-In ancient Greek mythology, Thanatos the God of Death is an interesting character. Of all the Greek Gods, he is one of the more peculiar in that as his mythology grew, his actual nature slowly evolved and changed. Initially, Thanatos was nothing more than black death and all that accompanies the end of life, yet as life became more of a struggle on earth, Elysium became a more attractive option for the poor and oppressed of the Greco-Roman culture. Suddenly, Thanatos represented a more muted, attractive, and more innocent figure suckling at his mother’s bosom. As life became more difficult and more abstract, Thanatos the God of death was no longer something to fear, but rather, someone to embrace. Death, which was once seen as the end, now seemed like the beginning of something much more beautiful than the life of chaos here on earth. Thanatos represents human nature’s inclination toward doing what is easy, convenient, and simple, rather than doing what is ethically right, morally superior, or intellectual astute. Focusing on death allows the community to shirk of their responsibilities in living life to the fullest. Why think about the daily struggles we face when we can simply look to the beauty of death and leave all of the earth’s problems behind.
The figure of Jesus experienced a similar transformation; in the biblical stories Jesus shows up to the scene with a radical message, telling his followers that “The kingdom of God is now”, “I have come not for the well, but for the sick”, and “I have come for the brokenhearted and prisoners, not for the intellectual elites” but as time slipped away over the years, suddenly, the church found herself 2000 years into the future, away from the departure of Jesus, and instead of embracing his mantra of living in the Kingdom ‘now’, the church began preaching an altogether different message which focused on themes of death;
Message of Jesus
—) The kingdom of Heaven is Now
—) Serve the poor and orphans and widows in distress Now
—) Build a United community of peace Now
Message of the Church
—) Store up your treasures in Heaven
—) Lets focus more on theology rather than the poor, since there are no poor in heaven
—) Don’t worry about church splits and disunity, there will be unity in heaven
Young adults of the 21st century, reading the bible and seeing the biblical Jesus cannot help but wonder at why Jesus of Nazareth and the sacrificial communal life among the poor that he lived, seems so polar opposite of the life of the suburban individualistic life of the Christian in the Western World. The answer is quite simple; it is much easier to be a Christian who focuses on death, than a Christian who focuses on life. Serving the poor, living a frugal un-professional life alongside the cast offs of society is simply not as easy and cool as hanging out with fellow Christians at the latest theological conference or church business meeting. These themes became a huge deal during the Jesus movement of the 1960’s and 70’s, but like all human movements, they eventually died and the people involved moved upward monetarily and became the very people in the church they had been railing against. When people cry out to the wealthy leaders in the church and ask them why they do not serve the poor and live communally among the castoffs, the leaders respond with a resounding; ‘because the only thing that matters is heaven! Changing the environment of the poor in the Western World is less important than preaching to them about heaven!” It is this very mantra of preaching about heaven which excuses the entire lack of “Jesus living” among the Christian inteligencia, and allows them to live their individualistic professional lives, ignorant and void of the suffering that goes on all across the world.
The spirit of Thanatos the God of death is alive and well in a number of avenues in modern day culture outside of the church also. While we see the concept at work in the modern church, Christians who focus more on dying than living, we also see the concept of Thanatos at work in the secular world around us; people are no longer concerned with living life to the fullest, but instead do the absolute minimum in their slow shuffle towards death. While great fiction and nonfiction of past generations challenged people to live life to the fullest, modern day lives look rather dystopian and bleak; with the average person spending more time in front of their television each week then they do hanging out with friends, family, or pursuing meaningful activities.
Take for instance the concept of technology; the average person no longer reads a book from start to finish, but instead, the walking dead of the modern era searches for phrases via Internet search engines and detexualizes entire passages; everything is taken out of context and a new context is created. A friend of mine said, “Who needs to read a book when you can merely reference it when the need arises”. Thus, as our society has focused more on comfort, on being the infant Thanatos slumbering in the arms of his mother; modern society has given up on contributing toward positive change and legacy. Our focus on living a life of ease has reduced the average person to nothing more than mindless nebbishes who are too lazy to spend their lives in service to the poor, the hurting, and the helpless, and instead they rest in their Lazy Boy at night in order to catch up on the latest shows. In past generations if an individual was interested in a particular subject they might go to the library to research the topic in depth, or they might engage their professor, teacher, parents, or friends in a lengthy discussion relating to the various ins and outs of the subject. In this new age of Thanatos, a simple 30 second Google search gives the reader a snippet of information about the subject, as though they have now received all there is to know about the topic. This focus on doing the bare minimum would not be half as bad if people didn’t actually believe that what they were doing was indeed the ‘bare minimum’. Unfortunately, for the people in this age of Thanatos, they actually believe that doing a Google search is akin to studying a topic, they believe that focusing on comfort, ease, drink, and being merry is vitally important for tomorrow they might die.
