I don’t think I would have stayed with N. D. Wilson in his prose if I hadn’t previously read a glowing review of DEATH BY LIVING. It takes a while to find the rhythm. A somewhat frenetic chapter one, though very short, set me up to dislike both Wilson and his vision. But things settled down; eventually, I was captivated by his insightful storytelling, though the writing style is never an easy breeze.
In a previous nonfiction book, NOTES FROM THE TILT-A-WHIRL, Wilson focused on “a way of seeing.” He says that DEATH BY LIVING presents “a way of living, a way of receiving life.” If the earlier book painted the sunrise, here he goes for the sunset. And yet, in doing so, he writes primarily about the past. The book is framed by the life stories of his grandparents, two of whom have recently died. How did their brave actions and faithful commitments --- their living --- prepare them for dying?
"It takes a while to find the rhythm. A somewhat frenetic chapter one, though very short, set me up to dislike both Wilson and his vision. But things settled down; eventually, I was captivated by his insightful storytelling, though the writing style is never an easy breeze."
DEATH BY LIVING is essentially a book of personal, family essays. The narrative thread switches back and forth between “time zones.” Before you delve in, take a good look at the table of contents. Chapters tagged “Eyes Back” tell the grandparents’ stories. Those titled “City Hiatus” are site-specific, relating Wilson’s own far-flung travels, sometimes with his young family, to Rome, London and Jerusalem. Each site provides its own opportune theme, Jerusalem’s being his interest in and apparently hosting of a documentary about ancient tombs (the circumstances of his being there are --- probably intentionally --- not clear).
A third category of chapters are personal and thematic, the best of them titled “The (Blessed) Lash of Time.” “Time is a kindness,” he says. The chapter text overflows with metaphors: It’s an “ever-expiring resource.” It’s a “thief,” taking today and shifting it to yesterday. It’s a “motivator,” giving us deadlines to meet and goals to strive for. Ultimately, he challenges readers to “Burden your moments with thankfulness… And if time is a river, may you leave a wake.”
Wilson is a writing professor, not a theologian, but his theological reflections --- particularly about the Garden of Eden and The Fall, and then a discussion of Jesus as the second Adam --- are refreshing.
The wonder or delight of this book is in its pithy lines and overall message. It’s not an easy read. (Did I already say that?) It’s not for everyone. It’s for those who aren’t much interested in reducing their days, any day, to 140 Twitter characters. It’s for those who have a moment to think about the heritage they’ve been given and the heritage they hope to leave behind when they die, those who want to reach beyond themselves to die a little every day, expending themselves for others, anticipating their final breath.
Reviewed by Evelyn Bence on October 16, 2013