Review: Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl

Notes From The Tilt-A-Whirl: Wide-Eyed Wonder in God's Spoken WorldNotes From The Tilt-A-Whirl: Wide-Eyed Wonder in God’s Spoken World by N.D. Wilson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well, the apple certainly doesn’t fall far from the tree. Nate’s outlandish work (in the most positive sense) is quite reminiscent of some of his father’s style and metaphorical craftsmanship. Nate is a supremely gifted writer, every page of this wonderland text dripping with poetic imagery. Perhaps the most obvious triumph of these Notes is the way Nate holds the damper pedal for 200 pages, seamlessly sustaining his poetic edge to the end. Incredible endurance.

This work, more like a kaleidoscope than a book, was a breath of glorious air. Actually, more like a gust. Or maybe a cyclone. Possibly, a speeding planet.

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Grand Forces Afoot

“Picture a soldier pinned down behind a sand dune on Normandy beach. He’s just landed; he’s behind the sand dune and can’t get to the next sand dune. He can’t achieve his next objective because he’s pinned down by enemy fire. He’s just stuck, and he’s in a bad jam.

Suppose that, at this point, we make the illustration ludicrous, that a stray sheet of paper from Eisenhower’s invasion plans for Europe got detached from the notebook and is blowing down the beach. It lands on the soldier, and he looks at it and it says, “From Gen. Eisenhower…” and the orders to Eisenhower are to establish a beachhead on the continent of Europe and to take Berlin.

He looks at these orders, and he can’t even get past his own sand dune. He could be tempted to despair, on the one hand, because “How could we do this when I can’t even do that?“, but he could also be, if he is thinking about it rightly, he could be greatly encouraged and say, “However stuck I am, there are grand forces afoot. However stuck I am, there are whole armies in collision. I’m just one small part of the puzzle; I’m just one small part of this, and the only thing I can do is be faithful at my post, be faithful where I am, and if I am, then I’ll just leave the results to a sovereign God.

And that’s how I feel. There are times when I feel stuck behind my sand dune. There are times when I feel like, “Why can’t we do more? Why can’t we communicate more effectively? Why can’t we get this done?” And then, a page out of Matthew 28 blows down the beach and, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,’ Jesus says. ‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them […] teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’

The Christian faith is a religion of world conquest.”

-Doug Wilson, Free Speech Apocalypse (for the quotation, begin at 1:28:03)

Doug-Wilson

Be Thou My Vision: Wordsworth and Seeing into the Life of Things

king-heartsIt is often said that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Yet, what must be said of the two-eyed man?

This is the sort of binocular vision afforded to the follower of Christ, the man or woman whose soul has been quickened by the Holy Spirit and, as C.S. Lewis taught us, has been led no longer to look at the sunbeam but to look along it, to track the ray of light, the small coruscation of glory, to the majesty of the sun. Christians have been tasked to navigate this blinded world not with a limping myopia of self-reliance and DIY spirituality but rather with the full vision of God, “For God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Cor. 4:6). Through His death, Christ has torn the veil, allowing all the saints a wide-eyed view of the wonder of Almighty God.

Throughout the Word of God, Christians are constantly invited “further up and further in”, a welcoming call to all who would follow Christ to see Him and all He will do:

Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8)

Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds toward the children of man” (Psalm 66:5)

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14)

Even the great hymnist composed the beautiful lines: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face”

The Christian, then, has a distinct blessing of vision; as we look to the heavens, we see declared aloud the glory of God (Ps. 19:1). The early 19th century Romantic poet William Wordsworth, in his famous work “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”, effectively demonstrates this sort of Christian vision as he meditates on the sublime beauty of the natural world:

“While with an eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, / We see into the life of things.”

