Reading The Slavery of Death (Part 5: The Principalities and Powers)

Last time Beck discussed how death anxiety is still prevalent in contemporary affluent culture by pointing out that wherever possible we tend to engineer our surroundings to be devoid of reminders of mortality, and our self delusion about death is constantly under assault from others who fail to adhere to the same cultural hero systems that we do.

In this chapter, we’re moving on from the prevalence of death anxiety in society to explore how it leads us to invest in what Beck refers to as “the principalities and powers,” a translation of the term archai kai exousiai from the New Testament that has both spiritual and material connotations.  This phrase is probably most famous from Ephesians 6:12:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm.

Beck points out that the use of this term varies in meaning along a spectrum from purely political to purely spiritual connotations, but most of the instances where it appears is a mixture of the two.  The general point he’s trying to make is that ancient thought saw a connection between spiritual and political forces.  It follows logically from the common feature of ancient societies that the rulers were often viewed as, if not expressly divine, then an instrument of divine will (this is also true of not so ancient societies with the maintenance of the divine right of kings in European monarchies well into the Modern period and America’s own national myth of Manifest Destiny that still colors the way we approach our country’s governance).

Proceeding from that assertion, Beck gets into a discussion of the concept of suprahuman forces, trends and attitudes in culture that exist on a macro level but which are largely invisible when examining individuals.  At this point we get into a discussion of the language of possession and demonic influence when discussing the actions of people.

So, this is another instance where Beck has to wade into a relatively sticky topic.  Like his sidelining of any discussion about the devil’s literal existence back in chapter 2, the concept of possession is one that Beck tries to keep restricted to the infection of death-obsessed ideas.  I’m on board with what he’s saying about how we become entrenched in the thinking that permeates our methods of death delusion.  We throw ourselves into the ways of our workplaces or our social clubs or our political parties because we think these are things that matter because they’re going to outlast us.  The only problem is that everything’s mortal.  Businesses close and clubs shut down and countries disappear.  Dedicating ourselves to an institution, a principality, a power, is ultimately pointless because it’s still feeding into the death obsession that we don’t want to admit we all have.  Beck points out that all of this stuff is easily defined by a simple concept: idolatry.

Idolatry, for anyone not familiar, is the sin of putting anything ahead of God.  It seems really simple on the face of it, but then you get into all kinds of complications with figuring out what kind of actions do prioritize God over everything else (it’s not as straightforward as some people might like to believe).

Anyhow, Beck calls all of these institutions and ideals that we devote ourselves to idolatry, because at their root they’re all about staving off death in some fashion, which is futile.  Whatever you may personally believe about the nature of God, there’s nothing doing when it comes to humanity ending human mortality.

I’m cool with all of that, but going back to the language of possession, I can’t help but feel a little uncomfortable with it.  I’ve said in the past that I can see how it’s useful for discourse, but Beck’s insistence on using the terminology strikes me as giving a concession to more conservative Christians for the sake of neutrality when it reframes the conversation in a way that not only allows but encourages a certain interpretation of the concepts being discussed.  The fact that much of this chapter is spent defending the use of possession language only underscores just how much work has to be done upfront to try to keep those assumptions out.

This chapter concludes in a pretty desolate place, because our takeaway at the end of this section of the book is that death is inescapable, and everything we do ultimately serves our obsession with escaping it.  Next time we’ll start on Beck’s last section, where he discusses what it looks like to try to break free of our fear of death.


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