The Brokenhearted God

Not to take away from the undeniably biblical teaching that God is almighty, but sometimes I think we lose sight of God's love for his image-bearers when we emphasize certain "strong" portraits of God at the expense of (instead of alongside of) other "weak" portraits found in Scripture. (I put "strong" and "weak" in quotes because perhaps our definitions of strength and weakness therefore need to change!)

It might make some of us uncomfortable to read about God portrayed as a jilted lover or a frustrated mother, but those portraits just might be desperately needed in a time when so many people turn away from God because they can't understand how he can possibly be the good Lord of a world so broken and dying.

Let's not let our emphasis on God as King make him seem like a distant despot, or something dangerously close to the author of evil. We worship a God who is immanent in his transcendence, and we don't all need to become process theologians to recognize this. Perhaps we just need to read the prophets! Consider the following two examples:

When Israel was a child, I loved him,

and out of Egypt I called my son.

The more I called them,

the further they went from me;

they kept sacrificing to the Baals,

and they burned incense to idols.

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk;

I took them up in my arms,

but they did not know that I healed them.

I led them

with bands of human kindness,

with cords of love.

I treated them like those

who lift infants to their cheeks;

I bent down to them and fed them.

I won’t act on the heat of my anger;

I won’t return to destroy Ephraim;

for I am God and not a human being,

the holy one in your midst;

I won’t come in harsh judgment.

They will walk after theLord,

who roars like a lion.

When he roars,

his children will come trembling from the west.

They will come trembling like a bird,

and like a dove from the land of Assyria;

and I will return them to their homes, says theLord. (Hosea 11:1-4; 9-11, CEB)

As for your birth, on the day you were born your umbilical cord was not cut, nor were you washed in water; you were certainly not rubbed down with salt, nor wrapped with blankets.No eye took pity on you to do even one of these things for you to spare you; you were thrown out into the open field because you were detested on the day you were born.

“‘I passed by you and saw you kicking around helplessly in your blood. I said to you as you lay there in your blood, “Live!” I said to you as you lay there in your blood, “Live!”I made you plentiful like sprouts in a field; you grew tall and came of age so that you could wear jewelry. Your breasts had formed and your hair had grown, but you were still naked and bare.

“‘Then I passed by you and watched you, noticing that you had reached the age for love. I spread my cloak over you and covered your nakedness. I swore a solemn oath to you and entered into a marriage covenant with you, declares the sovereignLord, and you became mine.

“‘Then I bathed you in water, washed the blood off you, and anointed you with fragrant oil.I dressed you in embroidered clothing and put fine leather sandals on your feet. I wrapped you with fine linen and covered you with silk.I adorned you with jewelry. I put bracelets on your hands and a necklace around your neck.I put a ring in your nose, earrings on your ears, and a beautiful crown on your head.You were adorned with gold and silver, while your clothing was of fine linen, silk, and embroidery. You ate the finest flour, honey, and olive oil. You became extremely beautiful and attained the position of royalty.Your fame spread among the nations because of your beauty; your beauty was perfect because of the splendor which I bestowed on you, declares the sovereignLord. (Ezekiel 16:4-14, NET)

Notice that God's immanence, his willingness to suffer alongside us (and in our stead, through Christ), doesn't negate his hatred for sin. Instead, I'd argue that God's immanence intensifies his negative reaction to Sin and Death as his cosmic enemies! Emmanuel, God with us, sees our sickness for what it truly is. It's not something to be trifled with, and it doesn't just upset God because it "breaks his list of rules." No, sin breaks God's good creation. It is a cancer which kills from within, even dragging his precious image bearers down to the grave…blinding them to the horrible reality of their downfall, and enticing them, enticing US with phantoms of fleeting pleasure.

This rambling post was inspired by the following two songs, which capture the above ideas beautifully. The first is "Ezekiel," by Gungor, based on the text of Ezekiel 16. The second is "Not Your Type" by Noah James. Give both a listen if you have the time!

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My Uncle, Timothy Steele

(This post is about my late uncle, Timothy Steele. It’s long, and I swear toward the end. Sorry.)

“It is better to go to a funeral than a feast. For death is the destiny of every person, and the living should take this to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, because sober reflection is good for the heart.” (Ecclesiastes 7:2-3)


Timothy Steele

The juxtaposition is staggering. The funeral of the man I most associate with laughter and joy. It hurts. No Steele family gathering was complete without hearing his boisterous laugh, receiving one of his legendary bear hugs, and – if you were lucky – getting one heck of a sloppy kiss on the cheek.

His greetings were the most genuine. I always knew when Uncle Tim had arrived. And whenever I arrived, he made me feel like my presence mattered, like he had missed me, like he was proud of me.

My Uncle Tim was one of the first people in the room to hold me when I was born. Although I can’t remember it, he was there on the very first day of my life. Growing up, his house was always a welcome place to hang out with my cousins. He was like a second dad, and his children like a second set of siblings.

Speaking of dad, my Uncle Tim was used by God to help my dad out of his habits and addictions and into an encounter with Jesus Christ. At the funeral, my dad spoke of it in terms of Tim saving him from drowning. I will perhaps never know how much in my life I owe to my Uncle Tim being there for his younger brother, Patrick, putting his reputation on the line to guide and love my dad toward Christ.

Also, it meant a lot to me that my Uncle Tim made it out to my wedding in Pennsylvania in August 2012. Whenever my wife and I watch our wedding video, one of our favorite parts is when Uncle Tim’s voice booms out from the back of the church after we finished our duet of Be Thou My Vision. Amidst the applause, he cries out in a weepy voice: “That was beautiful!!!” He is intertwined with the memories of one of the happiest days of my life.

Many more stories could be and have been told about Timothy Steele. However, there’s one memory in particular that I haven’t been able to get out of my head these past days since hearing of my uncle’s untimely death. It happened in the garage of Grandma Steele’s house during a family gathering when her health was declining, if I remember correctly. Amidst the normal hilarious and loud stories, the conversation took a serious turn, and my Uncle Tim spoke of the pain he felt when he looked back upon times in his life when he had turned his back on Jesus, so to speak.

Now, he didn’t speak of his regrets in terms of not knowing any better when he was younger. He didn’t speak of the pain of violating a general sense of right and wrong, but of the nagging sense that at various times he had let a person down…the person of Christ.

Encouragement in the Midst of Pain

Here’s why I find that story encouraging in the midst of pain: You don’t much regret letting down people for whom you don’t much care. And even though we have all, to the very last one of us, let Jesus down, he never abandons us. His love makes my Uncle Tim’s love pale in comparison, and he is now showing Tim even more grace than Tim showed to all of us each day.

