February 13, 2011 / Praxis
An interview between TOJ Editor-in-Chief Chris Keller and the author of GENERATION EX-CHRISTIAN, Drew Dyck.
March 6, 2019
The first time I marked my first-born child with an ashen cross, he was held by his mother, whom I had marked with death many times before. But my son was so fresh and new. With his face gazing up at me, I realized how love grows in direct proportion to our dread of mortality, both for ourselves and for those we love. I took a deep breath and said the words I knew by heart: “Remember you are dust.”
Remember you will die. How could I forget? A friend from graduate school told me that the point of the Christian life was to learn how to die well. The moment we are born, our death walks beside us like an angsty shadow. Perhaps we are to make friends with this deadly companion or, at the very least, not to fear its presence. That would be a lot easier if death were more subtle, but, hell, if it isn’t a persistent nag.
If you live long enough, you age into the stage where things begin to break down and stop healing quickly. Last autumn, I was skating down a pretty steep hill, and my board caught gravel. My right knee pivoted left and down so fast I barely registered the accident physically. But in the time it took me to finish falling, I was already calculating how much this might cost at the ER and how long it would take to heal. The good news is that it cost me nothing because I walked it off. The bad news is that I am still hurting four months later. Those might be connected.
Some days I ache all over. It’s not the kind of pain that makes me reach for pain killers, but it’s enough that I do not feel fresh. Decay is no joke, and it is infinitely more alarming when it is me that’s decaying rather than the perfect-looking banana that I bought at the market three hours ago and is already turning the color of death! When I get bananas, I scratch them all with the sign of the cross, just so they know their eventual fate. Ashes to ashes, mush to mush.
Entropy applies to bananas and babies and adults who have no business skateboarding down a mountain. Unless, of course, the tech gods we endow with growing power and prestige build us a world immune to the law of nature. There is a resurgent infatuation with the possibility of beating death, an unwillingness to acknowledge mortality as a necessary creaturely passage. Welcome to the Digital Age, where Moore’s Law, the concept that computer power doubles every two years at the same cost, supersedes the second law of thermodynamics. This law gets applied across many fields of study, resulting in a post-Enlightenment belief in endless progress. Things won’t just improve, we believe, but will do so with a speed that overwhelms cognition. We already hate thinking about death, so it is not hard to convince us that our ignorance is warranted. The gods of tech are on the case. We just have to stay alive long enough for Moore’s Law to overtake nature.1
If only Jesus had known about all of this. He might have avoided his fateful death. In light of this promised digital eternal life, Jesus and his followers look positively stupid embracing death as a necessary path. Marking yourself with death in the form of an ashen cross? Utterly foolish.
It is so hard to die these days. A friend of mine from school died way too young way too fast—cancer doesn’t care if you were more saint than sinner. He died a year after I graduated, except I didn’t know he had died because his Facebook page was still humming along like nothing final had occurred. People kept writing him messages on his profile page, and I never read closely enough to realize that they were talking to the void as an inverted form of grief. I just assumed they were catching up with their old friend. But he was dead in all the ways that mattered, even if his digital soul was kept on life support by the digital gods. I wonder how much Facebook made on postmortem ad revenue from the traffic on his page.2
Speaking of money, did you know that there is a burgeoning industry to resurrect dead celebrities via holograms and virtual reality?3 Just because Michael Jackson is dead doesn’t mean we should stop making money off his image. A flick of the switch, and we can make him dance for us again in pixilated form. As if he hasn’t already danced enough to last a few lifetimes. But Jackson isn’t a person; he is a brand. And the brand stands to lose revenue if a little thing like death is allowed to interrupt the flow.4 It isn’t hard to see where this kind of exploitation can take us. Jackson has been a brand since the days of “ABC” and “I Want You Back.” Brands are not concrete reality but rather disembodied economies where personhood is strip-mined for profit. And with the advent of social media, everyone can join the self-as-brand revolution.
Here’s my sad prediction: As the costs fall, the biggest churches will option the postmortem rights to the image of their celebrity preachers. Then the sermons can continue to flow even after death. The uncritical embrace of satellite churches and preachers streamed across screens is just step one in this process. You thought they would stop at video preaching? Please.5
Jesus predicts his death time and again, but his friends don’t want to understand. Their kingdom project necessitates a different kind of savior that stays alive long enough to kill all the bad guys. Jesus says that he must suffer and die, embracing the human condition we are so eager to escape. Peter claps back, “Like. Hell. You. Are!” Jesus, always ready with a sick burn, replies, “Get behind me, Satan!”
It is hard to let someone die, especially when that someone is you.
It turns out that if you inject old mice with blood from young mice, they can run a maze like a boss. It appears that the young blood may reverse the effects of aging. I don’t imagine there is a lot of paperwork for the young mice to sign, which should give the geriatric mice access to all the young blood they need!
