Review: Death by Living: Life Is Meant to Be Spent
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Witty randomness submitted to an overarching point. That’s N.D. Wilson, and I’ve read both of his books in the witty-but-submitted-randomness genre (the other being Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl, equally good).
The point to which Wilsons’ otherwise random stories and observations are submitted is right in the title: Death by Living. And it is ultimately a Christian point, though it would be hard for me to sum it up in a sentence. I’ll still kind of try: we’re all dying even as we live, our “heartbeats cannot be hoarded,” and we ought to live in light of the realities of Creation, Fall, Redemption. But that summary is far more linear than the book, and far less effective.
One regular feature of the book, the one that ended up being my favorite, was the collection of stories from all of Wilson’s grandparents, especially his two grandfathers. Stories about his kids were my second favorite.
Little theological insights were, um, also my first favorite. So let me offer just one example of each major category of thing I liked in the book:
Witty stories with a profound point:
In those early days, when story nights came, I would gather them around the youngest brother (still in crib captivity), and I would tell them some fatherly version of a tale from history or legend. They heard all sorts of things about dragons and wars and Samson and David and Moses and prophets and ill-behaved gods and men and women who weren’t scared of them. But after a while, on one particular night when my brain felt like a pre-squeezed lime slice, I decided that I wanted my spawn to be more active than passive, more invested in the stories. And so, as they gathered around, I told them they could each pick one character (or thing) and I would weave them all into a single story. The arrangement would (I thought) stimulate growth in everyone involved. They got to participate, and I got a creative writing exercise (along with a running start). And then they discovered hyphens. It was Lucia (then four) who introduced them to our little story sessions. Much to her older brother’s chagrin, she loved butterflies. But she didn’t love them exclusively. She loved unicorns (especially if they were part butterfly) and ballerinas (especially if they could turn into unicorns and butterflies) and princesses (so long as they knew ballet and could turn into unicorns and butterflies). Ameera (three) added slightly more courageous elements (puppies that could turn into nice girl dragons or clone themselves into whole packs of puppies that could turn into nice girl dragons). What could a brother do but play the game? Rory (five) struggled to counteract all the butterfly-unicorn-ballerina-princessness with more and more gruesome monsters, hoping that his father would take the hint and allow the girlier elements in the story to be devoured—something I was simply unable to do (given that I wanted my daughters sleeping happily). Things collapsed around my ears. Yeah, I achieved my goals. My kids were involved, and I got help (and a little extra work on my narrative agility). But they weren’t supposed to be feeding themselves. And when they tried, it all turned into instant home-brewed irritation. Rory introduced the giant, creeping land squid that only eats butterfly-unicorn-ballerina-princesses and puppies and girl dragons and can smell them anywhere and can’t die and can magically transport itself after its prey and is always really, really hungry. Seamus (one) deeply approved of this monster and displayed his approval with loud roaring. The sisters baulked at such a creature’s presence in any narrative ever, let alone their bedtime story. And then Rory profoundly disagreed with my authorial judgment that such a creature must be (somehow) vanquished. That night, no one went to bed happy, and I knew that I was done shirking. It was time to reshoulder the burden until their instincts had been better fed (and for longer). Stories are as hard to create as they are inevitable; good ones are as elusive as they are necessary to hungry souls.
Little theological insights:
Adam is given toil and sorrow all the days of his life. The kicker here is not the toil, and not even the sorrow. All the days of his life. His life now has days—welcome to mortality and the ticking clock.
Okay, one more little theological insight:
When faced with unpleasantness (trouble) there are only two ultimate responses (with many variations). On the one hand, “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” On the other, “Curse God and die.”
Okay, just one more!
Atheism is not an idea we want fleshed out. Atheism incarnate does happen in this reality narrative. But it doesn’t rant about Islam’s treatment of women as did the (often courageous) atheist Christopher Hitchens. It doesn’t thunder words like evil and mean it (as Hitch so often did) when talking about oppressive communist regimes. His costume slipped all the time—and in many of his best moments. Atheism incarnate is nihilism from follicle to toenail. It is morality merely as evolved herd survival instinct (nonbinding, of course, and as easy for us to outgrow as our feathers were). When Hitchens thundered, he stood in the boots of forefathers who knew that all thunder comes from on high.
I almost accused Wilson of having more neologisms per page than the Urban Dictionary, but that would just be me trying to be as clever as Wilson and I had better not try. Instead it’s time for evaluation: I think you’ll love it or be cloyed by the third page. If the latter, don’t go on. If the former, join the club.
Thanks to NetGalley and Thomas Nelson for an advance review copy of this book. I encourage you to pre-order it. You don’t have a lot of heartbeats to wait till then.