If you ever met my Uncle Tim, you know of his gracious love toward every single person he met. These past few days have been filled with stories about this man who was a force of nature, always ready to extend his gregarious love toward even, if not especially, “discarded and used-up people,” as my cousin Whitney put it. And as my Uncle John put it, “Tim loved you like Jesus does.

I was struck by viewing those loving, gracious memories of my Uncle Tim in light of the relationship revealed to me in that serious conversation in the garage. That is, to realize that my Uncle Tim was such a uniquely loving person, not just because he thought it was a good idea or because he just had so much love on his own, but because of the love he had received from Christ. To realize that the intense love which characterized every personal encounter with my Uncle flowed from the intense love he had first and continually experienced in his personal encounter with the crucified-and-risen Jesus Christ.

Unlike many, my Uncle Tim understood that the Gospel of Christ doesn’t just make a difference in the “afterlife,” but that it makes a difference in the here-and-now! That if knowing Christ makes no difference in how you treat the flesh-and-blood people around you who are made in God’s image, then you probably don’t know Christ. The eternal life spoken of in the Gospel doesn’t begin the day you die, it began the day Christ died and rose from the grave.

I often worry that Christian pronouncements about the good news of Jesus Christ strike others as hollow, fake, and escapist – especially in the context of a funeral. How can trite truisms about Jesus be relevant in the midst of so much pain?

But my Uncle Tim’s life on earth, painful ending and all, was not a trite truism. You know if you knew Timothy Steele. He demonstrated what faith looks like — that it has to do with more than just thinking the right things, more than just following a list of rules — it has to do with a faithful relationship to a PERSON, a relationship which then changes the way you treat PEOPLE.

Conclude and Reflect

I write this reflection mid-air, on my way back to Alabama. I wish that I had gotten to see my family members in a house of merrymaking, but it was a house of mourning instead.As we remembered the life of the man who could make you laugh so hard you cried, there was a lot of laughter and a lot of tears in the Steele family this weekend. There was riotous applause at the funeral at one point, but I know there’s still a whole lot of sadness and pain.

If you’re reading this and you, like me, are privileged to have known Timothy Steele, would you reflect on the connection between the love this man showed to all and the love of Christ which he had first received? When you seek hope in the midst of your reasonable sorrow, and you spend time dwelling on happy memories of the man, would you consider that the source of all that gracious love wasn’t a general sense, it wasn’t an impersonal force…it was my Uncle Tim’s encounter and relationship with a person.

And if you’re reading this and your pain feels too great for all this Jesus talk at the moment, if, like me, you experienced a big dose of anger at the side of Tim’s casket this weekend…that God would allow this life to end so soon…that this world is still broken and infected by Death, would you please join me in clinging to the hope that God hates death even more than we do?

Sometimes it doesn’t feel like it, but seriously, he does. For all the hopeful Christian talk at funerals, we can never forget that Death sucks.

No, that’s not strong enough. Death is fucking horrible. And I hope you agree that I say that out of concern for accuracy, and not merely vulgarity.Death’s final defeat has been declared at the empty tomb of Jesus Christ, butdammit, we’re still waiting for the final removal of Death’s presence from this world. It’s not our annoying, normal friend. It’s our alien enemy. And I don’t know about you, but when Death strikes close to my door, when it hits the ones I love, I want to rage against it with all I have.

God rages against Death. He dove headfirst into the depths of this world, into the realm of the discarded and the used-up, the dead and the dying. He himself dove into the very grave, that he might emerge from it victorious. That he might lay Death itself in its cold grave, that he might silence the bastard enemy of the children of God.

I don’t just follow Jesus to get into heaven someday when I die. I follow him because he hates Death more than I do, because in an important sense he is more heartbroken than I am over the death of my Uncle and the sorrow of the family members he left behind. And because, amazingly enough, he invites me and his people — he invites YOU — to join him in the mission of eternal life, to join him in the process of putting Death to death in our daily lives, in the world around us.

And, following the words of my beloved Uncle Tim, that’s beautiful.

(For another reflection on death, hope, and resurrection, read my sermon: “Son of Man, Can Your Bones Live?”)

Give Thanks!

I'm not the most thankful person.

However, I am a follower of Jesus, and one of the lessons I've been learning this semester is that praise, thanksgiving, and gratitude are closely intertwined. Worship should involve the public proclamation of who God is and what He has done — including specific, personal declarations of thanksgiving for God's grace and good gifts.

If, like me, you have a hard time cultivating this worshipful practice of gratitude, then allow me to suggest the following prayers from the Book of Common Prayer to help get us started.

The first one is the simplest: a prayer for Grace at Meals. Perhaps this is an easily-overlooked truth, but we can ask God for grateful hearts! That is, instead of merely asking him for things…for which we will hopefully then be grateful… we can ask him for help in becoming grateful people.

"Give us grateful hearts, our Father, for all Your mercies, and make us mindful of the needs of others; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

If you have time for more than just the 25-word prayer above, consider using the following prayers as a springboard for a time of gathering together as a family to give thanks to God. The General Thanksgiving is said by Anglicans during daily prayer throughout the year. Consider praying through this together as a family or group of friends.

The General Thanksgiving:

"Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen."

Finally, this Litany of Thanksgiving is a bit longer, but consider pausing after each segment to think on all the good gifts God gives to us in each area of life. If you, like me, have a hard time thinking of things to be thankful for, allow this time of prayer to jog your memory.

A Litany of Thanksgiving:

Let us give thanks to God our Father for all his gifts so freely bestowed upon us.

For the beauty and wonder of your creation, in earth and sky and sea.

We thank you, Lord.

For all that is gracious in the lives of men and women, revealing the image of Christ,

We thank you, Lord.

For our daily food and drink, our homes and families, and our friends,

We thank you, Lord.

For minds to think, and hearts to love, and hands to serve,

We thank you, Lord.

For health and strength to work, and leisure to rest and play,

We thank you, Lord.

For the brave and courageous, who are patient in suffering and faithful in adversity,

We thank you, Lord.

For all valiant seekers after truth, liberty, and justice,

We thank you, Lord.

For the communion of saints, in all times and places,

We thank you, Lord.

Above all, we give you thanks for the great mercies and promises given to us in Christ Jesus our Lord;

To him be praise and glory, with you, O Father, and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.

What are you thankful for?


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A Prayer Before Study by St. Thomas Aquinas

I want to share with you the following prayer, based on Oratio S. Thomae Aquinatis ante studium, which Thomas Aquinas would pray before studying, writing, or preaching. We prayed it responsively before class (Patristic and Medieval History and Doctrine) with Dr. Piotr Malysz, and I’ve turned back to this prayer with three papers and a final before me in the weeks ahead!

We prayed it responsively before class (Patristic and Medieval History and Doctrine) with Dr. Piotr Malysz at Beeson Divinity School, and I’ve since turned back to this prayer often!

