The loudest alarm clock, the most inspiring motivation speaker, even a world-ending earthquake can do nothing to get a tired, overwhelmed, sad soul out of bed. What all of them can’t do, a humble, gentle, book can.
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review, “On Getting Out of Bed: The Burden and Gift of Living” by Alan O. Noble. 120 pages. Published by Inter-Varsity Press in April 2023. It’s available in Amazon Kindle for USD14.99.
If not for this podcast, I never would have come across this gem. Last year, I reviewed “The Care of Souls” by Harold Senkbeil. Good book. Check out my review. I then followed Senkbeil in Twitter. March this year, he tweeted and brought to my attention Alan Noble’s new book. In that tweet, I listened to Noble read the introduction.
As soon as it came out, I got out of bed, I got out my wallet, I got out my device to read it. What a great chapter. I shared it. This is another great chapter and I shared that too. And I had to stop myself before I copied the whole book and get arrested for copyright.
The book is so good that the professor of psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary, Siang-Yang Tan, writes:
Alan Noble has given us another great gift in writing this short, honest, and deeply moving book on the powerful witness to the goodness of life and of God of simply getting out of bed each day, especially when we experience mental suffering or affliction. It contains many gems of wisdom and profound truth, such as living one day at a time, one step at a time, accepting God’s love and grace and the help of others — including mental health professionals and lay people — and reaching out to others in community. Highly recommended.
I might as well end the review here right? You already know what I think of the book, but stay so that I can tell you more about the book.
This might be the book you never knew you needed to read.
Be honest with yourself, there are days when you don’t want to get out of bed. Maybe it’s today! And you don’t have to have a diagnosed debilitating disease to feel that way. You could have some something unnamed, probably trivial in the eyes of some people, and it’s weighing heavily on you. It’s nothing you need to see a doctor for, it’s just the everyday stress and pressure of life. But sometimes it can be too much and you just want to stay in bed, hide under the covers and hope that the storm will pass. Bring a torchlight and take this book with you.
Listen to Alan Noble. He knows what he is talking about. Alan Noble is a professor and professors know their stuff. He is an author of many books and articles. And I’ll have you know that his dissertation title was, “Manifestations of transcendence in twentieth-century American fiction: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Carson McCullers, J.D. Salinger, and Cormac McCarthy.”
“Wait. What? Did you just say F. Scott Fitzgerald? American fiction?”
Yeah! Alan Noble is Associate Professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University. He has two other books on Amazon, “You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World” and “Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age”. And his latest book is on mental suffering.
I know what you are thinking. If you have a plumbing problem you find a plumber. If you have a car problem, you ask a mechanic. If you have a mental problem, you need a mental health professional. What can one get from an English professor?
Well, one hopes for a well-written book. And we have that. It’s not high brow literature. It’s eight chapters of soul food written for the common man. For the common man has a common ailment.
Listen to this, I quote:
We have many terms for the different types of mental affliction that humans experience: depression, anxiety, clinical depression, melancholy, despair, low self-esteem, trauma, lethargy, boredom, guilt, lack of ambition, laziness, mourning, a failure to launch, exhaustion, burnout, mental illness, mental disorder and so on. We have a massive medical field devoted to treating the problem through medication and therapy. We have a million self-help books and life coaches and social media mindset influencers to inspire us. But here’s the thing: each morning it’s you. Each morning you must choose to get out of bed or not. All the medication and cognitive therapy and latest research and self-care in the world can’t replace your choice. This decision can be aided by these resources but never replaced by them. Which means that you have to have an answer to a fundamental question: Why get out of bed? Or, more bluntly, why live?
There are so many ways to answer that question: Why live? Take any person, real or fictional, and imagine asking that question to him or her. Some dismiss it. Some get drunk. Some seize the day. Others hide in their beds.
