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Arthur McGill’s Death and Life: A Review

I’ve blogged in the past several times about the work of Arthur C. McGill, a little-known theology professor who taught at Harvard.  The few small books he has left behind are all amazing treasures.  Here is my review of what I take to be his best book, Death and Life: An American Theology.  Honestly, I can’t remember the last book I read that was this small and so packed full of amazing insights. Arthur McGill does an amazingly erudite job of exploring how death is viewed in American culture and the radically different vision that the New Testament provides.

The first two chapters deal with looking at the way in which America understands death. Essentially, McGill sees two responses (which are really two sides of the same coin) present in American culture. Through either an “ethic of avoidance” or an “ethic of resistance” Americans do everything they can to remove death or the traces of death from their consciousness. This cultural phenomenon results in what McGill brilliantly terms “the bronze people.” The bronze people are those that are seen all over American cities and television screens every day. Well tanned, happy, wealthy, fully alive people. Death does not seem to in any way be intruding into their lives. Of course, as McGill shows, the bronze people are a thorough facade. Suffering, mortality and death intrude on their lives at every turn, albeit hidden behind well kept suburban lawns and curtains. 

Ironically enough, the sort of necrophilia that attends the horror film genre is but the other side of this sort of bronze necrophobia; here death is portrayed as this utterly alien, bizzarely horrific force that intrudes on “normal life” from outside.  McGill’s main point is that in America death is seen as an alien force that is the absolute negation of life that must be avoided at all costs. Death is the ultimate end of being that is the most horrible thing that can be thought.  In other words, in America, death eventually reduces all things to nihilism.  Therefore it must be resisted and denied.

In contrast to this, McGill goes on in the next three chapters to explore the Christian understanding of death. McGill shows beautifully how America’s account of life views being as a possession that must be held onto. Thus death, which deprives us of being is the worst possible thing. Death threatens our possession of ourselves and unsettles all our having. In Jesus, on the other hand, being is not viewed as a possession that we are ever able to have, but is thoroughly ek-static, it is something we passively receive from God. This is most clearly seen in Jesus. Jesus does not possess himself or his being, rather his life is whole constituted by the Father. His being is from beginning to end pure gift. Thus, there can be no “having” of being.  For if the primordial ontological reality is unpossessed being, then the attempt to possess it can only be understood as seeking after non-being.  

Because being is a constant state of receiving, Jesus can give his life away without the fear that he will somehow cease to be. The only way that one could cease to have life by dying would be if life were a possession we must hold onto. What Jesus and the resurrection show is that by dying we most truly live because true being is expending ourselves for the sake of others. And because all being is constantly received from God, we can give flagrantly of ourselves to the point of death. Death, in light of Christ’s resurrection is not to be seen as the termination of life, but rather it’s fullest expression. For in death we surrender our being, refuse to become possessors of it and in so doing continue to receive the abundance of resurrection life from God who is constantly giving.  One might infer that McGill’s ontology, is the ontology of the martyrs.

McGill ties all this discussion of death into a discussion of the nature of sin, which he definies seeking to possess our own identity. Sin is living as if our being were not the constant gift of God. That’s why we have to die in Christ to experience the freedom from sin. We have to give up possessing our selves in order to live an ek-static life of receiving from God. The only way to do this is through death with Christ. As McGill so brilliantly puts it “In Jesus, God separates us from ourselves.” (p. 58).

McGill then goes on to tie in this account of being to worship and the nature of the glory of God. Here he deconstructs the common picture of God’s glory as his aloofness, omnipotence and raw power. Rather, as the Gospel of John particularly demonstrates, the glory of the Father is seen in his people bearing fruit (Jn. 15:8). In other words, the glory of God is seen in “engendering and communicating life.” (p. 72). The other key text in John that McGill latches onto is the account of Jesus death as both his glory and the glory of the Father (Jn. 12:23-24). The glory of God is thus see in the communication of life to others, as self-divestment for the sake of the other to the point of death. Thus worship is not fearful obeisance before some monarch, or “top person” (McCabe) but a life of self-divestment for the sake of the other in everything one does.

Finally, McGill shows how self-divestment is at the center of the Christian command to love our neighbors. Here he offers a powerful discussion of the common misconception that love involves helping the needy from a position of fundamental non-neediness. In contrast to this common philanthropic notion, Christian love is seen first of all in the recognition of our own constant neediness, for our being is not our possession but something we constantly receive and constantly give. Thus, we do not show Christian love by being charitable. In Christian love we must ourselves become needy, expending our-self for others, giving, not out of our fullness but our lack. This is illustrated by McGill’s amazing reading of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Contrary to standard readings in which we identify with the Good Samaritan, who is called to go and take care of dying, needy people we may find, a close reading of the text bears on that Jesus’ point in telling the story is to show us who our neighbor is.  The one who was the neighbor was the Samaritan, it would seem then, that in the narrative logic of the parable, we are cast, not into his role, but first in role of the broken, needy man lying along the side of the road.  The Samaritan is none other than Jesus who comes to us in our total neediness, expending everything he has for our sake and then calls us to do likewise.

McGill’s theology of death and life offers us a profoundly difficult gospel.  As such it represents a gift to the church and theological discourse as a whole.  I frankly cannot imagine who shouldn’t read this book.  Certainly in a work so small there are some shortcomings.  However, one would be hard pressed to find a more densely packed gift of theological wisdom and pastoral fervor.  All would do well to read and absorb this all but unknown Harvard theologian.

6 Comments

  1. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Thanks for turning me on to this a few months ago. It is certainly a challenging and powerful book.

    Wednesday, April 2, 2008 at 9:13 am | Permalink
  2. Bobby Grow wrote:

    I agree, Halden, all should read this, thanks for pointing this to me, as well. Now I, in turn, have been recommending for all of my family and friends to read too.

    Wednesday, April 2, 2008 at 12:41 pm | Permalink
  3. Brandon wrote:

    Thanks for this post. It is timely in that I’m mulling a paper topic on moral theology, and I’m in a discussion with my family about how to handle death, which has become the new unmentionable word in America.

    Wednesday, April 2, 2008 at 4:00 pm | Permalink
  4. This is incredible stuff. Thanks for point us to this fine theologian, Halden.

    Wednesday, April 2, 2008 at 5:59 pm | Permalink
  5. Mark Weathers wrote:

    For some time now, I have considered books like Ernest Becker’s ‘Denial of Death’ to be a thorough and cohesive explanation for why religion and spirituality is simply a cultured and institutionalized form of death denial. McGill’s theology as ‘death acceptance’ seems to help dismantle some of these accounts.

    Thursday, April 3, 2008 at 5:16 am | Permalink
  6. Ben McD wrote:

    Arthur was my grandfather, on my mother’s side. I didn’t get to know him too well, but my mother has spoken highly of his writings and sermons.

    Reading your review is very interesting, as his viewpoint on death is something my mother has passed down, and something I plan to do with my children.

    Tuesday, June 17, 2008 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

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