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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Lent and Death

Nothing says Lent like a good book on death.

So, as a sort of Lenten discipline I’m going to be blogging through Richard Beck’s latest book The Slavery of DeathThere are two reasons why I want to blog through the book:

  1. Re-reading and summarizing each chapter will help me to process the content of the book and reflect a little bit on how it relates to my own life.
  2. I am loving this book and think that it’s well worth a read or, at the very least, more exposure. So if you’re not going to read the book then hopefully these posts serve as a small window into his ideas which, I think, are absolutely worth reflecting on.

If you’ve never read Richard Beck, you should. He’s a psychologist who also happens to have a passion for theology so much of his writing deals with the intersection of these two disciplines. You can familiarize yourself with his thinking by reading his blog which can be found here.

So, onto the goods.

The Slavery of Death begins with a challenge to reconsider how we view the relationship between sin and death. Traditionally for Protestants sin came first and is what corrupted God’s good creation and so led to death. This idea, that death is a consequence of sin, is reinforced by the account of Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden and their subsequent exile and separation from the Tree of Life (Gen. 3). Paul seems to affirm this idea in Romans when he famously declares that the “…wages of sin is death” (6:23).

As I mentioned above, if you’re a Protestant you are more than likely familiar with this way of thinking. Interestingly, however, the Eastern Orthodox church tends to emphasize death as the center of the human predicament. For our brothers and sisters in the Eastern church sin is a result of our slavery to the fear of death. A great deal of Beck’s project in this book aims to reclaim the Eastern perspective on this issue and to shed light on many of the passages in the Bible that are usually neglected by Protestants–those that seem to affirm the notion that death, rather than sin, lies at the heart of humanity’s predicament. Take a look at these passages for instance: 

  • 1 Cor. 15:24-26 — Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
  • Rev. 20:13-14a — The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and everyone was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.
  • Romans 7:24 — What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
  • Hebrews 2:14-15 — Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death–that is, the devil–and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.

In each of these passages death seems to be showcased as the main enemy of humanity. In 1 Corinthians death is the “last enemy to be destroyed” before God becomes all in all. In Revelation, death and Hades are the last things to be thrown into the lake of fire. In Romans, Paul attributes his struggles with sin to the fact that he has a body that is subject to death. The author of Hebrews understands salvation as a liberation from the “fear of death.”

Rather than do away with the Protestant formulation (sin leads to death) and replace it with the Eastern formulation (death leads to sin), Beck is aiming to give us a more balanced perspective, one that will allow us to make more sense of the wealth of biblical material that speaks of death as humanity’s main problem. In his own words:

The Bible presents us with a dense and complex causal matrix in which sin, death, and the devil all mutually interact. Consequently, an exclusive focus on sin tends to oversimplify the dynamics of our moral struggles. I argue that a fuller analysis is critical as it will present us with a clearer picture of Christian virtue–love in particular. By exposing the dynamics of “the devil’s work” in our lives, works produced by the “slavery to the fear of death” [Hebrews 2:15], we will be better positioned to resist the satanic influences in our lives, better equipped to do battle with the principalities and powers of darkness, and better able to love as Christ loved us.

It’s no surprise that when you begin to reconsider the foundation of the problem then how we understand the solution changes as well. Thus, salvation becomes more about liberation from our fear of death rather than exclusively focused on the forgiveness of sin. Beck: “Salvation…involves liberation from this fear [of death]. Salvation is emancipation for those who have been enslaved all of their lives by the fear of death. Salvation is deliverance that sets us free from this power of the devil.”

As it turns out, there has been a great deal of ink spilled in the field of psychology over the wealth of negative behaviors that result from our fear of death. This is why I find Beck’s perspective so illuminating: he puts psychology and theology in dialogue with each other and the results are more than interesting.

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Coming Next: Ancestral Sin or Original Sin?