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

notes-from-the-tilt-a-whirlNotes from the Tilt-A-Whirl: Wide-Eyed Wonder in God’s Spoken World
N. D. Wilson
Thomas Nelson, 2009

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.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl (Nathan Wilson)”

  1. Hello! So I sort of stumbled on here.. for some reason I got the idea to google that ND Wilson quote about llamas to see if anyone else thought it was funny and shared it online. Then I ended up reading through your review. It is very well written and I’m glad to have read it.

    I’m not sure if any of your views on this book have change since you posted this 4 years ago (yikes!), but I’m not sure you’re hearing Nate correctly on what he’s saying about evil in Notes. He’s not diminishing the evil of evil. To point out that God ordains evil in order to write a good story is not to say, “See, evil is not bad!” but rather it is to say, “See, God’s not bad for allowing evil.” There is an important difference there. He’s not arguing that this current world is the best-of-all-possible-worlds. In fact, he makes fun of Leibniz in Notes for saying so:

    “Leibniz, a bit of a Boy Scout, thought this world had to be the best of all possible worlds (since a perfect God could create no less). Easy enough.
    Voltaire made good fun of him. Even easier” (13-14).

    And when Nate says, “Do not close your eyes and picture a world without thorns, without shadows, without hawks,” he does not mean we shouldn’t long for and “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.” That sentence has to be read in light of what comes before and after it: “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.” He’s not saying, “We should not think about or long for the world without death and suffering and evil.” He just painted a glorious picture of that would for us to think about and long for! Rather, he is saying that we ought not to “resent” God for putting us in this one that is filled with evil, and we ought not to merely “shut our eyes” in a sort of escapism and “imagine” that we in a perfect world already as a way of coping with the pain. Instead, he is encouraging us to take that world that we want so badly and to actualize it here. We should “change this world.” That’s why God put us in this ugly world, so that we would, in his strength, make it better, and better every life we touch, all the while looking forward to that future glorious day when all things will be made new.

    So I think Nate would agree with you more than you think he would. It just seems to me that you view any attempt to explain that God means the evil in this world for good as “softening evil.” *That* would be the point of disagreement. As I said before, I think Nate would say that none of what he wrote implies that evil isn’t really evil, just that God isn’t evil for allowing evil. When I read of Macbeth murdering Duncan, I am repulsed. When I read of the unraveling of Iago’s vengeful schemes, I despise his character. My understanding that Shakespeare wrote those scenes in his play to make a good story does not take away from that.

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    1. I appreciate this comment and the fact that you took time to read and respond!

      I don’t think we can offer a solution to the tension between the problem of evil and the goodness of God. The Shakespeare analogy breaks down at this very point. Iago and Macbeth and Claudius are, in the end, fiction. And while some lesser writers may fail to give their characters a moral universe or a proper end, both Shakespeare and the author of the worst drivel aren’t crashing into the lives of real human beings.

      I firmly believe God is both good and powerful, and I can see and experience His goodness as well as the horrors of this broken world. The analogy of an author tormenting his character or of Nate stomping on an ant doesn’t give us adequate explanation when WE are the characters living the brokenness. An intellectual argument or even a poetic one (such as Notes) cannot accomplish it.

      As much as I appreciate the heart of the book, I think we Reformed folk rush too quickly to ameliorate the gut-wrenching effects of sin on our world. I have no answer to why God allows humans in one place to experience the worst of human nature or the ravages of natural disasters while preserving others. And I think the most honest response of the believer must include a reticence to rush in and tell the victim, the crushed, the broken that “God meant it for good” before the person has grown in their knowledge of God for Him to make that lesson clear to them Himself.

      I’m sure that Nate and I agree that the Gospel is bigger than our sin, and that in Glory all of us will see how God transformed evil into good. But the that is not the truth the Reformed thinker will lose grip of. We run the risk of handing thoughtful, hurting people a pat answer that diminishes the worth of the image bearers who bear in their bodies, minds, and souls the scars of sins committed against them which God did not step in to prevent.

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