Now imagine that you have insane amounts of disposable income and that you would like some of that young mouse plasma so that you could live at least until forever. The ultrarich are investing huge amounts of money into life-extension research.6 Since these Silicon Valley billionaires are all aging toward death, this is a race against the clock. Markets arise where demand is high, and sinful amounts of wealth are being invested to give old rich people in Florida an extra couple of years on the links.
But this isn’t simply about adding a few extra years to one’s life. The overarching goal of the capitalists who fund this march toward life extension is to live long enough to see technology solve death. They see technology as a bridge to eternal life. Something that’s just around the corner for those who can afford it.7
This impulse is not new. In the sixteenth century it was explorers in Florida (why is it always Florida!?) looking for the Fountain of Youth. They bathed in every river or lake they could find. They are all dead now, by the way. A couple of centuries later it was common for physicians to write a prescription to combat aging that could only be concocted by an all-male medical field: the patient was prescribed sex with a virgin as a way to transfer the young life-force into the aging person.8 Apparently this is still standard practice, given the ritual among elites of trading in an old wife for a fresh one. You’ve got to keep the life-force exchange tilted in your favor! This matters because our most powerful and wealthy citizens are committed to this death-denial project. The convictions underlying our digital age were not created ex nihilo. Real people with complicated motives are driving the conversation and funding the research toward a telos at extreme odds with the project of God.
The message of Jesus reckons with death in its own way, naming it as an antagonistic force but one that is only defeated from the inside, and only by one who is able to go where we cannot. The writers of the early church embraced mortality without fear, knowing that God can work beyond our presumed endings. Our imaginations are still too small. The tech billionaires cannot see past death because their fear is all-encompassing and their greed is blinding. They are at war with Thanatos even while embracing his weapons. How else can we understand the logic of pouring fresh blood into old rich people? That sounds like some craziness out of the book of Revelation—“For they have shed the blood of your holy people and your prophets, and you have given them blood to drink as they deserve” (Rev. 16:6 NIV). But Revelation also talks about the power of blood freely offered from the divine heart. The ashen cross illustrates this blood still flowing into all of creation, healing from the inside out:
They triumphed over [Satan]
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death.
Therefore rejoice, you heavens
and you who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
because the devil has gone down to you!
He is filled with fury,
because he knows that his time is short. (Rev. 12:11–12)
Jesus made it clear that he was going to die and that his friends should prepare for that inevitability. The scandal at the heart of our story is that death appears to defeat God. The oldest conceptions of the atonement show Jesus tricking Satan/death by offering himself freely on the altar of the world.9 Death is stupid and stubborn, so it takes the bait. Once inside the deathly process, Jesus is free from the power of death and able to undo it from within. Like a fish swallowing a hook baited with a bomb, death mistakes the cross for its victory. Death’s imagination is limited, just like the imaginations of our current gods of this digital age. Imitating Jesus at Ash Wednesday, we are the ones marked by death. This is not a concession to the fates, but rather a sign of resistance to death’s power. To paraphrase the late William Stringfellow: Death reigns, and we are free from its power.10
The imposition of ashes is an act of resistance. It embraces creaturely limits by marking the self with death. Yet we receive this mark without flinching. Jesus does not promise immortality. So instead, we yearn for resurrection. This is why so many of our liturgical patterns are signs of death. Baptism: buried with Christ and raised to walk in new life. Eucharist: every time you eat this meal you proclaim Christ’s death. Ash Wednesday: remember you are dust. Christians are an Easter people, which presupposes death as a means to new life.
I don’t want to be too harsh toward the gods of our digital age. They are just scared. Swollen egos will not survive the apocalypse, and death will level the playing field once again. The great banquet table of God does not have VIP seating. Thus, for those who have made a life of existing above the common populace, exploiting and extracting at every turn, God’s kingdom might look like hell, with the first being last and all that. It must be terrifying.
And it is tempting to see the steady march of progress as a way out of our condition. For every problem, our digital age promises a solution.11 The fear of death is seen as good because it motivates powerful people to find a cure before we run out of time. But God is not bound by our limits, even as the Divine bent low to embrace our condition:
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. . . . For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Heb. 2:14–15, 17–18)
Our obsession with technology is the new idolatry. We willingly bind our entire lives to its promises, on the slim hope that it might save us from our human condition. The Bible calls this slavery.
The only way out is
through. So I embrace the ashen cross as a little practice of resistance. I am
still afraid, but less so each time I trust the cruciform way: first the dying,
John Jay Alvaro
John Jay Alvaro is the lead pastor of First Baptist Church in Pasadena, California. He completed his graduate studies at Duke Divinity School and studies the intersection of religion and technology.