Wednesday, August 14, 2019
Wednesday, August 14, 2019
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Wednesday, August 14, 2019. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The Transformation of Death in America From Scottsville, Kentucky, to Boulder, Colorado
Jon Meacham, the former editor of Newsweek magazine and Pulitzer Prize winning author, wrote an article for the Washington Post in recent days with a headline, “We're in the Middle of a Revolution on Death.” He went on to explain that this revolution has to do with the fact that America is becoming ever more American. It's individualism now being extended even to the end of life or how we demand to end our lives. In his words, “America is becoming ever more like itself when it comes to death. From Walden Pond to Huck Finn's lighting out for the territory, we are a nation of individualists, shaped and suffused by self-reliance and a stubborn allegiance to the live-free-or-die motto of the Revolutionary Era.
He then goes on, “With this twist: Baby boomers and their successor generations are insisting on being free to take control of death itself. Innovation, creativity, and customization — the hallmarks of our time an age in which we can run much of our lives from our mobile phones are now transforming both how we die and the mechanics of remembrance that come afterward.”
He began the article telling us about a Silicon Valley engineer who had had untreatable cancer who took advantage of California so-called “death with dignity” law. That was in the spring of 2018. So far only eight states and the District of Columbia have such laws, but as Meacham points out, three of those states added the laws just within the past year. Those states would be Hawaii, Maine, and New Jersey. He also tells us that 18 other states have considered such laws in the 2019 legislative season.
In worldview analysis, one of the most important issues for us to recognize is the pattern of moral change and it's huge on this issue. As Meacham writes, “The movement has not attracted the same attention it once did. In the 1990s Jack “Dr. Death” Kevorkian, the right-to-die advocate drew considerable public alarm as the documentary by Perri Peltz and Matthew O'Neill makes clear the conversation has entered a new and compelling phase now that Americans are thinking about death as something as disintermediated as commuting, dating, and shopping.”
That's interesting language for Meacham to have used — death being considered “something as disintermediated as commuting, dating, and shopping.” Now, what's he talking about? Well, in commuting and dating and shopping, we can figure that out. It's about how changes in technology have driven and allowed changes in the society — changes in dating patterns, certainly changes in shopping (so much of it now moving online without much thought), and commuting as well. But when he speaks of disintermediated, he means it has been rather utterly transformed, redefined, and separated from previous authorities, and make no mistake the most important previous authority was the Christian Church.
Meacham is a keen observer and he writes about many of the changes that have taken place in the American practice of death just in our national history. He talked about the rise of embalming, which did not become popular or common until the Civil War with the effort to try to preserve the bodies of the Civil War dead until they could be returned to their families for funerals. And yet even that was probably not the tipping point. That probably came when after his assassination, Abraham Lincoln's body was itself embalmed before it was returned to Illinois for burial.
In the United States, death became professionalized, especially when it came to mortuaries and funeral homes and the like. But now, as Meacham writes, in many places in the United States, you can buy a casket largely wholesale, for instance, with Walmart selling caskets in some places.
He writes about alternative endings that are now consistent with an ecological worldview. The so-called green burials, as he writes, “Including using a loved one's ashes to help restore coral reefs.” There are also, oddly enough, space burials and what he describes as “drive-through, open-casket viewings.”
He then summarizes the main point about the declining influence of Christianity and not just Christianity, but other religious authorities as well. He writes, “Once the great gatekeeper of life and death, organized religion too is losing its sway. In an era in which friends routinely ordain themselves on the internet to preside at weddings, the rising number of Americans who are unaffiliated with any particular faith means that institutions that once gave shape to life and meaning to death are being gradually supplanted family to family.”
Now, as we have often observed, that is true in a generalized sense, but it is particularly true on the East and West coast. Secularization is increasingly the case. If you look at centers of higher education, it's more common in cities and metropolitan areas. That would certainly include New York City, where Meacham lives, and Washington D.C., the newspaper where the article appeared. But it's also very interesting to note that as Meacham continues in his article, he points out that the declining religious authority becomes necessary to explain how there could be increased popularity and support for euthanasia. That's the Greek word for “good death.” We've discussed it many times on The Briefing. Meacham points out that euthanasia is opposed by most religious authorities, namely the Roman Catholic Church and historic Protestant churches as well.
It is interesting that at the end of Meacham's article, he goes back to Dick Shannon, the man who took advantage of California so-called “death with dignity” law to end his own life by medication. He speaks of him saying that at one point, shortly before he died — and remember Shannon brought about the timing of his own death — he said, “Given that death comes for us all, so too will many of us have to confront the agonizing decision that we faced with grace.”