-William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

This is the depth of Christian experience, what Jonathan Edwards would call a “God-entranced vision of all things.” Through the resurrecting power of God, Christians receive new eyes, new life, washed clean by the blood of the Lamb. With these new eyes of faith, we perform miracles: we see “into the life of things.” No longer are we waylaid by reductive materialism, the false sturdiness of earthly gain, or thin pleasures masquerading as true joy; rather, we see through them to discover the thickness and robustness of God. Remember, Christ’s resurrection body could pass through walls not because it was ghostly or wispy but, perhaps, because our material world is thin and feathery compared to the rich thickness of God.

And so, we must learn to see into the life of things, to track the sunbeam to the sun, to see the great abundance of the pleasure of God in and through the things He has made. As Doug Wilson suggests, we ought to “turn the soup into stew” and thank God for the freedom to see Him, for “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (II Cor. 3:18).

Created to Create

The following is an article I wrote on creativity in writing and Christian education originally published on Landmark Christian School’s blog.


old typewriter (focus on text)In Ephesians 5:1, Paul instructs his fellow believers to “be imitators of God as dearly loved children.” Therefore, as followers of Christ and His Word, our first duty in following this command must be to determine, “Well, what is God like?” In opening the Bible, then, to discover the character of God through His revelation in Scripture, we should note the first description we stumble upon: “In the beginning, God created…”

The human capacity for creativity, wonder, and imagination is not only a gift from God to bring Him glory through wholehearted expression and majestic praise but also a mandate; just as the Creator was creative in the design of all things, so must His creation be creative as a way of magnifying Christ through imitating God. When God fashioned Adam from little turrets of dirt and the swirling breath of life, He was not merely stirring human history into existence; He was training us in the way we should perpetuate human history. God, the Grand Storyteller, taught His characters how to tell stories. God revealed the essence of His divinity by sparking divinity in our first family and threading that divinity through thousands of years of plot. When we thus breathe life into the skin of our own protagonists and bid them walk among us in our fictions, when we strain courageously to perfect our poetic effort, when we sing glorious harmonies of praise in reverberating cathedrals, we come as close to the wild invention of God as our finitude allows. We press toward godliness. We imitate God.

This truth is compounded as Paul exhorts us in another letter that “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph. 2:10). It is notable that the Greek word rendered as “workmanship” here in Ephesians is poiema, from which we can clearly see our English word poem. So, we are, quite truly, the poetry of God, created in the loving care of a master wordsmith. We are a robust, abundant, vibrant kaleidoscope of God’s artistic pleasure, penned with brilliant passion, and when He “saw all that He had made, [He declared] it was very good” (Gen. 1:31, emphasis added).

So, since the poetry and creativity of God is rich and imaginative, we must see that the education of our next generation is not simply a means of hardwiring them for social contribution but a full-throated movement to awaken their wonder, to intensify their desire for truth, goodness, and beauty and, from that desire, to pursue creatively the worship of a glorious God. We must train our students to express themselves well, to write with passion and authority, but, more importantly, we must teach them to approach their individual calling, whatever it may be, with godly creativity – that, whatever they do, they do it with all their heart unto the Lord (Col. 3:23). We cannot be in the business of piling young people onto the conveyer belt to college, cookie-cutting them into monochrome caricatures of human beings. They are the living, breathing poetry of God, descendants of the very dust and bone of Eden, with voices and diverse passions. By teaching them to think creatively not only in a Creative Writing elective but also in math, science, physical fitness, history, and athletics, we are raising them to imitate God in all His multifaceted character.

As educators, we recognize not every student is called to a writing career. However, the world needs businessmen and bakers, mechanics and managers, and my prayer is that we provide it with Christian graduates that, like Daniel, rise to the top of their field for the excellent spirit within them. But the world certainly cannot bear the weight of any more graduates who shuffle through life bored and half-asleep. As Douglas Wilson once quipped, we cannot live in a world where “the bland lead the bland.” Creative thinking and creative writing are essential tools not only to our scholarship but to our souls. Creativity is the signature of God on the well-rounded human being, fully equipped to navigate a broken and creaking world with the fire of a full imagination.

