April 19, 2012 / Perspective
From personal faith to social critique, Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was a Child I Read Books presents an incisive, hopeful approach toward understanding culture and loving others.
In an age of rampant consumerism, which has brought about the current global economic crisis, the church today faces that age-old question: Who or What governs the body? The church must find ways of reclaiming the body, reclaiming each person as an indivisible whole rather than two disparate parts and as mystically united with other Christians as one Body in Christ. The corporate model of “doing church” has revealed its ugly falsehood, and if Christians are to recapture the imagination of humanity as a people being resurrected, the church must reconstitute spirituality as that which is enacted and participated in bodily. And there is one whose body is paradigmatic for all Christian understanding of human flesh—Jesus.
The Other Journal (TOJ): In the final chapter of the book you coauthored with Brian Volck, Reclaiming the Body: Christians and the Faithful Use of Modern Medicine, you make the explicit claim that for Christians, when it comes to death and dying, rules and principles are not the answer. You clarify that it depends, rather, on a rightly formed character through a radical participation in Christian community. Yet in the church these days there seems to be a reluctance among the clergy to engage parishioners on this level. Could you speak to some of the reasons and influences that might bring about this reluctance?
Joel Shuman (JS): One of the things that may be hindering clergy from taking this on as one of the teaching ministries of their church and talking more about issues regarding the end of life or questions that arise at the end of life is that a great deal of what clergy do is demand-driven. People in our culture don’t want to talk about death and dying, at least not in the ways that involve doing the hard work of talking openly about it and getting radically involved in one another’s lives. Now this is a broad generalization to which you would find many, many exceptions. I’ve been involved with some churches that have done extraordinary things; however, the biggest part of our Christian avoidance of this matter is that it’s frowned upon in the wider culture.
TOJ: Certainly. I’ve dealt with this firsthand with the death of a young mother here in our church. I preached at her funeral service, and it became clear to me in my preparation how hidden death has become in our culture, and the death that you do see in various forms of media seem to fictionalize death completely.
JS: That’s an excellent observation. I learned a good deal from a book that was written in the late 80s by a theologian at Fuller Seminary named Ray Anderson. He wrote a book on theology, death, and dying. He made the point early on in that book, as a matter of introducing the topic, that by the time the average American is fourteen years old, he or she will have witnessed thousands of fictionalized deaths on television or in movies and so forth. Alongside this observation, he juxtaposed the fact that the vast majority of Americans will not have firsthand experience of another person dying in their presence. The dichotomy between these two facts has always struck me as remarkable. His first observation about the fictionalization of death is truer today, insofar as electronic media has become more prevalent and we have more exposure to those kinds of things. I think about video games that are excruciatingly violent and what David Grossman says in his book On Killing, about the way video games very much train the players in the same way that the United States military trains riflemen now, which is through operant conditioning.1 This makes it a reflex action to fire a weapon at another human being. One of Grossman’s peripheral concerns in the book is that this fictionalization is creating a kind of cheapening of both life and death in the broader culture.
TOJ: You say in the last chapter of Reclaiming the Body that, “Our lives are about producing and consuming, and we scarcely have time to visit, much less care for, those who are no longer involved in production and consumption and no longer able to care for themselves.” And then you have the great punch line, “We assume that caring for the dying is something people are paid to do.” And not only that, but “that it’s always been this way.”2 But this statement is not simply reserved for death and dying; we treat everything this way. Not that you can locate this in some “thing,” but what might be some of the marks that brought us to assume such a commodification of death, or life, for that matter?
JS: We’re always tempted to make our moment in time universal, to regard our culture as the way things should be or have been or are. Part of that is that we still very much in North American culture, and I suspect this is true of Western European cultures as well, see the world through the lens of progress, that things are coming closer to the way things should be. This is a way of normalizing our own way or our own culture, saying that it’s the way things ought to be. In addition, in the wake of the fragmentation of our culture, we have the dissolution of the connections between generations, beginning with the dissolution of the extended family, and also the dissolution of the idea that children will be around and learn from people other than their parents and peers. The understanding that each generation has moral obligations to one another, which includes preparing each other for the next stages in our lives, is just not the case anymore. We’re relatively alienated from one another in terms of our relationships between generations.
TOJ: I guess you might say that this is largely due to a drive toward autonomy.
