Judge Clark Douglas prefers the loop-de-loop.
An idea film. A bookumentary.
N.D. Wilson's best-selling book Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl is something of a theologically-themed stream-of-consciousness. The author freestyles his way through autobiographical reflections, poetic assessments of the world, philosophical debates and frenzied observations. The intent is to take the reader (at least the Christian reader) on their own personal tilt-a-whirl; a wild, dizzying ride which leaves you giddy at the conclusion. Now Wilson has transformed his book into a 51-minute film which takes a similarly fractured, frantic journey through the Christian worldview.
I can address this documentary in one of two ways: I can simply tell you what it contains and leave it at that, or I can share my own personal response to the material with you. As this is a review and not merely a summary (not to mention the fact that Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl is a film explicitly designed to challenge each viewer's personal beliefs), I feel the latter is in order.
Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl does indeed contain some giddy stream-of-consciousness rants courtesy of Mr. Wilson, but there are also quite a few quieter moments in which the film attempts to tackle one of the most common, challenging theological questions in Christianity: why does a supposedly loving God allow bad things to happen?
I once spoke to a pastor who told me that this was a question he received quite frequently from those seeking his counsel. The pastor would often respond with a story about a father whose child grew very ill. The father was on his knees day and night praying for healing, but the child's condition only worsened. Eventually, the child passed away. Overcome with grief and confusion, the father went to visit his rabbi in the hope of finding answers.
"Rabbi, why would God allow my innocent child to die?" the father said.
"Many people say that God is all-powerful and that God is all-loving," the rabbi replied. "But if he is all-powerful, then he cannot be all-loving. If he is all-loving, then he cannot be all-powerful. I choose to believe that he is loving, and that he is there to comfort us and give us strength when bad things happen."
Wilson examines this very argument and dismisses the rabbi's answer as faithless rubbish. In his mind, this view of God represents a fundamental misunderstanding of God's nature. So why would a supposedly loving God permit earthquakes, hurricanes and holocausts? Wilson thinks the answer is simple: God is an artist and a storyteller, and storytelling often requires conflict and tension. He suggests a person claiming there is no God is akin to the main character in Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire claiming there is no director. After all, why would a director make a character's life so miserable? Clearly, the character can't see the spectacularly contrived bigger picture.
The notion of God as an artist is a cute argument ("The emotional response to an emotional question," Wilson admits), but a fundamentally troubling one. After all, Shakespeare (whom Wilson compares God to while simultaneously declaring that post-modern novels and the paintings of Jackson Pollack couldn't be further from the organized beauty of God's creation) wasn't actually hurting anyone when he killed his characters. If Shakespeare's artistic decisions had life-or-death consequences for real people, we would regard him as a sadist (if a rather artful, brilliant sadist). Similarly, if God is merely permitting horrors on earth simply for the sake of character development and suspenseful long-arc plotting, surely we can no longer regard him as a benevolent figure?
It was the atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett who said, "There's nothing I like less than a bad argument for a view that I hold dear." It's not hard to imagine many deep-thinking Christians feeling that way about some of the passionately-presented yet painfully illogical leaps Wilson makes throughout Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl, such as his flippant dismissal of evolution and The Big Bang: "Jeffersonian democracy and stale gas station hot dogs were created by an explosion? That's absurd." Similarly, Wilson frequently adopts the preposterous and wheezy, "If we were all atheists, what would stop us from just murdering each other all the time?" argument.
Then again, Wilson is preaching solely to the most devoted choir members here, and those who find his worldview easily digestible and believable may find this an entertaining trip. The film (documentary? sermon? montage?) is certainly well-crafted on a technical level and Wilson is a charismatic (if exasperating) host. This is certainly a vastly more energetic special than I was expecting, and I was never bored for a moment. In fact, I spent more time contemplating Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl than I do most review assignments; this film is impossible to view passively.
I received a screener copy of this film and thus cannot comment on the video or audio quality of the official product. No supplements were included on my screener.
Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl is a film which will undoubtedly strike a chord with some and inspire others to throw moldy vegetables at the screen. It's certainly geared towards Christians, but I suspect it will prove controversial even among the faithful.
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