“Why live?” is the great existential question. And Noble answers it in a series of essays, or chapters. I don’t want to quote too much from the book because it’s only a hundred page long. So I’ll give you my impression of the book without spoiling your potential enjoyment of it.
One way to describe it is to refer to the Bible’s different genres. The Bible has historical narratives. This book is not telling a story of the author, of his struggles with mental suffering, and it’s refreshing to read a book where someone does not feel the need to put himself in the book to make a point.
The Bible also have epistles, letters written to the person or to the church. Noble writes in a conversational style, not in a dry detached voice of the lecturer. And like Paul, Peter and the epistle writers, Noble’s intention are noble, he writes for the good of the readers.
However, if we were to fit this book to a biblical genre, it would be the wisdom literature.
It’s like a cross between Ecclesiastes and the Book of Job, the quintessential book on suffering. Generally, the epistles start from theological truths and move towards praxis, how the believer lives according to the Word. If the epistles are top down, then Ecclesiastes and Job are bottom up.
The readers meet them where they are hurting, where they are confounded. They bring up human observations, sometimes flawed, into the discourse. God and His Revelation is still above human thoughts, but you can see in the text people grappling with how to make sense of the world.
I bring up the Bible genres because I want to show how the Bible itself validates an honest wrestling with the Word and the world.
We know that the Gospel is the answer to all our suffering. Convinced of this great truth, some think that the only way to speak life to another is to preach and preach and preach until the pain is exorcised away.
Alan Noble does not start at Genesis, then the Gospels, to end at Revelation. And how ironic it would be to comfort a suffering friend by preaching from Job. Job, of course, asked his preachy friends to be quiet, for that is wisdom.
Unlike Job’s friends, Alan Noble has better bedside manners. Whether you rely on psychologists or psychiatrists, or think of suicide or seek attention, he does not blame or accuse. A safe book for sensitive souls.
Another unique strand of this book is the American Fiction aspect. For a book on suffering, Noble does not tell Job’s story, he mentions Job once, and assumes you know it. Instead, Noble tells us the story from Cormac McCarthy’s book, “The Road”.
In chapter three, Noble writes that things can get so bad that “it feels rational to give up on life.” And while friends “will remind you that you are wrong, that it’s the illness talking and life is worth living,” it is difficult to trust others because it’s you who is suffering not them.
Noble then writes:
This is precisely the situation the nameless wife in Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road finds herself in. By every rational materialist calculation, suicide is the most ethical and appropriate response to a world of evil and suffering. She, her husband, and their young son are alive at the end of civilization. The sun is darkened by ash. Nothing grows. Everything and everyone has died or is dying. Every day brings a new horror. There is every reason to believe that even if they manage to fight off starvation and the elements, they will eventually be captured, raped and eaten alive by cannibals. When she lays out the case for suicide to her husband, he can offer no rebuttal — because there is none. The facts are the facts. Staying alive will lead to greater agony. When you no longer have hope for a pleasurable life, when you have every expectation of increased suffering, suicide is logical — unless the reason we choose to go on living is something greater than pleasure, or freedom from pain, or even hope for a better tomorrow.
I was thinking of stopping here. But that would be an unbearable cliffhanger, and you should in this episode get a resolution, a partial one at least, for the full one, you would have to get Noble’s book, or read the McCarthy novel.
And yet her husband refuses to join her, and he prevents her from taking their son with her. Despite the persuasiveness of his wife’s argument, despite all the evidence that seems to confirm her decision (the man and his son are very nearly caught by cannibals at least twice after she dies), the father chooses to keep his son alive.
McCarthy forces us, through the father, to grapple with the question at the heart of life: Why is life worth all this agony? And while the father cannot verbally respond to his wife’s argument that suicide is the least harmful response to suffering, his embodied answer is powerful and is validated by the ending of the novel.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to read the novel to know how it resolves. Through this book, Noble has kind of spoiled the ending. But he must reveal it. Because he uses that story as one of the vehicle to explore the question of “Why live?” and Noble must give us an answer or risk the wrath of his readers.
