When it comes to Death, we’re the Biggest Liars

I’ve always been the kind of person who reads the obituaries in the local newspaper. I don’t believe I have an unhealthy curiosity about death. I just think it registers and I pay attention to it. It could be that being a PK provided me with elevated exposure to the reality of death. And I lived for 12 years about 50 feet from a cemetery, next to the country church in Iowa that my father served from 1972-1984. It didn’t much bother me, except of course on those nights following a burial. (For the record, nothing ever happened.) Regardless of the exact etiology of it, I’m an obituary reader.

Obituaries often hide the cause of death, leaving readers to speculate (sometimes wildly) about the nature of the death and life of the deceased. And, to be honest, whether their own choices played a role in bringing about their death. As I get older, this part interests me more than it used to. Most of the time, we’ll never know. We say they “passed away,” as if death is typically painless and gentle. Hardly—having witnessed it twice. (Even my mother-in-law, God bless her, was telling a slightly different story about it within hours of my father-in-law’s death.) Now many people just say “passed,” as if they’re not even “away” at all. In the local newspaper yesterday, there were at least three references to passing away “peacefully” or “quietly.” While preferable no doubt for the dying and grieving, I’m not sure this is information for the public. Nor have I ever read of someone dying “painfully” or with considerable aggravation, even though it’s a safe bet that those occur with a great deal of regularity. Speaking of peaceful, suicides are sometimes subtly indicated by phrases like, “John is finally at peace.” (Is he? How would we know?)

So obituaries tend to lie, or at least harness the truth and run off with it. Sometimes they report that the deceased “never met a person he didn’t like.” (Obviously he didn’t get out much.) I recall a student here who died a few years ago in a car wreck; while his obituary spoke of [Read more...]

This is not my father’s world

I’m not sure if it’s age or what, but I’ve been thinking more frequently about my father lately. He died on the morning of November 23, 1999 from metastasized melanoma, at the age of 56. I was 28. He was something of an old soul. He even looked older than his age. What I’ve been drawn toward lately is thinking about where he was and what he was doing and what he seemed like to me when he was my current age—41, as of two days ago. He was grayer at 41 than I am today. He weighed a bit more than I do, though not excessively. I suspect he carried more work-related stress than I do, largely because ministers live in fishbowls while tenured professors have some freedoms, independence, and security that Protestant ministers do not.

Perhaps our parents, when we recall the past—as we should—will always seem older to us than we feel about ourselves at the same age. It certainly makes me wonder how my own children perceive me. A month after his 41st birthday, my dad moved us to northern Michigan, where he became pastor of his third and final congregation. Most children aren’t itching to move, but I think it’s fair to say my brother and I were game for a new setting, and the forests of Missaukee County were a welcome change from the pastures of Grundy County, Iowa. (However, I’m not sure there’s a better place to grow up than rural Iowa.)

Pardon such sentimentalism. Such thoughts also turn me toward reflecting on how the world has changed in 12 short years. [Read more...]

Love your enemies. Sit next to them.

I saw this bit of news last week and, of course, didn’t like it too much. KLM, the airline, is discussing plans for passengers to be enabled to select their seatmates, rather than let randomness prevail. I never thought about that possibility, although clearly entrepreneurial souls out there think about such things all the time. While I get it, I don’t think it’s a good idea. But it’ll definitely happen, and it’ll likely spread to other airlines soon. Why? Because people are homophilous; that is, they tend to prefer associating and bonding with others who are similar to them. The inclination to associate with others like you is deeply rooted. It doesn’t make you a bad person. It’s not inherently wrong. It’s simply human. But the urge shouldn’t always be obeyed, of course. (Like lots of urges…).

It does make me wonder what sort of person I’d select to sit next to me. (Answer: quiet, studious type.) On the other hand, who would select to sit next to us? That part is, after all, outside of your control. (My luck: “Wow, a sociology professor—do I have some questions for him!) What I suspect it’ll lead to—instead of selecting a seat based on whether it’s an aisle or window—is obsessive rechecking of your seat selection to make sure those around you are the sort of people you’d prefer to be with for a few hours. Just like our obsessive rechecking of all sorts of electronic communications. And then, capitalizing on that impulse, advertisements will be easy to sell, since “page looks” on the seat-assignment website will soar. Imagine it: even though you may not care who you sit by, your seatmate may have thoroughly studied you and come expecting you to communicate with them in ways they expect. Who knows what they’ll know about you already? (This whole social networking thing may be starting to turn sour.)

Back to the basic idea about homophily. There are people in my wider social network [Read more...]

On Hitchens, Apologetics, and the Strangeness of Christianity

So Christopher Hitchens is dead. Waste no time speculating about his end, or what happened next. It is empirically unknowable. While Hitch’s pen was a sharp one, and I occasionally read his work, I confess I didn’t pay a great deal of attention to his antagonism toward religion, apart from reading the first 60 pages of God is not Great. No new arguments there, so far as I could tell.

For a time after the book was released Hitchens took to debating well-known Christian apologists in public forums. Of course Hitch thought Christianity—and religion in general—was more a force of darkness than light. The first few pages of the book let readers know that in no uncertain terms. His critics often retorted with comparative claims, saying things like, “Yes, Christians have done some bad stuff, but Pol Pot and Joseph Stalin were atheists, and behaved far worse than any of ours ever have.” Perhaps, but when we start comparing body counts, nobody looks appealing anymore.

Apologetics, be it of the positive or negative sort, has never much appealed to me. Not sure why. I slogged my way through [Read more...]


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