A Prayer Before Study

O God, Creator of all that is,
From the treasures of Your wisdom,
You have arrayed the universe with marvelous order,
And now govern with skill and might.
You are the true fount of light and wisdom.

Pour forth a ray of Your brightness
Into the darkened places of our minds;
Disperse from our souls the twofold darkness into which we were born:
Sin and ignorance.

Grant to each of us:
Deftness of hand,
Keenness of mind,
Skill in learning,
Subtlety to interpret,
And eloquence in speech.

And since you have given us the privilege to share in the loving, healing, reconciling mission of Your Son Jesus Christ, our Lord, in this age and wherever we are,

May your Spirit make us wise;
May your Spirit guide us;
May your Spirit renew us;
May your Spirit strengthen us.

So that we will be
Strong in faith,
Discerning in proclamation,
Courageous in witness,
Persistent in good deeds.

May You guide the beginning of our work,
Direct its progress,
And bring it to completion.
You who bring all that is good to its proper end,
Now prosper the work of our hands.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord,


Karl Barth on the Wilderness Temptations: #1, Stones into Bread

Karl Barth's exegesis of Christ's wilderness temptations isperenniallyinspiring, but particularly poignant during this season of Lent.

What does it mean for Christ to be the Perfect Penitent? And how should this influence our own repentance?

The following series of quotations comes from a lengthy small-print section in CD IV/1, 259-73 (§ 59 The Obedience of the Son of God; 2. The Judge Judged in Our Place). There Barth walks through the three wilderness temptations before masterfully connecting them to Christ's experience in the Garden of Gethsemane.

On page 261, the discussion of the temptations begins:

The First Temptation: Stones into Bread (CD IV/1, 261-2)

"In both Evangelists [Matthew and Luke] the first Satanic suggestion is that after the forty days of hunger He should change the stones of the wilderness into bread in the power of His divine Sonship by His Word.

For Barth, it is important that Christ is not tempted in the wilderness to any sort of moral violations of the Law. Instead, he is tempted to abandon his role as the Perfect Penitent. For this is the form and content of Jesus' sinlessness — not a vague moral perfection, but specifically his obedience and repentance.

"What would it have meant if Jesus had yielded? He would have used the power of God which He undoubtedly had like a technical instrument placed at His disposal to save and maintain His own life. He would then have stepped out of the series of sinners in which He placed Himself in His baptism in Jordan. Of His own will He would have abandoned the role of the One who fasts and repents for sinners. He would have broken off His fasting and repentance in the fulness of divine power and with the help of God, but without consulting the will and commandment of God, because in the last resort His primary will was to live. He would have refused to give Himself unreservedly to be the one great sinner who allows that God is in the right, to set His hopes for the redemption and maintenance of His life only on the Word of God, in the establishment of which He was engaged in this self-offering. He would have refused to be willing to live only by this Word and promise of God, and therefore to continue to hunger.

From a "human" standpoint, however, choosing self-preservation over starvation makes perfect sense!

"In so doing He would, of course, only have done what in His place and with His powers all other men would certainly have done. From the standpoint of all other men He would only have acted reasonably and rightly. "Rabbi, eat" is what His disciples later said to Him (Jn. 431) quite reasonably and in all innocence. But then He would not have made it His meat "to do the will of him that sent him, and tofinish his work" (Jn. 434).

However, Christ the God-Human is more human and less sinful than us in his refusal to abandon obedience and repentance. For this reason, his repentance was perfect — a repentance unto redemption.

"Instead of acting for all other men and in their place, He would have left them in the lurch at the very moment when He had made their cause His own. Jesus withstood this temptation. He persisted in obedience, in penitence, in fasting. He hungered in confidence in the promise of manna with which the same God had once fed the fathers in the wilderness after He had allowed them to hunger (Deut. 83). He willed to live only by that which the Word of God creates, and therefore as one of the sinners who have no hope apart from God, as the Head and King of this people. His decision was, therefore, a different one from that which all other men would have taken in His place, and in that way it was the righteousness which He achieved in their stead."

Stay tuned for Karl Barth's exegesis of the second temptation, for Christ to fall down and worship Satan.

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Presenting on Karl Barth at 2015 Southeastern ETS

I just received the news today that my student paper submission for the 2015 Southeast Regional Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society has been accepted!

My theme lately has been to write on Karl Barth and the unity of the Church. At last year's Regional ETS (hosted by my seminary, Beeson Divinity School), I presented an edited version of my undergraduate thesis: Reconciliation and the Lack Thereof: Atonement, Ecclesiology, and the Unity of God. Click the link if you'd like to read the PDF. Here's the thesis:

"This essay endeavors to demonstrate the theological and exegetical legitimacy of viewing the atonement as the act in which the one God fulfills his creative purposes by bringing his uniqueness and simplicity to bear on our sinful, divisive condition through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah in order to save a people to robust unity with himself, each other, and the entire creation."

That paper was a blast to write, because I got to take the doctoral work of my professor (and friend) Adam J. Johnson (God's Being in Reconciliation: The Theological Basis of the Unity and Diversity of the Atonement in the Theology of Karl Barth, now available in paperback!) and "build" an atonement theory based upon the divine perfection of oneness/unity. I hope to expand on that work, drawing upon other theologians than Johnson and Barth, expanding my exegetical arguments for the atonement theory's legitimacy, considering practical implications for ecumenical efforts, etc.

This year, I have submitted a slightly edited version of my final paper fora seminar on the Theology of Karl Barth taught by Piotr Malysz last Fall at Beeson. The Barthian analogy is taking Barth's definition of sin as ontological impossibility — the impossible possibility — and transferring it to thought and speech about the Church. It's a relatively simple idea, with profound ramifications (in my humble opinion) for ecumenical efforts. Here's the abstract:

"Just as sin is ontological impossibility, disunity is ecclesiological impossibility. The tension between the undeniable reality of sin and Karl Barth’s theological definition of sin as an impossible possibility parallels the tension between the obvious reality of a fractured church and the theological definition of the church as the one body of the one Christ. In order to describe in Barthian terms what it means for church disunity to be possible only as sin is possible, the purpose of this paper is to correlate Barth’s anthropological concept of sin as ontological impossibility with its parallel ecclesiological concept: disunity as ecclesiological impossibility. I then conclude by locating this discussion within Barth’s own ecumenical vision – with an eye toward informing and motivating further ecumenical efforts."

I believe this is an important topic to discuss because, as I put it, "each community’s self-examination and pursuit of Christ’s unifying summons will only be as rigorous as its understanding of the absurdity of church fragmentation." That is, we're only going to put effort into being unified as Christ's Church if we have a robust understanding of just how ABSURD division is within the Body of Christ!

