The American Church’s Fear of Death AND How Neurotic Anxiety Makes Us Violent

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.

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Up Next: Principalities and Powers

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

On Christus Victor OR Is the Devil Real?

Chapter 2 of Richard Beck’s book The Slavery of Death wraps up Part One of the book in which he lays the theological foundation for his thesis that death, not sin, lies at the heart of humanity’s predicament. If chapter one makes clear that the Bible sees death as the problem, then chapter 2 attempts to outline what the solution might be. In short, chapter 2 is Beck’s summary of what has been termed Christus Victor–Christ the Victor–which is usually brought up in discussions about the various views of the atonement. For Beck, however, Christus Victor is more than just a theory of atonement. The word “atonement” itself tends to cause us to think of salvation in terms of deliverance from sin whereas, for Beck, salvation is a more holistic reality that includes, primarily, a freedom from the fear of death. To be clear, freedom from sin is included in Beck’s view of salvation. It’s just that, rather than being the root of the problem, sin is understood as a symptom caused by a larger ailment, namely, the fear of death itself.

So what does Christus Victor say about salvation?

In short, a Christus Victor telling of salvation emphasizes the power of Christ to emacipate, liberate, or rescue humanity from the power of death and the devil. Telling the gospel story through the lens of Christus Victor will highlight Jesus’ clashes with the devil throughout his ministry, clashes that eventually culminated in Jesus’ own death on the cross. Beck quotes New Testament scholar N.T. Wright’s book Simply Jesus:

Wherever we look, it appears that Jesus was aware of a great battle in which he was already involved and that would, before too long, reach some kind of climax. This was not, it seems, the battle that his contemporaries, including his own followers, expected him to fight. It wasn’t even the same sort of battle–though Jesus used the language of battle to describe it. Indeed, as the Sermon on the Mount seems to indicate, fighting itself, in the normal physical sense, was precisely what he was not going to do. There was a different kind of battle in the offing, a battle that had already begun. In this battle, it was by no means as clear as those around Jesus would have liked as to who was on which side, or indeed whether “sides” was the right way to look at things. The battle in question was a different sort of thing, because it had a different sort of enemy…. The battle Jesus was fighting was against the satan. (18)

I’ll be the first to admit that when talking about salvation I often hesitate to do so using the themes of Christus Victor. My hesitation mostly arises from my uneasiness surrounding any sort of talk about “the devil” in the context of our modern scientific age. I spend enough time trying to figure out what I mean by the term “God” that I usually find myself without the desire or the energy to entertain thoughts of a supernatural entity that is responsible for the world’s evil. Thus, I was thankful for Beck’s careful analysis of the devil and what he means to communicate by invoking the term. Beck has two responses to those who want to push back against this sort of language:

  1. His book is focused primarily on the role of death in human psychology. In other words, Beck’s argument in The Slavery of Death can be followed and understood even if one has no desire to use the language of the devil/satan.
  2. Using theological language like “the devil” can be helpful when describing actual realities that we are all familiar with but may lack the terminology to describe.

I found Beck’s latter response to be most intriguing. In essence, even if Satan is not a real person, many of us can bear witness to what it’s like to feel the moral pull of forces that we experience as greater than ourselves. Beck quotes N.T. Wright at length here:

Many modern writers, understandably, have tried to marginalize this theme [of Christ’s conflict and victory over the satan], but we can’t expect to push aside such a central part of the tradition and make serious progress. It is, of course, difficult for most people in the modern Western world to know what to make of it all; that’s one of the points on which the strong wind of modern skepticism has done its work well, and the shrill retort from “traditionalists,” insisting on seeing everything in terms of “supernatural” issues, hardly helps either. As C.S. Lewis points out in the introduction to his famous Screwtape Letters, the modern world divides into those who are obsessed with demonic powers and those who mock them as outdated rubbish. Neither approach, Lewis insists, does justice to reality. I’m with Lewis on this. Despite the caricatures, the obsession, and the sheer muddle that people often get themselves into on this subject, there is such a thing as a dark force that seems to take over people, movements, and sometimes whole countries, a force or (as it sometimes seems) a set of forces that can make people do things they would never normally do. (20-21)

The forms that these “suprahuman” forces take in our lives is fleshed out more by Beck in chapter four on the principalities and powers. For now, let it be enough to say that I appreciate both Wright’s and Beck’s more nuanced view of the devil/satan because it relates to a real-life thing that is experienced by you and me rather than a supernatural reality experienced only by cooky Pentecostal types or an outdated and ancient “mythology” easily dismissed by highly evolved moderns.

With this excursus on the devil out of the way, Beck turns to a discussion of how salvation is evidenced in the life of one who claims to have been set free from the power of death. Once again, he makes use of the Eastern Orthodox’s perspective on the matter. According to the Eastern tradition, “To be set free from the slavery to the fear of death is to be liberated from self-interest in the act of genuine love. Thus the sign of Christ’s victory in our lives over sin, death, and the devil is the experience and expression of love. This is resurrection and life.” (24)

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Up Next: The Denial of Death

Ancestral Sin vs. Original Sin OR Why Sarx Sucks

In my last post I introduced the thesis of Richard Beck’s book The Slavery Of Death, namely, that death, not sin, is at the heart of the human predicament. It’s no wonder that the first place Beck turns to flesh out this contention is to Genesis 3 where we find the story of Adam and Eve, their disobedience and subsequent exile from the Garden of Eden.

