Undeniable Death

Review by Philip Turner

It’s been almost 40 years since Dr. Ernest Becker published his Pulitzer Prize-winning study, The Denial of Death. Unlike Becker, three recent books do not attribute the denial of death to more or less universal psychological mechanisms. They lay death’s denial at the feet of sociological and technological developments characteristic of the modern world. Nevertheless, they agree with Becker on one basic point: American society lives in denial that we all die. Further, all three agree that churches have colluded with — perhaps have even been captured by — this pervasive habit of avoidance. All three authors have had scrapes with death, which drove them from denial. In response, each has issued a call to churches to reclaim their ministry to the dying.

The Christian Art of Dying:
Learning from Jesus

By Allen Verhey. Eerdmans. Pp. 423. $30

Life After Death:
A New Approach to the Last Things

By Anthony C. Thiselton. Eerdmans.
Pp. 269. $24

Speaking of Dying:
Recovering the Church’s Voice
in the Face of Death

By Fred Craddock, Dale Goldsmith,
and Joy V. Goldsmith. Brazos. Pp. 240. $19.99

These volumes are not autobiographical like poet Christian Wiman’s account of his long and painful illness. In My Bright Abyss Wiman recounts both his suffering and the reawakening of his Christian faith. The memoir may prove a modern spiritual masterpiece and is not to be missed, but neither is the work of Allen Verhey, Anthony Thiselton, Fred Craddock, and Dale and Joy Goldsmith.

Craddock and the Goldsmiths state the problem plainly: churches have “outsourced” care of the dying. In doing so they “were conceding that another community with another narrative about life could provide the primary care for the dying.” What is that other narrative, and how does it compare with the traditions of the Church? Craddock and the Goldsmiths make the contrast in this way: “Instead of seeing life as a gift that places us in the role of stewards, responsible for the care of what we have been granted, we slip into assumptions about ownership. We think we are our own when in fact life is a gift.” Verhey pursues this thought by pointing out how devotion to individual autonomy shifts our focus from dying well to exercising our freedoms in the face of death.

Verhey locates the origin of this alternative narrative in what he calls “the Baconian project” — the admirable attempt (from which we have all benefitted) to bend nature to human purpose through the advance of knowledge and technique. Craddock and the Goldsmiths point out that our confidence in scientific advance has produced such high expectations for cure that we simply shove death aside. Thiselton notes that our inheritance from that project is “an evidence-based culture” that finds little room for the promises of religious belief. As a result, all agree that we are left not with Christian care of the dying but with what Verhey calls “the medicalization of death.” We now die in hospitals, prisoners of technology and technique, often cut off from family and friends and subject to fruitless treatments that appear, even to medical professionals, as no more than “licensed torture,” in the words of one nurse.

What ways do these authors chart for reclaiming the Church’s witness and ministry in caring for the dying? Thiselton seeks to shift attention away from our concern for autonomy, ownership, and personal immortality and toward trust in God’s promise of resurrection and new creation. Only as the Christian narrative of death, resurrection, and second advent in Christ becomes the real story of churches can they reclaim their ministry to the dying and their evangelical witness to society.

These theological basics are lost to the very people called to be their witness. Thiselton has done the Church a great service by providing a thorough, clear, and faithful account of these neglected beliefs — that the power of death has been conquered through Christ’s death and resurrection — which provide a powerful alternative to the narrative of the autonomous individual.

Craddock and the Goldsmiths also provide an alternative to the “individualism that has the arrogance to believe it can control its own destiny.” They do not address dying and death in terms of the things that lie on the other side of death, but rather in terms of Jesus’ death. They want a theology of death rather than one of death and resurrection; and, in their eyes, the story of Jesus’ living and dying provides just that.

Among other things, it teaches us that Jesus’ way of dying is our way of dying — that, in both living and dying, Jesus commits his life to God, his Father, and to those whom he loved and for whom he died. In death as in life, Jesus loved God with all his heart and his neighbor as himself. Here we have the paradigm of a good death, revealing that dying is not the basic problem. The basic problem is in both living and dying in a way that conforms our lives to the image of God as we have it in Christ Jesus. Because God is present in the death of his Son, we are assured that God knows what it means for us to die. And because Christians have died and risen with Christ in baptism, they know that neither death nor life can separate them from God’s love. They know that God has spoken the truth to them in Christ’s life and death, and so they are free to accept the truth about themselves as well as to speak truly to others. They can lament, they can forgive, they can offer hope to others, they can express their needs, and they can meet the needs of others. All these things Jesus did in his last hours. These are the words that provide the vocabulary with which Christians ought to speak of dying, in place of the vocabulary of autonomy, technology, and technique.

Of the three volumes, Verhey’s provides the most satisfying and complete guide for reclaiming the Church’s ministry to the dying. Like Craddock and the Goldsmiths, he also takes Jesus as the model for dying well: “his faith, his faithfulness, his hope and his patient love, his humility and his courage are all on display in his dying, and surely these are paradigmatic for Christian’s dying.” Jesus’ death displays the virtues that define a good death: faith, hope, love that is patient, humility, serenity, and courage.

The most arresting thing about Verhey’s invitation is the call it contains for churches to become communities in which virtues are cultivated and passed on — virtues that allow people both to die well and care well for the dying. In highlighting these virtues, he begins with a 15th-century text, Ars Moriendi, or The Art of Dying. This text does not present death as a medical event but as an enterprise in living that involves a range of spiritual and moral powers. Dying is something that one is to prepare for and meet in a way that imitates the way in which Christ met his death. Verhey has a number of quarrels with this ancient guide to the art of dying, but he uses it to develop a more contemporary and theologically adequate account.

Here Verhey draws a stark contrast between this way of dying and that of the Baconian project. In the Ars Moriendi there is a role for the dying. They have work to do. In the Baconian project one becomes a patient and gives up responsibility. In the art of dying there are decisions to make and these are not confined to medical treatment. There are choices about addressing the past and meeting the future. These choices reveal one’s identity, one’s basic beliefs and commitments.

There is much more in these volumes — the place of the sacraments of the Church, the role of caregivers, the practical things involved in a good death. These volumes treat a subject of fundamental evangelical and pastoral importance, and they do so with insight and considerable moral and spiritual strength. It appears that American society now has a different story to tell about death. These authors are convinced that the Church has begun to tell the story America tells rather than her own. They call for the Church to speak that language once more and restore practices faithful to our way of believing. This work will not be accomplished either quickly or easily, but these three volumes make clear the necessity and importance of the task, and they show the way ahead.

The Very Rev. Philip W. Turner III, former dean of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, is vice president of the Anglican Communion Institute.


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