‘Now I Am Become Death…’ | Theology of Decay | Rituals [2]


“We fat ourselves for maggots: your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service, two dishes, but to one table: that’s the end.” Hamlet, Act IV, Scene III

In the previous post I tried to set out a distinction between death (which can remain beautiful – a frozen moment just beyond life) and decay (which is always grotesque – all beauty drain and consumed by maggots) and then examine how, in ecological terms, decay is healthy, while unrotting death fails to complete the cycle of life. It is only once decay sets in that a body can become useful again.

All ecosystems require the evolution of appropriate agents of decay to remain healthy. I finished by expressing a hunch that ritual can be seen as an agent of decay in our culture, and that currently it is lacking. There is plenty of death – plenty of redundancy and refuse – but little decay. The end result of this is a lot of dead material to trip us up, but fewer and fewer resources released back into the ground to fund newness.

I’ve been re-reading Hamlet recently, and re-reading Will in the World – How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare alongside it too. The section that deals with Hamlet describes the death of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet (occasionally corrupted as Hamlet in various public records). Reading into the events of the time, the funeral of the boy must have had added strain: Shakespeare’s family had definite Catholic leanings, and yet the ceremony in 1596 would have had to have been a strictly Protestant affair. As such, families such as Shakespeare’s may well have grieved the loss of the more colourful and rich Catholic ritual that expressed a far more open relationship with the dead.

“It is possible that he found the service, with its deliberate refusal to address the dead child as ‘thou’, its reduction of ritual, its narrowing of ceremony, its denial of any possibility of communication, painfully inadequate.”

The theatre of funeral was removed; the agent of decay reduced. Bodies were lowered, cold, into the ground, like coal. Unfit for transition. At the same time, the theatres in London were regularly shut by the Protestant moralisers. Early 17th century London was a society unsure of how to decompose the dead material that surrounded, and use it to regenerate.

It feels as if we are at a similar place today. With the economic crisis and accompanying political crises, as well as the crumbling of trust in the press with phone-hacking scandals and the Leveson inquiry, it seems as though there is a lot of ‘dead’ material around. What we can now see is that the problem is whether we can evolve appropriate agents of decay to help process this dead material and reformulate it.

The Occupy protest movement is perhaps part of this process. Right-wing observers like to portray those involved as dirty maggots and bottom-feeders anyway, but this should perhaps be taken as a compliment. They are crawling over the dead matter, trying to work out what can yet be reused, and how these rich resources can fund new directions.

It strikes me that this is precisely where the church ought to be basing itself. As a faith based on death and resurrection, Christianity’s natural habitat is decaying matter. This is what others fled from in disgust – the lepers, the sick – but what Jesus went straight towards, mixing mud and spit.

Locating oneself in this place of decay is going to be profoundly uncomfortable. There is something heroic about those who can preach death of faith: it is cold and hard, steel sharp and cutting. But the reason why the communities that Pete Rollins is talking about in Insurrection offer such a shocking vision is that they are not based around the death of faith, but around the putrid decay of faith – the decomposition of it into something more base, more akin to shit, to soil, to raw earth… where, as compost, it can feed newness.

This is perhaps the best description of Ikon: a putrid community. One that embraces not just death, but decay and decomposition.

There is a theological problem here though. The orthodox idea of Jesus’ physical resurrection is very keen to affirm that Jesus’ body did not see any decay. To evangelical belief the idea of Jesus’ bruised and broken dead body carries with it a mystique of martyrdom and heroism… but the idea of it entering a state of decay is totally taboo. And yet, there is a sense in which it was only by the decaying of this body that its riches could be released.

In 2 Corinthians 4:16, Paul says that

“though outwardly we are decaying, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day…”

Perhaps we need to see this not as a negative-positive construction, but as a positive-positive one. The outward decay is to be welcomed…is the very thing that funds the inner renewal.

Either way, what we must certainly do is ensure that the theatre of ritual remains… that agents of decay are encouraged and given space, and that we do not hold on to our dead too tightly. The old, embalmed Lenins we all keep must be allowed to warm and rot.



2 responses to “‘Now I Am Become Death…’ | Theology of Decay | Rituals [2]”

  1. I don’t know if this is a fair observation, but it seems to me that the appearance and activity of the Western evangelical church, especially American megachurches, is much like a mummified Lenin, with grand mausoleums to match.

  2. That’s a very good parallel. Neither western capitalism nor eastern bloc communism developed appropriate agents of decay. Lenin was preserved – but dead and useless – meaning that the USSR became frozen, with all agents of decay shot down.

    In a similar way, the material west just kept on replacing redundant things, piling the dead ones into huge scars of waste. Again, there was nothing to move things into decay. Things became frozen and stuck… and the churches are good examples of that.