Church of Death

Church of Death September 25, 2013

David Hayward posted this cartoon:

I find it all the more interesting because it potentially highlights two possible ways of thinking about and approaching church, and Christianity.

On the one hand, there is an approach that uses appealing things to lure people into a trap that ultimately results in their spiritual death, as they join a community which exists largely as a pyramid scheme to keep attracting more and more people.

On the other hand, there is an approach which actually calls people to die – to die to themselves and live for others. That community may well have music, and coffee, and probably also parking. But those things are what you find when you get there. The call is to follow Jesus on the way of the cross, finding new life as one offers up one’s own egotistical tendencies and seeking after one’s own gain as an unconditional sacrifice to God, and discovers that beyond that death lies something better than the life we led.

Christianity is a call to die to oneself and to eliminate idols. Any approach that hopes to attract people with other things, and then hopes they will eventually also take up the cross and follow Jesus, is misguided. But those who answer the call may gather in a building over coffee as we discuss how to work together to change the world.

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  • Amen James!

    And I am very far from having given up my selfishness, even imperfectly.

    Friendly greetings from Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • Nick Gotts

    I don’t think the exhortation to “die to yourself” is either feasible (can you specify anyone who has done it? and no, I don’t think there’s any evidence Jesus did), or desirable – if you “die to yourself” that must mean, if it means anything, that you have neither interests nor preferences nor desires, and cannot enjoy ordinary pleasures; what a boring and unsatisfactory companion you would be! Putting others’ interests and preferences on an equal footing with our own is far enough out of reach for most of us.

    • Why do you interpret this metaphor in the particular way that you do, if you don’t mind me asking?

      • Nick Gotts

        I don’t see how else it can be interpreted.

        • Why not understand it as primarily a reorientation of one’s life from being self-focused to seeking (inevitably not always succeeding) to be outwardly focused? Why pick the most nonsensical literalistic meaning (since only a literally dead person lacks interests, preferences, and desires) and then dismiss the metaphor on that basis?

          And what is wrong with having ideals that we do not always reach?

          • Nick Gotts

            Because being outwardly focused has nothing to do with dying, so if that’s what it’s supposed to mean, it’s a bad metaphor. People actually get satisfaction and often better physical and psychological health from being more outwardly focused, but to describe this as “dying to oneself” is just daft: it’s perfectly compatible with caring for yourself and maintaining a (realistic) self-esteem, and in fact those who do not do this risk “burn-out”.

            Nothing wrong with having ideals we don’t always reach – see the last sentence of my initial comment – but there is a lot wrong with having ideals that are impossible for anyone to reach, and undesirable anyway.

          • Many of us who have made a decision to reorient our lives in this way have experienced it as akin to a death and rebirth. You are obviously free to think that describing it in this way is daft. Plenty of people think it is daft to do, even though they do not quibble about the metaphor used to describe it.

          • Nick Gotts

            How do you know what dying and being reborn is like? I haven’t met anyone who’s done it.

            Historically, a lot of Christians have thought they were required to “mortify the flesh”, and to describe themselves as filthy, miserable sinners, so my interpretation of the metaphor seems to have plenty of Christian support.

          • Mortifying the flesh is also a metaphor, but a different one. I was referring to Paul’s metaphor of reckoning oneself dead to sin and alive to God, offering one’s life as a “living sacrifice” in a way that looks not only to our own needs and interests but also to those of others.

          • arcseconds

            Nick, all you’re doing here is showing that you don’t understand metaphors, and that you haven’t bothered to look at how Christians use theirs.

            Metaphors reasonably frequently have allusions at their first level as well. “Lion-hearted” not only doesn’t mean literally they have had a lion’s heart transplanted into their chest, it also doesn’t mean they’re like people who have. To understand this metaphor, you have to understand what cultural associations both ‘lion’ and ‘heart’ have. It has very little to do with actual lions and virtually nothing to do with actual hearts.

            If someone tells you “I’m on top of the world” do you say “well, I understand you don’t mean this literally, but the world doesn’t have a top. Do you mean the north pole? You’ve never been there: how do you know what it feels like? Do you mean you’re cold?” ?

            Or how do you respond to “I feel like a new man”? Point out that they’ve never been one, so how would they know? (this simile is similar to the ‘born again’ one, of course.)

            I suspect you don’t do these things. If you do, you really need help understanding figurative language in general. If you don’t, why is it that you can cope with metaphors outside religious contexts, but find they present such difficulty to you in religious contexts?

            What would you do if you found a metaphor used by, say, a Japanese writer? Would you just assume that you understood it immediately, and if it struck you as stupid, just hurumph at how terrible it was? Or would you think that you might have to look to see how that or similar metaphors were used and understood by the Japanese?