If you're interested in this topic, but you can't make it to Lithonia, GA on March 27-28, feel free to read my paper here:

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Barth on the Wilderness Temptations: #2, Christendom's Cost — Worship Satan

Yesterday I posted the beginning of Karl Barth's exegesis of Christ's wilderness temptations. He does a masterful job of explaining how Christ was tempted, not to violate the Law or commit a moral infraction, but to abandon his role as the obedient, Perfect Penitent. Put differently, Barth clarifies that Jesus' sinlessness is not a vague moral perfection, but rather obedience and repentance.

Christ's first temptation was to turn stones into bread, thereby using divine power as a "technical instrument" to save and maintain his own life. Today's temptation contains an incisive critique of Christendom's desire for influence, relevance, and power.

The Second Temptation: Christendom's Cost — Worship Satan (CD IV/1, 262)

"According to Luke, the second Satanic suggestion is that Satan, to whom the world belongs, should give him lordship over it, at the price of His falling down and worshipping him.

Barth gets right to the point, interpreting this temptation. Notice again the theme of abandoning repentance:

"What would it have meant if Jesus had done this?Obviously He would have shown that He repented having received the baptism of John and that He did not intend to complete the penitence which He had begun. He would have ceased to recognise and confess the sin of the world as sin, to take it upon Himself as such, and in His own person to bring to an issue the conflict with it (as with man's contradiction against God and himself).

Terrible, right? But consider how pragmatism rears its ugly head!

"He would have won through and been converted to a simpler and more practical and more realistic approach and way. He would have determined to drop the question of the overcoming and removing of evil, to accept the undeniable fact of the overlordship of evil in the world, and to do good, even the best, on this indisputable presupposition, on the ground and in the sphere of this overlordship.

OK, so even then, the phrase "undeniable overlordship of evil" sounds quite nasty. But Barth is driving home an incisive critique of Christendom — the unholy marriage between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of humanity and the Devil.

The following question is haunting. I am particularly struck by the inclusion of the word "ecumenical." If we are not careful, isn't this almost exactly what many Christians desire? How far are we willing to go to obtain influence and power?

"Why not set up a real kingdom of God on earth? an international order modelled on the insights of Christian humanitarianism, in which, of course, a liberal-orthodox, ecumenical, confessional Church might also find an appropriate place?

And we can still fall prey to this temptation, without completely giving up our God! Just worship God and bow the knee, even secretly, to Satan. Sure, you can still be pious. Just achieve your piety's ends through the gears and cogs of the world-machine! You want to be relevant? Hitch your goals to a movement, a political party, a military!

"Note that to do this He was not asked to renounce God or to go over to atheism. He had only to lift His hat to the usurper. He had only to bow the knee discreetly and privately to the devil. He had only to make the quiet but solid and irreversible acknowledgment that in that world of splendour the devil should have the first and final word, that at bottom everything should remain as it had been.
However, Barth's point is that, in doing so, Christ would have completely given up the redemptive mission. We must take heed, especially in our ostensibly "Christian" nation (according to some in the US, at least), lest we do the same.
"On this condition we can all succeed in the world, and Jesus most of all. In the divine and human kingdom set up on this condition there would have been no place for the cross. Or rather, in this world ostensibly ruled by Jesus but secretly by Satan, the cross would have been harmlessly turned into a fine and profound symbol: an ornament in the official philosophy and outlook; but also an adornment (e.g., an episcopal adornment) in the more usual sense of the word; a suitable recollection of that which Jesus avoided and which is not therefore necessary for anyone else.
Christ succeeded at this point where every other human would have failed.
"What other man in Jesus' place would not have been clever enough to close with this offer? But what He had to do and willed to do in place of all would not then have been done. He would again have left them in the lurch and betrayed them, in spite of all the fine and good things that the world-kingdom of Satan and Jesus might have meant for them.
Attractive realism vs. repentance and obedience. Will we take Christ's example and Barth's critique to heart, as the Church constantly faces the temptation to give allegiance to the powers, empires, and corporations of this world?
"For of what advantage is even the greatest glory to a world which is still definitively unreconciled with God? Of what gain to man are all the conceivable advantages and advances of such a kingdom? But Jesus resisted this temptation too. He refused to be won over to this attractive realism. As the one great sinner in the name and place of all others, without any prospect of this glory, quite unsuccessfully, indeed with the certainty of failure, He willed to continue worshipping and serving God alone. He willed to persist in repentance and obedience. This was the righteousness which He achieved for us."

Stay tuned for tomorrow's temptation, which Barth considers the most astonishing: "to commit an act of supreme, unconditional, blind, absolute, total confidence in God-as was obviously supremely fitting for the Son of God."

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Barth on the Wilderness Temptations: #3, The Leap of False Faith

I've been reproducingKarl Barth'smagnificent exegesis of Christ's wilderness temptations in Church Dogmatics IV/1.

It is a particularly appropriate discussion for this season ofLent, for Jesus was not tempted to break the Law or commit a moral infraction. Instead, he was tempted to abandon his role as the Perfect Penitent. For Barth, if Christ had capitulated to any of the temptations, he would have abandoned God's redemptive mission. Jesus Christ had to persist in penitence in order to be "the Judge Judged in Our Place" (Barth's most concise description of the atonement proper).

In response to thefirst temptation, to turn stones into bread, Christ refused to use divine power as a "technical instrument" to preserve his own life. In response to the second temptation, to worship Satan in exchange for authority and power, Christ refused to sell redemption short by establishing a Christendom "ostensibly ruled by Jesus but secretly by Satan."

Which brings us to today's discussion:

The Third Temptation: The Leap of False Faith (CD IV/1, 262-4)

Barth begins by noting the climactic, surprising nature of this third temptation, given the temple setting and Satan's use of Scripture:

"The third temptation, according to Luke's account, is the most astonishing of all. The dignity of the setting, the temple of God in the holy city of Jerusalem, is obviously incomparably greater than the still secular dignity of that high mountain from which Jesus was shown and offered all the kingdoms of the world. It is of a piece that Satan now appears as an obviously pious man who

can even quote the Psalms of David, and he gains in the seriousness and weight of his approach. Above all, his suggestion-we can hardly describe it by the horrible word temptation-is quite different from everything that has preceded it.

The temptation at hand is different from the preceding one's in terms of its apparent piety! Isn't an act of "total confidence in God" appropriate for God's Son?

"It now consists in the demand to commit an act of supreme, unconditional, blind, absolute, total confidence in God-as was obviously supremely fitting for the Son of God. We might almost say, an act in the sense of and in line with the answers which Jesus Himself had given to the first two temptations, to live only by the Word of God, to serve and worship Him alone.