In the Western church we have traditionally read this story as the foundation of what we call the doctrine of Original Sin. This doctrine states that because of the disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, all of humanity has inherited a moral stain and sin nature that renders us inherently rebellious toward God and his purposes. In short, the West has read the problem that this story narrates as a moral one. Sin is the causal agent responsible for bringing death into the world.

The Eastern Church has come at this story from a bit of a different angle. In short, the Eastern Orthodox church understands the introduction of death into the world as the primary focus of Genesis 3. The question that is being answered here is not, “Where did sin come from?” but rather, “Where did death come from?” What can we glean from this passage when we approach it with this question in mind?

First, we notice that death was not a part of God’s original intention for creation. It’s seen as an invasion, as something that is attempting to thwart God’s purposes for his good creation. Beck quotes the following passage from the book of Wisdom* to add to the discussion: “For God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world” (2:23-24a NRSV). This fits nicely with what we find in Genesis 3: it’s the serpent who tempts Eve to disobey God hence, “the devil’s envy.”

But this is not the whole story. As Beck quickly points out, the devil needed willing participants in this story. Again, the book of Wisdom:

Do not invite death by the error of your life, or bring on destruction by the works of your hands; because God did not make death, and does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them, and the dominion of Hades is not on earth. For righteousness is immortal. But the ungodly by their words and deeds summoned death; considering him a friend, they pined away and made a covenant with him… (1:12-16a, NRSV).

Thus, in the Eastern reading of this story death is the result of both the devil’s envy as well as humanity’s summoning of death. Beck summarizes:

…the primary purpose of Genesis 3 might be to provide a story about the origins of death rather than the origins of sin. Phrased another way, Genesis 3 might be less interested in explaining why humans are “depraved” than it is in explaining why we die. We do inherit a predicament from the Primal Couple, but what we inherit isn’t a moral stain. Rather, we inherit the world they have left us. We are exiles from Eden. The world around us is not as God intended it. Death exists, but this was not God’s plan.

This is the key to understanding why the Eastern Orthodox church reads Genesis 3 as the foundation of what they call the doctrine of Ancestral Sin (rather than Original Sin). Placing the emphasis on death rather than sin, the doctrine of Ancestral Sin says that the reason why death is in the world is because of the Primal Couple’s disobedience (our Ancestors’ sin). As their offspring, we now live in a world that is riddled with death and decay. Thus, the condition we inherit from Adam and Eve is, in Beck’s own words, “less moral than mortal.” 

Beck concedes that in the Genesis 3 story sin precedes death but with death now introduced into creation and Adam and Eve’s offspring now infected with mortality, death becomes the operative force behind humanity’s sin. Beck:

As mortal creatures, separated from God’s vivifying Spirit, humans are fearful and survival-driven animals, easily drawn into sinful and selfish practices. Because we are mortal and driven by self-preservation, our survival instincts make us tragically vulnerable to death anxiety–the desire to preserve our own existence above all else and at all costs.

Paul’s use of the Greek word sarx carries this idea, that death is the cause of our sin, into the New Testament. Sarx is used ninety-one times throughout the course of Paul’s letters and so, given the multitude of contexts in which this word is used, it is somewhat difficult to pin down a meaning. The word is often translated as “flesh” but Beck provides his readers with a helpful list of possible interpretations: “human limitation,” “natural limitation,” “weakness of the flesh,” “the weakness of our natural selves,” “the weakness of our human nature,” “the weakness of our sinful nature,” “sinful nature,” “fleshly desires,” and “sinful flesh.” Citing the work of New Testament scholar James Dunn, Beck brings us to 1 Corinthians 15 which he sees as an important passage when it comes to understanding Paul’s use of sarx. In this chapter Paul is discussing the resurrection and the nature of our bodies after the resurrection: “The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power, it is sown a natural body [soma], it is raised a spiritual body [soma]” (vv. 42b-44).” According to Paul, embodiment is not lost in the resurrection. The Greek word soma, meaning “body,” is used to describe what we will have post-resurrection. What is done away with in the resurrection is the perishability of our bodies (v.42b). Beck again: “While soma/body will be carried forward in the resurrection, sarx will be left behind. As Paul explains in verse 50, ‘flesh [sarx] and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.'” In short, sarx, which according to Paul will be shed at the resurrection, is human frailty and mortality, the very thing that Paul sees as the root of human sinfulness.

* The Book of Wisdom is a deuterocanonical (literally means “belonging to the second canon”) book which is read as inspired scripture in both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions but is relatively unknown in the Protestant tradition. It’s important to note, as Beck does, that the book of Wisdom informs most Christian’s understanding of Genesis 3 as is clear from our discussion above. I’ve written a bit on canonicity and what it means for a text to be “authoritative” here.

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Next: Reclaiming Christus Victor