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Monuments, memorials, and museums mark America’s landscape and define both the purpose of spaces and the actors who inhabit them. From the earliest colonial encounters to the new age of mass trauma, memory and its cultural accretions have conferred meaning and denied agency at the intersections of economics, politics, culture, and religious habit. Inasmuch as battlefield memorial sites and statues to fallen soldiers generate community identity through demands for consensus memories and prescribed reactions, national memorials also reflect the diversity, contestedness, and political derivation of those consensuses and those memories. Memorials form physical sites for cultural rupture and ritual redress. Memorialization ritualizes behaviors, standardizes emotional expressions, and regulates the terms on which Americans orient themselves relative to one another. Whether staging mock funerals for an English king or leaving flowers and notes at a site where forty-nine young people lost their lives, death forms a key experience responsible for memorial motivation, but celebrations of independence and victory also produce parades, festivals, and active memorial traditions. In the flows of past and present, life and death, preservation and change, and sanctity and secularism, memorial objects, processes, and behaviors mark and are marked by the historic developments in American religious and civil life.

Article

Weddings and funerals mark major transitions in human life. In these rites of passage, which effect a transformation from one status to another, an individual is separated from one state of existence, passes through a threshold or liminal space, and is incorporated into the community with a new status. In a wedding, individuals move from being single to being joined in a marriage, and in rites surrounding death, a person moves from the land of the living to become an ancestor. These rites of passage concern not only those making the transition but also the community. The ritual actions enable the individuals as well as the community to navigate momentous events in human life, they acknowledge and bring about a transformation in the community, and they offer an interpretive framework for the transition. Weddings and funerals are not rooted in any single religious tradition. Rather, they are social and cultural events that may also have a religious dimension. Many religious weddings and funerals incorporate practices from different cultural contexts, and as social or cultural norms change, ritual practices may evolve to accommodate these norms. Wedding practices have changed to reflect modern Western notions of companionate marriage rather than arranged marriage, and, more recently, growing acceptance of same-sex life partnerships has led a few religious bodies to develop rituals to bless these relationships. Funerals express different understandings of life after death, and they are adapted to various practices for disposal of the body, for example, cremation or burial of the body.

Article

Heaven and hell have survived in the United States beyond scientific critiques of the supernatural. For many Americans, the promise of eternal rewards and the threat of everlasting punishments shaped how they lived their lives in the here-and-now, and how they interacted with others. Oppressed groups used the afterlife to turn the tables on their oppressors, while others used the threat of the afterlife to try to keep people in line. The afterlife, after all, was never just after life. Heaven, hell, and their inhabitants could impinge on this life. Time and again, Americans have labeled various places or situations as hells on earth, from America itself (in the eyes of European colonizers), to the slaveholding South, to the battlefields of the Civil War, to the inner city. Reformers have sought to bring heaven to earth, even while hoping for heaven in the life to come. Meanwhile, discomfort with predestinarian teachings on salvation and damnation led to theological innovations and revisions of traditional Christian teachings on hell. Over time, the stark hell and theocentric heaven of the early colonists waned in many pulpits, with the symbols and figures of the afterlife migrating to fill the pages and TV screens of American popular culture productions. That said, the driving threat of hell remains significant in conservative American Christianity as a political tool in the early 21st century, just as in times past.

Article

Ronald K. Rittgers

Luther was first and foremost a pastor who was deeply concerned with the care of souls. While the study of his controversial writings provides important insight into various aspects of his theology, it was his pastoral writings that arguably made the greater impact on his contemporaries. These writings spanned his entire career, examined numerous topics, and appeared in various genres. Luther’s deep commitment to producing pastoral works aimed at edification and consolation, especially of the laity, may be seen as a continuation of a late medieval trend that was similarly concerned with spiritual nurture and guidance. Consolation was a dominant theme in Luther’s pastoral writings, but so was the call to a deeply earnest Christianity that embraced suffering and affliction for the sake of the gospel. Luther’s pastoral writings were intended to help pastors minister to the needs of their flocks, but in many cases these works were directed to the laity, both to console and exhort them in the Christian life and also to mobilize them for ministry to one another.

