait-and-switch in his argumentation.  To illustrate God as Author of this cosmos, he tells gripping stories about cute rabbits getting eaten by powerful, beautiful hawks; of Shakespearean characters who don’t understand why they’re in such misery at the pen of their Author; of kittens who eat mice AND remain cute.  And those stories are supposed to illustrate how our lives, at times senseless in their ironic, bitter brokenness, reflect a God who creates both kittens and and rabbits and hawks and violent ocean breakers. See? God’s got it all in His hands. It’s in the Plot. Calm down.

So … It’s not evil as long as it serves a plot-point….?

I wrote about this a couple years ago: some of my Reformed friends don’t realize they soften the evilness of evil in order to maintain God’s power and goodness.  Is Wilson really trying to suggest that child abuse and a hawk’s supper are on the same moral ground?

I appreciate that Nathan Wilson will go to the stake promoting God’s glory and power and goodness — that’s awesome.  But he does it by inventing a 4th proposition (God exists) and defending that (ok, awesome), while diminishing the reality of the curse under which we live in this fallen world. 

Do not resent your place in the story. Do not imagine yourself elsewhere. Do not close your eyes and picture a world without thorns, without shadows, without hawks. Change this world. Use your body like a tool meant to be used up, discarded, and replaced. Better every life you touch. We will reach the final chapter. When we have eyes that can stare into the sun, eyes that only squint for the Shekinah, then we will see laughing children pulling cobras by their tails, and hawks and rabbits playing tag (p154).

With apologies, my friend —

We ARE commanded to envision a world apart from feasting carnivorous predators, without the thorns that tear apart our fingers as we struggle to garden, without the unwelcome visitor Death (who was never meant to be a part of this world — not for humans, for sure).

The Creation waits and groans for the day of its release from its bondage to our sin (Rom 8).  Wilson’s right: we *will* see hawks and rabbits play together (Isaiah), but it comes at the horrific, measureless price of God’s own blood.  Not mine.  My good works on this earth DO count “for real,” but the Power of Redemption flows from God’s Grace, not my blood.

Lewis in the most famous Narnia Chronicle (Lion, Witch, Wardrobe) writes of the “deep magic” that even Aslan cannot violate: To redeem Edmund’s soul of his treachery, the Stone Table must have blood.

There is no “answer” in softening evil so that God can still look good and powerful.  

Child molesters devour the innocent when no one but God knows about it. I can’t explain how that is Just apart from an eternal view of this world and everything that happens in it, but God promises that Justice will thrive on the earth once the Blood has done its work.

People are starving to death on parts of this planet while American farmers are paid not to grow some crops.  God says He’ll break the arms of the oppressors…. in His time.
A hawk will swoop down and snatch a perky fuzzy kitten out of the sight of a screaming terrified toddler this holiday season …. because our sin is *that bad*.

And so I am left with the reader’s dilemma, and I invite you to join me.  Wrestle with ND Wilson’s words. Get out your Bible and search.  Glean the many gems from his pages…. but IMHO Wilson falls off the theological knife-edge in his quest to explain what God Himself makes no apologies for (other than to affirm that He is not the Author of the evil that chews us up from the inside out, apart from blood-bought Grace).

Read it.

PS. I’d love to teach a Sunday School class using this book along with C S Lewis’s The Problem of Pain and Mary Doria Russell’s outstanding fiction pair, The Sparrow and Children of God.

Thinking aloud: Higher Education Costs

Today I was reminded of the current fight between SC politicians/bureaucrats and the state’s universities.  Despite slashing public funding for state colleges by nearly 50% over the past few years in the wake of a horrible budget crunch, the state government has declared that schools must keep their tuition increases in the neighborhood of 7% or the state will freeze all funding for building projects on campus (which derails research centers and the like).  The College of Charleston, having originally imposed a double-digit increase for 2011, blinked today and agreed to cut its tuition in order to keep its building program.

I have an honest question.
Since the legislators cut SC public colleges’ funding by ~50% over the past few years, why are they now refusing to allow those schools to raise tuition to cover costs? Shouldn’t it be obvious that at least some of that missing funding must come from “somewhere”?