Well, isn't it interesting that the last word in this article is “grace,” but what in the world does it mean? There's a sense in which in our post-Christian Age, many people refer to grace, meaning something like a happy state of affairs, or in this case it seems to imply something like an elegant resignation or acceptance of reality, but Christians recognize that's just another indication of the post-Christian nature of our society. It uses a Christian vocabulary like “grace,” which of course the Bible defines as God's unmerited favor to sinners through Christ and instead, grace now becomes something very different.
But there's something else we note in this article and that is that death is such an overwhelming reality that it calls forth some explanation and some recognition of ultimate meaning. But this article's in the Washington Post, Meacham is a New Yorker, and it starts with the account of an individual in California. But what about “flyover country” as the coastal elites call it? What about the rest of the country, America's heartland? Would anything like that be happening here?
Well, as vital evidence of the fact that something fundamental is changing, I'll go to Scottsville, Kentucky. The local newspaper there: the Citizen-Times. This edition: August 8, 2019. The headline: “From Here to Eternity: Doulas Can Help.”
Allen County, Kentucky has a population of less than 20,000. Located in South Central Kentucky, it's a very rural county. The county seat, Scottsville, has just a little more than 4,000 in population. In so many ways, Allen County, Kentucky epitomizes rural America right down to the fact that it has an historic and sizable community of old order Mennonites.
But here just in the last several days, the local newspaper, which has a commensurate circulation with the size of the population, reporter Matt Pedigo tells us that death doulas have now come to Allen County and so also is the death café.
As Pedigo writes, “It’s the only thing more certain than taxes and probably a chart topper amongst topics people want to discuss even less.” But then he goes on to say, “Still death is a fact of life. Preparing for it should also be, say three area women who are forming a unique business.”
I'll continue reading from the article. “Kay Whit, a 16-year veteran of the medical center of Scottsville’s emergency room and Bowling Green partners, Elizabeth Downing and Sarah Johnson are forming Deo Volente, translated “God willing.” They are death doulas committed to the service of easing the transition from life to death for the dying.
“They are similar in principle to how birth doulas helping the transition into life in the beginning process. The paper goes on to tell us that when the organization, the business, is functional, it will “serve Allen County and the region.” We were also told that just a few days after the appearance of the article, “On Sunday afternoon between 3:00 and 5:00 PM, right in a building in the center square” — it's an old historic square like you have seen in historic America — “a death cafe would be held. Admission is free. Cake and coffee,” we are told, “would be offered.”
The reporter cites one of the women forming the business as saying, “There is no religion and no agenda.” The paper explains it would just be a free open chance for people, friends, or strangers to converse about life's end. “One of the women,” we are told, “has completed a professionalization certificate from a group known as I-N-E-L-D-A, the International End of Life Doula Association.” She went on to discuss the kinds of issues that might be discussed at a death cafe and might be discussed with a death doula. Speaking of those dying, “Do they want people to touch them or someone to be in the room? Do they want a candle burning or maybe some lavender spray? Can people visit them? How do they want to be remembered? Like, were they a member of a church for 30 years?”
There was a mention of church perhaps having been important to the one who is dying, but the reference to the movement itself is very clear when Whit said, “There's no religion and no agenda.” Death Doulas in Allen County, Kentucky — that is, if anything, more culturally significant than the article by Meacham in the Washington Post.
By the way, when I see an article like this, I want to know more about what is really being communicated. For instance, when we are told that there are now certifications for so-called death doulas, what exactly does that mean? Where does it come about? So I went to the website of the organization cited here. That organization again is the International End of Life Doula Association, and it does offer certification for a price. But when you look at the program that leads up to certification, it is only about a two-day seminar. The movement looks a great deal like something influenced by the New Age movement, and that certainly clear in an article on the death doula movement that appeared in the Boulder Weekly from Colorado. If you're thinking about a community that just might be the polar opposite culturally, religiously, and morally to Allen County, Kentucky, it's hard to imagine a community that would be more that case than Boulder, Colorado.
Caitlin Rockett is the reporter for this article, and the article really does situate the death doula movement in a kind of a post-Christian, vague spirituality, very similar to what has been called the New Age movement. To no surprise, we are told that there is a death doula training program there in Boulder, Colorado, where an individual “founded the conscious dying institute after a career working as a transformational learning consultant in healthcare systems.”
Now, one huge point for us to understand is that if this movement is now showing up in both Boulder, Colorado, and Scottsville, Kentucky, something very significant is taking place. Christians reflecting upon this “something” should recognize that at least part of this responsibility is ours. Often Christians in our age had been far less direct and honest speaking about death than Christians in previous generations. We have ourselves been complicit in what might be called the domestication of death.
We treat it as something that is beyond polite conversation, or at least many do. That is the fault of many pastors, the fault of many preachers, that is the fault of many theologians. It is the fault of many Christians who simply do not want to talk honestly about death. But the Bible speaks with abundant honesty about death. Death is actually essential to the storyline of Scripture. The Scripture tells us that death came about as God's judgment upon human sinfulness, and thus even as Adam sinned and we sinned in Adam, in Adam, we all died. Death is then a part of essential humanity. Our mortality is the fact of our existence, but it's a theologically vital fact. It is explained by our sin.
