WHAT’S WITH ALL THE ZOMBIES?
A Christian Interpretation of Zombie Culture
Zombies are everywhere! They are ubiquitously found in books, movies, comics, video games, TV shows and on the streets (zombie walks). What’s with all the zombies? What is the significance and meaning of zombies in our culture? Zombies are saying something to us about us—but what?
In my pride and prejudice (something no scholar should have!), in my ignorance, my initial critical assessment was (watching my son play Call of Duty Zombies): “I don’t know if the zombies are on the screen or behind the controls”. Or as one of my son’s online friends put it: “Every game has #@$%*@#* zombies in it—whoopty doo”! That, of course, expresses a doubt that there is much original or interesting or even good art to be found in zombie culture. Like my son’s friend (my son is naturally like this too): I am resistant to any popular trends and treat them with the utmost suspicion and scepticism—something all good scholars should do.
But even Timothy Madigan, in an editorial for Philosophy Now, had to begrudgingly concede the centrality and significance of the “Zombie Invasion of Philosophy”. Indeed Zombies are a complex reflection of who we are as individuals and culture—which raises very serious issues and questions. Zombie culture is telling us that life is a great big profound mystery—larger than any one of us as an individual. Actually, I think that zombies are a much more intelligent, deep, sophisticated and multi-layered metaphor for many of the struggles we are encountering on both an individual and societal level—even eclipsing Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein (and that’s good art!).
Irony is intrinsic to zombies: We can either be a victim of them or critically enlightened by what they are saying. So for example: If we are not thinking about what zombies are saying, we ironically end up a zombie with thoughtless, ceaseless and meaningless activity. This ceaseless activity also has the effect of desensitizing and numbing us eg to violence or purchasing. If we critically engage zombies as scholars, we will be blown away by the depth of questions and issues they raise. There are so many examples that I could explore in this article—but I will limit to a few.
My recent journey to zombie enlightenment began by watching my 16 year old son playing Call of Duty Zombies. Given that he is a lot more intelligent than me, I should have known that he knew something I didn’t. Then I heard a voice while driving in the vehicle with my son: A divine voice ironically infused in the death metal of COD Zombies—the voice of Elena Siegman. This in turn led me to the musical genius and mastermind of the COD Zombies music: Kevin Sherwood—who will be our keynote speaker at the Canadian Centre for Scholarship and the Christian Faith 2015 conference on Religion and Pop Culture.
As already noted: Zombie culture is intrinsically ironic eg they are the “living dead”. Sherwood masterfully conveys this irony and the anxiety of our existential angst by employing the Doctrine of Ethos in his music. The Doctrine of Ethos is a Greek philosophical concept that says that the music must “embody the idea or theme it is trying to convey and produce an effect on the listener”. This can be heard in the COD Zombie Canon—music composed for Call of Duty Zombies. Irony can be heard in Sherwood’s employment of Elena’s angelic voice emanating out of the genre of death metal and the anxiety of our existential angst in the “haunting effect” that won’t leave the listener alone. I am haunted by this music and its ideas as I listen to it on the way to work—and it haunts me all day long—and has done so for over a year now . . . .
Based on the Creation Theology of Genesis 1, I see theological analogies with Sherwood’s COD Zombie Canon—and its all good! Taking matter that God has already created (Genesis 1.1-2), Sherwood brings order (by the structure of his music) out of chaos (the zombie apocalypse). He brings beauty out of ugliness through his music and Elena’s voice eg the “Beauty of Annihilation”. Sherwood brings good (art) out of the evil of zombies. This is an example of how critical analysis enlightens us to profound ideas and beautiful art (including the graphic design of COD Zombies)—if we are, as scholars, open to learning.
