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A stingless death

Psychologist Richard Beck offers a fusion of ideas in "The Slavery of Death."

The term fusion describes the sounds or tastes created when different musical styles or flavors are merged — each recognizable, but creating a new style altogether. 

Richard Beck, a psychology professor at Abilene Christian University, practices a little literary fusion in his third book, “The Slavery of Death.” The book mixes early church leaders’ ideas (scholars call this “patristic thought”), existential psychology and modern theology.


In Print | Mark Parker
Such a combination, he says, serves to prompt “continued interdisciplinary reflection and conversation.”
Beck begins with a call to reverse our view of sin and death to align with early church thinking — which he identifies as Orthodox. Catholics and Protestants tend to see death as a result of sin. Orthodox Christians say — as does Beck — that death and the fear it produces drive us to sin, since we make self-preservation our highest goal. Death, therefore, is the basic human problem that God is acting to remedy. 
The second strain in this fusion is psychology, where “death” means literal death, but broadens to include loss — a psychological death, as it were. The fear of death is the foundation of human behavior because it produces two kinds of anxiety — “basic anxiety,” our fear of survival, and “neurotic anxiety,” our fear of negative self-concept. 
In America, where — for the vast majority of people — basic needs are met, we more likely experience anxiety over self-concept. Such anxiety leads us to repress the reality of death, using our time and resources to hide our own faults and needs. 
Beck asserts that such repression frustrates a basic tenet of Christian life: “A society without need offers no occasions to serve each other or bear one another’s burdens.” The fear of death, therefore, is the root of social and personal brokenness.
The third strain in the fusion is modern theology. Using the term “eccentric identity,” Beck argues that Christians must get their identities not from what they possess (which death will take away) but from something external to ourselves, namely the cross of Christ. 

Richard Beck. The Slavery of Death. Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2014. 132 pages, $17.

Beck also explains the “principalities and powers” and how systems and organizations call us to identify ourselves in relation to them. He calls such identification to things other than the cross idolatry. If our self-identity is not in the cross, then “our identities are being driven deep down by death anxiety,” he says. 
The fear of death, therefore, tempts us to various kinds of idolatry in the vain attempt to relieve our anxiety and spiritual guilt.
When the three strains are brought together, Beck’s fusion crescendos to declare the cross of Christ as the counterpoint to the anxious, sin-laced cacophony created by our fear of death. “The cross becomes the logical endpoint of the eccentric identity,” he writes.
He emphasizes spiritual practices such as singing and thankfulness, but of particular note is his framing of prayer as a posture “where we do not possess anything but receive our lives as gift.” 
Beck, as the chair of the psychology department at ACU, writes as a behavioral scientist finding revelation about human behavior in theological discourse. His blog, experimentaltheology.blogspot.com, was the dress rehearsal for the material in the book. 
Despite the clear writing and welcoming tone, the book is almost exclusively theoretical. Beck explains clearly some difficult concepts, and his fusion of patristics, psychology and modern theology is fresh and dynamic. But the theoretical discussion limits readership to those individuals and groups comfortable with the abstract. 
The focus on the cross is also praiseworthy, but Beck underplays the resurrection of Christ, his enthronement and the power of our future resurrection. 
Neglecting these themes diminishes both the book’s theological power and connection to much of the New Testament.
Overall, Beck is to be thanked for making connections between his academic study and the work of God throughout history — fusing them into a song worth hearing. 

MARK PARKER is young adults minister for the Grand Central Church of Christ in Vienna, W.Va. He teaches ministry and leadership at Ohio Valley University.

Filed under: Headlines - Secondary Reviews

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