Death, Art & Christian Aesthetics: Part 2, A Terror Management Perspective

To understand the logic, theoretically and methodologically, behind our study of death and Christian aesthetics we'll need to review a few ideas. First, a primer on Terror Management Theory (TMT). Last year in a presentation here at the university I used some of the pictures below to walk through the main ideas of TMT. To begin, the terror of "Terror Management" is existential terror, mainly the anxieties we feel upon approaching death. To quote Ernest Becker:

“The animals don't know that death is happening and continue grazing placidly while others drop alongside them. The knowledge of death is reflective and conceptual, and animals are spared it…But to live a whole lifetime with the fate of death haunting one's dreams and even the most sun-filled days--that's something else.”

In short, humans are the only animals on the earth that consciously know they are approaching their death:

And, as Becker notes, this approach causes existential anxiety and terror:

How do we cope with this anxiety? We cope by creating cultural worldviews that allow us to approach death via activities that taken on symbolic, transcendent, and religious significance. We approach death by investing in cultural activities that give life meaning:

Once we imbue life with cultural "significance" we are able to calm (or repress) our existential fears:

In short, according to TMT theorists, one feature of culture is death repression. Again to quote Becker:

"The fear of death must be present behind all our normal functioning, in order for the organism to be armed toward self-preservation. But the fear of death cannot be present constantly in one's mental functioning, else the organism could not function."

How, then, might we use these ideas to determine if Christian art is implicated in death repression? Recall from Part 1 of this series that TMT researchers have demonstrated that artwork can be a repository for cultural ideals and values. In short, some artwork can encode and symbolize the cultural values and ideals that make life meaningful and significant, existentially speaking. Consequently, in the face of death, these cultural symbols are clung to, preferred, and protected. These cultural products become existentially important to us.

What we did on our laboratory was to replicate Landau et al.'s study with American iconic art using Christian art in a Christian population. The logic of the design was as follows.

First, we selected as our stimuli two pieces of art. One was an overtly Christian piece of artwork and the other was neutral. According to TMT, for Christian participants the Christian art would be existentially important. That is, the Christian art activates symbols implicated in how Christians might manage death anxiety. Conversely, the neutral art (a landscape) plays no such function:

Prior to evaluating the art the participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions. In the Mortality Salience condition the participants completed a short essay about what they think will happen to them when they die. This essay primes death awareness:

Participants in the control condition completed an essay about an unpleasant but non-death related experience (dental pain).

After going through the priming conditions we expect that those in the Mortality Salience condition would feel more existentially unsettled relative to the control participants:

The question then becomes: How will these participants handle/manage their anxiety? The prediction is that in the face of death the Christian participants would prefer the Christian art relative to the neutral art:

This tendency is believed to be due to existential reactivity. The Christian participants, in the face of death, are gravitating toward symbols (unique to their worldview) of death transcendence. Presumably to soothe/comfort themselves. By contrast, it was expected that Christians in the dental pain condition would display no such reactivity. That is, feeling existentially settled (relative to those in the Mortality Salience condition) there is no psychological motive to prefer one painting over the other (other than personal preference). In sum, we basically poke at a person's existential worldview to see if it kicks back at us.

The outcome? Well, it's a little more complex than this, but we were able to replicate Landau et al.'s findings. In the face of death (relative to the control condition) participants significantly preferred the Christian art over the neutral art.

What is interesting about these findings is that by "preferred" we also mean aesthetic judgments. That is, Christians in the death prime condition rated the Christian art better as art. In short, death issues were affecting aesthetic judgments.

The question of these posts is Why is Christian art so bad? This research might provide us one answer. Specifically, if many Christians are using their faith as an existential defense mechanism (a position I argue in Freud's Ghost), then Christian aesthetics are routinely being pushed around by death anxiety. As a consequence, this art is less challenging and provocative. The goal of this "death repression art" is sweetness and comfort. Artistic quality has been sacrificed for psychological needs.

But is this the case for ALL Christians? Nope. More on that in Part 3.

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6 thoughts on “Death, Art & Christian Aesthetics: Part 2, A Terror Management Perspective”

  1. Hi Richard-
    I find this line of inquiry very interesting. I would wonder if this sort of anxiety-binding is something that can be expressed on a spectrum – i.e., are the greater and lesser degrees of defensiveness? And if so, what determines to what extent the terror of death has sway over one’s psychology? Why do some seem to struggle with it more than others?