Indeed, it doesn't take much imagination to see the connection between Jesus' response to the first two temptations and what he is asked to do here. However, Barth points out that this is not designed to be a miraculous demonstration of Jesus' Messianic identity. Instead, it something even more nefarious:

"In the last decades we have become accustomed to think of the seeking and attaining of totalitarian dominion as the worst of all evils, as that which is specifically demonic. But if the climax in Luke is right, there is something even worse and just as demonic. It is not just a matter of a miraculous display to reveal the Messiahship of Jesus. It is often interpreted in this way, but by a reading into the text rather than out of it. The text itself makes no mention whatever of spectators. It is rather a question of the testing and proving, of the final assuring of His relationship to Godin foro conscientiae, in the solitariness of man with God. Jesus is to risk this headlong plunge with the certainty, and to confirm the certainty, that God and His angels are with Him and will keep Him.

Christ is asked to affirm, to certify on his own terms, the relationship between him and God. Barth then uses Schlatter to demonstrate the connections between this temptation and some familiar theological concepts:

"Schlatter has rather mischievously said that what we have here is what is so glibly described "in contemporary theological literature" as the "leap" of faith. It certainly does seem to be something very like "existence in transcendence," or "the leap into the unknown," or in Reformation language "justification by faith alone," justification in the sense that (in face of death and the last judgment, and in the hope that in trust in God these can be overcome) man presumes to take it into his own hands, to carry it through as the work of his own robust faith, and in that way to have a part in it and to be certain of it; just as Empedocles (we do not know exactly why, but seriously and with courage) finally flung himself into the smoking crater of Etna, which is supposed to have thrown out again only his sandals; just as on this very same rock of the temple, when it was stormed by the Romans in A.D. 70, the last of the high priests put themselves to death with their own hands, possibly in despair, possibly in the hope that there would be a supreme miracle at that last hour.

Such faith ceases to be true faith. The grasp for certainty destroys it from the inside out. And yet, because Christ will eventually take something similar to this leap of faith, Barth interprets it further:

"What would it have meant if Jesus had taken this leap? Note the remarkable closeness of the temptation to the way which Jesus did in fact tread. In this respect the Lucan order, in which this is the last and supreme temptation, is most edifying. He will "dare the leap into the abyss, the way to the cross, when the will of God leads Him to it" (Schlatter). But what would have led Him to it here would have been His own will to make use of God in His own favour. He would have experimented with God for His own supreme pleasure and satisfaction instead of taking the purpose of God seriously and subjecting Himself to His good pleasure and command. He would have tried triumphantly to maintain His lightness with God instead of persisting in penitence, instead of allowing God to be in the right against Him. In an act of supreme piety, in the work of a mystical enthusiasm, He would have betrayed the cause of God by making it His own cause, by using it to fulfill His own self-justification before God.

Notice the return of penitence as a theme, which is contrasted against a desire to turn faith in on itself, to experiment with God by demanding his acceptance of an apparently robust faith/piety:

"If He had given way to this last and supreme temptation He would have committed the supreme sin of tempting God Himself, i.e., under the appearance of this most robust faith in Him demanding that He should accept this Jesus who believes so robustly instead of sinful man by Him and in His person. He would have demanded that He should be the most false of all false gods, the god of the religious man. And in so doing He would Himself have withdrawn from the society of sinful men as whose Representative and Head He was ordained to live and act. He would have left in the lurch the world unreconciled with God. "Farewell, O world, for I am weary of thee."

"Look how strong my faith is, God!" What religious human being would not have taken this leap of false faith in Christ's place? Barth pulls no punches in unveiling the subtle power-plays against God often at work in the religious enterprise:

"But again we may ask, what other man, all things considered, would not actually have done this in His place? For Adamic man reaches his supreme form in religious self-sacrifice as the most perfect kind of self-glorification, in which God is in fact most completely impressed into the service of man, in which He is most completely denied under cover of the most complete acknowledgment of God and one's fellows.

Precisely in this way, Christ is unique. He is sinless in his repentance and obedience:

"Jesus did not do this. He rejected the supreme ecstasy and satisfaction of religion as the supreme form of sin. And in so doing He remained faithful to the baptism of John. He remained the One in whom God is well-pleased. He remained sinless. He remained in obedience. In our place He achieved the righteousness which had to be achieved in His person for the justification of us all and for the reconciliation of the world with God, the only righteousness that was necessary.

This is not the way we usually interpret the righteousness of God at work in the wilderness temptations! And yet, it seems to be the unavoidable conclusion, given that the Son of God had to face these extremely unique temptations to retain his role as the Perfect Penitent on his way to the Cross. Yet even here, we are granted a glimpse of hope, of the resurrection to come:

"We cannot ignore the negative form in which the righteousness of God appears in the event handed down in these passages. This is unavoidable, because we have to do with it in the wilderness, in the kingdom of demons, in the world unreconciled with God, and in conflict with that world. It is unavoidable because what we have here is a prefiguring of the passion. But in the passion, and in this prefiguring of it, the No of God is only the hard shell of the divine Yes, which in both cases is spoken in the righteous act of this one man. That this is the case is revealed at the conclusion of the accounts in Mark and Matthew by the mention of the angels who, when Satan had left Him, came and ministered unto Him. The great and glorious complement to this at the conclusion of the passion is the story of the resurrection."

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Stay tuned for an eventual
discussion of Barth's interpretation of the Garden of Gethsemane in light of these wilderness temptations.

Who am I to be a theologian?

For my 20th Century History & Doctrine course at Beeson Divinity School, I'm re-reading through Karl Barth's Evangelical Theology: An Introduction. If you're involved in the life and ministry of the Church in any respect, I strongly recommend that you buy and read this book!

Here's a particularly challenging portion from the chapter on "Wonder," beginning on page 71. I wish the language were gender-inclusive, but Karl's words still ring true:

"After all, who am I to be a theologian?

It does not matter whether I am the best child of the best parents, perhaps having known, like Timothy ( II Tim. 3:15), about the Holy Scriptures from the very time I began to think. It does not matter whether I have the cleverest mind or the most upright heart or the very best of intentions. Who am I to have put such trust in myself as to devote myself even remotely to the task of theology? Who am I to co-operate in this subject, at least potentially and perhaps quite actively, as a minor researcher, thinker, or teacher? Who am I to take up the quest for truth in the service and in the sense of the community, and to take pains to complete this quest?

I have put such trust in myself as soon as I touch theology with even my little finger, not to speak of occupying myself with it more or less energetically or perhaps even professionally. And if I have done that, I have without fail become concerned with the new event and the miracle attested to by the Bible.

This miracle involves far more than just the young man at Nain or the captain of Capernaum and their companions of whom the Gospelstell; far more than the Israelites' passage through the Red Sea, the wilderness, and the Jordan; far more than the sun that stood still upon Joshua's command at Gibeon. I have become involved in thereality of Godthat is only signaled by all these things. This is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who reveals himself in his Son through the Holy Spirit, who desired to be the God of man so that man might live ashisman.

