One of the delights of reading books from Richard Beck, professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University in Texas, is to partake in his winsome, synergistic, and multi-disciplinary aplomb he brings to his topics. This is not only true in his musings on his ever-thoughtful blog – Experimental Theology – and his previous books, which include the award-winning Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality and Mortality, but these traits shine forth anew in his latest offering: The Slavery of Death.
In The Slavery of Death, Beck is at his best, running his own area of expertise – psychology – against the discipline of theology with the result being a deeply inviting reflection. He begins with an emphasis on the Orthodox tradition’s accent and formulation: Death causes Sin – flowing from the biblical articulation found in 1 Corinthians 15:56, “The sting of death is sin.” This is the reverse side of the coin that many are much more familiar with of the Protestant tradition’s formulation: Sin Causes Death – flowing from the biblical articulation found in Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death.” In treating death as our primary predicament, Beck brings to bear some of psychology’s insightful work on the psychology of death, including Arthur McGill, Ernest Becker and Geoffrey Gorer, and puts them in conversation with the theological observations and provocations of Walter Brueggemann, Howard Thurman, N.T. Wright, William Stringfellow and Walter Wink. The result is a gift to pastors and practitioners in a slim and simple volume of 127 pages that are profound, unsettling and resonate deeply with the Vineyard’s core value of the Theology and Practice of the Kingdom of God.
In the first section, Beck introduces to most of his Protestant readers – himself included – the Orthodox formulation that ‘Death causes Sin’. In his comparison of original sin (the Protestant accent) and ancestral sin (the Orthodox accent), he begins in Genesis 3 in that, “…the Eastern Orthodox tradition understands Genesis 3 to be more about theodicy (a story about where death came from) than about soteriology (a story about where sin came from).” His introduction really keys on two new testament passages, 1 John 3:8 – where Jesus comes to undo the works of the devil, and Hebrews 2:14-15 – where Jesus shared in our humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death – which is the devil – to set free those who all their lives have been enslaved by the fear of death. The implications inherent in these two verses serve as most of the pivot points, as he then moves into an exposition of the Christus Victor orientation of atonement theology, as Christ is born into this world to set humanity free from this bondage and slavery with all of its moral, social, ecological, psychological, spiritual and physical oppression. In wrestling with the here-and-now of the now-and-not-yet, this oppression manifests in our bodies, and thus Beck wrestles with the biblical concepts of sarx and soma. I found his core understanding of sarx as ‘mortality’ in the context of the new testament usage very helpful conceptually. Professor Beck then sums up our liberation in that it revolves around love, and, as 1 John makes clear, in love we move from death to life.
In the second part, Beck turns from his brief theological exposition to his own area of study, psychology, seeking to show how psychological science actually confirms and informs the theological perspective he has framed for us. Between the works of Arthur McGill – author of Death and Life: An American Theology – and Ernest Becker – who authored a trilogy begun in The Denial of Death – Professor Beck plunges with us to make clear a path into the murky world of the psychology of death and the fear of death. His coverage of the different manifestations of fear, basic anxiety and neurotic anxiety, and how they are understood against the backdrop of cultural hero systems and the vital lies of our so-called “first world” lifestyles align remarkably well upon the biblical imagination. Basic anxiety is about survival instincts i9n a world of real or potential scarcity. Neurotic anxiety connects to cultural hero systems and our worries and fears amplified by our apprehensions as we compare ourselves to others in our social world as characterized by insecurity, envy, ambition, jealousy, competitiveness and guilt and shame. The key idea he drives toward is that our slavery to the fear of death manifests by-and-large in idolatry, often unrecognized by us because of our culture’s denial of death. As he attempts to make the connections between his framed theology and psychology, he turns to Walter Wink’s work on the ‘Powers That Be’, but even more to the person Karl Barth proclaimed as the one person we must read, saying, “the conscientious and thoughtful New York attorney who caught my attention more than any other person: William Stringfellow.” Quoting Stringfellow, Beck writes, “Death is the only moral significance that a principality proffers human beings. That is to say, whatever intrinsic moral power is embodied in a principality – for a great corporation, profit, for example; or for a nation, hegemony; or for an ideology, conformity – that is sooner or later suspended by the greater moral power of death. Corporations die. Nations die. Ideologies die. Death survivies them all. Death is – apart from God – the greatest moral power in this world, outlasting and subduing all other powers no matter how marvelous they may seem for the time being. This means, theologically speaking, that the object of allegiance and servitude, the real idol secreted within all idolatries, the power above all principalities and powers – idol of all idols – is death.” Beck makes his case that if fear of death produces the works of the devil – such rivalry and strife, and greed, malice and violence among us – then a propensity to produce the devil’s works is at the foundation of our identity.