    Even more, I would also wonder whether there is some generalized emotional constriction that occurs when such defensives are too rigidly employed (as is usually taken to be the case with defense-mechanism-heavy personalities.)

    I’m not even sure how you would operationalize that to study it, but that last question is particularly interesting to me. I was raised in a fundamentalist church and, a number of years later, left fundamentalism. It was a long, hard process, and I had to re-work a lot of existentially basic issues like death (loss of “specialness”, guidance, and comfort were others). In the process of making my peace with these losses – essentially, a process of grieving – I found I had far greater ability to appreciate a much broader range of art.

    For example, some movies made sense to me that never would have beforehand, because many evocative movies are evocative precisely because they bring you in contact with themes like loss and existential loneliness and the imperfection of all our relationships. I.e., human finitude. But fundamentalism’s thick layer of defenses – its terror management – teaches that there are no real losses, and death is not the end. All that you desire most, in your soul, will be yours in heaven. So I had never been able to understand these forms of art before, because I lacked the requisite emotional “openness”.

    Since (I believe) basic emotional experience is what it means to feel alive, I interpret my experience as the trading of the thick, rigid, unhealthy defenses of fundamentalism for healthier ones. In effect, feeling (at least some) grief at the concept of death is part of what makes us appreciate life. Are you familiar with Irvin Yalom’s Existential Psychotherapy? He argues that the concept of death “saves” us. This is what I think he means: to “feel” death is to realize the preciousness of life. At least, that’s my theory.

    Anyway, sorry to ramble. I love your blog and look forward to the next installment-
    Richard M

  2. I would think that the position you propose is the "fear of death" spoken of by Paul...I used to believe this and really thought that heaven, and all of the theological jargon was REAL...therefore, I was sold out, that is why we are where we are right now. But, now, I am not so sure that there is heaven, hell, or "God" is just a matter of what someone desires to believe at this point. And I'm not so sure I want to believe in God when the conservative church is so interested in a narrowly defined agenda that does not allow room for disagreement or differences of opinion.

  3. Richard,
    Thanks for that ramble. I think your story (my own is close but the fundamentalism was not so strong) articulates my sense of what is going on in religious belief: Trading in defense mechanism for a grief-tinged authenticity.

    Regarding measuring defensiveness, my next post will point to some of my work on that particular topic.

    I understand your concerns. I think in many churches death and hell are primarily used as motivational tools. Fear is used to control people. And who wants to be a part of that kind of religion? I don't.

  4. Richard-
    I remember in the months immediately following my decision to leave my former faith, I got hooked on Paul Simon’s “Negotiations and Love Songs.” It was just amazing. I was able to “get” the songs on this album in a way that I never had before. Formerly, I had used music – rather a lot – for comfort, just as you described. When I had needed soothing, I would often get out tapes made by my church choir.

    Now, post-apostasy, music was able to actually expand or enrich (I lack just the right word) my experience. It put me in touch with sadness and loss in a way that actually felt *good*, in an odd and yet exhilarating way. I suspect this is because you can’t experience real joy while excluding the possibility of real grief, which is what fundamentalism tries to do.

    Almost every song on that album was like an awakening for me. But what I think got to me most was “Hearts and Bones”, the song of someone reminiscing over the love of his life – “the arc of a love affair.” He recounts:
    “She said why? … Why won’t you love me for who I am, where I am?/ He said ‘cause that’s not the way the world is baby/ This is how I love you baby”

    The admixture of grief, warmth, wistfulness, tenderness, yearning, and honest humanity was (and is) just extraordinary. Just like life itself should be. But I had to be open enough to feel it. So, the question I usually ask myself now is usually: does a given work of art constrict my emotional experience, or does it expand it?

  5. Some blogs I read refresh my soul, as water does a dry and thirsty land. Only those who approach life with gratitude in ALL of its fullness, humanness are free. I fear recrimination, or discrimination for being free, i.e. hedonistic...materialistic..."worldly", etc. I seeps the life out of you. I know some of my fear is from past experience and not necessarily the real situation. But, I have decided to "not care" what anyone else thinks, and own my life, knowing that as I embrace life, I can worship as well.
    Thanks both Richards...

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