The spirit of Thanatos has led to an entirely dead culture. In ancient Rome, near the end of its prominence, historians by and large agree that the art of Roman experienced a steep decline to the point of offering very little in terms of ingenuity, freshness, innovation, and beauty. The art of Rome at the end of the Roman Culture resembled Rome itself; staleness and death. In Western Society, when we look to the formulaic genres of music that dominate much of popular music, it is difficult not to the see the parallel between the dying art of ancient Rome and a death in the art of our modern era.
In music it is easy to see the spirit of Thanatos since being able to sing, carry a tune, or play an instrument are less important than being able to work an electric soundboard or digital computer program to create another formulaic piece of music. In fine art we see the spirit of Thanatos as fine art, that is oil, pastels, and the various canvases which artists paint on with the express purpose of expressing their philosophy in a beautiful manner, has been all but dead for decades. Museums get larger crowds when they advertise a history of motorcycles or history of automobile event than they do at a fine arts gala centered on the Impressionists. The spirit of Thanatos is also apparent in the literary world. Reading is at an all time low, and as Neil Postman said, we now live in an literary society; people have the ability to read but they choose to not do so. Sure, people read 140 character posts on social networks, but the level of depth that truly elevates the reader to considering a multitude of various perspectives never occurs through all their social network reading.
Literature of old transformed lives and changed the face of culture, social networks of our era simply lead to unnecessary drama, gossip, and a decontextualized way of thinking. Take for instance Charles Dickens, many people only know Dickens as “the guy who wrote a lot of really long and boring books…and ‘oh yea, he wrote the Christmas Carol”. But there is more to the story about Charles Dickens. You see, he lived in a time when there were major gaps between the rich and the poor. Prostitutes, orphans, homeless, the down-and-out were not even treated like humans by the upper classes during Dickens’ era. In fact, the people on the bottom were literally despised by the people at the top; the sick and the poor were merely faceless people to the healthy and rich.
And that was the world that Charles Dickens began writing, challenging the very core of what his contemporaries believed about the poor, women, orphans, prostitutes and the down-and-out. Dickens showed the world that the people on the bottom were real people; he showed the people on the top that these people on the bottom had names, they had aspirations, they loved, they felt sorrow, and they were human; he showed the faces of the faceless. Dickens’ books literally changed the world. The structure of caring for orphans and the poor in Great Britain improved dramatically thanks to the work of Charles Dickens.
Good art transforms society. Good art challenges people to reconsider their biases and preconceived notions. However, in a world dominated by the spirit of Thanatos, where death and ease is more preferable than life and art, it is easy to overlook the poor, the suffering, the orphans, and the widows in their distress. Focusing on death and ease is much more attractive and less burdensome than spending our lives in sacrificial service unto the poor and the neglected. Living a life where we serve others is far more cumbersome than living a life where we do whatever is the most easiest until we die.
One of the great transitions in modern society connected to the spirit of Thanatos is the manner in which the older generations have entirely forsaken the younger generations in favor of their own comfort and ease. In past societies, grandparents, uncles, and aunts were an integral component in the rearing of infants and children. In communal societies, children spend as much time with their extended relatives as they do with their own mother and father. However, as the spirit of Thanatos began to dominate the Western landscape, more and more grandparents began to view their retirement as a time to focus on themselves rather than on their offspring. Spending the days golfing, traveling, or simply sitting in front of the television for hours on end, became more important than spending half the week or every day with the grandchildren. Is it any wonder than that these self-serving grandparents were no longer welcome to live with their children as they grew more physically weak and were instead sent to live lonely lives of isolation in convalescent homes. The rate of Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other psychosomatic illness grew like wildfire among the elderly in the society that the elderly created; one in which they shirked all responsibility toward the younger generations in exchange for a life of ease. Sadly, the elderly in Western Culture actually represent the very embodiment of Thanatos as they sit in their lonely isolated retirement home rooms, staring at the television and waiting to die; surely death and Elysium is more preferable than the life they are currently living.
Fortunately, the best is yet to come.
*Stock Image Kunj Parekh unsplash.com