          • Nick Gotts

            [Edited for tone]
            Of course I understand metaphors; you apparently don’t understand that it is possible for a metaphor to be a poor one. Talk of “dying to yourself” or “dying and being reborn” seems an absurdly over-dramatic metaphor for a decision to try and be less selfish.
            The “dying to yourself” metaphor would be appropriate to describe complete abandonment of personal preferences and desires.

          • arcseconds

            Well yes, you say you do, yet your statements suggest otherwise.

            You decided to interpret ‘die to yourself’ in a way that (I imagine) no Christian that uses that phrase has ever understood it (at any rate you’ve been corrected by James, who was the one who used it now, and doesn’t understand it that way), and then judged it impossible to perform.

            Your initial accusation here wasn’t that it was a bad metaphor, you thought it an unfeasible and undesirable demand. So you didn’t understand that metaphor (insisting on your own reading doesn’t count as understanding it, of course).

            Then you asked whether anyone had literally died and been born again, which only makes sense to ask if you think that metaphors have to have a literal, non-figurative plain reading.

            I’m surprised that you weren’t demanding that to be ‘born again’ requires someone to be curled up naked in a warm, fluid-filled cavity, then squeezed out through a narrow passage!

            I’m prepared to accept that you do understand that metaphors may themselves use figurative language, but if you do understand this, why didn’t you apply that knowledge here? Antipathy to Christianity causing you to make mistakes? Deliberately going for rhetorical cheap shots?

            I haven’t ventured an opinion on the quality of the metaphors, so your statement that I don’t understand quality is again either a mistake (I must think they’re good because I don’t think your criticisms are apt?) or another cheap shot.

            I don’t think a discussion about the quality is likely to be very fruitful, given that you have such idiosyncratic criteria for decent metaphors.

            But as far as the self-aggrandizement goes, James has already said that people using this metaphor experience it as something quite dramatic, so using a dramatic metaphor to express that strikes me as apt. If someone had experienced anything like what James is suggesting, saying “oh, I revised my priorities” completely fails to communicate that experience at all.

            Now, you might think they’re lying or exaggerating, or that it isn’t really all that important no matter how it struck them, or prefer people to experience personal growth in a more boring manner, but these aren’t criticisms of the metaphor.

          • Nick Gotts


            It really is tedious having to join the dots for you, but here we go.

            Yes, certainly I misunderstood how James intended the metaphor “dying to yourself”. I suggest you (and he) try googling the phrase “dying to yourself”; if you’re honest, it will be clear to you that my interpretation was a lot nearer how many contemporary Christians understand the phrase than his. See for example here, here, or here. None of them, at any rate, bear much resemblance to James’s interpretation of the metaphor.

            Now, when James explained what he meant by the metaphor, I criticized it as a bad metaphor for what he meant – so your claim that “all you’re doing here is showing that you don’t understand metaphors, and that you haven’t bothered to look at how Christians use theirs” is simply false.

            Then you asked whether anyone had literally died and been born again, which only makes sense to ask if you think that metaphors have to have a
            literal, non-figurative plain reading.

            Well of course that claim of yours would only hold if my response to James was intended literally, wouldn’t it? Do you really think I was expecting James to tell me how he knew what dying and being reborn is like? It would seem that there is indeed someone in this conversation who doesn’t understand non-literal uses of language (in this case, sarcasm), but it’s not me. (That was another non-literal use of language, by the way.)

          • Nick Gotts

            Something else that strikes me, although I’m not sure what its significance is: all your examples are amazingly creaky – they are things I can’t actually remember hearing anyone say, even on film or TV, in the last several decades. Someone who said “I feel like a new man” these days would likely get some such reply as “Try Craigslist”.

          • arcseconds

            That could only be significant, I would think, if we had decided as a culture that metaphors must have a plain reading that can be understood entirely literally, so that only old, out-of-date metaphors would have first levels that were also figurative.

            Even then, it’s plain that this was acceptable at one time, which still weakens your criticism considerably. Perhaps you could complain that it’s old and creaky, but that doesn’t seem nearly as cutting as “well, no-one’s experienced the literal case, therefore it’s nonsense”.

            It’s true that most metaphors have only one layer of indirection, but if you look around you should be able to find some where the plain reading is itself figurative.

            Just a small handful of further examples:

            clear-headed — obviously no-one has literally ever had a transparent head. This depends on a very long-standing metaphorical association between knowledge and sight, and there are lot of related examples (like describing thought as ‘foggy’ or recollections as ‘dim’)

            (actually, a great deal of descriptions of mental experiences or phenomena are metaphorical without a clear literal reading, like ‘feeling blue’)

            red-blooded — I rather like this one, because although there is a perfectly understandable literal meaning that actually does occur, it doesn’t help understanding the metaphor! It can’t be understood as ‘like someone who has red blood’ — everyone has red blood. Instead this depends on the association of red with vitality.

            also: cold shoulder, hot blooded, warm hearted… There seems to be a fair few involving body parts, but maybe that’s just because I’m stuck in a rut…

            The craigslist quip was amusing though, I’ll give you that 🙂