Another prime example that explores the complexity of zombies is AMC’s The Walking Dead and Talking Dead. Talking Dead is a weekly debriefing of the episodes of The Walking Dead by guests from all walks of life. As an educator, I said to my wife and son last weekend that what excites me most about Talking Dead is the fact that The Walking Dead generates so much thinking, analysis and dialogue from all kinds of non-scholarly people in our culture. It means that people are thinking and talking about the big questions and issues! They are not becoming the ironic victims of zombies and watching “mindless” entertainment! They get it!
Marilyn Manson, in a recent TD, said that The Walking Dead is not about zombies: Its about “morality”. While I am sure that he would not agree with my take on it, we are a morally conflicted society who intuitively know that our views on morality are not working very well for us. Rick struggles with this very issue personally and as a leader. As a pastor, I see this moral confliction every week as students come for pastoral care—often related to the breakdown of the family and or romantic relationships—something for which I have nothing but compassion.
Adam Savage from Myth Busters made the point in TD that the prison in season 4, which has kept Rick’s community safe and secure for a while now, is actually a metaphor for us in society. As the prison walls teeter from the outside (representing external threat), a virus is killing survivors from the inside (representing internal threat). Savage comments that this really reflects our delusion: We think that we live in a stable society with a stable government. But intuitively we all know that governments can collapse (as reflected in the recent shut down of the US government) and put us into chaos. That is what the apocalypse represents: The breakdown of order into chaos—the reversal of Genesis 1 and the effect of Genesis 3 as ultimately reflected in the Book of Revelation. Even if we do live in the security of the prison, individually we can die from infection. The prison metaphor really represents the bondage that we are all in regardless of where we are: We are all trapped by circumstances whether we admit it or not. No one is safe nowhere at no time: Death is a clear and present danger for us all—and that’s what zombies represent. Moreover, zombies question whether we’re really free at all (individualism) or are we all the victims of circumstance (determinism)?
Christianity is represented in The Walking Dead throughout. We see theological questions raised about theodicy (“justice of God”), faith, hope, destiny and purpose. Hershel is a Christian man—with wisdom, grace, compassion, guts and practicality. In season 2, Hershel asks Rick if he believes. Rick answers that the last time he prayed to God about his son, he walked out of the church to the sound of a hunter accidently shooting his son and nearly killing him. Many of us have struggled with the unfairness, evil and hurt that life in the world can bring us. Rick and his confliction and lostness (is he a farmer or a cop?) represents this acutely in TWD.
In the episode Internment, Hershel raises the leitmotif of destiny, purpose (reason) and meaning with Rick. He tells Rick that no matter how bad the chaos, destruction and death, there has to be a reason for it, a higher purpose (meaning)—and that we need to persevere. Zombies represent the relentless pursuit of evil leading to death. Or as Sherwood puts it in his song Beauty of Annihilation: “They’re all around me. They’re waiting for me . . . . Descending. Unrelenting”. Perseverance is another theme in zombie culture—as reflected in Sherwood’s song Abracadavre: “I can’t give in. I won’t give in”. Hershel says that, no matter what, we must go on in life and hope for a better afterlife.
Indeed, meaning is yet another idea that The Walking Dead raises. So what if we survive the apocalypse, is there any meaning to living like this—killing, stealing and scavenging just to survive? Many people ask this of their 9-5 job. Are we any better than the zombies? Or do zombies actually have it better by not being conscious nor feeling any pain? These are questions that The Zombie Invasion of Philosophy in Philosophy Now asks. Sherwood asks in one of his songs “Where Are We Going [in life]?” . . . .
Hershel also represents hope and faith in The Walking Dead as noted in the Talking Dead. In Internment, we see Heshel’s courage and strength as he treats the viral patients and watches them die and change into zombies. Darrell comments that Hershel is a “tough sombitch”—to which Hershel replies with wise confidence “I am”. Hershel has a deep love and compassion. He hates death and killing because he is a life-affirming believer and “healer”. In season 2, he held out hope for a cure to the zombie virus in relation to his loved ones in the barn. Nonetheless, as he sits on his prison bed, after a long shift of rounds, he opens his Bible to read it—but breaks down and can’t.