I have become involved in the wonder of this God, together with all its consequences for the world and for each and every man. And whatever, however, and whoever I may be in other respects, I have finally and profoundly become a man made to wonder at himself by this wonder of God.

It is another question whether I know what self-wonderment means for me, whether I am ready and able to subordinate my bit of research, thought, and speech to the logic of this wonder (and not in reverse order!). But there can be no question about one fact: I find myself confronted by the wondrous reality of the livingGod. This confrontation occurs in even the most timid and untalented attempt to take seriously the subject in which I have become involved or to work theologically at all, whether in the field of exegesis, Church history, dogmatics, or ethics."

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It is better to go to a funeral than a feast.

For death is the destiny of every person,

and the living should take this to heart.[1]

Don DeLillo’s White Noise, “a paradigm of postmodern literature,”[2] yields the kind of cognitive dissonance that makes you wonder whether the author simply missed the mark, or if you are only confused because you suffer from the postmodern condition which DeLillo adroitly analyzes. I agree with Pico Iyer when he evaluates DeLillo as “that rarest of birds, a novelist on fire with ideas – and an outlaw epistemologist to boot – he uses his fictional excursions as occasions to think aloud in shadowed sentences, speak in modern tongues, plumb mysteries, fathom depths.”[3]

One such depth is the fear of death, echoing throughout the pages of White Noise in the perennial question: who will die first?

In this essay, I endeavor to analyze the Baudrillardian concept of hyperreality as it pertains to the human fear of death, using DeLillo’s White Noise and the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India as literary and factual signposts.

White Noise

White Noise by Don DeLillo.Jack Gladney, the novel’s protagonist, is the chairman of the department of Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill in a nondescript anytown called Blacksmith. He and his wife, Babette, are the heads of a hodgepodge family filled with an assortment of children from various marriages. After these core details, however, it gets difficult to summarize the novel’s plot. According to Sol Yurick, this is because, “in a sense, White Noise doesn’t really have a plot: It is about the intrusion of a plot into life, a stringing-together of random events into some kind of meaningful schema.”[4] The first twenty chapters, taking up just over one hundred pages of text, bombard the reader with an assortment of episodes. From the home, to the car, to the supermarket, to the College-on-the-Hill, an assault of misinformation and profundity fades all signals to flat – from the ever-present voice of the television to random interpolations of intense emotion. We are left with white noise.

And yet, plot slowly invades. In Gladney’s own words: “All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots. Political plots, terrorist plots, lovers’ plots, narrative plots, plots that are part of children’s games. We edge nearer death every time we plot. It is like a contract that all must sign, the plotters as well as those who are the targets of the plot.”[5] Out of the static emerges one of the novel’s central themes: the fear of death.

According to Albert Mobilio, White Noise explores “the narcissist’s inevitable trap: a preoccupation with dying.”[6] And DeLillo explores this theme masterfully. “Writing of death,” Iyer notes, “Don DeLillo takes one’s breath away.”[7]The question “who will die first?” first appears in chapter four, as Jack wonders to himself whether this “thought itself is part of the nature of physical love, a reverse Darwinism that awards sadness and fear to the survivor.”[8] As the novel progresses, Gladney emerges as a narcissist on a quest for meaning in order to escape death, or rather his fear of it.[9] According to DeLillo, “[Gladney] feels that Hitler is not only bigger than life, as we say of many famous figures, but bigger than death. Our sense of fear – we avoid it because we feel it so deeply, so there is an intense conflict at work. I brought this conflict to the surface in the shape of Jack Gladney.”[10]In Derridean terms, Gladney’s search for center, whether in Babette’s stability, Wilder’s silence, or Hitler studies, is driven by his fear of death.

The same chapter closes with Jack’s admission that he is crafting an identity for himself in his Hitler studies endeavors. He wears dark lens glasses and renders his academic self J. A. K. Gladney, via the fabrication of an extra initial. By his own admission, Jack Gladney is “the false character that follows the name around.”[11]In the final chapter of the book’s first section, another confession emerges:

The truth is I don’t want to die first. Given a choice between loneliness and death, it would take me a fraction of a second to decide. But I don’t want to be alone either. Everything I say to Babette about holes and gaps is true. Her death would leave me scattered, talking to chairs and pillows. Don’t let us die, I want to cry out to that fifth century sky ablaze with mystery and spiral light. Let us both live forever, in sickness and in health, feebleminded, doddering, toothless, liver-spotted, dim-sighted, hallucinating. Who decides these things? What is out there? Who are you?[12]

Jack Gladney wants to be somebody, and he desperately does not want to die.

The second of three sections in White Noise is solely comprised of the twenty-first chapter. At fifty-four pages long, it is roughly the length of the first twelve chapters combined. This is because it is devoted to the “Airborne Toxic Event” (ATE), the novel’s main incident. In brief, a noxious cloud of a chemical known as Nyodene D gets released into the atmosphere, prompting an evacuation of Blacksmith. During the evacuation process, Jack is briefly exposed to the elements (and, presumably, to the Nyodene D) while refueling the family station wagon.

When Jack tries to ascertain if his exposure will cause any health risks, he has a poignant conversation with one of the evacuation officials:

“That’s quite an important armband you’ve got there. What does SIMUVAC mean? Sounds important.”

“Short for simulated evacuation. A new state program they’re still battling over funds for.”

“But this evacuation isn’t simulated. It’s real.”

“We know that. But we thought we could use it as a model.”

“A form of practice? Are you saying you saw a chance to use the real event in order to rehearse the simulation?”[13]

The answer is yes. Unfortunately for Gladney, though, his exposure to the Nyodene D was (presumably) real enough. As his fear of death increases as a result of this news, even a specific death sentence eludes him. Just as science is quickly outpacing humanity’s control (as shown by the ATE and the toxin-eating bacteria used to eat the cloud), Jack’s fear of death outpaces death itself.

The final section of the book is devoted to the experimental drug Dylar, which was designed to treat the fear of death. Babette eventually comes clean to Jack and admits that her intense fear of death drove her to have sex with a compromised pharmaceutical agent in order to be admitted to an unofficial Dylar study. Jack is forced to come to terms with the real Babette, who is considerably less stable than he had previously believed. At first, this seems to bother him even more than the adultery. His center destabilized, his thoughts turn to Dylar, despite Babette’s insistence that the drug does not work
. The fear of death has morphed into an intense thanatophobia,[14] even more ubiquitous and intense than first thought.

