What do our death customs say about our lives?
An article title in the British magazine The Telegraph caught my eye last week: “80 per cent decline in religious funerals as mourners opt for golf courses and zoos over churches.” At first this seems like just another odd quirk of our postmodern culture, but this is about more than just evolving mourning practices. Whether it’s progress or devolution, this “fad” says something about the flow of Western culture.
As the writer notes, “Eight-years-ago 67 per cent of people requested traditional religious services and just 12 per cent were non-religious. However by 2018, just 13 per cent wanted a religious funeral.” This rising phenomenon of un-traditional funerals speaks to the rapid decline of religious observance in the West.
Mind you, the fact that churches and other formal spiritual sites aren’t being turned to in a time of grief is hardly surprising to anyone who’s been following religious trends over the past 30 years. So, it isn’t striking where the funerals aren’t being held, but where they are: Shopping Malls, McDonald’s, Golf Courses, and Zoos. Why the change?
The Decline of Christendom
One might expect the religious vacuum of culture to be filled by service organizations—like the Lion’s Club or the Boy Scouts—but it’s not the structures of altruism that are attracting these funerary innovations. It’s the institutions of consumerism and entertainment that are filling the space once held by the church.
I recently saw an image from a marketing conference that illustrated this perfectly. It showed a man on stage with the words on the screen behind him declaring, “turn customers into fanatics, products into obsessions, employees into ambassadors, and brands into religions.” The non-traditional funerals are just one example of the ways in which marketers are succeeding in their efforts to become the new priests of Modernity.
The Rise of Consumerism
Think of the central calling of the church: to proclaim the good news, the euangelion. Today, that role has been assumed by marketers. In an alternate universe where culture remained heavily influenced by the Christian faith, there would be a common moral horizon. Sure, some people in that culture wouldn’t know Jesus, but they’d still assume a largely Christian worldview. In that context, the message of Jesus really is heard as good news. The people feel guilty when they sin, and the notion of grace relieves their shame. This is not our world.
In Modernity, those things once assumed are now explicitly rejected. To sell a sweater, marketers are telling a different story, one in which their product is the savior. “You were created for attention and praise,” they insist. “Your problem is that you’re drab and unfashionable. This sweater, however, will save you.” This product—be it a sweater, a car, or a phone—is more than an accessory, it’s an identity, it’s a redeemer. It doesn’t belong to you so much as you belong to it. This is the euangellion of the marketers of Modernity.
Telling A New, Old Story
Once a culture has moved from Christendom to Consumerism, the church can’t assume her message of grace is understood, as such. So long as the people understand their main calling in life to be entertainment, enhancement, and expression, our message of sin will fall on deaf ears. So long as the people think their main problem is simply a lack of resources or education or comfort, Jesus’ saving work on the cross will seem an irrelevant abstraction.
The church’s calling, then, is to “re-narrativize” the West. We have to re-frame the very idea of teleology and vocation for people. We were created to live in the presence of God. The isolation we feel from others, indeed from our own selves, is the result of sin—that thing in all of us that causes us to ache and hate and hunger. It’s only when this ground-work is done that the good news of Jesus becomes understandable. Jesus takes the sins of the world upon himself, thus removing the barrier that prevented us from living in the presence of God.
Once a consumer becomes a Christian—the buyer becomes a believer—it’s not just that she rejects the thing being sold to her, it’s that she rejects the entire creation/fall narrative the marketers are telling and selling. Once re-narrativized by the church, it becomes clear that the product being sold by the world can never offer real wholeness, true redemption, because it can never take away our actual problem and can’t give us that which we were created for.
Few things provide more insight as to the true faith of a people than the way in which those people handle the dying and the dead. The decline of religious funerals says something about the decline of the church, the rise of nontraditional funeral venues like shopping malls and golf courses says something about the new religion of Modernity, Consumerism.
For the church today, our job is to help “sell” the story of the gospel of Christ to a world consumed by a dismal fairy tale. We are to remind the world that its false euangellion of Consumerism will never deliver on its promise, but only in the true story can they find what they seek. It’s to this storytelling that Christians have been called, and it is in this hope that the world may find the peace it is so desperately looking for.
Dustin Messer is a theology teacher at Legacy Christian Academy in Frisco, TX and a minister at All Saints Dallas and the author of Secular Sacraments: Finding Grace in the World and Sin in the Church.
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