The novel revolves around Guy Grand, a billionaire who likes to spend his money to show how far people will go for money. He says everyone has a price, and he intends to find it. Would you eat a parking ticket for a few thousand dollars? Grand finds out, although whether or not that really says anything about the moral character of the individual is questionable. Would you swim in a cesspool of toxins for thousands? Again, he is trying to push the limits on how far one will go.
Jerry Sittser understands pain. He understands loss. He understands grief. But more importantly, he understands that our life is a story of redemption, of connection to the person of Christ. While we cannot forget, nor should we forget, our painful times in life, we need to know that the God’s story for our life is not over.
This is no mere glib, theological chatter. Sittser’s family was in a car hit by a drunk driver nearly 20 years ago. In an instant, his mother, his wife, and one of his daughters, was gone. Three generations of women gone all at once, and Sittsler suddenly finds himself the single father of two daughters and a son — all young.
Sittser wrote about the incident four years after it happened, in “A Grace Disguised.” He now returns with more distance from the event. But what makes this work so powerful, is that Sittser is not writing a memoir, but using his story to tell the story of God’s working out our redemption. “This book will not tell a sweet and simple story about tragedy leading to triumph. Still, I hope it will tell a redemptive story.”
And it does. Sittser is inspirational not in that he, twenty years later, he is “handling” the tragedy well. Instead, he inspirational in how he seems himself in the context of a larger story, and he trusts God’s authorship. This is not a self-help book, it is not called, “Using God to Feel Better About How Bad Life Is.” It is about redemption. “Redemption involves the story of how God reclaims and restores us into a living relationship with himself so that we can become the people that God has always intended us to be.”
Sittser organizes the book in way which focuses on redemption as a story. Chapters are about characters, “Scene and Setting,” “Plot,” “Author,” and other story devices. The Bible itself is explored as a story, and in six of the most amazing pages I’ve ever read, he summarizes the entire Bible by relating it as a story. Sittser focuses on scripture for what he explores, and he quotes scripture (often at length) to show the story of redemption. So many books today, including Christian books, spend more time quoting other authors than returning to the source, which makes this book so strong, theologically speaking.
This is not surprising. Sittser is a professor of Theology at Whitworth College (and, I was pleased to learn, a fellow alum from Hope College). He has a unique gift for be theologically grounded, but clearly able to write for the layperson. And his unfortunate credentials in suffering create an authentic voice.
On a very personal note, this was a profoundly moving book for me. Myself a father of four, I am also the parent of a six-year-old who has been battling cancer for nearly three years. There is no longer much hope that this will be cured, and we have wrestled with this reality. I have written openly and honestly about this process since the outset, and many people have said, you should write a book. Well, Sittser has written the book I would want to write, and done it far better than I could ever do.
I knew at the outset that his voice would be one I understand. “God has written and played the key role in the story of salvation, which promises to redeem our stories….This glorious story of redemption turns on the work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and Savior of the world, who came into this world to make us new, which he accomplished through his life, death, and resurrection. It is all his doing, a gift of pure grace. But we must receive this gift and make it our own, like children growing into adults.”
That last line challenges us to not feel sorry for ourselves, but to accept God’s grace and trust in his story. How many of us have wasted our lives, filling it with bitterness over real and imagined tragedies, instead of recognizing that God is not done writing our story. But we need to accept that gift, and accepting gifts requires humility. Some people are blessed with a natural humility, others learn it the hard way, but those who never see themselves in a larger context, who center their world around themselves instead of God — well, there is the true tragedy in life. A stepping out of the story God is writing.
Sittser shares the story of a woman who, after many years of struggling, decides to meet the man who murdered her brother. And she tells him as she leaves, God wants him to know that “It is not too late to become the man that God designed you to be.” Our stories are not over.
Some books just do not work as books. So what is a writer to do when they want to express something which does not fit into the usual binding? It helps when you are Anne Carson, an established poet and classicist, and you are writing on an usual subject.
Nox (Latin for “night”) is an elegy, or as Carson says, and epitaph, for her estranged and now deceased brother, Michael. Battling drug use, Carson says he left the United States in the late 1970′s in order not to go to jail. She would never see him again, and only spoke to him six times in over 20 years. During that time he traveled under false names, fell in love with a woman and was devastated when she died young, was married twice, and already had his ashes scattered before his sister found out he was dead.
But this is no collection of stories about her brother; it is a scrapbook of pictures, fragments of letters, Carson’s own thoughts, and other items. Instead of fitting it into the regular book format, “Nox” comes is an accordion style book which comes in book shaped box.
So how does this book manage to succeed in tying together such arange of items? Catullus’ poem No. 101, an elegy written by the poet when he arrived at his brother’s grave. Catullus was a first century, BC, Roman poet, who learned too late of his brother’s death to be there in time for the burial. Carson provides the poem in Latin, and then gives the etymology of each word in the 63-word poem on the left hand side, while the items relating to her brother are on the right. Toward the end, you finally get the poem in English, although she says that translating the work does not work well as the meanings of some of the words are lost in other languages.
Many the peoples many the oceans I crossed—
I arrive at these poor, brother, burials
so I could give you the last gift owed to death
and talk (why?) with mute ash.
Now that Fortune tore you from me, you
oh poor (wrongly) brother (wrongly) taken from me,
now still anyway this—what a distant mood of parents
handed down as the sad gift for burials—
accept soaked with tears of a brother
and into forever, brother, farewell and farewell.
Carson’s own words and arrangement of her brother’s show her poetic tendencies. A moving story of her brother always being on edge of others, is across the page from “sunt.” Carson gives the definition of “to be (continue) among the living; (of things) to be in existence.” Her story of her brother, one of the longest memories given, tells of a photograph she has of him (shown on the previous page) “about ten years old standing on the ground beneath a treehouse. Above him in the treehouse you can see three older boys gazing down. They have raised the ladder.” She wonders if his future drug use was found in this desire to be where he was not welcome, where he is on the edge. “No one knew him.”
In the end, what we have is a uniquely personal and moving meditation on death. Of course, we know death by contrasting it with life, but Carson does not pretend that our lives are made up of a simple narrative history. Instead, small elements, diverse elements, create a picture of who we are. She could write a detailed biography of her brother, and we would know less about who he is than we get from her own creation. In great part, this is because we know him only through Carson. And we know other people only through ourselves. It is not possible to know a person as they do themselves; relationships are quite simply that seeking to know another, and be known, in ways which are unique to each relationship. Carson’s brother’s absence for 22 years is an essential element of how she knows him, and she does not try to bridge the gap. That is the beauty of this epitaph. It explores a relationship as it was, and does not seek for more than what exists. As a result, she is respectful of her brother and his life without her, while not forgetting what she remembers of him. What better tribute could be offered?
Read more about Anne Carson at the Poetry Foundation