Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl: an Author Acknowledgement

Monday, March 12, 2012

Is there a particular phenomenon which in all this wide world causes you to take notice and feel a certain way – almost entirely regardless of when you encounter it or how you are feeling at the time or who you are with? And when I say “take notice” I don’t just mean that you notice it, in which case any gaudy or unavoidably attention-grabbing thing would suffice. No, it might be very subtle, or common, or silent, or  yes, gaudy, but when faced with it, you cannot help take notice, pay attention, open up your ears to what it is saying. It ends up not being the focus of your attention; what it is saying does. For me, the it is standing in the snow, and feeling – realizing really – that it’s cold. I will often take my gloves off and grab a fistful, because the feeling of burning, icy, melting snow turning my fingers red and cold and eventually numb reminds me that I am alive. It reminds me that I am not numb, not really. It reminds me that I am not wholly calloused to the Voice that speaks through all of His creation, that I am not wholly dead to those non-lingual words that N.D. Wilson identifies in his book as “God’s Spoken World.”

Notes from a Tilt-a-Whirl: Wide-Eyed Wonder in God’s Spoken World. This book – a poem in prose, really – made my reading experience very much like picking up a handful of snow. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that one recurring image throughout the book is the vivid recollection of snow-experiences. But mostly it has to do with Wilson’s beautiful preoccupation with uncovering the Voice of the Poet, with de-numbing our senses to God’s words, specifically His spoken world, all around us. Like the medievals (but unlike the medievals), Wilson believes strongly that this world is a book, a book revealing the Author - if we are willing to become literate (which is much more an issue of the heart than of dissecting analogies). I can’t help but quote him directly here: “In the beginning… There was a Word, a Voice. There was Artist, but there was not yet art. And that Voice said Light, and extended Himself a finite canvas to paint the only thing that could be worth painting, to paint the I AM” (186 – 187).

In reading Wilson’s book, I didn’t feel like I was being taught something shockingly new, but rather being exposed to wider and stronger and more beautiful depths of the familiar. These are the whispers and shadows of light that some of us were introduced to through the writings of Tolkien (with his mythology of “splintered light”) and Lewis (who resists the possibility that a star is simply a ball of gas, that its existence consists only in its materials of composition). These are the whispers and shadows of light that we are hopefully aware of to some degree through our own experiences. And if not there, then certainly through the words of Scripture: “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge” (Psalm 19:1-2).

And Notes is steeped in Scripture. Not in the ways we may be used to (whether bad or good). There is no copy and paste of de-contextualized verses. There is no in-depth exegesis of a passage, a phrase, a word. But the Written Word of God pervades: it forms the base of Wilson’s theology, it permeates his assumptions, it sweeps through his anecdotes, it colours his perspective with an irrevocable dye. The fear, for some of us, is that a book which insists on God’s effectiveness to speak through every created thing will crumble into diverse mantras of  “god is whatever you understand him to be through whatever you discovered him in.” Fear not. This book is anything but flaky. And it is anything but tame – there are no half-hearted convictions here. This book insists on God’s sovereignty, on His power, on His goodness, on His holiness, on His Incarnation, on His humility in coming “to live in a trough and die on a pole,” on the reality of Hell, on the gloriousness of God, on the joy that is ours to come.

"But what kind of book is it?" you may ask
It is a book of very big ideas and very small details. There are many lists in the book. In sentences, mostly. Juxtapositions. And all are carefully crafted. The chapters start off with a scene, a recollection of the author’s, with a deeply visceral connection to the landscape or some creature therein. And there the chapter returns in closing. In between, however, the images shift. We are in places confronted with the voice of a philosopher (Plato? Nietzsche? Annie Dillard?). We are introduced to a butterfly. We are told that there are shellfish fossils in the Rockies. We are privy to lists like: “A single world combining galaxies, black holes, Jerry Seinfeld, over 300,000 varieties of beetle, Shakespeare, adrenal glands, professional bowling, and the bizarre reproductive patterns of wasps (along with teams of BBC cameramen to document them), precludes easily palatable explanations” (4-5). These lists are marvelous. They de-familiarize the familiar; that is, they prompt us to think of common things in new ways; that is, we must put some work into it. But it is invigorating work. And Notes is ultimately cohesive – it is a fitting embodiment of the paradox we see around us of the diversity and unpredictability of life, and of its unity under the creating, sustaining, reigning Lord Jesus Christ. Notes is a story, with a kind of plot, with an accrual of force and emotion, with a point. Like life.

Life. Wilson weaves within the book’s pages a provocative and humbling account of life, of this created life, and he does not hold back from dealing with the hard stuff: death, the (so-called, but much felt) problem of evil, pain, decay, Hell, Heaven, bodies, souls, laughter, language, wonder, worship. Of what is. Of what will be. Oh yes, of what will be! There is a quote on the last page (before the acknowledgments section) that I wish I could read to you, but it is on the last page and so I don’t want to read it to you. You must read it yourself. I think you’ll know which one it is.

There are so many other passages I want to share too. In fact, when I first drafted this post I had worked up my own juxtaposition of something from Barthes’ purposely provocative short essay, “Death of the Author” with one of Wilson’s statements regarding the Voice of the Author. I've obviously since discarded that idea, but I’ll end here with the quote from the latter: may its reminder of your created-ness and God’s creative authority provoke you to go find the book and read it.

“You are spoken. I am spoken. We stand on a spoken stage. The spinning kind. The round kind. The moist kind. […] The magic is real, and I stand blinking on the stage because of it. I’m real. I’m heavy. I’m matter. Cut me and I’ll bleed. But I’m not made out of anything, and if the Magician, the Poet, the Word, if the Singer were to stop His voice, I would simply cease to be” (24).

If you've read Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl, what are your thoughts on it? How did it impact you? And have you read any of his children's fiction yet?


Bethany 7:10 a.m.  

Thanks for this review, Jenni! I'll definitely have to read this book!

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