JS: I think so, or at least that we convince ourselves it’s about autonomy. In fact, what it’s about is the rootlessness of the modern contemporary person. We call that autonomy, but what it actually turns out to be is the dominant economy that requires us to be flexible, to be mobile, and to have certain aspirations that can only be satisfied by acquiring more. Of course, acquiring more is almost always going to require mobility and more flexibility. Wendell Berry, borrowing an analogy from Wallace Stegner, makes a distinction between what he calls the boomers and stickers or nesters.3 The boomers are those who are always pressing, always looking for something better, always looking for the next opportunity, and they tend to see whatever they are engaged in at any given time in terms of what it can do for them or what it can yield for them. The stickers/nesters are those whose lives are defined by commitment to a place and a people, and people who understand that being in a place requires developing a kind of learned affection for it, without which every person and place will be reduced to utility.
TOJ: This frame of understanding has largely impacted the church, inasmuch as the church has become structured on the business model of the priest/pastor, so that to achieve real success in ministry, to move up the ladder and acquire more, he or she has to go to the larger church. What are the implications you might see as a direct result of this? Have you seen direct implications of this?
JS: The first of these implications is that churches and people searching for churches—seekers, according to the church growth industry—both think similarly about church; they both think that the church is a place where needs will be met. The job of pastors, then, becomes to figure out what needs the people who are likely to come to their churches will have, what they are likely to be feeling, and to develop programs to supply those demands. We, of course, treat church as we do most things in our lives: We shop. We often go to the church that best meets our felt needs. Now, there’s some extent to which that’s inevitable. Most of us are not going to have the opportunity to grow up and marry and die in the church we were baptized. That’s just not the way our culture is anymore. But when the church acquiesces to this and says, “Well, we can’t do anything about that, and our best chance of getting people in the door is to offer them what they think they want,” then, before you know it, the growth of the community of the church, numerical growth, and the institution of programs, has superseded faithfulness as the goal.
TOJ: Do you see in the emerging church and new monasticism movements a glimmer of hope for changing this? These movements seem to be developing in reaction to the programmatic business model of doing church.
JS: I do see hope in the new monasticism movement. I’m less familiar with the emerging church movement, but I see that their primary emphasis on understanding that one’s commitment to God cannot be separated from one’s commitment to God’s people. This binding together has always involved concreteness and particularity. You can’t be committed to people in the abstract or to the church in the abstract. You are committed to particular people who live in a particular place at a particular time.
TOJ: I must confess that I serve in a local Episcopal Church, and I know people who would argue just the opposite [laughs]. Not turn to economics here, but might the church take advantage of this economic crisis so to return to the local? It seems that this is happening already.
JS: I think we have begun to see a trend, not without some hiccups along the way, but an almost necessary trend toward the local and necessarily involving ourselves with the local. This will become an imperative for us as we no longer have access to cheap petroleum, and our ability to move about in the world is going to be at least complicated, if not disrupted. But to answer your question, yes—the short answer is yes, absolutely. And I’m just following in the footsteps of many who have said that it was a terribly unhappy thing when the church started chasing people to the suburbs or following people to the suburbs. As the demographics of the neighborhoods changed, the churches in the city chased the affluent people, who once attended them, to the suburbs. The cities of our country are now full of tall steeple churches that are either closed or slowly dying. I teach at a college that’s in a small city in the “Rust Belt.” There are about forty thousand people in the city proper, and that’s a considerably shrunken population for a city that was once twice that size. The town is full of tall steeple churches, mostly mainline Protestant, but increasingly Catholic churches that are empty. The people that once constituted those communities no longer live in the city.
TOJ: This has direct implications for the poor and homeless. Adam Smith said a long time ago that if the state was going to succeed, it had to take the poor away from the church, ‘It had to own the poor.’ Would you say the same thing about death, that the state sees a need to own death?
JS: I think so. I think the professionalization and growth of the funeral industry has been one factor in that, especially to the extent to which medicine is involved in our lives during our last weeks and months.
TOJ: You touch a bit on how people want to die instantaneously—nobody wants to have a long, drawn out death—but your teacher and mine, Stanley Hauerwas, once said that ‘for a Christian, a good death would be cancer.’ It doesn’t take you right away, but it enables you to reconcile with you brothers and sisters.
