Review: Speaking of Dying

January 7th, 2013

In a Protestant church that has outsourced its role in the dying process to the secular medical world, authors Fred Craddock, Dale Goldsmith, and Joy V. Goldsmith seek to reclaim the role of Christianity in and restart the conversation about dying.

The seeds for Speaking of Dying: Recovering the Church’s Voice in the Face of Death were planted a decade ago, when Rev. Janet Forts Goldsmith, a friend and family member to the authors, died while pastoring a congregation. The silence, denial, and otherwise mishandling of her final months sparked questions about dying in the context of Christian community and what a “good dying” might look like for modern American Christians.

After Stanley Hauerwas’ foreword, the authors detail their research into other pastors who died while on the job—not because these were typical circumstances, but because they illustrated so well the dynamics of dying in a typical American congregational setting. They found that in the vast majority of cases, denial and isolation reigned. Congregations missed an opportunity for ministry with their pastors, who in turn often left churches in difficult circumstances because of their refusal to address the reality of their dying.

The cases of the dying pastors are extreme examples of the problems associated with the end of life in our modern cultural context. We have developed elaborate and often unspoken strategies for coping with dying. All of which is made worse, the authors assert, by our unreasonable faith in medical technology and our narrative of American individualism.

What then should be the church’s approach to dying in our day and age? First and foremost, to orient ourselves in the story of Jesus Christ. From birth to our last breath, we are part of God’s creation, enjoying the splendid but inherently temporary gift of life. We have a sacramental existence, given life by baptism and sustained by Eucharist. Just as we live enfolded in God, so do we die enfolded in God.

Lofty rhetoric, however, is not enough to sustain a holistically Christian way of dying. And so the authors suggest specific ways in which we might address the task, including theological examination of Jesus as the Word and the ways in which that understanding helps our conversation. They also offer their own ars moriendi (“art of death”), a kind of how-to manual for dying that examines the deaths of ten Christians across history whose approach contrasted greatly with those of the ten dying pastors from Chapter 1.

In the final chapter, Speaking of Dying addresses the community of faith with some concrete suggestions for rediscovering a Christian way of approaching death. They use the acronym TABLE (talk, awareness, body of Christ, listening deeply, Eucharist) to make a better way of dying actionable for the entire Christian community.

Each chapter ends with a set of pointed discussion questions designed to help Christians break their silence on dying. While the subject matter may make conversation understandably difficult, the questions provide firm guidance for Sunday school classes or small groups seeking a substantial and applicable resource for study.

Speaking of Dying begins with a negative critique of both the American Protestant church and the culture in which we are embedded. As the book progresses, however, a clear and hopeful narrative comes into view—one in which life begins, continues, and finally ends in the context of sacrament. Craddock, Goldsmith, and Goldsmith turn personal experience and careful research into an eminently readable book on a vitally important subject.


Read an excerpt from this book on Ministry Matters.

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