Book Review: Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl by ND Wilson

Have you ever tried to use your sense of smell to describe how a fresh bowl of fruit looks? What about sight to describe the sound of a two-year-old happily playing in her room? If so, you understand a little more about the challenge N.D. Wilson faced in writing Notes From The Tilt-A-Whirl: Wide-Eyed Wonder in God’s Spoken World. In this delightfully peculiar book, Wilson attempts to recapture a sense of wonder at the world that God has spoken into being and does so with intriguing and thought-provoking results.

Wilson often writes in a borderline stream-of-consciousness style—you may not always know where he’s going right away, but it’s definitely going to be an entertaining journey. There is no doubt that he is foremost an artist as you read his often quirky and sarcastic illustrations. He writes of guitars being better than blue highlighters for remembering the beauty of sunsets and thunderstorms, how we ought not to take dating advice from the Discovery Channel and the foolishness of denying God’s power:

In For the Time Being, Annie Dillard attempts to keep God around and keep Him nice (if weepy). And so she (like many others) scraps omnipotence. “The very least likely things for which God might be responsible are what insurers call ‘acts of God.'”

Go that route. Katrina wasn’t Him. Nothing involving fault lines is Him. Stop looking at Him like that—He’s never so much as touched a tornado. He exists, and He’s friendly, but if you’re in some kind of trouble, you might just want to make a deal with the devil. Go to the man in charge, I always say. You can renege later, and you might get really good at the guitar in the meantime. (p. 64)

Wilson particularly shines while deconstructing the absurdity of the idea that our world, in all its beauty and bizarreness happened on a fluke. A random act of chance. Yet it’s in this seeming randomness that we see the complexity and intricacy of how this world was created. And he finds philosophers arguments to the contrary ridiculous, an excuse to sell more books. And that includes, Nietzsche, who Wilson describes as “the only philosopher to ever make me laugh out loud” (p. 199).

High praise indeed.

“Marx called religion an opiate, and all too often it is. But philosophy is an anesthetic, a shot to keep the wonder away,” writes Wilson (p. 15). “Philosophia—the brotherly love of wisdom—is a perfectly clean pastime for boys and girls alike. But philosophy proper has become a place to hide, a place to pursue immortality (through never going out of print) by being foggy enough that room is always left for discussion—for future dissertations.”

As Wilson moves through the book, he handles questions of absolute truth, creation, the “problem” of evil, and Hell with wit, depth and more than a little bit of a sharp tongue. His answer to the problem of evil particularly poignant and sure to be controversial: The answer is pride.

The problem of evil is a genuine problem, an enemy with sharp pointy teeth. But it is not a logical problem. It is an emotional one, an argument from Hamlet’s heartache and from ours. It appeals to our pride and to our nerve endings. We do not want to hear an answer that puts us so low. But the answer is this: we are very small… Nothing in the existence of evil implies that God must not be in control. Nothing implies that He does not exist (exactly the opposite—without Him, the category evil does not exist; all is neutral flux and entropy). The struggle comes when we look at ourselves in the mirror, a carnival mirror, a mirror that stretches our worth in the skies. Given my immense personal value, how could a good God ever allow me to feel pain?

Our emotions balk at omni-benevolence. (pp. 109-110)

Read that again. It makes sense, doesn’t it? The only problem in the problem of evil is that we’re too prideful to admit that pain is good for us. So we’re left with a choice. We can either dig our heels in and complain against God—”how could a good God ever allow me to feel pain?” as Wilson puts it—or we can say, with Job, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).

Notes From The Tilt-A-Whirl reminds us that we live in a world filled with wonder and beauty—and none of it is by accident. It is the work of the Master Artist, the Poet, the Storyteller, by whose Word even now we live and breathe and (ironically) rail against Him. I think this is something we need to be reminded of more often, and I’m grateful for N.D. Wilson doing so. I hope you will be, too.

Title: Notes From The Tilt-A-Whirl: Wide-Eyed Wonder in God’s Spoken World
Author: N.D. Wilson
Publisher: Thomas Nelson (2009)

Note: I first reviewed this book in August of 2009. The above review contains much of the original content, but has been substantially revised. Hopefully for the better.

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  • Ryan Higginbottom

    Thanks for the review, Aaron. I’m looking forward to reading this book. Have you viewed the accompanying DVD?

    I think you have a few typos in the quotations from the book (the first block quote and the first sentence in the “Marx…” paragraph). You may want to read back over them.

    • Aaron Armstrong

      I’ve not yet seen the DVD, although I’d like to. Thanks for the catches on the typos, Ryan—fixed!

  • Becky Pliego

    I read this book when it came out, and after reading this review I want to re-read it. It is indeed a different style that takes you from here to there, from the littlest things to the grandest in a wonderful way. A joy indeed.

    Ryan, the DVD is phenomenal, my family loves it.

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