In my last post I introduced the two different types of anxieties Beck discusses (basic and neurotic) along with the four main cultural shifts that have led to our denial of death in Western culture. The fact that death has become pornographic in our society betrays the fact that we are, deep down, enslaved to a fear of death that manifests itself in neurotic anxiety. Rather than confronting our fear of death we “indulge the collective illusion of a deathless society” (31). In short, we pretend we’re immortal.
Beck notes a number of ways in which this illusion is maintained. First, the illusion of immortality is dependent upon a constant bombardment of distractions, entertainment and comforts, all of which the “invisible hand” of the market is happy to provide for us. The industry of entertainment and distraction is a lucrative one and so the powers that be have a vested interest in keeping us enslaved to our fear of death. Ironically, a great deal of entertainment in America is centered on violence and death. It’s almost as if death has been relegated to another realm altogether. Death is something that happens only in the mythological realm portrayed on the big screen where it is at a safe distance from our real lives which show no sign of death or mortality.
This leads to the second way we maintain the illusion of our immortality, namely, by expunging our lives of every appearance or intimation of death as well as every weakness, debility, ugliness, etc. (McGill quoted by Beck on pg. 32). This idea helps us understand why, for instance, most Westerners are obsessed with looking young. We spend thousands of dollars on cosmetics or even surgery so that we can maintain our youth and not be reminded of the fact that our own death is nearing. In addition, the “American way” says we are to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps in order to achieve success. To ask for help is to be a failure. We all have knowledge of our own shortcomings and flaws however, one of the ways we indulge the collective illusion is by hiding them and, instead, projecting an image of self-sufficiency.
It’s not only our personal lives that are expunged of any reminders of our death but, in addition, our public spaces must be clean, shiny, spotless and devoid of anything that reminds us of our mortality. This is the third way the illusion is maintained: the poor, weak, sick, needy and deformed are relegated to the margins of society. Think of how awkward the sight of a homeless person on a nice suburban street is. Why does this make us awkward and uncomfortable? Because such “unsightly” folks shatter the illusion of perfection and immortality. We’d rather not have to see them; out of sight, out of mind.
Unfortunately, the Western church is nothing short of complicit in maintaining this illusion. Beck in his own words:
Vast portions of American Christianity are aimed at propping up the illusion, giving religious sanction to American death avoidance. We see this in the triumphalism within many sectors of Christianity–the almost manic optimism of church culture that cannot admit any hint of debility, disease, death, or decay. These churches are filled with smiling cheerful people who respond with “Fine!” to any inquiry regarding their social, financial, emotional, physical, or spiritual well-being. Due to many churches’ explicit and implicit religious sanctioning of the American success ethos, church members become too afraid to show each other their weakness, brokenness, failure, and vulnerability. Such admissions are avoided, as they threaten to expose the neurotic lie that sits at the heart of Christian culture and American society–that death doesn’t exist. (32-33).
It’s for this reason that the act of lamenting–of crying out to God in pain, sorrow and grief in the face of the evil in our world–has all but disappeared from modern American (especially Evangelical) worship services. This is true despite the fact that well over half of Israel’s prayers as recorded in the book of Psalms are laments. To lament is to admit that life is not going well, that we are weak and frail in the face of life’s seeming meaninglessness. To lament is to admit that it does not seem like God is in control. These types of prayers were a crucial part of Israel’s worship tradition however, they couldn’t be less a part of the modern Evangelical worship experience.
It’s also in this chapter that Beck introduces the work of psychologist Ernest Becker. There’s a million things that could be said about the way Beck engages Becker’s work but, for the sake of brevity, I’ll just offer a short summary of his ideas. Becker theorized that human culture offers us a sense of meaning and self-esteem in the face of the existential angst that comes with knowing that we will one day die. In other words, every one of us is aware that we are going to die and this knowledge makes it difficult to find meaning in life. Culture, then, steps in with what Becker called a system of heroics which we all attempt to fit into in one way or another and doing so makes us feel like we have meaning and purpose. This system of heroics is essentially a set of life pathways that are commonly agreed to be “virtuous” or “honorable” or “heroic” within the society under consideration. For example, I would argue that in American culture some of our heroic archetypes are the “American Patriot” (one who, in word and/or deed supports the American cause no matter what), the “Self-Made Man” (one who beats the odds and becomes successful [read: “rich”] by means of their own hard work), or the “Cultured Navigator” (one who follows in the footsteps of Christopher Columbus and travels the world).
By fitting into these predetermined heroic “molds” we gain a sense of meaning and are considered a success by the rest of society. Our existential angst is covered over with our sense of personal accomplishment. Thus, Becker argues, our pursuit of self-esteem is driven by our neurotic fear of death. Our identities are ultimately founded on a lie. Whatever it is that makes you feel good about yourself, whatever you’ve accomplished that gives you a sense of meaning in life–this all, like us, will be ravaged by the sands of time.
In my last post I mentioned that the question driving chapter three of this book was the following: How does our neurotic anxiety, which is really just a manifestation of our slavery to the fear of death, make us violent? With Becker’s work on cultural heroics summarized, Beck ventures an answer. In essence, the only way a cultural hero system can “work”, that is, give us a sense of meaning and purpose in the face of life’s seeming meaninglessness, it must be experienced as “absolute, unassailable, true, eternal, transcendent, and ultimate” (41). Thus, whenever we encounter someone with a different cultural hero system we are forced to recognize a scary reality: our cultural hero system is totally and absolutely relative. It is less than ultimate. Our cultural hero system is just one among many. So what is our natural response to those who do not fit into our cultural hero system? Often, we demonize, oppress and marginalize them with the final goal being to completely eradicate them.
Up Next: Principalities and Powers