How We Forgot About Death AND Why Ash Wednesday Is, Like, The Coolest Tradition Ever

A whole bunch of truth bombs get dropped in chapter 3 of Richard Beck’s The Slavery of Death. It just might be my favorite chapter in the book. In fact, I liked the content of this chapter so much that I’ve decided to dedicate two whole posts to it! It’s here that Beck turns from theology to psychology as he attempts to show that the latter discipline actually confirms what he laid out in part one of the book, namely, that our fear of death is the root cause of our sin.

He begins by introducing two different manifestations of our fear of death: basic anxiety and neurotic anxietyA brief word on each of these:

  • Basic anxiety is fear of death in the form of our need to survive in a world of either real or perceived scarcity. Your basic anxiety causes you to carefully monitor your physical well-being. Beck describes it as your fight or flight response, that side of your instincts that helps you to stay alive when you find yourself in a dangerous situation. You know how you get a bit crabby when you’re really hungry? That’s your basic anxiety telling you that you need to eat or else you’re going to die.
  • Neurotic anxiety, on the other hand, is related to our “worries, fears and apprehensions associated with our self-concept, much of which is driven by how we compare ourselves to those in our social world” (28). Neurotic anxiety “sits at the root of our experience of self-esteem, the motive force behind our vigilant monitoring of how we compare to others and to cultural standards” (28).

The question that drives chapter 3 onward is the following: How do these different types of anxiety, which are really different manifestations of our fear of death, make us violent? In other words, how might they be connected to our sinful behavior? When looking at basic anxiety the answer is pretty clear. When we feel physically threatened our sense of self is heightened and we are driven to compete with those around us for whatever it is we need whether it’s safety, food or shelter. When humans don’t have enough of those things that we consider basic necessities then stuff tends to get pretty ugly in a hurry. But what about neurotic anxiety? How does our pursuit of self-esteem make us violent? As I said, this is the question driving the chapter and Beck eventually answers it at the end. However, before getting there there are some preliminary matters that need to be discussed in terms of what neurotic anxiety looks like in our own society.

Beck begins his examination of neurotic anxiety in Western culture by noting four cultural shifts that have taken place since the Industrial Revolution that have changed our view of death.

  1. Food. Back in the day food was closely associated with death because people literally killed their own food. Before eating a chicken you had to kill it, bleed it, gut it, skin it, prepare it, etc. When you actually ate the chicken you bit the meat off of the bones. Here in China when you order fish at a restaurant you get the entire fish. The eyes are staring back at you as you pick the delicious meat off its body, reminding you that something had to die in order for your dinner to happen. Beck asks us to compare the entire death-saturated process of killing your own food with eating the pinnacle of Western industrially processed food: a Chicken McNugget. Chicken McNuggets do not, in any way, resemble the living animal that the meat was once a part of. Food, in the West, no longer reminds us of death.
  2. How and where we die. Back in the day people used to die at home with their family and close friends present. Every house used to have a “parlor” where funeral services were held for loved ones who passed away. With the advent of the modern hospital, death was removed from the home. Parlors turned into “living rooms.”
  3. Relocation of cemeteries. Cemeteries used to be located on family property or at your local park or on your church’s property. Having cemeteries around served as a constant reminder of death. In today’s world we have relegated the cemetery to the edge of town where we don’t have to see it and be reminded of the fact that there’s a coffin-sized plot of land reserved just for us.
  4. Modern medicine and longer life spans. The leading cause of death in the industrialized world is degenerative disease that comes with old age. The result of this reality is that we expect to live a long life, something that, back in the day,  only the naive hoped for. Death in our context, especially, an early death (anything shy of, say, 70) is experienced as a shock.

In summary, we have become largely insulated in our everyday lives from the reality of death. Death, even as a subject of conversation is considered a taboo. One who brings up death at the dinner table is dismissed as “morbid” or “dark.” Beck quotes Geoffrey Gorer who coined the phrase “the pornography of death.” The idea here is that death has become something that is off limits or illicit and should, like pornography, be kept out of public view.

What the “pornography of death” as well as the various cultural shifts we discussed above have done is helped to create the illusion that we are immortal, that we will never die. Beck:

What has happened is that all these advances have created an illusion of immortality, making it feel as though death has been banished from our lives. Because as a day-to-day reality, it largely has been. This is why speaking of death is generally avoided, why death is pornographic. Pausing to note death’s existence destroys the illusion. Rather than face the reality of death–which takes some effort in our society, given how death has been delayed–it’s easier to indulge the collective illusion of a deathless society. (31)

In light of all this I couldn’t help but be reminded of the church’s tradition of the Imposition of Ashes that takes place every year on Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent. As a part of the liturgy, participants have ashes smeared on their forehead as they hear the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). Within a culture that wants us to believe we are immortal, each year we hear the opposite.

You are dust. You are mortal. You are going to die one day.

These are subversive words.

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Up Next: How the Illusion Is Maintained, The Ways in Which the American Church Is Enslaved to the Devil, and Culture as a System of Heroic Death Denial

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3 responses to “How We Forgot About Death AND Why Ash Wednesday Is, Like, The Coolest Tradition Ever

  1. Pingback: On Christus Victor OR Is the Devil Real? | garret menges blog

  2. Thanks for your comments. I believe that contemplation of our death and mortality helps us to live life more fully. This is why I appreciate cycling through a graveyard every day on my commute.

  3. Pingback: The American Church’s Fear of Death AND How Neurotic Anxiety Makes Us Violent | garret menges blog

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