I understand that tuition rates are rising faster in America than inflation rates or median incomes. Most American families can’t even begin to afford a private university education for their graduating high schooler, and public universities aren’t cheap. With average tuition coming in around $7K a year, many kids are being pushed away from 4-year institutions into community colleges.  I understand how politicians feel the heat from angry parents who thought their kid would attend the alma mater … only to realize they’ll have to mortgage the house (again) to even attempt it.

I cringe when I have to tell my hard-working, intelligent high school students that, in order to afford college, they ought to consider doing a year or two at a local community college. To cut the tuition bill in half, they can bang out gen-ed requirements and live at home. It’s very economic, but my liberal-arts-loving heart weeps to think of great English courses thrown by the wayside, the loss of music theory, the underwhelming science coursework, the completion of high-school level work in the pursuit of a post-high-school level degree.  Our high schools are doing THAT bad of a job?

I cringe because I’ve crossed paths with those community college classes in secondhand form, and the tales make me angry and sad.  I can’t believe my competent, more-than-Honors-level writer was forced to sit through a bonehead English course in which she spent whole months “learning” to write a compare-contrast essay.  I’m amused that our local writing contest judges uphold a standard for written English that I ban from my classroom in all other instances. (Adjectives? Really?  You think good writing consists in multiplying adjectives and filling paragraphs with wordy constructions?)

I’m appalled by the story I heard from my friend who recently left her “job” as homemaker and mom to finish her college degree. Her current English professor insists on discussing the “perimeters” of his assignments even after she corrected him… more than once. He apparently doesn’t know the word parameter.  I suggested that my friend photocopy his syllabus, underline “perimeter” and write parameter in the margin in red, and slip it under the door of the head of the English department.

Sometimes I sit down for lunch with a current college student (or recent grad) and ask them to tell me about their coursework, what they liked and what seemed like a waste of time. I’m disheartened to find kids who hate their majors, kids who sleepwalk through classes because nothing is expected of them. I get angry when I read about rampant cheating and paper-mill-production of college-level dissertations, papers, and masters theses.  I’m so thankful for a great college education.  I don’t know how I got so lucky. God is good…. and my professors were good. A few were absolutely outstanding. And I wrote every word of every paper I ever submitted with my own bare brain.

Has higher education succumbed to the siren call of wealth?

Will a quality 4-year degree once again become the property of only the wealthy, leaving the hoi polloi to scrounge up vocational training at junior colleges and tech schools?  Or is that actually a good thing? Should 4-year or liberal arts degrees be reserved for only the “professions”?

Why can’t the “free market economy” dampen the insane costs of higher education?

Concert Report: Mumford & Sons (Sun); Chanticleer (Mon)

The calendar fairy handed me back-to-back musical experiences.  “When it’s good, it’s really, really good!”

Mumford & Sons, Cadillac Sky, King Charles — Buckhead Theatre, Atlanta, 11/7/10
Chanticleer — Brooks Theater, Clemson, 11/8/10

Mumford & Sons from our perspective at the Buckhead Theater in Atlanta
Mumford & Sons from our perspective at the Buckhead Theater in Atlanta

People underestimate how much power an audience has over our enjoyment at a concert. On the one hand, some shows need a young, high energy group of young people to really get things going.  On the other hand, immature audience members often fail to appreciate the nuances of excellent musicianship, less-popular genres of music (like most “classical” works), and the heritage that all of our current musicians share with others around the globe.

I was surprised Sunday to walk into the Buckhead Theater in Atlanta and find a crowd of yuppies and college students and middle aged people waiting eagerly to hear British folk-rock-bluegrass band Mumford & Sons. It was truly an interesting mix of very polite, very excited fans of the good looking quartet with their lovely collection of traditional instruments (and the banjolin). We’ve been listening to their CD almost non-stop in our household as soon as I got it in July, but most of the people at the show could top that: They could sing pretty much every word of every song!

Mumford & Sons brings a gravitas to their performance that few 20-somethings can ever dream of marshalling even when they add a few more years to the pile.  Lead singer Marcus Mumford offers up his soul on the back of his guitar for each song, staring down the crowd and forcing people to come to terms with their lyrics — which are rich and deep and reflective. Every man threw himself into the performance, whether Ben rocking out the keyboard or accordion, or Winston on the banjo/banjolin, or Ted beautifully handling the tall double-bass.

