Dependable Erection

Friday, October 12, 2007

Death cults?

Here's a photo i took this morning on the way to work. Seems the megachurch on highway 70 is running a series through October on marriage, specifically on marriage encounter, which, as i recall, seeks to prevent married couple from choosing divorce as an option when they reach that point in their marriage where the cons begin to outweigh the pros. To the best of my knowledge, encounter began within the Catholic Church, which does not recognize divorce at all. A quick google reveals that a whole lot of denominations have taken up this program. There are Jewish encounter programs, Mennonite programs, and geographically based programs in practically every corner of the globe.

Here's my question.

I know that designing billboards and attempting to catch the attention of people whizzing by in their cars at 55 mph is a difficult task. But why the ultra-prominent use of the word "death" in this sign? Isn't marriage one of the most life affirming acts we can undertake? Why focus on the end of the marriage, rather than its ongoing process? (Maybe "For better or for worse" is already trademarked by that comic strip, but there are other phrases commonly associated with marriage vows that are equally recognizable. For that matter, my own recently undertaken vows used the phrase "for as long as you both shall live" in preference to the more morbid "til death us do part.")

And the larger question, which i ask sincerely, is why the focus on death and the afterlife in so many monotheistic practices, not only many Christian denomnations, but Muslim as well. I understand, from a sociological/political viewpoint the advantages to an elite of having a group of followers willing to discount their current material conditions, and thus be more willing to donate the fruits of their labor back to the elite, in favor of promised but undefined benefits in some unverifiable future.

But studies consistently show that, in the US in particular, overwhelming majorities believe in Heaven and Hell as actual places in which individual human consciousness, and perhaps human bodies as well, will reside for a very long time. Which i don't get at all.

I'm one of those people who believes you're born, you die, and if you're very lucky, you get to do some good stuff in between. So i'm asking any of my readers who do believe in the afterlife to chime in and talk about this. Help me understand what it is about this concept that explains the world around us in a way that makes sense to you.



  • I'll check in as a religious person for whom these concepts don't mean a whole lot. I think the difficulty is in grappling with the fact that there will be a world in which you do not exist, will be forgotten, and which will bear no trace of you anymore. It's far easier to consider that you simply move on to a different world than to think about life rolling on inexorably, leaving you in the ground like roadkill on the highway.

    As to what it has to do with marriage, not to get too deep, but John Steinbeck observed in the Grapes of Wrath that it always seemed like it was following sermons about death and hell and damnation that people seemed ready to get it on.

    I wonder if you could use that at the office as a marketing strategy, Barry?

    By Blogger Michael Bacon, at 11:16 AM  

  • Great question. I hope people will be able to give you thoughtful and sane answers. I doubt I could without a lot more time in reflection. But I will mention that I categorize myself, these days, as a "hopeful agnostic". Agnostic in the sense that I have no ability to confidently discern a world (or creator) outside the plain stuff that I perceive with my senses and deduce through logic. Hopeful in the sense that I'd LIKE to believe that there is more than I can see and deduce, and hopeful to the degree that I actually live that way even though I have no proof.

    All that said, a couple of modest corrections to your preamble:

    1. FYI on Marriage Encounter with Catholics -- it's not actually designed to "prevent married couple from choosing divorce as an option when they reach that point..." As my parents experienced it back in the early 80s as it's described online today: "Marriage Encounter is for couples who are happily married and desire to deepen their own love relationship. A marriage can never be too good. The weekend is designed to expand and deepen the joys a couple share together whether they've been married for a short time or for many years." Source:

    [BTW, this is not some kind of subtle hint that you and Mrs. Dependable need to go - heh]

    Re: the Catholic Church and divorce (and ignore this if you were being intentionally broad when you wrote "does not recognize divorce at all."): the Catholics have a variety of ways to "allow for" what we commonly call divorce. Part of the challenge in understanding their position is that they make a distinction between the legal component of marriage and the sacramental/spiritual component.

    This makes sussing out their position and procedures awfully difficult.

    One could argue that that their means of dealing with "divorced" people are as much semantic as they are religious/philosophical, but they're there. For example (and as I understand it), if a couple were married in civil court and later divorced, the Catholic Church might readily say "no problem -- we can marry you in the Catholic Church without violating our rule of marrying someone who's been divorced." At the heart of this decision would be the Church's position (which they'd have to "reason out" with the couple) that the first marriage wasn't "real".

    So then you'd have to ask "wait -- is the church recognizing the divorce, or are they saying that the divorce didn't really happen because the marriage didn't really happen?" If you want a glimpse into the detailed machinations, take a look here:

    Again: there are lots of semantics involved. And don't look for me to get married (or divorced) in the Catholic Church any time soon. But I did want to point out that all is not quite cut-and-dried simple.

    And oh man, I cannot believe I just spent as much time as I just did researching for this blog comment. God must be punishing me for something ;-)

    By Blogger Phil, at 11:26 AM  

  • yeah - my comment on the Church "not recognizing" divorce was made to takeinto account all of the philosphical tricks that can be played with annulment, etc. to get around that, sort of like the way banks in Islamic countries deal with the prohibition on charging interest on loans. I guess the reference was to Henry leading England out of Catholicism and creating the Anglican church because his divorce and remarriage was not going to be sanctioned by Rome.

    My understanding of encounter, despite what the website might say, is that it was initiated by the Church back in the 60s specifically as a response to rising divorce rates, especially among Catholics. The target audience may or may not have been couple who were considering divorce (probably not), but certainly the bumper stickers that read "Ask me about my encounter," or something similar, and other marketing tools, were designed to appeal to couples considering divorce and remind them that there were alternatives.

