The Fuller Integration Lectures: Part 2, Monuments of Self-Glorification in the Face of Death

It was a real delight to have biblical scholars responding to my lectures at Fuller.

Dr. Chris Hays, professor of Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern studies at Fuller, responded to my first lecture. Dr. Hays has written a book about death in the Bronze Age and OT--Death in the Iron Age II and in First Isaiah--and in his response he made connections between Egyptian burial practices, Isaiah and some of the ideas of Ernest Becker.

Recall, according to Ernest Becker we engage in cultural heroics to "matter" in the face of death. Here is Becker on this point
[T]his is what a society is and always has been: a symbolic action system, a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules for behavior, designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism. Each script is somewhat unique, each culture has a different hero system . . . But each cultural system is a dramatization of earthly heroics; each system cuts out roles for performances of various degrees of heroism . . . It doesn’t matter whether the cultural hero-system is frankly magical, religious, and primitive or secular, scientific, and civilized. It is still a mythical hero-system in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning. They earn this feeling by carving out a place in nature, by building an edifice that reflects human value: a temple, a cathedral, a totem pole, a skyscraper, a family that spans three generations. The hope and belief is that the things that man creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay, that man and his products count. 
Given his interest in Egypt Dr. Hays flashed a picture similar to this up on the screen:

As we know, the pyramids were giant tombs. And in this they illustrate two aspects of Becker's theory. First, as noted in the quote above, we try to "build" things that last in the face of death. And secondly, the anxiety behind this effort is often the engine of cultural creation. The pyramids are shrines to death but they also represent amazing feats of art, mathematics and engineering. And as these monuments of death got bigger and more sophisticated human culture advanced. The pyramids are textbook cases of what psychologists call sublimation, where neurotic anxiety is directed into creative and valued outlets. Death anxiety isn't all bad.

But there is a dark side, as Ernest Becker went on to describe. Our attempts to matter and outlast death often cause us to become violent toward others, psychically or physically. And as Dr. Hays pointed out, we see this clearly with the Pharaohs and their tombs. As we know, slave labor was used to build these monuments of death.

What I find interesting in all this is how the existential dynamics described by Ernest Becker can be discerned in this ancient context. For example, a few years ago I was describing some of Becker's thoughts to a colleague in our College of Biblical studies. And this colleague dismissed the analysis, suggesting that existentialism is a modern school of philosophy and, thus, isn't applicable to biblical theology. I was a bit taken aback.

Death, I responded, wasn't an issue for the ancients?

It sure seemed to be an issue for the Egyptians.

Dr. Hays went on to connect these Egyptian burial practices to the book of Isaiah. Specifically, in Isaiah 22 the prophet rebukes Shebna, the governor/administrator of the royal palace for building a personal tomb:
Isaiah 22.15-17a (NLT)
This is what the Lord, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, said to me: “Confront Shebna, the palace administrator, and give him this message:

“Who do you think you are, and what are you doing here, building a beautiful tomb for yourself— a monument high up in the rock? For the Lord is about to hurl you away, mighty man."
Some scholars have argued that Shebna was the leader of those who were wanting king Hezekiah to make an alliance with Egypt. If so, Shebna's behavior here makes a lot of sense. Specifically, Shebna is making an Egyptian-styled tomb for himself. And for this presumption Shebna is rebuked.

But why is building a tomb presumptuous? The problem, as described by Dr. Hays, is that Jewish tombs were shared. Tombs were communal.

Shebna's presumption was that he was building a tomb--a monument to outlast death--that was purely for himself. Just like the Pharaohs built tombs for themselves.

And that's the connection Dr. Hays made with the work of Ernest Becker.

Specifically, the sin in cultural heroics is the elevation of the self over others in a delusional attempt to outlast death. And we often attempt this self-glorification by climbing over the heads and backs of others, often violently so.

The sin of cultural heroics is the way in which we try to evade death through the glorification of the self and how that self-glorification breaks communion with others.