Article

Luther does not develop a theology of hope because hope is not the central driver of his mature theology. Central for him is rather faith in the promise of God, which gives rise to hope as well as love. There are two sides to justification that correspond to the now/not-yet character of Luther’s eschatology. On the one hand, we are already righteous through the gift of Christ’s righteousness, which we have in spe but not yet in re. On the other hand, the hope of righteousness strengthens us against sin as we wait for the perfection of our righteousness in heaven. However, in the final analysis, the basis of our hope is not the incipient righteousness which has begun in us (in re) as we gradually grow in holiness and righteousness, but Christ’s own perfect righteousness which he imputes to us through faith (iustitia aliena). For hope can only be rock-solid if it is grounded not on anything within us, but on Christ alone. The early Luther has a very different view of things because, before 1518, he is still very much under the influence of Augustine, which means that justification is primarily a process that goes on within a person’s heart rather than, as in the later Luther, faith in God’s word of promise that comes to a person from outside and gives what it says. The dominant theological concept in Luther’s early work is the theology of humility, which is predicated on the view that God must first humble you and cause you to despair, before he can raise you up and give you hope. Since here faith is not yet oriented to the promise but defined by humility, it has to remain uncertain, as does hope. In the later Luther, on the other hand, faith gives rise to confidence and hope because it is firmly grounded in God’s word of promise, which is always reliable because God does what he says. With his faith firmly grounded in Christ, Luther knows that he can weather all the trials and struggles of life; in fact, he can even look forward to death, since for Christians death is but the door to life with God forever. For Luther, Christ is the only hope for a hopeless world. For him, this is not wishful thinking but is rock-solid because it is based on the promise of the crucified and risen Lord. This is also the basis of the Christian hope for eternal life in the presence of the Triune God, together with the renewed creation and all the hosts of heaven.

Article

The inquiry into the nature of atonement (or reconciliation) presupposes a broken relationship. Atonement (or reconciliation) brings about the restoration of the relationship, creating both a change in and renewal of it. Hence, atonement is recognized as a communicative and open-ended process, which needs continual repetition and renewal. Indeed, God reconciled the world with Himself once and for all (2 Cor. 5:19), but this atonement event is reappropriated in faith and put into effect again and again. In Luther’s theology, atonement designates the communicative disclosure of God’s salvation revealed to believers in the person and work of Jesus Christ in two ways: in the proclamation of the gospel and in the existential impartation of the person of Jesus Christ to the believer, who in turn is freed to enter new life, trusting in God, in the process of reconciliation. In this atonement event mediated by the work of the Holy Spirit, sin is overcome; the death and life of Jesus Christ are appropriated by God for the believer, and the person is separated from his or her sin. Therefore, atonement rests completely on the creative, communicative action of the triune God. However, there is also a human aspect involved that anticipates the believer’s death in baptism and transfers the believer into a new life (2 Cor. 5:17–19).

Article

Susan C. Karant-Nunn

In the late 15th century, when Martin Luther was born and grew up, death was very much present. Family, friends, and neighbors seldom reached what we today would consider a middle age, and women of childbearing age were at special risk. Catholic clergy took pains to offer Christians at every social level ways in which they could prepare themselves for the happiest possible afterlife. When Martin Luther joined the order of Augustinian Eremite Friars in 1505, he had never read a Bible. He now gained access to one that the brothers of the Erfurt house had in their library. Luther read it intently. He found that numerous Catholic points of theology and practice were not validated in scripture. In 1517, he chose the issue of indulgences on which to attack church practice, in view of the fact that the ordinary people in Wittenberg to whom he regularly preached—he was not their pastor—sacrificed a great deal to pay for certificates of indulgence. As a result of his encounter with the Bible, Luther proceeded to dismantle long-standing Catholic belief concerning death and treatment of the dead. He disqualified the Virgin, saints, and priests as intermediaries between individual souls and God. He insisted that as a result of the Fall of Adam and Eve, humans could not perform good deeds to earn themselves entry to Heaven. They had, instead, to rely on the atoning power of Christ’s death on the cross to pay the penalties that they deserved for their continual sinning. Those who had faith in the atonement would be saved. Justification by faith supplanted a theology of justification by good works. Gradually, over about twenty years, new Lutheran liturgies for ministering to the sick and dying and for burying the dead were introduced. Beginning at about midcentury, preachers were instructed to compose funeral sermons for just about every burial. These constitute a new literary subgenre. Many were published for reading by a larger audience, and as many as a quarter million of such printed sermons have survived. Visible as a theme within them is the traditional belief that every Christian should strive to achieve a “good death.” The phrase meant that dying people should cling fervently to the certainty that Christ has paid the penalty for faithful Christians’ sins.