A Death Obsession

I watched the new trailer for the upcoming Deadpool movie from Marvel Studios.  Wow.  I knew it was going to be violent, Deadpool is a genetically modified human mercenary.  If you follow the Marvel universe stories, you also know that the “Merc with a Mouth” has a rather vulgar and offensive sense of humor.  Make no mistake, this will be rated R and not a superhero movie for children.  But it brought home to me something I have talked about but never written about, namely our societal death obsession.  

Our news stories lately have been singular focused about death lately from unborn babies and a lion.  Just a cursory reading we find those who are outraged at the former seem not at all concerned about the latter and vice-versa.  Many of my friends fit within these two opposing views.  Both of these new stories tell of a terminal death, that is, a death that ends life.  

I think we have now nurtured a obsession with terminal death in our society.  We want our entertainment and our heroes darker, more gritty.  When death is involved, we want the cameras right in the middle of it.  ISIS executions are played over and over again.  There has been a cry since I was a kid, media has desensitized us to death.  Here in the USA, few of us face death.  We don’t live on farms anymore and fewer and fewer hunt so we miss this natural part of the life cycle.  The full life cycle which humanity has known for centuries, is far less common.  When we do face it, it is more likely to be in the sterile environments of medical facilities and less in our daily world.

We’ve created a mystery to death.  Yes, we fear the rising instances of mass shootings and violence in minority communities.  We are anxious regarding terrorism and religious persecutions.  But we remain intrigued, obsessing over death but we shy away from reflecting on our mortality.  When terminal death comes we act like it is somehow abnormal.

But it isn’t the only death.  No, and though terminal death is what we seem to most focus on and find entertainment from, there is another death which gets far less attention.  Author and speaker, Ron Rolheiser terms this other death; paschal death.  He writes:
“Paschal death, like terminal death, is real.  However, paschal death is a death that, while ending one kind of life, opens the person undergoing it to receive a deeper and richer form of life.” (146, “The Holy Longing”)
A paschal death, is part of the mystery of God’s work at Easter. Rolheiser describes this death as part of our living life and so it is “a process of transformation within which we are given both new life and new spirit (147, ibid).”

Jesus describes this paschal death by pointing to what happens to a grain of wheat..
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. (John 12:24-25 ESV)”

The Apostle Paul uses the image of an “old self” being “crucified” which overlaps the image of Jesus as the crucified and risen Christ.  He states it this way, “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. (Romans 6:6-7 ESV)”

Our life journey and our faith journey (whether we see them separate or the same isn’t so important at this point), if done in a healthy way, need healthy models for us to use through our lives.  Traditional rites of passage for young boys and girls have been appropriate for this and I wonder if, in the west, as we have lost these rites, our death obsession isn’t rooted in the lack of ceremonies celebrating maturity.  

Again referring to Rolheiser, humans need to live out a “process of transformation, of dying and letting go so as to receive new life and new spirit.”  There are multiple images and stories in the Bible pointing to this transformation.  Rolheiser offers a “paschal cycle” for our life journey based on Jesus’ own experience:

  1. Good Friday…”the loss of life-real death”
  2. Easter Sunday… “the reception of new life”
  3. Forty Days… “a time for readjustment to the new and for grieving the old”
  4. Ascension… “letting go of the old and letting it bless you, the refusal to cling”
  5. Pentecost… “the reception of new spirit for the new life that one is already living”

We find traces of the paschal cycle in a number of places.  We find it John Wesley’s description of our growth in grace as we journey to entire sanctification and ultimately, glorification.  James Fowler’s “Stages of Faith” and Janet Hagberg’s “The Critical Journey,” offer additional religious models of growth.  Secularly speaking, the developmentalist theories of Piaget, Kohlberg, Kegan, Gilligan and others also observe this.
Today’s current emphasis on spiritual formation is shedding more light on the transformation work God is about in our lives.  As we are in the process of spiritual formation, we see again and again, how we are not intended to compartmentalize our lives.  Life is not intended to be divided between secular and spiritual.  Scripture does not paint a picture of a life divided between our work, our family and our worship but as a whole so when a “death” takes place, a change of life, we have the opportunity to allow the seed to die or to put an old self to death.

The Church has the answer to death: resurrection.  In Jesus we have both the overcoming of physical death but we also have resurrection of our lives here and now.  A gospel without resurrection is not Good News.  It is not “good” and it is not “news.”  Jesus’ Gospel offers hope for paschal death and terminal death and we need theology which can encompass both.  

I see it again and again as part of my life’s work.  As my wife and I talk about her upcoming surgery, her “fourth quarter” in her treatment for colon cancer, we have had to talk about those things which need to die, or better said, HAVE to die.  While it is helpful to name events, or hopes or dreams, we still must put these “things” in the grave.  I need a “Good Friday” where I bury these and I need Good Friday where death is swallowed in victory.   We all do.


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