    At least that's the message i took away from that stuff.

    To return to the sign that inspired this, i still think it's kinda creepy to focus on the "till death us do part" section of the vows. Like it's a sentence of some kind that you have to serve until it's done or commuted. "For richer or for poorer," would similarly invoke the state of marriage while also paying heed to both here and now concerns, as well as the number one cause of failed marriages - finances.

    As an aside, think of how loaded the word "failed" is in this context. Do we consider every business partnership that dissolves to be a "failure?" Would we describe the Beatles or Talking Heads, two bands that broke up under somewhat acrimonious conditions, as "failed" bands? I don't think so. But a marriage that ends is almost automatically considered to be "failed."

    Probably a result of that "till death" thing.

    By Blogger Barry Ragin, at 11:43 AM  

  • I was raised Catholic, have attended an Episcopal church for a while and tried UU. I now consider myself an agnostic. Maybe even "hopeful" on a good day. I must admit I find myself nodding "yes," "yes," and "yes" to many Buddhist/Zen teachings. Check out their ideas on anger management, for starters!

    The insertion of human ego into spirituality is just one of the things that befoul my viewpoint of organized religion. That and all those awesome holy wars. I think we're in one now, aren't we?

    Wait, Barry, there are actually THREE heavens! is incredibly helpful when attempting to parse what many conservative/fundamentalist Christians "believe." Yes, it IS a SCARY website. I suggest every humanist go there. It will give you nightmares. Who knew I was committing "apostasy" by praying to Mary?

    On another level (heh-heh, get it?), I nearly stopped a dinner party in its tracks once by asking out loud, "if there is a heaven, WHERE would you put it?"

    Where indeed. I try to keep up on science when I can and I know this: any advanced technology will look like magic to simple folk. And scientists are discovering creepy cool things about physical matter all the time. Like those particles that travel through space, our atmosphere, you, me and the earth--then continue back out the other side. Perhaps "heaven" has something to do with that? I also know that our bodies lose a gram or 2 when we breathe our last breath. What's THAT about?

    I guess people like their religion because they can get handy answers and not do too much legwork. That's okay with me, but being "judged" as a "non-believer" is more tiresome than I'd care to share with you. (In that case, I hope there really is a heaven so Jesus can give you a good finger-wagging for bad manners while on earth. )

    By Blogger Tony, at 9:52 AM  

  • The central image of christianity is the cross, which in christianity represents a particular form of execution (the cross, and other 4-pronged or 4-sided symbols predates chrisianity and is most often representative of solidity, wholeness, the earth, as anchored by the four winds, four cardinal directions, 4 elements, etc. Four is the number of dependability.) Imagine a martyr in the modern erea being killed by a gun and people hanging little gold guns around their necks. The central image of christianity is not resurrection, but death.

    And you think a bloody, realistic crucifix is bad? Have you ever seen an illustration of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a literal, bloody heart wrapped in thorns and on fire?

    Or, have you heard the lovely song we used to sing during the Folk Mass scare of the late 60's: "Eat his body, drink his blood, as we sing our song of love...Allelu, Allelu, Alleluia!"

    As a product of catholic schools who is now an unapologetic atheist, I don't look at "The Church" as a distinct entity any more than I look at The Government or The Media. All of these are group nouns that are a shorthand for individuals, each of whom struggles in their own way with their own conscience and beliefs and how they adapt to the larger institution and the world beyond the institution.

    So I have a friend whose marriage was annulled (for $$$) on the basis that because her husband had cheated on her, the marriage never really existed. My naive understanding of annulment was that it only applied if (a) one of the parties was already married, or (b) they never had sex, and therefore the marriage was never consummated. But apparently annulment is an indulgence still for sale in some parishes.

    On the other hand, I have a friend who could not be the sponsor for her own daughter's confirmation because, as a divorced woman, she was considered morally unsuitable. It all depends on the whim of the individuals in the particular parish involved.

    I agree that the "TIl Death" banner is particularly creepy. Maybe it's really a Halloween decoration?

    By Anonymous Mrs. Dependable, at 11:03 AM  

  • I wrote a long comment to this earlier, and somehow I fucked it up. I'll try again.

    Come to think of it, I had some friends who had to go through some sort of counseling process/weekend retreat in order to get married in a Catholic church. They actually got divorced about 10 years later. I'll have to ask them what they did. Odd thing is neither one considered themselves Catholic. I'll ask them about it (just e-mailed one of them).

    FWIW, my understanding of the "Cross" and Xianity is that, for the first 100 years or so, a cross was more a symbol of horror to its practitioners (who were probably still self-identifying as Jews) than anything. A couple generations of them had to die off before the cross wasn't the horrific reminder that it had been.

    I think the central sign of Xianity is Christ, or since doesn't seem to be around, perhaps his "Resurrection"? In that case, using X or a cross as a symbol of Christ and resurrection makes sense. Of course one can still say it's a death cult. Most religions do seem to be oriented toward solace against the idea of death. I'm kinda jealous of that solace myself, as I don't have it.

    BTW, I can actually see little gold guns on necklaces becoming a popular symbol. I just don't know who would use it.

    Pretty much any religion I've seen doesn't make sense. I guess they're not supposed to. I'm not being flip here: it's just not about logic. I used to call myself an atheist. Now I'm more likely to use the term agnostic -- not because I'm any more of a believer, but because I think agnosticism includes atheism. And also because I don't think I'm as smart as I used to think I was. I've even stopped engaging people in conversations about the matter, because I generally try a lot less hard to disabuse people of what I feel their misconceptions are. Every once in a while I still fuck up though. :)

    By Blogger Joe, at 9:10 PM  

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