And furthermore, death is the enemy. Christ himself spoke openly of death as our enemy, and death is our great enemy, but not the ultimate enemy because, as the Bible makes very clear, after death that there is a judgment yet to come and there are two different deaths. There is our human death, and then there is the second death. The only way to escape that second death is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Apart from Jesus Christ, there is no hope whatsoever after death or in the face of death, but for those who are in Christ, death is a defeated enemy. No text in Scripture makes this reality more clear than the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15.
Can We or Should We Try To Control Death? The Implications of Radical Personal Autonomy Extend to Euthanasia
In his Washington Post article, Jon Meacham pointed to the fact that we are looking at a further extension of American individualism. We now demand to control even the circumstances of our death. That word “euthanasia” goes back to the Greek, as we said, meaning “good death.” It is the demand that we must have death on our own terms.
But here's where Christians also need to step back for a moment and recognize not only is that a sinful impulse, it has even deeper roots and wider ramifications than we might recognize. One of the most important biblical facts about human life is the fact that it is given. Now, let's just consider the fact that there are two bookends to our life on earth. There is birth and there is death. There is a prehistory to our birth. There's a post history to our death. But birth and death are the two great bookends. But here's the fundamental point. There is a givenness to human life that birth makes abundantly clear, and throughout most of human history, death has as well. We have no control over the fact that we were born. We have no control over any aspect or detail of our birth. We did not and we cannot will ourselves into existence. We have no control about when we are born, to whom we are born, the circumstances into which we're born. None of that is in our control.
But modern human beings in our incredible individualism, in our claims of absolute autonomy, find it virtually impossible to resign ourselves to the fact that our life is itself a given, and of course the fact that that word “given” is used is not a coincidence. It is because the biblical view of life is not only that our life is given, but that it is a gift. Now, just thinking of birth for a moment and the fact that it is a given over which we have no control, our will is completely without any function whatsoever in our birth and the circumstances of our birth, there are two and only two worldview responses to that fact. The first is to assume that our birth and everything that went with our birth is purely arbitrary. The second is to understand our birth and everything entailed in our birth as providential, which is to say the first is a secular worldview. The second is a biblical worldview. In the secular worldview, we're just accidents. It just happened. It's arbitrary. In the biblical worldview, nothing is arbitrary. Nothing is without meaning. Our lives did not come about simply by some kind of biological process, rather it was directed by God.
And the Bible makes clear that our life was not some kind of inexplicable spontaneous occurrence, but our birth was rather a part of God's unfolding and eternal plan. But Christians need to think carefully here. If that is true, and it is true of our birth as a given, it is also true of our death. We have again just two choices. We can see death as an arbitrary reality or we can see death as a providential reality, which means it is a part of God's unfolding and eternal purpose. And even as God is the Author of life, he is the Lord of life, and we have no right to demand the terms in which we are willing to die.
We come to see that this push for euthanasia or assisted suicide or so-called “death with dignity” is an effort driven by an essentially materialist and naturalistic secular worldview in which God is no longer the Author of life, and instead our personal autonomy is the great idol of the age, now extended to our demand to die on our own terms.
But perhaps you noticed something else in those stories from both Allen County, Kentucky, and Boulder, Colorado, about the death doulas. In both cases we were told that the approach of the death doulas is not religious, and yet you'll notice that religious language, religious symbolism, even ritual shows up again and again. Why? Well it is because even in this secular and materialistic age, it really is impossible because God made us in his image to imagine that something as massively significant as death can be answered on anything less than spiritual terms, but as we've seen over and over again, spiritual and Christian are not the same thing. They are not synonyms.
Faith and Abortion Are Front and Center in the Kentucky Gubernatorial Race: The Reality of Two Different Churches in America
But next, we're going to stay in Kentucky as we consider a controversy related to the 2019 race for the governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Bruce Schreiner reporting for the Associated Press tells us, “Governor Matt Bevin unleashed an abortion-related attack that took aim not only at his Democratic challenger but also at a federal judge who struck down a state abortion law.”
In the cycle, Governor Bevin is running for a second four-year term. He is running against the current attorney general of the state, Andy Beshear, who is the Democratic nominee, and the battle between them is going to be epic. In some sense, it already is. It's hard to imagine a contest which more clearly demonstrates the directions of the two different national parties in the United States, just seen in the microcosm of the state of Kentucky. The issue of abortion has made many headlines in this race. This article by Bruce Schreiner goes on to report, “Bevin lambasted Beshear for taking donations from the owner of Kentucky's only abortion clinic who hosted a campaign fundraiser in Louisville. Bevin said at another clinic doctor also attended.”
