Arthur McGill is a relative unknown in American theology.

His works have mostly been consigned to the “out-of-print” stacks. A quick Google search for “Arthur McGill” turns up only 1700 results, while Google Scholar weighs in at a whopping 47 and Google blogsearch turns up 7 results, 5 of which don’t have to do with the author.
Imprecise measurements of a person’s relative popularity, to be sure, but indicative nonetheless. McGill is firmly lodged in the back of the theology closets, piled behind tomes better known thinkers.

But popularity is no indicator of value, and in Death and Life: An American Theology, Arthur McGill has composed a gem that is worth serious reflection by theologians and laypersons alike.

This relatively short work–95 pages–is broken into two parts. In the first, McGill analyzes America’s attitudes toward death, where death means not the biological end of man, but rather the “losing of life, that wearing away which goes on all the time.” In the second, he articulates what he takes to be the Biblical understanding of death in this broader sense. Throughout, he is poetic and provocative as he works to tease out how American Christianity has been co-opted by a secular view of death and the resurrection.

His first section, while interesting, is simultaneously stimulating and problematic. He argues that the American view of “life” means “having.” It is “always optimistic, always affirmative.” Death is, in this sense, a disruption, a mangling of the normal. Poverty, sickness, disease and unanswered needs are abnormal and accidental. Wealth is a fundamental state of mind, not simply a fact. As a result, we work hard to become what McGill calls “the bronze people,” people who maintain the appearance of life without having the substance of it. In doing so, we avoid the fundamental reality of sin and pain, a reality that is “intolerable.” “The world is awful,” writes McGill, “but Americans do not usually say so.”

McGill is almost right on this point. Reality is not awful–goodness is. It is goodness that we hate and avoid, a tactic which drives us to believe that the perversion is the deepest reality when it is still a perversion. The world is not awful–it is good, but the sort of good that is demands the redemption and defeat of sin. Sin is the lesser reality–goodness the higher.

While equally provocative, McGill’s second section is somewhat more successful. Despite continuing his error of making sin “a matter…of our basic identity,” McGill demonstrates how Jesus’ identity comes from outside of himself and how as Christians, we must “die” and discover that our identity comes from outside of ourselves, from God. We must let go of the “tecnique of having,” of possessing ourselves and cultivate a posture of gratitude and acknowledgment that our being is in God, not in us.

What compels us to possess ourselves, our possessions and our relationships? The fear of death, in which we refuse to acknowledge that all that we have is God’s, not ours. This fear of death is conquered in the resurrection which “discredits one fearful possibility–that perhaps there is some fatality in the world, or some historical agency, some cosmic necessity or some other power which will disengage us from God’s constituing love, which will establish itself as the source of our identiy, and which will thus give us an identity that will be marked by loss, disintegration, and death.”

What does having an “ecstatic identity” look like? For one, it is a position of worship to the Father. Because the Father “engenders and communicates life,” He is worthy of worship. It is in the death of Jesus that the Father is glorified. John 15:8 claims that the Father is glorified by the bearing of “fruit,” which is what happens when Jesus dies on the cross. It is as a result of this self-giving act that Jesus is to be worshipped. When we acknowledge our own position of dependance and need, then we are prepared to worship the Father and the Son, whose “identity does not depend on and does not consist in the life which he holds onto and the life which he offers….Without detriment to his true self, [Jesus] can give away everything of himself.”

It is at this point that McGill demonstrates how the message of Scripture is in tension with the spirit of our age. If we are to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, we must give out of our abundance to the point where we too are in need, as it is in his position of need and dependance that the Son glorifies the Father and the Father glorifies the Son. In perhaps the most personally challenging part of McGill’s work, he argues that the love of neighbor demands the impoverishment of ourselves–that we have more in order to give more away, even to the point of poverty.

McGill’s work is never perfect–he is at points repetitive and at other points obscure. His notion of “reality” could be improved significantly by the resources of Augustinian or Thomistic thought. At points I wanted him to be more clear in his writing. But the subtitle “An American Theology” perfectly captures is project in this work. By setting his theologizing in the context of American beliefs and values, he attempts to convict the reader as much as instruct. In this, he is highly successful.

