About two weeks ago, a member of my family died. Although his health had been failing for years, and we knew his time was limited, many of us still expressed surprise that he had died now. At home, on a Wednesday morning. Not in the hospital or during a procedure, despite how countless those had become. Death was simultaneously inevitable and unpredictable, expected and disorienting.
Matthew McCullough’s new book, Remember Death, explores how becoming reacquainted with the reality of numbered days can be a spiritual discipline that also enables us to become more acutely aware of the works and promises of Christ. As a spiritual practice, remembering death finds its origins in the Christian reflective tradition of memento mori. In becoming intimately conscious of death—both its certainty and its effects—we live more joyful, true, and hopeful lives because Christ’s promises also become just as imminent and certain.
Matthew McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world.
Remember Death argues that as lifespans have become longer through scientific advances, we have collectively become more distanced from death; as a result, many of us can spend most of our lives without recognizing death as a problem. Despite our disconnection from death, McCullough argues that its shadow shows up in our daily lives: ”It shows up in our insecurities about who we are and why we matter. It shows up in our dissatisfaction about the things we believe should make us happy. And it shows up in our pain over the loss of every good thing that doesn’t last long enough” (20). Ignoring death doesn’t eliminate its power from our lives. Rather, death’s other, more trivial symptoms begin to fill our days.
For Christians, this distancing from death is even more problematic. Not only did biblical writers engage with death regularly, but they also saw it as the background for the promises of the Lord:
By avoiding the truth about death, we’re avoiding the truth about Jesus. Jesus didn’t promise us so many of the things we want most out of life. He promised us victory over death. So we must learn to see the shadow of death behind the problems of life before we can recognize the powerful relevance of Jesus to every obstacle we face. (25-26)
After reacquainting us with the reality of death and exploring reasons for its diminished societal importance, Remember Death pairs three major “problems” of death with promises of Christ. In a world focused on telling us that we are unique and important, death threatens our identity, jarringly reminding us that “we are not too important to die” (28). As death strikes at our identity, Christ’s work restores it, as the gospel “tells us we are important because we are loved, not loved because we’re important” (74).
McCullough pairs the problem of futility with the promise of victory over death. As we reach for success and wealth, the realization that death makes all our work futile provokes anxiety and discontent. When we embrace the truth that Christ has been victorious over the final enemy, we are freed to find joy, not strife, in our earthly work. In chapter four, the problem of loss is paired with the promise of eternal life, contending that it is only through the guarantee of a new world that we can truly enjoy—or live without—the things of this world with the knowledge that they will be lost in death.
Throughout Remember Death, and especially in chapter five, McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world. As McCullough puts it, “we must compare our problems with death so we can compare our problems with glory” (150–151). Discontent, envy, and anxiety can all be countered by recognizing both the certainty of death and the promise of the resurrection.
Remember Death seeks to reintroduce many Christians to a spiritual discipline and tradition that has been lost as we have been able to increasingly distance ourselves from the harsh realities of death. McCullough insightfully employs Scripture and historical views on death from both religious and secular sources throughout history to point us toward understanding death in a way that allows for true life.
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