I have this friend, John. He’s got many wonderful qualities (as good friends should). But one of my favorite things about John is when he’s working out an idea. When we’re trying to come up with a hook for a sales piece or batting around ideas for how to start a presentation, a comment or word will grab him. A mischievous grin appears. That’s when I know it’s time to sit back and let John go. At the end of one of these sessions, we don’t always end up with something useable, but we always have a lot of fun trying.
Reading N.D. Wilson always reminds me a little of brainstorming with John—I’m not always sure where he’s going, but I always enjoy getting there.
His latest book, Death by Living, is a great example of this. Here, he encourages readers to reorient their thinking on what it means to live; to “focus on a way of living, a way of receiving life” (xi). How? By seeing that our lives are meant to be given away.
I realize that, for Christians, this is not a terribly groundbreaking idea—after all, this idea is central to the ethics of life in Christ’s kingdom. We are to consider the needs of others ahead of our own, to “decrease” so that Christ might increase, to be “poured out” for the sake of the gospel….
“Lay your life down,” Wilson writes. “Your heartbeats cannot be hoarded” (84).
But you know what?
We clearly don’t get it. If we did, I suspect books like this wouldn’t need to be written. We seem to be confused that our lives aren’t meant for us (and I put myself at the head of the line on this one), so we spend our time pursuing things that don’t really matter. We grab for every moment of importance and significance we can, forgetting it’s kind of pointless.
Grabbing will always fail. Hoarding always fails. Living to live always reaches inevitable and pointless Darwinian burnout—bigger fears, deeper mortal panic. Live to die… Grabbing will always fail. Giving will always succeed. Our children, our friends, and our neighbors will all be better off if we work to accumulate for their sakes. (110)
This is the idea that’s reinforced again and again throughout Death by Living. But the way Wilson does it isn’t be drumming it into our heads through simple repetition—he shows it through stories. “We are narrative creatures, and we need narrative nourishment—narrative catechisms” (11).
This is where Wilson’s strength as a writer really comes through. He spends little time discussing his family members’ backgrounds, but they’re fleshed out from the moment you read their names. They don’t appear as vapors, mere shadows on a page. They’re actual people (and not only because they’re actual people). Those who’ve tried (and failed) to write fiction will hopefully get what I’m talking about here.
But his stories don’t exist to tickle our fancies. He doesn’t spin yarns merely to entertain, but to show us what ideas putting “on flesh” (19) really looks like. As much as some of us may love abstract concepts, what we believe translates into what we do.
Christianity is no good at all as an idea. Stop thinking that an asserted proposition is the same thing as faith. It’s a start. But it can also be a costume. Enflesh it.…
If you think it, live it. If you don’t live it, you don’t really think it. You are not what you think (or what you think you think). You are not what you say you are. You are what you do. (20-21)
N.D. Wilson’s writing is an acquired taste. His writing isn’t entirely linear. He follows the rabbit trails of his mind wherever they lead. He leads you to conclusions in a way that’s sometimes so subtle it’s easy to miss.
But, if you follow him where he leads as he celebrates lives lived well, you’ll see this important truth: our lives are meant to be spent. As much as we lament time passing us by, as much as we loathe the idea of death, we can see even death as a gift. Because we die, “we can run the good race. We can fight the good fight. Completion exists” (113). Our choice is this: “shall we die for ourselves or die for others?” (83)
Title: Death by Living
Author: N.D. Wilson
Publisher: Thomas Nelson (2013)