As his efforts to obtain Dylar fail, however, Gladney’s anger at Babette’s adultery slowly grows. He cannot stop thinking about her and the unknown “Mr. Gray” getting intimate in a motel room. A watershed moment for Jack comes in his lengthy conversation with Murray in chapter thirty-seven. After discussing the fear of death, hypothetical ways to transcend it (putting faith in technology, studying the afterlife, surviving a horrific accident), and Jack’s actual attempts at finding center in Hitler and even Wilder (the “noble savage” who does not know he’s going to die), the myth of redemptive violence emerges – a dangerous catalyst for Jack’s festering anger and thanatophobia. Consider Murray’s words:

I believe, Jack, there are two kinds of people in the world. Killers and diers. Most of us are diers. We don’t have the disposition, the rage or whatever it takes to be a killer. We let death happen. We lie down and die. But think what it’s like to be a killer. Think how exciting it is, in theory, to kill a person in direct confrontation. If he dies, you cannot. To kill him is to gain life-credit. The more people you kill, the more credit you store up. It explains any number of massacres, wars, executions.[15]

Although Murray claims this is a purely theoretical conversation and Jack feigns incredulity, the idea is too tempting for Gladney to resist.

The second-to-last chapter of White Noise recounts Jack’s failed attempt to murder “Mr. Gray,” who turns out to be Willie Mink, a disgraced pharmaceutical agent whose addiction to Dylar has rendered him more or less insane – exposed to the white noise. Gladney tracks Mink down and shoots him twice in the gut before placing the gun in Mink’s hands in a laughable attempt to make it look like a suicide. However, the dying Mink shoots Jack in the wrist.  The myth of redemptive violence instantly fades into a parody of redemptive virtue: Gladney decides to try and save Mink’s life. He takes him to a hospital run by German nuns.

At the hospital, Jack’s conversation with one of the nuns brings the chapter to a poignant, jarring close. She explains:

Our pretense is a dedication. Someone must appear to believe. Our lives are no less serious than if we professed real faith, real belief. As belief shrinks from the world, people find it more necessary than ever that someone believe. Wild-eyed men in caves. Nuns in black. Monks who do not speak. We are left to believe. Fools, children. Those who have abandoned belief must still believe in us. They are sure they are right not to believe but they know belief must not fade completely. Hell is when no one believes. There must always be believers. Fools, idiots, those who hear voices, those who speak in tongues. We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. You are sure that you are right but you don’t want everyone to think as you do. There is no truth without fools. We are your fools, your madwomen, rising at dawn to pray, lighting candles, asking statues for good health, long life.[16]

In the world of White Noise, even belief is simulated. Gladney returns home, his mind racing, to watch his children sleep. Similarly, the reader (whose mind is presumably racing as well), is left to watch the novel end.

The fortieth and final chapter of White Noise is dominated by a strange event in which Wilder – the “noble savage,” not yet aware of his own death – rides his tricycle across the expressway and miraculously survives. The novel then closes in characteristic rapid fire. The Gladneys watch the stunning sunsets over Blacksmith, whose beauty just might be the result of toxins in the atmosphere. Scientists still comb the area, “gathering their terrible data.”[17] Jack is taking no calls. He fears his doctor and the medical technology which are “eager to see how [his] death is progressing.”[18] The final scene is devoted to the supermarket, the transcendental temple of the postmodern age, “where we wait together, regardless of age, our carts stocked with brightly colored goods.”[19] Appropriately, the signals fade to flat as the reader is left with the image of the supermarket tabloid racks – containing “the cults of the famous and the dead.”

Fame and death. Searching for center, gripped by thanatophobia. White noise.

The Bhopal Disaster[20]

White Noise was first published in January 1985, not long after a disastrous chemical leak in Bhopal, central India. On the evening of December 3, 1984, a storage tank of methyl isocyanate (MIC, used to produce pesticide) ruptured at the Union Carbide plant, releasing toxic fumes which northwestern winds blew into the shantytowns of Bhopal. The white fumes wreaked havoc on the populace, littering the streets with corpses or vomiting, defecating individuals about to die. “As many as 200,000 people ran through the city streets, coughing, screaming and calling out to each other.”[21] Adding insult to injury, the factory siren went off at around 2:00am, causing many to think that a fire had started. Hundreds rushed toward the plant in order to help – unknowingly entering the path of the lethal gas. Unlike White Noise, there was no SIMUVAC.

Bhopal-Union Carbide 1 crop memorial.jpgBhopal was rendered a city of corpses. The unimaginable chaos left rescue workers searching for the dead three days after the incident. Orphans wandered the streets. The death toll rose to over 2,500, with as many as 100,000 permanently-disabled survivors – suffering from “blindness, sterility, kidney and liver infections, tuberculosis and brain damage.”[22] Muslims were placed into hurriedly-dug graves. As many as seventy Hindu funeral pyres lit the night. The district had to ship in more wood just to feed the crematory fires.

Much like White Noise, rumors and fear spread quickly in the aftermath of the tragedy. Authorities had to reassure the people that an early-morning fog was not a new leak, that their milk and vegetables had not been contaminated. Furthermore, the real-life Nyodene D, MIC, was every bit as unstable and unknown – no antidote, no treatment. The physical effects of low-level exposure were predicted to fade with time. However, the same could not be said for those who survived heavier exposure. Their suffering would be indefinite.

Bhopal briefly shocked the American public (some of them, anyway) into an uncomfortable awareness of the danger of the ubiquitous chemicals that surrounded them – in factories, on wheels, and in products. Some demanded to know just how dangerous these chemicals were, in the interests of public safety. Others, like the Reagan administration, defended companies’ rights to trade secrets, in the interests of the free market.

Who will die first? Average Americans, or the denizens of the developing world? Savage nobles, or noble savages? Incidents like the fictional Airborne Toxic Event and the actual Bhopal disaster, along with our reactions to such tragedies, are telling. The former beg us to come to grips with our mortality, with the rate at which technology outpaces our efforts to control it. As Murray put it: “[technology] creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other. Technology is lust removed from nature.”[23] As Newsweek put it: “Experts elsewhere said that many of the victims in India would not
have been alive at all if not for chemicals that increased food supplies, reduced the incidence of malaria and improved sanitation. Judged against such benefits, the risks of chemical accidents seem more acceptable.”[24]


Which death should we fear?

The Hyperreal Fear of Death

WikipediaBaudrillard20040612-cropped.pngAccording to Jean Baudrillard, hyperreality is “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality.”[25] When our simulations of reality become indistinguishable from the reality itself, we have entered into the realm of the hyperreal. Not only is it difficult (some would say impossible) to reach beyond the simulations, but we often prefer the simulations to reality itself. Examples of this abound throughout White Noise. Consider “the most photographed barn in America,” which has been so thoroughly eclipsed by its own simulacra that it remains impossible to be seen. In Murray’s words: “they are taking pictures of taking pictures.”[26] Mentioned above, Jack’s search for center in Hitler studies and the SIMUVAC procedure are further significant examples of the hyperreal in White Noise.

