September 25, 2012

Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl

by Jesse Johnson

This tallOur world is like a carnival. Not the expensive, Six-Flags kind of carnival, where admission is pricy and only the rich kids can go. Our world is like the carnival in the mall parking-lot. Everyone is there, and somehow in that environment even corn-dogs seem like a good idea.

The rides in this world go round-and-round, and you have to admit that many of them are silly. Plus, it is impossible to look dignified on most of them. Of course there are always those that try to appear noble on the merry-go-round, and they only look more ridiculous. Philosophers and university professors are akin to those who ride on the Ferris wheel, get to the top, and think that they really are superior to everyone else because they can see farther. Losing sight of the fact that they are carnival-going-folk like everyone else, they bask in their four seconds of intellectual superiority, but they will soon be replaced by those in the next cage.

And death is when you are finally mature enough to go on the really gnarly rides. 

This is the vision of the world put forth by Nathan Wilson in his newest book, Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl. Written in a stream-of-consciousness style, this book is part poetry, part essay, part history, and entirely fun to read. It is filled with statistics about how improbable this planet is, and about how improbable you are. As in you personally.

pink_plastic_flamingoWilson’s point is that this world is powerful, beautiful, silly, and outrageous all at once. It is also supernatural, but in the most natural of ways. This is a world where flamingos exist. Both real and plastic.

Somewhere, right now, on this planet, is a sheep who is a direct descendent to the sheep who saw Jesus’ birth. He might be getting sheared right now. You might be wearing a sweater from that sheep (at least that would explain the weird dreams you are having). And that sheep is probably a black sheep.

Wilson tells the story of creation (“can we grant that when it comes to the moment where either everything came from nothing in a giant bang, or God spoke the world into existence, that Occam’s Razor is a nonsensical concept?”). He deals with the problem of evil, and the problem of puppies. Both suffering and cuteness can make us misinterpret what exactly is happening around us.

This book affected me spiritually by reminding me of what exactly providence implies. Everything in the world is working together, for a purpose. I am part of that purpose. The fact that I just got stopped at that red light, or that a friend just died, or that I just found $20 on the ground—all of those events are supposed to tell me something about God and about his world. They demand a response from me, even if that response is simply wonder.

According Wilson, all of the world is a stage, and we are merely players (he got that concept from Shakespeare, but Shakespeare stole it from Solomon, so Wilson steals it right back). We have a part to play, and we shouldn’t be bitter if we are not in the lead role. Some of us are called on to say one significant line in our life, and then die well. Everyone of us affects how others act; will you be the kind of dad who makes your children wrestle with the problem of evil, or who makes them understand the purpose of laughter? We all should act with purpose, give God the glory, and then graduate to the next act by dying with gusto.

Wilson is one of those writers who never disappoints. While some of his books let slip the occasional post-millennial craziness, that is restrained here. There are two occasions where his language is a bit crass, and what frustrated me about them was that they didn’t fit in the context of the paragraph. They seemed unnecessary. Nothing rated D-for-Driscoll, but probably enough to give it at PG-13 rating.

Notes from a tilt a whirl

The book was also made into a movie. I can say this: the movie is as weird as the book. I read half of the book, then watched the movie, then finished the book. I preferred the book. The movie was well made, but a the stream-of-consciousness combined with Wilson’s personality is better received on paper than the screen.

I highly recommend the book, and can honestly say that it will make you see God’s wonder in the small things in the world, and not in a cheesy “God is an artist way,” but in a profound “God is not like me, but cares about me a lot, but not too much” way. It is funny, clever, on point, and will make you worship God more.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Sri

    Hi Johnson,
    Nice post that you shared here. I’ll try to spend some time to read this book and also the movie made from the book.

  • MarkO

    I read NFATAW too. It’s fun to see how others react (same or differently) to material we read independently. Good thots by you.

    Dittoes on the 2 language “events” you mentioned, although it does impress me that our culture can use expletives in an odd sort of way. When some people don’t know how to express their overwhelm in even a positive way they use these crass terms.

    I am wondering about the vid for the book. It the language above that line in it?

    The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. ND’s dad used an scat word in his debates with Hitchens. Piper questioned him personally about it. Don’t remember what his answer was.


    • His response was along the lines of “the Bible uses harsh words too.” It was less than helpful or fully honest.

  • I have this book and tried to read it. I know the writing is excellent, but it gave me whiplash.

    • Yah, that is totally the way it is with a stream of consciousness approach. I see how that could happen.