Throughout Part 3, Beck takes us deeper into our identity in Christ via some keen psychological insights. He begins with something he mentioned in part 1, that the slavery of death compromises our ability to love deeply and sacrificially. Thus his turning point for us embracing and doing love deeply and sacrificially is from the well-known passage in 1 John claiming that perfect love casts out fear. He identifies one of our major obstacles: we are submerged in the American success ethos. In our culture and workplace that calls sacrificing so much for ‘excellence’, how can we possibly say ‘no’ to the principality and power by which we were raised? Dr. Beck – agreeing with Dallas Willard – points to the formation of a new identity, which in turn forms a new sort of community. Of course, our identity is found in Christ and our community in the Church. I think we are all quite familiar with the liberation involved, for we know it as death and resurrection. Engaging the depth and breadth of Arthur McGill’s work here, Beck eventually comes to the conclusion that our identity formation in Christ leads us to what McGill calls an “ecstatic identity” which is something we do not own but rather receive as a gift. Quoting McGill, “In the New Testament portrayal of Jesus, nothing is more striking than the lack of interest in Jesus’ own personality…[i]n other words, the center of Jesus’ reality is not within Jesus himself.” Jesus was not motivated or trapped by the fears, worries and neuroses that motivate us. Beck elaborates on McGill in saying that the key to Jesus’ identity is that he does not “possess” it, but the center of Jesus’ identity exists outside himself. Beck himself – picking up on some of David Kelsey’s work – prefers the term “eccentric identity” in that Jesus’ identity – and thus our own formation of identity as humans – is grounded outside of ourselves, in the Father – who is Love. The psychological insight provided here is that an identity rooted in the grace of God stabilizes the ego in the face of difficult, downward choices, and in also in social shaming, hostility and violence. This resiliency in facing social shaming and hostility through our psychology of identity in Christ is shines in his example of Howard Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited – a book Martin Luther King, jr. kept in his pocket everywhere he went – moves us toward personal and human dignity, of love of self and the other, in describing the threats, shaming and violence that was the daily reality of black Americans in the Jim Crow South. Rounding back to scripture before delving deeper in the cross, Beck stops off at Philippians 2 to note the deep resonance between this psychological analysis of ecstatic/eccentric identity with the kenosis described therein. From this place, he moves to the cross and in encouraging a formational identity path of small, everyday acts of courage and vulnerability and daily sacrificial living, he notes the identity and kenotic issues that we find so significant in the cross, noting again the ‘love’ consequence from 1 John 3:16, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.”
In a short interlude, Beck simply and profoundly reminds us that: “As biological creatures, we are not saved from the fear of death – that would be an impossible, foolish goal. We are, rather, saved from a slavery to the fear of death,” because as holistic love casts out fear, the cross grants us the ability to choose love instead of death.
To me, the next and final section – part 4 – is where Richard Beck’s synergistic acumen pays off like refined gold. He seeks to be ever-so-practical and give his readers some practices that can form and shape a resurrection kind of living. Even as he dives in, Beck pauses briefly to remind us of the missional-orientation and context that all this takes place in, beautifully captured in a quote by William Stringfellow, “[T]he genius of the Christian life, both for a person and for the company of Christians, is the freedom constantly to be engaged in giving up its own life in order to give the world new life.” Juxtaposed with Stanley Hauerwas’ wisdom that, “to follow Jesus is to undergo a training that refuses to let death, even death at the hands of enemies, determine the shape of our living,” we see again the enduring nature of death and resurrection in Christian living. In light of this, Beck also notes Craig Hovey’s offering to the Church, “The virtues necessary to be a martyr are no different from the virtues necessary to be a faithful Christian.” There is a profound ordinariness, in an almost supernaturally natural way, to the practices recommend by Beck to engender and form our identities ecstatically and eccentrically in the Father.
The Slavery of Death is an insightful book from Richard Beck. It’s the sort of book so many of us pastors and practitioners, lovers of God and people, need to remind us of how the basics of Jesus and his wisdom interact with some of the everyday practices and sciences, like psychology, of our lives and the lives of those we love. And this love sets us free from the slavery the slavery to the fear of death, and enables us to join Jesus in his mission to proclaim good news and destroy, subvert and overcome the works of the devil.
Reviewed by Steven L. Hamilton
After studying Biblical Wisdom at the Baltimore Hebrew University, Steven Hamilton continues to engage the spirituality of wisdom and discernment through spiritual direction after instruction at the Sustainable Faith School of Spiritual Direction, the first school of its kind within the Vineyard community of churches. He currently lives with his beautiful wife, three lovely daughters and his dog in Maryland.