Not even (the fear of) death escapes the influences of hyperreality. Although at first glance death seems a weighty enough subject to break through the simulacra and connect humanity with reality, under closer examination, death evades our grasp. Central to the complex dynamics of the hyperreal fear of death are the simulacra of death, often weightier than the thing itself. Consider how Gladney’s fear of death is more intense than death itself. It is the nebulous ambiguity of his Nyodene D death sentence which threatens to undo him, much more than the chemical itself. In a vicious cycle, the various fear-driven ways in which we react to death make our fear of death that much more complicated. That is, it can get quite confusing to discern whether or not we are afraid of actual death, or merely our various representations of it.

After all, death itself can only be experienced once.[27] Until the end, we spend a lifetime fearing that which we have not experienced. The first strategy is avoidance, distancing ourselves from the terrifying and uncomfortable. Consider the euphemism. People do not just “die,” they “pass away,” “move on,” “kick the bucket,” “hang up their tennis shoes” (Spanish), and “fall asleep” (Koine Greek). 

The second strategy is embrace, subversively trying to strip death of its fear by exploring the macabre. Consider horror movies. Sure, they rely on the fear of death, but they also attempt to treat it – giving the audience the strength to say “I’ve seen worse” when it comes to their own (probably) mediocre deaths.  These first two approaches are often combined. The hero attempts to transcend death through valor, to embrace death through battle-hardened courage. Jack Gladney attempts to avoid and embrace death through Hitler, who was “larger than death.”[28]

A third strategy is examination. This is best illustrated within White Noise by Murray, whose quote to Jack during the ATE merits quotation at length:

“This is the nature of modern death,” Murray said. “It has a life independent of us. It is growing in prestige and dimension. It has a sweep it never had before. We study it objectively. We can predict its appearance, trace its path in the body. We can take cross-section pictures of it, tape its tremors and waves. We’ve never been so close to it, so familiar with its habits and attitudes. We know it intimately. But it continues to grow, to acquire breadth and scope, new outlets, new passages and means. The more we learn, the more it grows. Is this some law of physics? Every advance in knowledge and technique is matched by a new kind of death, a new strain. Death adapts, like a viral agent.”[29]

If we embrace death to strip it of fear, we examine death and attempt to fight it in order to strip it of mystery. However, this is an unsuccessful endeavor. Death eludes our grasp and overpowers our assaults.

On a personal note, this was poignantly illustrated by my wife – a nursing student. A baby boy was transferred into the hospital, severely wounded by what appeared to be abuse –broken bones, cigarette burns and bruises, ostentatiously and haphazardly concealed with makeup. Although the doctors had managed to restart his heart and place him on life support, the first brain scan revealed no activity. During the mandatory twelve-hour wait until the second test, my wife took care of the boy. After the second scan revealed no activity, he was taken off life support and allowed to die. However, as my wife tearfully recounted the story to me that night, she wondered when the boy had actually died. Had she, in any meaningful sense, been taking care of a living patient simply because his heart was beating? Or was he dead the entire time?

When do we die? When our heart stops beating? Our lungs stop breathing? Or when our brains stop making waves? More importantly, whose death do we fear?

It is my contention that we cannot really fear our own deaths. Like Jack Gladney, we are limited to fearing and interacting with death’s simulacra. We might long to die like Leonidas in The 300, but not like a contestant in the “games” of SAW. If we have not yet experienced the death of a close family member, we might imagine the event through the lens of Marshall’s father dying in How I Met Your Mother. Even when we have had a family member, or even a patient die, we never fully experience death without dying ourselves.

We are surrounded by death, in Dylar ingredient lists and Union Carbide storage tanks, in the skies above Blacksmith and the alleys of Bhopal.

And yet we are insulated from it by euphemism and fiction, by news anchor and liquid-crystal display

– by the idiosyncrasies of our continuously temporal existence.

We are familiar with death, but we know it not.



Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra.” In A Postmodern Reader, edited by Joseph Natoli and Linda Hutcheon, 342-353. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1993.

DeLillo, Don. White Noise: Text and Criticism. Viking Critical Library. Edited by Mark Osteen. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

Iyer, Pico. “A Connoisseur of Fear.” In White Noise: Text and Criticism, by Don DeLillo, edited by Mark Osteen, 379-384. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

Johnson, Diane. “Conspirators.” In White Noise: Text and Criticism, by Don DeLillo, edited by Mark Osteen, 374-8. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

Mobilio, Albert. “Death by Inches.” In White Noise: Text and Criticism, by Don DeLillo, edited by Mark Osteen, 370-3. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

Newsweek, Inc. “Stories on the toxic leak at the Union Ca
rbide plant in Bhopal, India.” In White Noise: Text and Criticism, by Don DeLillo, 353-362. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

Yurick, Sol. “Fleeing Death in a World of Hyper-Babble.” In White Noise: Text and Criticism, by Don DeLillo, edited by Mark Osteen, 365-9. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.


[1] Ecclesiastes 7:2, New English Translation (NET).

[2] Unless, of course, Dr. David Mills lied to us in the instructions for this essay.

[3] Iyer, 379.                                 

[4] Yurick, 368.

[5] DeLillo, 26.

[6] Mobilio, 371.

[7] Iyer, 379.

[8] DeLillo, 15.

[9] This condition is also known as humanity.

[10] DeLillo, 330. From an interview with Anthony DeCurtis which appeared in Rolling Stone’s November 17, 1988 issue.

[11] DeLillo, 17. See the discussion on hyperreality below.

[12] DeLillo, 103.

[13] DeLillo, 139.

[14] I make a quantitative distinction between the fear of death, experienced by all, and thanatophobia, experienced by people like Jack Gladney and Babette. That is, thanatophobia is the acute, pervasive fear of death…more like a disease than a general condition.

[15] DeLillo, 290.

[16] DeLillo, 319.

[17] DeLillo, 325.

[18] DeLillo, 325.

[19] DeLillo, 325.

[20] Unless otherwise noted, the information in this section comes from Newsweek, Inc., “Stories on the toxic leak at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India,” in White Noise: Text and Criticism, by Don DeLillo, 353-362. (New York: Penguin Books, 1998).

[21] Newsweek, Inc., 354.

[22] Newsweek, Inc., 354.

[23] DeLillo, 285.

[24]Newsweek, Inc., 362.

[25] Baudrillard, 343.

[26] DeLillo, 13.

[27] If a White Paper on the doctrine of Hell comes out, please insert fundagellically orthodox views on Hell here.

[28]DeLillo, 287.

[29]Emphasis added. DeLillo, 150.