JS: Exactly. It gives you a chance to contemplate what’s really happening. When I tell my students, particularly those in my bioethics class, that I hope for a prolonged dying process, they think I’m absolutely crazy. They see no sense in that. At the same time, I hate to blame medicine. We get the medicine we deserve. Medicine to some extent is an artifact of culture. It serves us in the ways we want it to. And as we continue on, and the more capable medicine becomes, and it is, extraordinarily capable, we continue to depend on it for more things, including holding out the hope that it’s going to keep us alive when nothing else can work. It probably can’t.
TOJ: We might get out of this world alive after all—
JS: When my father died, he had fallen and broken his leg. He also had a serious heart disease and was transported to the hospital and placed in intensive care. When it started to become obvious to us, that is, to the family, that he was at the end of this life, we asked that he be moved out of the intensive care unit and into a private room so that we could be with him. Afterward, the doctor who was in charge of his care team in the hospital thanked us. He said, “I have a closet full of stuff to keep people alive for just a little bit longer,” and he went on to say, “It’s almost never a question of can I do something else to keep this person alive; it’s knowing when not to do something. And for that, I need people to tell me when it’s time not to do something.” To me that’s an admirable position and a very candid moment. The problem is that most of us are not willing to say that it’s time to stop doing something.
TOJ: You have a discussion in Reclaiming the Body about how Christianity is not something that simply happens to us when we die, but it is the formative life we spoke about earlier in our conversation. This means that there are no “answers” or truly practical things you can simply go out and do, but do you have examples of how churches are moving people beyond this culture of death to actually see the goodness of dying well and shedding the consumptive life of the world?
JS: I’ve long thought that one of the most important things the church does is the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, saying to everyone that comes forward, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It’s a wonderful thing for the church to remind us that we’re dying, especially as the beginning of the Lenten discipline. It’s an extraordinary thing.
Churches that have vigils at the bedside of the dying are tremendously beneficial. Things of this nature have to be negotiated with the family, but ideally, the family is part of the church that is doing it; it’s a remarkable practice that doesn’t get talked about enough. I spoke with someone one time that had a guild, the guild of “The Hope for the Resurrection,” basically a guild that when someone died they took over the preparation of what was to follow. They were the church’s primary contact with the funeral home; they made the funeral arrangements; they made sure the funeral liturgy was a faithful representation of the life of the community; they prepared meals for the family of the deceased. The guild made the person’s death a big occasion, and just to the extent that churches do that, to whatever extent, is good. Where I come from we have the potluck supper after the burial, and there’s something healing about sitting down in the basement of a church eating fried chicken and potato salad with people that you care about more than anyone else, some of whom you may not have seen in years. It’s a pretty remarkable thing today in this world to be able to sit down and do that.
TOJ: It’s interesting how such a practice as that, as actually walking through this with the family, doesn’t separate death from the whole of the body. So often, having served in the church for several years, I’ve seen the family left alone to make all the decisions and make every preparation on their own. Death is something they deal with, not everyone else.
JS: Yes, that’s true, and it’s a shame. At some point along the way, the funeral became something for which the family of the deceased shopped and not something the body of Christ deliberated about, participated in, and celebrated together.
TOJ: Joel Shuman, many thanks for your time; this has been very beneficial.
JS: Thank you.
1. David Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (New York, NY: Back Bay Books, 1996).
2. Joel Shuman and Brian Volck, Reclaiming the Body: Christians and the Faithful Use of Modern Medicine (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 126.
3. See Wendell Berry, “Wallace Stegner and the Great Community” in What are People For? (New York, NY: North Point Press, 1990).
Billy Daniel is Perspective Editor for The Other Journal. He is Director of Christian Formation for St. John’s Church in Tampa, Florida, and is also in the midst of his PhD work at the University of Nottingham, completing research on the rise of secularism in liturgical reform.
Joel Shuman teaches moral theology at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is a frequent public speaker, the author of numerous articles about theology and medicine, and coauthor of Heal Thyself: Spirituality, Medicine, and the Distortion of Christianity and Reclaiming the Body: Christians and the Faithful Use of Modern Medicine. Dr. Shuman is also coeditor of the forthcoming book Wendell Berry and Religion: Heaven’s Earthly Home (University Press of Kentucky).