McGill’s work seems to be forgotten, but it should not be. By approaching Christianity and our culture through the lens of death, he is able to drive beneath the surface of our lives to the heart of our fears, our desires and our actions. Death and Life: An American Theologyis 95 pages of theologizing that is worth any Christian’s time.

For my other thoughts about death, see here and here.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

4 Comments

  1. It is in the death of Jesus that the Father is glorified. John 15:8 claims that the Father is glorified by the bearing of “fruit,” which is what happens when Jesus dies on the cross.

    I accept McGill’s point that death is in a sense “essential” to life, which is reflected in natural processes, though the above statement seems to be in reference to John 12:23-24 (“And Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.'”) more so than to John 15:8.

    But in any case, how does McGill reconcile the apparent necessity of death — whether to natural processes or to divine condescension — with the Bible’s repeated portrayal of death as a curse that is unnatural?

    According to your account, McGill seems to say that the resurrection “discredits” our fear of death, but the NT seems to say the resurrection discredits death itself (Rom 6:9, I Cor 15:26, II Tim 1:10), and only in so doing, our fear of it as well.

    Probably I am thinking of death too literally while McGill always means something more metaphorical. I recognize our necessary participation in Christ’s death (Rom 6:5) but it seems that death was necessary for Christ only because what is not assumed is not healed, and (according to Paul at least) death is something that needs to be defeated.

    I agree that for John the crucifixion is the glorification of Christ, but he does so without glorifying death, and quotes Jesus saying things like “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death” (John 8:51).

    Apologies for all the biblical references but it seems McGill’s thoughts brought me back to the text!

    Reply

  2. Nobody,

    “But in any case, how does McGill reconcile the apparent necessity of death — whether to natural processes or to divine condescension — with the Bible’s repeated portrayal of death as a curse that is unnatural?”

    This was, I think, the central problem in his work that I tried to articulate with my qualm that he makes the perversion the fundamental aspect of reality, rather than goodness. His notion that sin is a “matter…of our basic identity” seems to make the same error as you identify.

    As a result, his analysis that Americans see death as an intruder to be avoided is spot on, but in that sense Americans have the right intuition. He does mention at one point that we have a secularized notion of resurrection, one that wants life that doesn’t have to go through death. But in no way (it seems) does he reconcile the tension between viewing death as an intruder and death as necessary and normal. I’ll skim it again to look for a clearer idea when I get a chance.

    I don’t know what he would say to John 8:51. He would certainly point to “If any man is to be my disciple, he must take up his cross..” as the counterbalance, I think.

    Reply

  3. It seems that McGill extrapolates from the Christian acceptance of death that death is therefore good. But the Christian acceptance is a kind of defiant passivity, (arche)typified by Christ’s own passion. We do not embrace it, but simply endure it in a sense stoically because even “this too shall pass.”

    But our attitude to death is ultimately antagonist: “Death, thou shalt die!” The problem of evil is not solved by denial that death is bad, but by the transmutation of it into good — to a small extent in this life but finally realized in the metamorphosis of creation.

    As a result, his analysis that Americans see death as an intruder to be avoided is spot on, but in that sense Americans have the right intuition.

    Fair enough, but my impression is that the modern American fear of death is in fact a secular fear of death inevitably resulting from a materialist mindset (pious deism notwithstanding).

    Reply

  4. I’m not sure I would characterize the defeat of death as a “defiant passivity,” nor would McGill. The difference is that Jesus knows he is going to die, and chooses to do it. Not only that, but he chooses to do it accordingly to the Father’s will.

    In that sense, Jesus’ death is a suicide for a higher cause–it’s a martyrdom, which is volitional. As McGill writes, “His death is not a kind of unfortunate accident, a regrettable mishap, which might not have happened if Jesus had been fortunate to live in a free society where individual rights are protected and honored.”

    In that sense, our transmutation of death from bad into good demands that we walk in the way of Jesus and choose death willingly as He does.

    As for American’s fear of death, I think you’re probably right as well. McGill rejects the notion that Americans have only one attitude toward death, and the idea that our attitudes have only one cause. He would probably agree with your analysis, even if materialism wasn’t really on the radar like it is now.

    Reply

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.