But what made the show incredible — truly an experience — was the audience. You can’t mask an audience’s passion for an artist, not the screaming teenie-bopper attention that big-name pop stars earn, but a deep, fierce loyalty a music-lover can have for his/her favorite musicians.  Bring those musicians and those fans into the same room, and you’ll have magic. And the Buckhead Theater was a charmed venue on Sunday night. Every album track the band played — and I believe they played them all — was thundered back at them by the audience. Even a couple of the 4 new songs had already been leaked to the Internet, and the guys standing behind us were singing every word.  Marcus smirked with satisfaction late in their set when he was finally able to find a song the audience didn’t know…. but we loved it anyway. 

The band mates would make eye contact with each other and laugh as if to say, “What is going ON?! We’re in Georgia! How do these people know this music so well!”  They powwowed in tight little sweaty conferences at the back of the stage, probably mumbling stuff like Hey, maybe we should throw in this one too? … and then it would happen. When you can watch four friends doing what they love and loving every minute of it, no one in the audience was willing to let them off the stage until we’d heard every recorded track and then some.

I’d be remiss not to mention opening bluegrass band Cadillac Sky in my review.  They were outstanding musicians. I’ve never seen someone “shred” on a banjo …. but I did last night!  The lead violin player was amazing, though the crowd didn’t give him nearly enough applause for his talent. The guitar player was crazy and did things with an acoustic guitar that shouldn’t be possible. The double-bass guy was JAMMIN’. I think the group brought 6 or 7 people to the stage for their set, which was a lot of fun.  Definitely a show well-worth the ticket price (and extra Ticketmaster service fees).

I have a feeling Mumford & Sons will be back among us next year. They won’t forget to visit their new “favorite crowd ever” (Ben’s words).  If you haven’t heard the album, I highly recommend finding some tracks on YouTube or MySpace and giving them a listen . . .

I didn't feel like I could take photos at a "formal" concert, so you'll have to make do with the program instead.
I didn’t feel like I could take photos at a “formal” concert, so you’ll have to make do with the program instead.

Switching gears completely, Coart & I found ourselves at the Clemson University Brooks Center tonight on row B enjoying 12-man-wonder-singers Chanticleer. We’ve been Chanticleer fans for more than a decade now, chasing them to various local cities when we’re lucky enough to have them close by.  My favorite venue for an a capella performance is the hall up at Brevard College — perfect acoustics! But Brooks is a good performance space too, and I heard every glorious note of tonight’s program.

What do you get when you assemble 12 of the finest vocalists on the planet? Twelve guys who can sing anything from medieval chant to Italian madrigals to Schumann lieder to 20th C experimental music, R&B, gospel, and jazz.  These concerts provide such a variety of musical material — I’m always fascinated!

Tonight’s “special” or unusual selections were very interesting. One, “Observer from the Magellanic Cloud” suggested the sounds of a future satellite traveling in the nearby galaxy we call the Magellan Cloud, catching a whiff of a signal from Earth of the Maori people in New Zealand dancing their tribal dance in honor of those stars (which they believe bring them crops & a good growing season). The piece slowly changed from a vocalization of something that would suit a sci-fi movie soundtrack into a Maori tribal dance/chant … and then swirled together as the two “signals” became one.

Even more amazing was a set of pieces by an Australian composer, I’ll have to look at my program to find her name, who was haunted by aboriginal melodies and sounds.  One piece was mostly harmonic overtones — the singers used their mouths to create a variety of precisely pitched sounds which, taken together, started to “shimmer” throughout the room in overtones. High pitched harmonies seemed to coalesce from the very air, conjured by the magic of physics/acoustics and the human voice.  I was truly stunned. Not an electronic instrument (or any instrument) in sight except the human voice and some incredible vocal training.

Do yourself a favor: Find some Chanticleer for your Christmas (or world/follk/classical) CD collection.
Look up videos/clips of Chanticleer singing Francis Biehl’s “Ave Maria,” or the Vaughn Williams arrangement of “Loch Lomond.” Those are both gut-wrenchingly gorgeous.

I guess that’s the end of our concert budget for a while. At least we wrapped up 2010’s season with an unforgettable 24 hours.