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13 thoughts on “The Fuller Integration Lectures: Part 2, Monuments of Self-Glorification in the Face of Death”

  1. Last summer I visited a small community in KY where my pioneer ancestors - the ones who came from Maryland, crossing the Appalachian mountains to settle in the wilderness of KY - were buried. Seeing the broken stones of their graves in the burial ground gave me the sense of being a part of a great wave of humanity. It really isn't all about me (though I have my part), but something much larger. Something that takes place in time but is at the same time, timeless. ( )

  2. One of the things my husband and I found so profound about our previous pre-Revolutionary war church was that one has to pass through the grave yard to enter church. The other was the amazing stained glass doors that open directly onto the grave yard. They are called the Gates of Heaven doors. They are specifically opened at Easter and for funerals. You get the idea of the communion of saints in a very humbling way.

  3. Thank you for this Richard. After leading an Ash Wednesday service last night, and preaching on Jesus' words in Matthew 6 about practicing righteousness "in secret," without notice from others, I can't help but think there is some connection between that and with what you share here: that Jesus calls his people to do good for the sake of his Father, out of a sense of security that God's gift of grace has ALREADY secured for us the significance and meaning we seek: and not for the sake of becoming significant ourselves or of leaving Ozymandius-style monuments of goodness behind us. I am also coming to believe that social media and the internet are becoming repositories of the instinct Becker describes: where it almost feels like it didn't happen if it hasn't been recorded on Facebook or Instagram as a tangible everlasting digital monument to experience. Grateful for your ministry of writing.

  4. Death is certain for us all. Some might say belief in an afterlife quenches our thirst to outlast death, but I think it only enhances these urges.
    I also think cultural heroics can be wonderful if they are aligned with the kingdom of god. Many are considered heroic and have made a lasting name for themselves while accomplishing wonderful things.

  5. Fascinating. Over against this we have, in qb's hyper-simplified and probably inaccurate recollection, the (Eastern?) belief that the individual human soul emerges from and returns to a proverbial ocean, such that the distinct individual is a chimera. It looks as though Jewish thought tries to strike a middle ground between "the individual is really a non-entity" and "the individual seeks eternal significance." If so, how so?

  6. Hello Dr. Beck,

    I just wanted to drop in and express my deepest appreciation for sharing everything that you share on here. It seems to me that your blog is one of the only ones out there that never sounds self-important or like an outlet for complaining and getting comments. Everything you write is so different and real-world-relevant. Thank you! And thank you for always highlighting new books to read!

  7. I had two thoughts:

    1. There seems to be something Girardian here. Shebna's desire to create this monument was mimetic (learned from the Egyptian pharaohs), and the result building it using slave labor was another instance of mimesis producing violence. (My Girardian lens is starting to get stuck on my face, so maybe I'm seeing that sort of thing where it isn't really there.)

    2. I'm thinking this also has something to say about our celebrity culture. Is the modern equivalent of these monuments to death the desire to create works (movies, music) that endures beyond death? (Was Johnny Cash motivated (in part?) by death anxiety?) When we "idolize" those celebrities - where we're COMPELLED to spend the fruits of our labor on the latest movie or entire music collection or the latest tour - are we participating in a way that is "laying the stones on the pyramids"?

  8. Hi Danny,
    Thank you very much. I try hard to keep the blog focused on ideas rather than on my opinions. Opinions are a dime a dozen. Sure, I have opinions about all sorts of things, often very, very strong opinions, and some people, perhaps, might care about what my opinion is about this or that. But sharing opinions often just adds to the noise of social media.

    So for the most part, I'd rather just share ideas.

  9. I think that would make for some great blog material or a YouTube video, perhaps. He seems like a guy who's super eager to get the TMT/Becker message out there, and he also seems friendly to religion (judging from all his YouTube lectures).

  10. Perhaps he'd be willing to write a review of The Slavery of Death? Just some thoughts.

  11. I don't think it "only enhances" it. Perhaps I could find a way that it is enhanced in my life, but I can't think of one right now - however, I AM consciously and somewhat frequently aware that my belief in an afterlife calms anxieties I might otherwise have. I don't feel much of a need to strive for recognition because I feel very generally safe - no matter what happens, the span of my conciousness will be 99.999% feeling close with God and others, while learning and exploring. My life will be good and I will enjoy it, so why should it matter if I am remembered by more than my friends and family? What else would I even want anyways?

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