The poetic, playful and prophetic musings of quintessential voices trying to keep up with life

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Zombie/Story: What The Walking Dead Continues to Teach Me About God

CAUTION: This article may contain spoilers.

Imagine waking up in a deserted hospital with bodies scattered throughout the halls and the streets outside. Imagine no communication, little resources and the animated shell of those you used to know.

Except that animated shell wants to bite your face off.

This is the reality Rick Grimes awoke to face in the first season of The Walking Dead, one of the hottest shows on TV right now. If you aren't familiar with the AMC series or the graphic novel from which the plot line came, you should be. Get acquainted with it. Because it's awesome.

I remember hearing about this show before it aired a couple years ago and feeling pretty ambivalent to it at the time. I wasn't really into the whole zombie scene... It only took me watching the first episode to get hooked.

Season 1 takes viewers through the beginning of the zombie apocalypse, set just outside of Atlanta. Rick, the main character, is trying to piece together what happened while he was in a coma after a gun shot wound in the line of duty (he's a cop). Unbeknownst to him, the zombies storm the hospital, but his fellow officer and friend, Shane, barricades the door to his room and Rick is spared from the onslaught of walkers. Rick eventually stumbles out of the hospital to see the horror and destruction of the zombie take-over and frantically tries to locate his wife Lori and son Carl. Rick eventually makes it to Atlanta where he runs into a horde of walkers and teams up with a bunch of essential characters to fight for survival...oh, and Rick finds his wife and kid. Happy day.

The first season really packed a punch, as it was only 6 episodes. We learn so much about the reality of the world in the wake of "Z-Day," but also not a whole lot about how the outbreak occurred and managed to travel so quickly. What we do know is that the virus spreads like meningitis and shuts down the body internally. The only physical signs, other than a bite from a zombie, are a fever and delirium (as we see with Joe, a member of the group who gets bit).

Oh, and apparently everyone is infected and will re-animate when they die unless you sever the brainstem.


So what does all this have to do with God?

Well, a lot.

Skipping ahead to Season 2 a bit, the group meets up with a conservative Christian man, Hershel, and his family on their farm. He is skeptical of Rick and his group, but over time begins to trust them (except for crazy Shane). Hershel and his family have been relatively isolated from the zombie attacks being out in the country and all, and have managed to be pretty self-sufficient. They have a well, crops, livestock. They're doing alright. Except for that part where they have walkers locked up in a barn.

Early on, Hershel believes the zombies can and will be cured...that the zombie-ness is just an infection, and it would be wrong to shoot them because they're still somehow human. It takes hundreds of zombies storming his farm after hearing a gun shot (they're drawn to noise) for Hershel to realize there is no curing these things. They are the walking dead.

...of course Carl is the one whose gun shot draws the walkers to the farm.
After leaving the farm, Hershel, having lost 1 of his 3 daughter in fleeing, talks with Rick about his faith in the midst of all the chaos. He says he was so certain God would eventually deliver them from this situation, but now, he's not so sure. "Christ promised the resurrection of the dead," he tells Rick. "I just thought he had something a little different in mind." His understanding of God's sovereignty is very particular in this situation, and it takes losing his farm and part of his family for him to realize that.

This is the moment the show took on a whole new significance for me.

The fact that zombie narratives exist I think says something about our image of God and our sense of agency in common conceptions of apocalyptic dramas. In the past year alone I've seen countless sidewalk preachers shouting 'repent or die!' "evangelism" because all the pre-millennialists have interpreted the signs of the Bible and "know" the world is gonna end. And let's not forget the whole Mayan calendar thing...

But there is something interesting about our fascination with the End, regardless of the way we think it will manifest itself. The fact that these movies, books, TV shows and ideologies have such a commanding power in our lives is due to our fear of not knowing what the future will bring and, more specifically, what the End will bring.

It appears that we have a psychological need to be in control of our circumstances to some much so that we create these fantastic images about what the future will be like. This isn't just in relation to the apocalypse either - look at Thomas Moore's Utopia, Lois Lowry's The Giver, 1984 or Animal Farm by George Orwell, Fahrenheit 451(Ray Bradbury), A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess), or even V for Vendetta (David Lloyd). All have plot lines that relate to a future world sprung out of our current circumstances. The problem with these [fictional] future realities is what I just mentioned: we have projected what they will be like in light of our current/past experiences. They make for a really good lesson in high school English classes, but what are they communicating about our human desire to know something about the future? Whether or not history will actually play out how we've imagined it, we want to know what it will be like. We want certainty so we can master our sense of time and self in preparation for...whatever it is that will come.

This is no different when we throw God into the equation.

The Bible houses a wealth of apocalyptic imagery and illusions that speak to Christ's return. Whether or not you take these parts of Scripture seriously (and literally), others have...and those interpretations have colored much of pop culture's understanding of the apocalypse. Literalist readings of the Book of Revelation, Daniel and the 13th chapter of the Gospel of Mark (to name a few) have pointed to the "clues" and codes of Scripture as a signifier to the End of Days...

But how much hope do these [literalist] visions of the End actually bring us? Is the parable of the fig tree in Mark 13:28-31 really a cosmic sign that Christ will return...and soon? What does the biblical apocalypse mean for faithful Christians? And, as Hershel implies in his conversation with Rick in Season 2, where is God in the zombie apocalypse? Are we simply supposed to be the victims of our own circumstances and only wonder if redemption will ever come? Hershel certainly thought so. He believed in the promise of the End, but a specific vision of that End. And when God did not appear as expected, it was a cause for doubt... Are we then supposed to abandon faith? Arguing that God did somehow appear in the zombie outbreak also further complicates this image... So what do we do about that?

If you were looking for answers, I'm sorry, but I don't have them yet (or any to the questions below for that matter). But this problem is exactly why I've become so fascinated and engaged in the discussion of apocalypticism, and specifically, the zombie-oriented part of that field.

I want to pose some questions that I've been considering for awhile now, which at the moment are steering me to consider them in further theological academic research (i.e. I sorta wanna write my dissertation on this should I pursue a Ph.D. Seriously.):

  • Whether it's a feasible reality or not, what does the zombie apocalypse say about God as a triune reality in creation? Were the deists right - is God a "clock maker" that is totally removed from these events?
  • Is any part of a zombie human? (Think about that movie Warm Bodies that just came out...)
  • If zombies are somehow still partially human, do we kill them? Does that jeopardize their or our understanding of salvation, bodily or spiritually?
  • What do zombies say about the nature of incarnated evil? Or about the incarnation [of Christ] in general?
  • What is our anthropology if humans can re-animate into flesh-eating zombies?
  • If humanity survives the zombie apocalypse, will having faith in a God even matter?
  • Is the fact a zombie outbreak even happened a result of sin? Does this redefine what sin is?
Whether or not you think a zombie outbreak will actually happen, the narratives of such events are discussing something theological. I'm not quite sure what is all being said, but I want to get in on the conversation. I think there is something in The Walking Dead and other zombie tales that points to parts of our humanity and the narrative of God that needs to be exposed. So as I begin to sort some of these things out, I encourage you, readers, to do the same.

What do you think about God AND zombies? Do you buy into any of the things I've just said? Do you have thoughts on the questions posed here? Do you have other questions floating around that you'd like to share?

Until next time,
Erin G.


  1. This raises the question: Was Jesus the first Zombie?

    1. We could count Lazarus as the first? He was very dead.


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