Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Avoiding Death - Modern Culture's Pathology and the Defeat of Shame

Dear Parish Faithful,

This well-written letter from our catechumen, Nicole Lyons, deserves not only a careful reading, but some real “meditative” thought. The lecture she is summarizing reveals some frightening things about our culture – beginning with the trivialization of “ the mystery of death” itself. A secular culture has no “answer” for death, and thus flees from its presence. Even Christian churches are turning funerals into “celebrations” of the life that is over, rather than addressing the reality of death (and the victory over death by Christ’s Resurrection). And, frankly, it can get rather superficial. God forbid that you mention the “forgiveness of sins” within these services of celebration! Such churches are capitulating to the prevailing “death-denying” atmosphere of a spiritually-lost culture. This week we are the midst of contemplating the Gospel which offers the only acceptable “answer:” the death of death in and through the resurrecting death of Christ.


Fr Steven

Yesterday I listened to a podcast called "Modern Death, Millennial Mourning: The Challenge of Twenty-first Century Grief," by Sandra Gilbert, former president of the Modern Language Association (MLA). I think her main field is English and Literature.

Anyway, the lecture was basically about how our culture avoids talking about / thinking about death to a pathological degree. Instead of having funerals, people now can gather at a country club without the body even present, to "celebrate" the life of the departed. Instead of interring the body, you can now pay companies to make diamonds or windchimes out of the dearly departed's ashes--or pencils, for that matter (about 250 pencils can be made from each body, which can be handed out at the funeral, or "celebration," as the case may be).(It's entirely possible that balloons could also be procured.) She mentions a few factors for this, one of them is the fact that we've lost a cultural vocabulary with which to comfort each other meaningfully (e.g. why offer to pray for/ with someone when no one believes in God anymore?) But she also discusses the rhetoric of Freud, when he discussed grief and bereavement, who likened those emotional processes to a sickness that must be cured, and that out of that thinking came things like the 7 Stages of Grief. So that when people talk about grief, it is in the concept of "getting better" as soon as possible rather than really recognizing that grief stays and lingers unlike a curable disease.

Anyway I thought of you because of some things you've said in the past regarding orthodox views of mortality, death, body and soul. Also, how in your homily yesterday you reminded us that death was not part of God's plan, and how there is somehow a connection between sin and death. Gilbert I think is really trying to grapple with what grief even is, in a culture that--in most realms of life, not just grief--incessantly admonishes us to be happy, be better, forget the past, move on (ASAP), be productive, etc. She also points out the degree of shame that a widow feels when her spouse dies--not necessarily guilt that the death could have been avoided, but just a pervading and inexplicable sense of shame that death touched their lives. She notes that this is something she's never seen addressed by popular psychology, yet it shows up in many grief narratives; shame is something you can't talk yourself out of, unlike guilt. I don't think Gilbert is a Christian--a theist, perhaps--but this was a very poignant observation on her part. When we think about the connection between death and sin, and the shame that Adam and Eve felt over their sin when they used fig leaves to cover themselves, it makes me wonder if all of our cultural pathology is not just an inability to face the fear of death in a secular worldview, but also the fact that without turning to the Christian God, we also have no means to deal with the shame of death. I think, because Christ trampled down death by death, He also reckoned with the shame of death, and our own shame in the face of death.

Anyway--sorry for the long email. After listening to it yesterday afternoon, I'm clearly still thinking about it. Plus I wasn't sure if you would actually get a chance to listen to it, b/c I don't know if you use podcasts. Just in case, here is the address: http://www.bath.ac.uk/podcast/
You have to scroll down to find the 07. April 2008 lecture.


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