I finally got around to reading Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize-winner, The Denial of Death. Wow, have I been behind the curve. I’m only through the preface and the introduction, but it’s already been an illuminating few pages.
In a nutshell, Becker begins to argue that humans desperately crave cosmic significance—we all need to be heroes who accomplish great deeds of worth and value in order to have a sense of meaning. Cultures, by their nature, provide hero-systems through which we have the framework to achieve that hero-status. In some it is great material accomplishment, in others it is physical heroics, or literary vitality, or religious holiness, and so forth. Cultures are relative in the way hero-systems are constructed, but they all provide them, nonetheless.
Of course, writing after the 1960s and heading into the 1970s, the question that loomed large was: what happens when the major cultural, hero-systems failed? What happened when they were exposed? When it turned out that you could be solid, honest, businessman working for a corrupt corporation? Or that you could throw yourself on a grenade to save your buddies in what ends up being a senseless war? Or that consumerism might just be rotting away at your soul, so that he who had the most toys when he does, dies a villain instead of a hero of industry?
This was the crisis of the youth heading into the 1970s—at least from Becker’s point of view. We all still need that sense of cosmic heroism—a way to achieve meaning in our lives that sustains, strengthens, and drives all our actions. But what do you do when the cultural, hero-systems of the day have all been unmasked?
And here he makes a potent observation about the Church and religious faith:
“And the crisis of society is, of course, the crisis of organized religion too: religion is no longer valid as a hero system, and so the youth scorn it. If traditional culture is discredited as heroics, then the church that supports that culture automatically discredits itself. If the church, on the other hand, chooses to insist on its own special heroics, it might find that in crucial ways it must work against the culture, recruit youth to be anti-heroes to the ways of life of the society they live in. This is the dilemma of religion in our time.”
-Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, pg. 7
Written over forty years ago, Becker is still on to something, for better or for worse. Religion and Christianity aren’t totally discredited in the “youth” today, but by most markers, it’s certainly down. Something like thirty percent of millennials identify as “Nones”, and even the more specific, religious confession among the rest is far squishier, syncretistic, and self-consciously peripheral to the core of their lives than in the past.
This is why I see a warning here for the current church, going in two directions.
First, there’s a warning about the danger of a sort of Christian traditionalism that sees itself conserving more traditional culture, almost out of sheer inertia. The kind of “good, old days” golden-ageism that rightly praises the holy elements of cultural, hero-systems of previous generations (stable families, long-term company loyalty, visible religious confession, etc), but tends to be rather myopic about the various, short-comings of its compromises along economic, racial, gender, or social lines.
I’m painting with a broad, maybe unfair brush, but the longing for a return to the days of our parents or grandparents without a critical edge to the various accommodations and failures of the Church as a prop of civil religion, or the “moral, Evangelical, suburban lifestyle” will not help us here.
Of course, the danger we’re likely to be less aware of when reading Becker is of latching onto the next wave of culturally-approved, heroic-meaning-achievement. Seeing that the Church has been identified with older, hero-systems that don’t connect and even drive off the youth, there’s a rush to jump on any bandwagon and the ideologies attached to it, in order to show that “Christianity really does get (insert issue X)” so as to catch the wave. And that may work for a while.
But in the long-run, there’s got to be something distinctively Christian about the way the Church invites people into a meaningful life that doesn’t simply end up being a version of their neighbor’s meaning-system with a Bible-verse attached to it–because when that goes (and it always goes), so does the Christianity that’s attached to it. Or, even more—if Christianity just presents itself as another version of the currently-appealing hero-system, then why bother with it? Today’s progressivism may be (and likely will be) tomorrow’s traditionalism. And given the vagaries and inconsistencies of history, some hero-systems considered regressive today, may end up making a comeback in the near-future.
So, for instance, it’s right and good to show that Christianity has a deep logic to it which funds the work of activism for broader racial and social justice. The gospel does have social implications along those lines. But when you do so, you have to do the hard work of showing the way these currently common values are rooted into the distinctively Christian story of Christ and him crucified, or the way that the Church offers certain distinctive ways of approaching reconciliation and truth in ways that might run counter to the dominant, activist, hero-system. Indeed, that they’re not even really part of a typical hero-system, in that sense.
Otherwise, what happens when people get burned out by that system? What happens when you’re a failure within it? When you just don’t measure up? Or key personalities within the movement end up exposed? Or someone hijacks the cause for personal gain? Or the acids of deconstructive suspicion begin to eat away even at the struggle for justice? At that point, are there distinctively Christian practices and theological values of grace, forgiveness, Sabbath, or truth-telling, rooted in the cross and resurrection of Christ, that continue to fund this work in the Church even when the rest of the world has moved on to the next, big thing?
I’m not sure that will happen, but as with so many of the great, meaning-imbuing causes of the last few centuries, it’s a possibility. Christianity needs to have a message, then, that does one thing that Becker hints at and another that he doesn’t.
First, it needs to cultivate—at least in some areas—what Becker called an “anti-hero” ethic. This is often what some refer to as a sense of being “counter-cultural.” I say that with trepidation, mostly because of the sort of criticisms my friend Matthew Lee Anderson has noted with the cheaper appeals to it. But all the same, that sensibility of knowing that Christianity stands apart (even at those moments when it stands in solidarity with!) the meaning-systems of the world is important if it is to not get dragged down into with them when they sink.
Of course, even more obvious than engaging those areas we do share in a distinctive way, we’ll be required to simply refuse to go along with others. We will have to stand apart not only the way we do things, but in what we do and advocate altogether. The rush towards reinventing every aspect of sexual and gender ethics seems to be only the most obvious example. This is one of those areas where, yes, progress in understanding can be made to a degree, but unsurprisingly we will likely have to stand almost entirely apart and inhabit the freakish space the early church did in this regard.
Second, the even more radical move that Becker does not suggest is to show the way that Christianity up-ends the normal modes of cultural hero-systems altogether. In the cross and resurrection, Christ delivers us from the elements of the world—the typical, socio-religious systems of meaning-creation—and hero-systems our world offers us to achieve our own identity, our sense of cosmic worth, by introducing us into a new cosmos altogether.
In that cosmos, it is not we who achieve our meaning and significance, but Christ from whom we receive it by faith. By faith we are united with Christ and so participate in his life, death, and resurrection which reform the world altogether, imbuing it with its true meaning and purpose.Ours is a meaning and purpose derived, dependent, and secure in his.
Yes, we are invited into his kingdom, into his Church, into a truly meaningful way of living in the world, but all the same, when we preach that message, we offer people a Christianity that stands truly apart from all the meaning-systems of the world. It is a distinctive faith with a distinctive life drawn from its distinctive center—the Lord Jesus Christ. We are different because he is different. We are invited to embrace “anti-heroes” to the ways of life of the world precisely because Jesus, our hero, was crucified by them, rose, and conquered them in himself.
Soli Deo Gloria
Thanks for your insights. I particularly appreciated your warnings to avoid trying to find heroism in some Christianized golden age in the past, or (equally) “latching onto the next wave of culturally-approved, heroic-meaning-achievement.” I found similar reflections on Becker in Dick Keyes’ books: True Heroism and Cynicism. He suggests that the doctrine of adoption (WSC: “…an act of God’ s free grace, (1 John 3:1) whereby we are received into the number, and have a right to all the privileges of the sons of God. (John 1:12, Rom. 8:17) gives Christians a basis for living in a way that is truly heroic.