May we all learn to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8). May we raise (and be) a generation that sees the glory of God in all things, that creatively expresses His praise in every word with plenty of color and sonorous splendor. May we truly absorb the words of John Piper:

 “[W]hen a person speaks or writes or sings or paints about breathtaking truth in a boring way, it is probably a sin. The supremacy of God in the life of the mind is not honored when God and his amazing world are observed truly, analyzed duly, and communicated boringly. Imagination is the key to killing boredom. We must imagine ways to say truth for what it really is. And it is not boring. God’s world – all of it – rings with wonders. The imagination calls up new words, new images, new analogies, new metaphors, new illustrations, new connections to say old, glorious truth. Imagination is the faculty of the mind that God has given us to make the communication of his beauty beautiful.”

The Poetry of God

downloadIn Ephesians 2, Paul declares that we as Christians are the “workmanship of God”:

“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).

Interestingly, just a verse earlier, Paul reminds us of the sobering reality that we are saved by grace through the gift of faith, not the strength of our own theological prowess or pull-myself-up-by-my-bootstraps, “can-do” optimism. There is no amount of self-help literature, meditative yoga, or American patriotism that can yank us out of the muck of our depravity. We are just plain sunk. Apart from him I can do nothing (John 15:5).

So how are we to read this declaration that we are God’s workmanship? If all the good in us comes from grace, what does this identity mean? Are we valuable? As Joe Rigney once said, “I know God loves me, but does He like me?”

It’s notable that the Greek word rendered as “workmanship” here in Ephesians is poiema, from which we can clearly see our English word poem. When Paul encourages the church at Ephesus that they are “God’s poiema” created “in Christ Jesus”, we must recall what the Apostle John called Christ at the beginning of his gospel: the Word (“In the beginning was the Word…“).

So, quite truly and wondrously, we are the poetry of God created by the Word of God. We are His poiema created in Christ Jesus for good works. One cannot help but remember the glorious image of the great lion Aslan, singing all of Narnia into existence, creating from nothing the majestic symphony of space, the living splash of Nature’s color, the taste of golden water and the scent of purple skylines. All of creation, with man and woman as its crown jewels, is woven together into a grand and passionately wild poem by the even grander and wilder God who penned it. The ink of God’s poetic effort is the living and breathing dreams and glories of man. We are God’s poiema created in Christ Jesus. Majesty upon majesty.

As David wrote in Psalm 19:

The heavens declare the glory of God,
    and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
    and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
    whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
    and their words to the end of the world.
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
    and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.”

The poetry of God flames out through all the earth. Observe the fullness of His glory as it is declared in this passage: the sun comes out like a bridegroom, coming for his bride, running his course with joy. Every sunrise, then, is a beautiful picture of the Great Bridegroom pursuing His bride down the cosmic aisle of the skies and clouds, chasing after her well into the night (as every groom ought).

As Victorian poet Gerard Manly Hopkins puts it:

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God / It will flame out like shining from shook foil”

All of creation is charged with God’s grandeur, an electric livewire coursing deep into our veins. We are not a dull, lifeless poem, stuck in the pages of a bedraggled, spine-torn anthology in my English classroom. We are a living, spoken, adrenaline-pumping poem uttered by the very breath of God. We are His workmanship, His craft, the diamonds carved from coal, man from dust, woman from bone.

So, yes. God likes us. We are His poem. God passionately pursues us and love us because we are crafted by His hands and His Word, made in His very image. We are the clay of a dedicated, careful Potter. We are the rhymes and notes of a marvelous Poet. We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus. May we learn to live this way.

As Doug Wilson once noted, it is no wonder the first recorded words of human history were poetry: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23).

