For the past several months the book “Being Mortal” has set atop the NyTimes Bestseller list. Most of the books that achieve that honor tend to be about heroic tales of sports heroes or veterans or the latest celebrity memoir, but this book has captured America’s imagination by saying the one thing we already knew, to be human is to be mortal.
Several months ago, the Highland Shepherds and staff spent an afternoon with an Abilene hospital chaplain who had served the Big Country for over 25 years and had been present at thousands of death beds, and this chaplain said that in his experience, generally Christians die the worst.
We fight and claw death away, we don’t talk about it, and when we do it tends to be for devising strategies to avoid it as long as possible. We have this idea that death is something that we can control, if we just have the right connections, the right medicine, or if the right people will pray enough of the right kinds of prayers. But this fails to understand the nature of both death and life.
The best kind of life starts with a deep awareness that life is a gift, and it is a gift that one day will come to an end.
In 1974, Ernest Becker wrote his watershed book The Denial of Death. That was a significant year for Becker because it was the year that he found out that he had cancer, it was the year that he died. It was also the year that Becker turned to God.
Becker’s work has been so significant because he shined a light on all the ways that we try to avoid the most obvious truth. We will die. No matter how much money we accumulate, no matter how many Twitter followers we have, or how big our house is, or how many degrees we accumulate, we will die, and Becker’s question was, “Why does every human culture try so hard to pretend that this isn’t true?”
If that sounds a bit too philosophical for you, try this on for size. Why is cosmetic surgery a multi-billion dollar industry? Why have we so thoroughly removed death from our society?
Last year, the well known actress Frances McDormand noticed in an interview that this fear of death had developed a “perverse fixation on youth” in how Hollywood told stories:
There’s no desire to be an adult. Adulthood is not a goal. It’s not seen as a gift. Something happened culturally: No one is supposed to age past 45—[in terms of dress, cosmetics, or attitudes]. Everybody dresses like a teenager. Everybody dyes their hair. Everybody is concerned about a smooth face.
Ernest Becker saw all the ways we were marginalizing death and recognized it was a way we were lying to ourselves:
“We don’t want to admit that we are fundamentally dishonest about reality, that we do not control our lives, that we always rely on something [an institution, our job, our family] that transcends us.”
So we collect trophies, we put overwhelming amounts of pressure on our families, careers, and status to prove to ourselves that we matter, like the ancient Egyptians we build our own Pyramids of greatness trying to achieve some kind of immortality, all the while we are unaware that we aren’t even really in control of our pulse.
This is the Denial of Death, and it should be particularly troubling for people who are followers of Jesus.
Jesus talks about his death a lot. A whole lot. His death was something that his whole life was oriented around, and he had this strange notion that his death had something to do with every other persons death who would ever live. But Jesus doesn’t just talk about His death,, he forcefully insists that people who would follow Him would willing face their own mortality, as if that would help them become fully alive.
Think about the life of Jesus, he never turned anyone away, he-little by little-poured out his life for the people who needed him the most and stood against the people who would diminish them, and then He asked them to do the same.
And this is, of all the world religions that Ernest Becker looked at, is the great triumph of Christianity. As he approached his own death, Ernest Becker said:
This is the most remarkable achievement of the Christian world picture: that it could take slaves, cripples, imbeciles, the simple and the mighty, and make them all secure heroes, simply by taking a step back from the world into another dimension of things, the dimension called heaven. Or we might better say that Christianity took…—the thing man most wanted to deny—and made it the very condition for his cosmic heroism
The reason that we are doing this series, is because, while Christians may be known in America for dying poorly, that has been the exact opposite of their reputation for two thousand years. Christians were, from the very beginning, known for their ability to die well, because they believed they followed a man who had defeated death in all it’s forms by entering into it.
Jesus stands in solidarity with all of us who die without getting the right headlines or obituaries, he both starts and stands in a long line of nameless, obscure saints, who when the day comes where their strength fails, when the end draws close and their time is near they go home to be with God.
For the longest time, Christians took great care to die differently than the rest of the world. In the middle ages, when the Black Plague was rampant, there were books written and church classes taught on “The Art of Dying Well” They were taught to look death in the face, primarily by looking past it and seeing God.
Recommended Reading for this series:
Skeletons in God’s Closet by Joshua Ryan Butler
The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
For All the Saints Departed by N.T. Wright
The Slavery of Death by Richard Beck
A Grace Disguised by Jerry L. Sittser
Early Christian Martyr Stories by Bryan M. Litfin