The article goes on to tell us that the governor also criticized Beshear, the state's attorney general, for not defending the state in lawsuits challenging several abortion laws that abortion foes passed in the legislature. Speaking of the fundraiser that was organized by the abortion clinic owner, the governor went on to say, “This is blood money straight up. There's no other term for it. They,” meaning the clinic officials, “are using monies that they have earned from killing Kentuckians to fund a guy whose job it is to defend the laws of this state but refuses to do so. That is unacceptable.” The Democrats immediately complained that the governor was politicizing the abortion issue, but of course the abortion issue first is politicized and secondly, it is urgently important, and it has been and we can only hope it still is urgently important to Kentucky voters.
But the battle between Governor Bevin and the attorney general is very, very interesting as you consider how this is going to function on the national level. Kentucky is a generally conservative state outside the two cities of Louisville and Lexington. Louisville, the largest metropolitan area in the state, has been historically liberal, and Lexington, the home of the University of Kentucky has increasingly been so as well. But outside those two cities, Kentucky is very conservative territory. Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election in Kentucky by what can only be described as a landslide. But all races are now national in one sense. They certainly are when it comes to fundraising. And as we've been seeing the leftward lurch of the Democratic Party nationally, you're seeing it play out in this race. For example, Beshear has the backing of major national abortion rights groups and in one sense he has to if he wants to keep those monies rolling in from prominent national Democratic donors, and in this kind of race you need that kind of outside money.
But as the comments by Governor Bevin make very clear that very reality certainly complicates matters for Democratic candidates at the statewide level. Just consider, for example, that Amy McGrath, who ran unsuccessfully for a congressional seat but is now running against Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell for the United States Senate, McGrath was criticized, rightly so, for appearing with a Virginia state legislator who had been a major sponsor of a radical abortion rights bill, so infamous that we discussed it on The Briefing. It led to a national controversy that ensnared the state's Democratic governor as well. Kentucky's General Assembly has passed several laws including a fetal heartbeat law, making the state one of the most pro-life in the United States, and governor Bevin, elected with openly pro-life convictions, has signed those bills into law and has taken the lead in opposing abortion statewide, not only in politics but in moral argument as well.
But this story took a very revealing, if odd, twist in a story reported by Phillip M. Bailey of the Louisville Courier-Journal, “Republican Governor Matt Bevin questioned Democratic challenger Andy Beshear’s faith and family roots on Wednesday and appealed to Kentucky Baptists to weigh in on abortion as he lashed out at his rival’s first television advertisement.
Bailey then goes on to tell us in Beshear’s first TV ad of the fall campaign, he played up how his grandfather and great grandfather were Baptist ministers. The paper tells us that Beshear’s ad had also featured the attorney general volunteering at a food pantry and his family praying at their dinner table. But the governor then posted almost immediately a video in which he said, “I think it's insulting to the Baptist tradition. I think it's insulting to people of Baptist faith to couch what his grandfather and great grandfather did as sort of covering for his pro-abortion stance.”
By the way, the article goes on to tell us that Beshear himself is not now a member of any Baptist church, but rather of Bear Grass Christian Church associated with the far more liberal Disciples of Christ. Beshear’s Louisville pastor said that the attorney general is a “person of strong faith” and that Beshear and his family regularly attend church.
He said, “Even with their demanding schedule, the family makes it a priority to be present in worship and they don't just show up. Their faith and commitment to God inspire them to serve others and engage in ministry beyond the walls of the church.” There’s nothing in the article about the pastor responding to the fact that his church member has been endorsed by NARAL, one of the nation's most prominent pro-abortion organizations. He's also been endorsed by Kentucky Fairness, which is the state's most influential LGBTQ organization.
It's all of a piece and it fits within that larger national pattern, and that tells us a very great deal. Even if one can now find death doulas in both Boulder, Colorado, and in Allen County, Kentucky, all the national issues such as abortion also come into the dynamic of a state gubernatorial race. But you'll recall that Governor Bevin invoked the Baptists, and, of course, it was because the attorney general had put up a television advertisement telling Kentuckians that his grandfather and great grandfather had been Baptist ministers. That was also a tactic used by Beshear’s father when he successfully ran for two terms as governor before Governor Bevin. Kentucky Baptists, like Southern Baptists, are resolutely pro-life and anti-abortion and make that clear in every way imaginable. Governor Bevin was politically savvy in calling out Kentucky Baptists.
But at the same time it points to the reality that there are two different churches in America, two different religions, one of them being orthodox Christianity and the other one being mainline liberal Protestantism. They both include what the media will describe as people of faith, but biblical Christians are very aware that those two churches define the faith in starkly different terms. And as the issue of abortion reminds us, sometimes in terms that are nothing less than life and death, and that is a truth that Kentucky voters will have to keep in mind as they head to the ballot box in November.