Goodnight Nobody

Goodnight Nobody

“Goodnight nobody”

So says Margaret Wise Brown’s narrator in the classic children’s book Goodnight Moon, a book that was read to me countless times as a child and is a favorite in the current rotation my wife and I are reading to our children. In the midst of the goodnights rendered to kittens, mittens, combs, brushes, and mush throughout the book, this particular sentence is quite startling.

I can’t help thinking of the phrase “Goodnight nobody” as one of the saddest utterances that many today unconsciously whisper as they lie down to sleep. Our American culture, so flooded by the New Atheism, is at war with the thought that there may be a God who built this ship and is sovereignly at the helm. They believe, as C.S. Lewis once did, that there is no God and they are mad at Him for not existing. As a result of this militant atheism, we have seen a noticeable rise in loneliness, meaninglessness, isolation, self-centeredness, and bitterness. Truth is no longer a concrete cornerstone but rather a confetti-gun explosion — everyone gets his own tiny piece of colorful “truth” upon which to build his house. And we all know what happens when the big, bad wolf blows on those houses.

To borrow an analogy from Douglas Wilson, the atheist’s creed is in accordance with John Lennon’s “Imagine”:

“Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today”

There is no Heavenly Father for us to say goodnight to. Above us only sky. No eternal, sovereign justice awaiting anyone down here. Above us only sky. Above Dachau? Only sky. Above Ground Zero? Only sky. Above Syria? Only sky. We have certainly imagined, as Lennon desired, all the people living for today, and what we have gotten is a frenzied attempt to freeze time, to stay young forever, to be wealthy forever, to invest more in our online selves than our material selves. Our homes are selfish, our relationships selfish, our conversations selfish. We have exchanged the rod of Moses for the selfie stick of man. We are wound tight around our own axle, constantly getting what we have always wanted, and it’s making us so sad.

So when we lay ourselves down to sleep, we do not pray the Lord our soul to keep. We pray nothing. We say goodnight to nobody. When one of my daughters tumbles down and begins to cry, I swoop her up in my arms and softly say, “Daddy’s got you. It’s okay.” But for the modern atheist, he has no such comfort. For him, there is no cosmic Dad to hold onto, to cry to, to talk to. He has imagined Dad right out of the room and wonders why he feels so alone. He has shut his eyes tight to the notion of a Father God and questions why his world is so dark. In the ultimate analysis, his life is a blank page bearing the tragic inscription: “Goodnight nobody.”

As Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage, the men and women merely players.” We are all most certainly acting out a grand story (see my discussion of Hamlet). Yet, the atheist must also adopt the bleak words of the Player, the lead actor in a traveling theater troupe in Tom Stoppard’s great play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead:

“You don’t understand the humiliation of it, to be tricked out of the single assumption that makes our existence bearable: that somebody is watching. We’re actors, we’re the opposite of people […] We need an audience.”

sisyphus_by_o__v-d66ox90If we are all actors in the cosmic theater of life, then the notion nobody is watching must be the most harrowing of all. Our tragedies and our triumphs would ultimately amount only to the enlargement or diminishment of the boulders that we, like Sisyphus, simply push up the mountainside. Unfortunately, the best the atheist can tell us in response to this horrendous thought is that we must imagine Sisyphus to be happy.

As Christians, we must constantly affirm the existence and presence of the Almighty God who not only created all things and sustains all things but cares for all things. Our lives have meaning because we are playing to His audience. We are seeking to glorify Him. We have received His divine approval. We have purpose. We are not marbles in a box, moving about aimlessly on this pale blue dot in the universe to no eternal or meaningful end. We are children of God. We say goodnight to Him as He lays us down to sleep. We are forgiven when we sin. We are raised to our feet when we fall. And when we come to die, we may echo the words of Christ and commend our spirit not into a blank oblivion but into our Father’s hands.

