Mimetic Mondays: Live Chat with Dr. Richard Beck: Atonement, Psychology, and the Slavery of Death

Mimetic Mondays: Live Chat with Dr. Richard Beck: Atonement, Psychology, and the Slavery of Death March 17, 2014

Richard Beck (Courtesy of his website Experimental Theology)

Death is seen as “the power of the devil” in our lives. And one reason—perhaps even the primary reason—for Christ’s death on the cross was to rob the devil of this power. The reason Christ appeared was to free those who, in the words of Hebrews 2:15, “were all their lives enslaved to the fear of death.”

-Richard Beck, The Slavery of Death

We are excited to announce that this Wednesday at 11:00 am central, Patheos’s Teaching Nonviolent Atonement channel will host a live chat with Dr. Richard Beck. You can register for the chat by clicking here. Richard is the author of the insanely popular website Experimental Theology and he is the author of three books, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and MortalityThe Authenticity of Faith: The Varieties and Illusions of Religious Experience, and his latest book entitled The Slavery of Death.

We invited Richard on the chat for a few reasons. First, he’s an engaging communicator, as you can tell from visiting his website, reading his books, or watching his YouTube videos. Second, at Teaching Nonviolent Atonement we are guided by René Girard’s work on mimetic theory and Richard has written extensively on the topic, including a series called The Voice of the Scapegoat. Third, by bridging the gap between modern psychology and theology, Richard is providing fresh ways of understanding how God is working in the world – especially when it comes to the Atonement.

The Slavery of Death, Sin, and the Devil’s Work

In The Slavery of Death, Richard employs Eastern Orthodox theology, modern psychology, and the Bible to illuminate the ways we become enslaved to the fear of death. Indeed, in all of Richard’s books, he has an almost morbid emphasis on the devil, sin, death, and mortality. This emphasis might seem a bit strange, because Richard has a joyful tenor to his writing and speaking. So, what’s with juxtaposition of death and joy? If we can clearly see the problems we face then we will have a better chance of living into the love of God. As Richard states,

By exposing the dynamics of “the devil’s work” in our lives, works produced by a “slavery to the fear of death,” we will be better positioned to resist the satanic influence in our lives, better equipped to do battle with the principalities and powers of darkness, and better able to love as Christ loved us.

So, what is the satanic influence in our lives? Satan, according to the Bible, wields “the power of death.” The scriptural text that Richard returns to is Hebrews 2:14-15: “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”

Christus Victor is the theological framework that guides the book. This ancient theological framework helps us understand that Jesus didn’t go to the cross to appease a wrathful god, but rather to defeat the powers of sin, death, and the devil. Sin, death, and the devil are, according to Richard, an “unholy trinity.” They are the satanic forces in our lives that stem from our fear of death. Jesus, on the cross, offers salvation that emancipates us from this fear to “move us from darkness to light, into a life characterized by a perfect love that casts out fear.”

Psychology and the Fear of Death

Richard utilizes psychology in many fascinating ways to explore how we are enslaved to the fear of death. One way is through the concept neurotic anxiety. He states that neurotic anxiety,

is characterized by worries, fears, and apprehensions associated with our self-concept, much of which is driven by how we compare ourselves to those in our social world. Feelings of insecurity, low self-esteem, obsessions, perfectionism, ambitiousness, envy, narcissism, jealousy, rivalry, competitiveness, self-consciousness, guilt, and shame are all examples of neurotic anxiety, and they all relate to how we evaluate ourselves in our own eyes and in the eyes of others…I argue that our slavery to the fear of death often manifests in the form of neurotic anxiety, an anxiety that determines how we form our identities and pursue meaning in the world.

This psychological description of neurotic anxiety resonates with mimetic theory, which states that our identity is meditated by our social world, or what mimetic theorist and theologian James Alison calls, “the social other.” Humans are not autonomous creatures. Our identity is dependent upon our relationships with others. Without realizing it, we constantly compare ourselves through the eyes of the social other. Indeed, this creates a certain neurotic anxiety and forms relationships of competition and rivalry as we evaluate ourselves “through the eyes of others.” The neurotic anxiety that results in envy, jealousy, and rivalry has enormous consequences, including the violence we see on the cross.

A Christ Shaped Identity that Casts Out Fear

But the Good News is that Jesus came to save us from the fear of death. As mimetic creatures we will always receive our identity through the eyes of an other, but true freedom involves choosing which “other” we will receive our identity from. Richard encourages us to choose a “Christ shaped identity that creates a way of living that [he] variously describes as kenotic (self-giving), cruciform, and martyrological. Such a life is characterized by the freedom to give our lives away.” The self-giving love of Christ is the answer to our fear of death. As 1 John 4:18 states, “perfect love casts out fear,” including our fear of death.

This perfect love that casts out fear can easily become corrupted by a sense of individualism and sacrificial heroism that says, “You must suffer to show love!” But this misses the point. Perfect love that casts out fear can only be lived in loving communion with God and one another. It’s not suffering that’s required, but self-giving love that freely offers love to others and freely receives love from others in return. I hope you can join us for our conversation with Richard on Wednesday, but until then I’ll let Richard have the last word:

The Christian vision of love isn’t the sacrificial heroism of the lone individual, for Jesus doesn’t ask us to love the world all by ourselves. That’s not sustainable. Rather, Jesus asks us to participate in communities of love, what he calls the Kingdom of God. Within these communities we undergo diminishment for the sake of others, but we are soon filled and rehabilitated by others. We sacrifice to find abundance waiting for us on the other side.


(To register for this live chat, please click here.)


Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation , where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Adam on Twitter at@AdamEricksen

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