Savage in TD wonders if Hershel is losing his faith and if the zombie apocalypse has finally worn him down. Being a scholar of biblical wisdom, I don’t see it that way. I see parallels with Job—a man who is in an acute faith crisis because of all the chaos and suffering life has thrown at him. Yet he never gives up on God and what he believes. He doubts, questions and rails on God but he perseveres. Job and Hershel are not in denial about the chaos, suffering and death they are experiencing in the real world. Hershel and Job are realists who are intelligent enough to understand the issues—but brave enough to keep on going. I view Job as a “tough sombitch”.
I also understand the problems that people and our society have with Christianity. But I am unwilling to surrender to the darkness that I view has only partial truth and is ultimately a “dead end”. Intuitively zombie culture knows that there’s got to be something more to life in the material world—and that there has to be some kind of “after life”. Or as Sherwood puts it in his song Where Are We Going?: “Where do we go [after life]?” I think that there is a clearer and better explanation for reality that is not limited by the material world but is found in metaphysics—and specifically the Christian Faith.
As a Christian interpreter of zombie culture, I see zombies as a reflection of our deep internal struggles with the big questions and issues of life and death. To quote Sherwood again: “How do we know?” This question inherently raises issues about epistemology: How much we can know and how do we know what we know? . . . .
Essentially I think that zombies are an intuitive reflection of the Fall in Genesis 3—divinely revealed in Scripture (how we know)—but existentially (theologically) experienced by all human beings (reality). What zombies are really all about is Original Sin that brought chaos and death into the world. Zombies reflect our sinfulness and the ugliness from within (low self-esteem based on moral wrongs) and without (chaos, death and destruction in the world). They represent a “living hell” of our own making. Zombies reflect our obsession with death and deepest anxieties and doubts about where we go after we die. The Book of Revelation calls this the “Second Death” or the “living dead”. Unlike Revelation, there is no Gospel of Zombies—just death, destruction and meaninglessness. Zombies are a “dead end”. But the Book of Revelation promises a “new heaven and a new earth” with a resurrected body and eternal purpose.
My bottomline analysis is that zombies are really all about our intuitive need for a Savior and eternal life. We are in a living hell of our own making—and we can’t kill, steal, scavenge or think ourselves out of it—and we know it! We have an intuitive knowledge of this truth vis-à-vis the Fall of Genesis 3—and that is why we are so anxious and hopeless in a dark and ugly world represented by the prevalence of zombie culture.
The anxiety of who we really are, and how we are a part of the problem (including our denial), is reflected in Sherwood’s song Always Running: “I’m running from the something that I’m coming from . . . . and becoming one means I’m running from all I am”. In my view, the something that we are always running from is Original Sin.
The church, while historically very flawed, is really the community that people are looking for—not the prison of our own making in The Walking Dead. It is the only real community who together will survive the apocalypse eternally. Because even if we survive the apocalypse in the material world—we all have to die—and then what? The church is “living living” that transcends our historical and sinful nature by faith—full of meaning and purpose in this world—who will rise again from the dead to the resurrection of eternal life.
This we see in Hershel in The Walking Dead. Hershel dies in the most violent way with a smile on his face and peace in his heart—knowing that he had lived a meaningful and purposeful life with full assurance of the resurrection unto eternal life. He lived and died this way all because of his Christian Faith based on the atoning death and resurrection of Christ.
Jesus created us and wants to redeem us. Jesus, like Hershel, died in the most violent way in the context of the evil of religious, cultural and political chaos. The ugly irony of the cross brings sense out of senselessness, purpose out of evil, clarity out of confusion, order out of chaos, beauty out of annihilation, atonement for sin, and life out of death. Jesus said that “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”. Jesus is the Answer people are really looking for as reflected in the questions and issues of zombie culture.