Five Influential Writers in My Life

As I am working to lift Eden.Babel onto its feet, one of my primary concerns and interests is in the field of wordsmithing. Excellent craftsmanship is a noble goal, no matter what the smithy of your particular ilk is filled with; the mason may use bricks, the painter his brushes, the musician his notes. The writer uses words. Since the usage of words is a staple of most people’s daily living, the writer has a peculiarly interesting challenge before him. Not everyone uses paint or notes or bricks in the course of their 24 hours, but we almost all use words. Some may wish others used fewer, but that’s another post. Writers are tasked to take a seemingly mundane feature of our existence (words and their arrangement) and spin them in such a way that they can knock a hearer off his or her feet. As Mary, Queen of Scots once said of John Knox, “I fear his tongue and pen more than the armies of England.”

As I have immersed myself over the years in the world of literature, poetry, and many other forms of the written word as well as committed myself to the weaving of my own words, I have decided to consider five of the most influential writers in my own life. This list, as with most lists of its kind, is written in the current moment, meaning I am quite available to be moved and impacted by other writers than these five in the future just as I certainly have been in the past. Also, this list does not factor in God and His Word, the most influential book ever written. As a Christian, I heartily affirm the influence of the Word of God to be a given.

5. C.S. Lewis

cs lewis

This choice really stems from how much of Lewis I have read over the past ten or so years. As a child, I was raised on the Narnia stories and have just recently started to go back through them. I was likewise raised on the BBC films of the Narnia books (you know, the Lucy with her wonderful teeth, the giant beavers, the animatronic Aslan. Classics…). As I moved into college, I began to wade through more of Lewis’ work, including The Great Divorce, Till We Have FacesThe Screwtape Letters, and others. During a bleaker period, I picked up A Grief Observed, which was very helpful. Finally, while studying literature in grad school, I took a course on Lewis and Tolkien in London. There, I dove headlong into his space trilogy, The Four LovesThe Weight of Glory, and a great deal of his biography. Since then, I’ve read Surprised by Joy, a number of his poems, and continue to read him more and more. His commitment to both logic and fancy is contagious, and I look to him for an abundance of insight and imagination.

Recommended readingOut of the Silent PlanetThe Voyage of the Dawn TreaderThe Screwtape Letters, “The Future of Forestry”, “Meditation in a Toolshed”

4. Billy Collins

Billy-Collins

In compiling this list, I made an effort to select writers that represent different genres and approaches. With this in mind, Collins is certainly my poetic choice. He served as poet laureate for the U.S. in the early 2000s, and I even had the privilege of meeting him at a poetry reading in Nashville. Collins’ poetry is known for its accessibility, humor, and seeming simplicity. For this, he may certainly be termed a poet of the people. Yet, his writing is elusive, deep, biting, startling, and some of the most moving verse I’ve encountered. Collins has the unique ability to take a simple reality (weighing a dog, weaving a lanyard at camp, studying geography) and transform it into a transcendent experience as he observes the fullness of feeling, sensitivity, and power that can exist in any given human moment. He treats love, loss, friendship, fear, and longing as though they are old pals, conversing freely with them over coffee at midnight. He laughs through awkwardness and shudders at morning light. He can turn any event on its head at the start of a single stanza and leave you breathless upon completing it. I cannot speak highly enough of his work, and I have thoroughly enjoyed making my way through his collections.

Recommended reading: “The Lanyard”, “Weighing the Dog”, “Introduction to Poetry”, “Plight of the Troubadour”