And so he does. And his answer is familiar to Christians. It’s familiar to anyone who reads the Bible. And yet, even though we know it, the truth remains comforting, lovely, motivating, sufficient for us to get out of bed, to do the next thing, to worship God in the small act of living.
Semantic Differences Aside
Before I end this review, I do have one criticism, and it’s the only one. And I will even say upfront that it’s a difference in semantics. Noble uses a particular word with a particular meaning, while I use the same word in a different way. Otherwise, Noble and I should be in total agreement, I cannot imagine him disagreeing with me.
I just have to point this out because some readers may walk away with a wrong understanding.
Let me read and you try to detect what I see is the problem.
This comes from chapter eight, where he wants to end the book by assuring the reader that God’s love is not conditional on your usefulness. I quote:
Usefulness is the sole criterion for the World, the Flesh, or the Devil. But you have no use value to God. You can’t. There is nothing He needs. You can’t cease being useful to God because you were never useful to begin with. That’s not why He created you, and it’s not why He continues to sustain your existence in the world. His creation of you was gratuitious, prodigal. He made you just because He loves you and for His own good pleasure.
If Noble was only attacking usefulness as defined by the World, the Flesh and the Devil, then I would cheer him on. But when he claims that there is no aspect or sense of our usefulness to God, I say this is a marked contradiction of what Scripture teaches.
2 Timothy 2:20–21 (ESV) reads:
Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.
I cannot imagine Alan Noble rejecting the clear teaching of Scripture so I emphasise that he is directing his fire against our need to feel useful, to be useful, in order to be of worth, in order to be worthy to live. This is the deadly mind virus going around. And it harms people created in God’s image: old people, sick people, depressed people.
However, there is such a thing as godly usefulness. And it’s not preaching, serving, church-planting, teaching, helping, doing whatever deeds great and small, because what then can we say to people who can’t do any of them. We have merely listed all the things they cannot do, and have made them more worse off than ever.
But if we read 2 Timothy carefully, receiving it to teach, reprove, correct and train us for righteousness, we see that what is needed to be useful is to be cleansed from what is dishonourable. That is what the text says. Later, we also read that what we need to be equipped for every good work is Scripture.
And if I define usefulness in these terms, which I believe is how the Bible defines usefulness, then Noble and I are in total agreement because all the advice that he gives, all the reasons that he gives to carry on the burden and gift of living, are rooted in Scripture. In a way, he is using Scripture to cleanse us from dishonourable thoughts, dishonourable thoughts we have of God and of ourselves so that we can worship God for his goodness, and the goodness that he created in us.
As I said earlier, Noble and I are not in disagreement, but the way he explains usefulness only considers worldly usefulness and not Biblical or godly usefulness.
In conclusion, this is a book that I wished I had read when I was younger, going through my own existential demons. It’s a book I am glad to read now, for there have been days, and there will be days, when I would say, “The bed is my refuge”, when it should be God.
I share Alan Noble’s confidence that:
suffering — even profound mental affliction and personal tragedy — is a normal part of human life.
And since suffering is here to stay, will you not consider some wisdom to face it?
This is a Reading and Readers review of “On Getting Out of Bed: The Burden and Gift of Living” by Alan O. Noble. 120 pages. Published by Inter-Varsity Press in April 2023. It’s available in Amazon Kindle for USD14.99.
My next book review will be on “What’s Your Worldview? An Interactive Approach to Life’s Big Questions” by James N. Anderson. This book won the World Magazine 2014 Popular Theology Book of the Year. It’s free for May from Faithlife. So please get it before the deal is off.
I have the book. I have finished the book but it’s so good that I bought ten hard copies just to give them away. I can’t wait to tell you more about this interactive approach to life’s big questions. Until then, bye bye.
- “On Getting Out of Bed: The Burden and Gift of Living” by Alan O. Noble. Amazon.