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When death is on the line

Two recent books-one by a Christian and one not-show dramatic contrasts

When death is on the line
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Sometimes Christians read only Christian books, a practice that can help us avoid the lures of false philosophies but may also reduce our understanding of the sharp distinction between Christian and non-Christian worldviews. Nowhere does that difference become clearer than in meditations on death.

The most heralded death book of the past two years is Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking (Knopf, 2005), winner of the National Book Award. The book originated with the abrupt death of Ms. Didion's husband, John, as the two were sitting down to dinner in their New York apartment several days after Christmas, 2003. The book is an attempt to make sense of what followed, "weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death."

Ms. Didion's guiding text is a set of lines she entered into her computer "a day or two or three" after John's death: "Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. The question of self-pity." Appropriately sparse, these words function as Ms. Didion's creed while making sense of the tragedy. In particular, she attempts to exorcise the "magical thinking" of the title: that is, the human reluctance to admit that, with death, life is irreversibly changed.

Therein are the strengths and weaknesses of Ms. Didion's book. Life does change in the instant, and we are fools to pretend it does not or cannot. Magical Thinking gives eloquent voice to the wanderings of grief as it passes through realms of cold cynicism and yearning lament. But the book was written by one for whom life is not followed by life. In spite of the Christian creed she mentions, Ms. Didion does not believe in a Resurrection God who "orders and provides." Life and death are random and senseless. Apart from the four lines mentioned above, the closest you get to any certainty in the book is its closing negation of Jesus: Ms. Didion writes, "no eye is on the sparrow."

Jerry Sittser's A Grace Disguised (Zondervan, 2004) picks up where Ms. Didion leaves off. For him, there is an eye upon the sparrow. Written in 1994 and re-released a decade later, A Grace Disguised reflects upon a life-defining tragedy: Mr. Sittser's wife, daughter, and mother died in 1991 when a drunk driver's pickup jumped the highway median and careened into the Sittser family mini-van. Grace Disguised does not overlook the hollowing pain of abrupt death, but-unlike in Magical Thinking-the pain is married to a realistic and searching faith.

Mr. Sittser's faith allows him to ask questions that aren't even whispered in Magical Thinking. For instance, he dares to replace the oft-repeated cry, "why me?" with his own, "why NOT me?" It is probably too much to expect that such a question would be posed by those who, like Ms. Didion, breathe the air of literary Manhattan. Still, it wouldn't hurt them to do so. Mr. Sittser does, and the question leads him into a fellowship with many around the world for whom, in their underprivilege, death and tragedy are everyday. Becoming part of their number has a palpably different effect upon the reader than does the sense of isolation that deepens over the course of Magical Thinking.

As a result, the highway accident transforms Mr. Sittser. As he deftly expresses it in one of his many aptly turned phrases, "Quietness, contentment and simplicity have gradually found a place in the center of my soul. . . . My life is rich and productive, like Iowa farmland in late summer." A Grace Disguised can help grieving Christians to appreciate God's purpose and mercy. His eye is on the death of any sparrow, just as His eye was on the spill of life upon a highway's asphalt, the collapse of a husband on a December night, and the hammering of a nail upon a Roman cross.

Matthew P. Ristuccia Matthew is a former WORLD contributor.


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