3. Ben Gibbard

gibbard-colbert

Though he is primarily regarded as a musician, Gibbard’s lyric writing ranks right up there with the best of them. He is the frontman for the indie rock band Death Cab for Cutie and has become a respected voice for poetic melancholy in our generation. I caught on to Ben Gibbard’s beautiful writing when I was first introduced to DCFC’s album Transatlanticism by my little brother, Chris. I remember being immediately struck by the quality of their music and Gibbard’s soaring melodies, so I decided to go through the whole album several times over on my own. What I discovered as I walked alongside his verses and choruses, acutely attuned to the narratives he was singing, was simply breathtaking. I was speechless. Gibbard could weave a lyrical phrase unlike anyone I had ever heard, and what had ignited a glimmering flame of attraction and sympathy for him in Transatlanticism was fueled to a wildfire in Plans, their 2005 album. By this time, I had begun playing music myself with a friend of mine and had become interested in lyric writing as a form of expression not dissimilar from poetry. As I delved further into writing music and writing lyrics, Gibbard always served as the standard, the pitch in which all of my own writing was set. To this day, I look to Ben Gibbard’s poetic sensibility, astounding mastery of metaphorical language, and sobering emotional melancholy for a bracing dose of creative power to shock me back into my own love and passion for writing.

Recommended reading/listening: “What Sarah Said”, “Brothers on a Hotel Bed”, “Little Wanderer”, “Transatlanticism”, “We Looked Like Giants”, “Title and Registration”, “Summer Skin”, “No Room in Frame”

2. F. Scott Fitzgerald

f-scott-fitzgerald

If you are reading this and you are a former/current student of mine, you saw this coming; I tend to reference Fitzgerald all the time in class. Simply put, there will never be another F. Scott Fitzgerald. I dedicated my master’s thesis to the life and work of this marvelous author, so I am quite biased. I do believe, however, that his prophetic understanding of American narcissism, the nature of sin, the transience of happiness, and the ache of unrequited love have cemented him in literary history as a true icon of the highest caliber. He was painfully romantic, given over at once to both the beauty and the hopelessness of his dreams. He desired a greatness that would always be two steps ahead of him, doubting his ability to reach it yet straining forward all his life. He was exuberantly happy and painfully miserable. He rose meteorically and fell disastrously. He fought with God and embraced God. He could dash off a crowd-pleaser in a matter of hours (often hungover) and labor meticulously over a failing novel for years. And his writing is simply magnificent. Every page of his work is filled with both diamonds and dust, champagne and charlatans. He wrote like Mozart, lyrically effusing phrases and sentences that seemed like they had been written ages ago as he simply pulled them out of the air and blotted them on paper. He wrote like most men breathe, pouring forth what was already in there, effortlessly. Much of my love for the imaginative wonder and hope in life is credited to his work. I will read him until I can no longer read.

Recommended readingThe Great GatsbyThis Side of Paradise, “‘The Sensible Thing'”, “Thank You for the Light”, “The Cut-Glass Bowl”, “The Jelly-Bean”

1. Doug Wilson

Doug-Wilson

Doug Wilson is a theologian, pastor, and highly prolific writer with dozens of books to his name. If there is any writer who has helped shape my thinking, provoke my curiosity, satisfy my imaginative scope, push my pursuit of excellence, hone my understanding of joy, and confirm my desire for the full, abundant, passionate life in Christ, Doug Wilson is that writer. His work ranges greatly, covering such topics as culture, theology, rhetoric, argument, marriage, childrearing, father hunger, eschatology, apologetics, creative writing, Beowulf, wisdom, the Middle Ages, hearty laughter, Calvinism, gratitude, poetry, robust singing, and much more. His writing has led me deeper into the conviction that God is God and God is good. I am so deeply indebted to his writing and his teachings on the Christian life that to remove his influence from my life would be to remove a great deal of who I have become in my faith in Jesus. While the content of his work is overwhelmingly edifying and helpful, his style is simply inimitable. He wields the English language like a battle axe, sharp at the edge and effective in every blow. He is clever, witty, incisive, kind, colorful, lyrical, and quotable. He is memorable, humorous, startling, paradoxical, and charming. He is jolly and forthright. He is happy and rigid. In a word, he is full. My admiration and respect for Wilson’s writing cannot be expressed enough, and I could speak at greater and greater lengths in praise of his command over the written word.

Recommended readingHeaven MisplacedAngels in the ArchitectureRules for ReformersJoy at the End of the TetherWordsmithy, God Is