The Christian Art of Dying: Learning from Jesus by Allen Verhey
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011
The most recent statistics reveal that apart from Enoch and Elijah, the death rate among human beings is 100 percent. People are dying. My mother died three years ago. My best friend died two years ago. And my mother-in-law died this past summer. Having turned sixty-six this year I realize that I am on the short end of my own lifetime. This is why Allen Verhey’s book, The Christian Art of Dying: Learning from Jesus, caught my attention. I don’t know whether I’ll live for another five, ten or fifteen years. But death is on the horizon and I want to be prepared for life’s culminating event. I want to be prepared to die in faith . . . to die well . . . to die as a Christian.
The author of this excellent book, Allen Verhey, is a professor of ethics at Duke University. His other writings include Reading the Bible in the Strange World of Medicine, Nature and Altering It, and Remembering Jesus: Christian Community, Scripture, and Moral Life. He is a scholar with a keen eye for the practical application of biblical truth. His reflections on the art of dying as a Christian arose out of his own experience with cancer. And his book will help Christians develop a theology of dying.
Part one of The Christian Art of Dying addresses the issue of “medicalized dying.” Verhey points out that medical doctors are trained to keep people alive, not to help them die. There is an attempt in the medical profession to “tame death” by keeping people alive through what would otherwise be a terminal illness. This is usually done in hospitals which tend to separate patients from their families and church communities. But death eventually triumphs and people die in ICU units with ventilators and an array of tubes. Death is viewed as a defeat. “We did our best, but were unable to save your loved one.”
Verhey discusses the hospice movement and believes that this serves as a helpful correction to medicalized dying. He points out that the hospice movement accepts the fact of dying and does much to ease the suffering of the dying. But even this movement tends to entrust dying to professionals rather than the family and faith community of the dying.
In Part Two of The Christian Art of Dying, Verhey comments and reflects on a 15th century book (Ars Moriendi) written to help Christians through their experience of dying. He argues against the idea that Christians should welcome death as a friend. Death is an enemy that Jesus came to defeat. Death is not to be embraced or commended. It is the tragic results of sin and will one day be defeated. This section is helpful as Verhey considers five temptations that the dying face and the virtues that will help them deal with temptations such as losing faith and succumbing to despair.
Part Three addresses the subject of “Faith and Faithfulness in the Face of Death.” Here Verhey develops a theology of resurrection and the implications for those facing death. He points out that life is good, but not the greatest good. The death of Jesus is presented as an example and model for Christians as they face their own demise. His discussion of the “virtues for dying well” (faith, hope, patience, humility, serenity and courage) is very practical.
Part Four concludes the book with a discussion of “The Practices of Christian Community” and “Caring Well for the Dying.” He writes about the importance of mourning, comforting, funerals and such practical matters as advanced directives. He completes his treatise with reflections on the significance of “last words.”
I have read Verhey’s book several times now and will read it again. The insights offered were particularly helpful as my wife and I shared in caring for my dying mother-in-law in her last weeks and made the arrangements for her burial and memorial. We grieved her death, honored her in burial, and celebrated at her memorial knowing that death doesn’t have the last word for those who die as Christians. As Paul says, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:56-57).