Zombie theology: thinking about The Walking Dead

ImageI’m far from being the first person to note that the US TV drama “The Walking Dead” is theologically very interesting. It’s natural for Christian theologians to focus on its fascination with the difficulty of believing that the re-animated dead aren’t the people they were before and with its continuous desire to blur the boundary between the living and the living dead.

For those who aren’t familiar with the programme it’s a high-concept and brilliantly done variation on the “zombie apocalypse” genre. It shares a good deal with this well established formula. The world is overrun by the animated corpses of dead people who have become mindless zombies driven by a manic desire to eat the few remaining living people.

The story centres on a small group of survivors who struggle to find a secure place to live and supplies to live on in a landscape full of remorseless killers who are both slow and stupid but so numerous and oblivious to pain and danger that the represent a constant background threat.

In addition the survivors have to contend with the danger represented by other survivors who in many cases are utterly ruthless and totally indifferent to the well-being of anybody but themselves.

A recurrent theme is the way some characters refuse to believe that those who have died and returned are no longer the people they once were. This refusal occurs both among the best and the worst of the characters we meet. In addition some people are at dangerous and violent as the zombies, not to be trusted or to be ignored. They act against all others as a matter of principle and have to be eliminated just as surely as do the “walkers” (the show absolutely refuses to use the word “zombie”, the thing most surprising about its fictional world is that it appears never to have had any zombies in its culture).

I’m not sure, though, that its working along the boundaries of life, death and resurrection is the most interesting thing about it, theologically (although this is pretty interesting). I’m inclined to see its take on the nature of community and the relation of community to life and death as more fascinating because less self-conscious and therefore less in control.

By season 3 (which I am currently half way through) we have been offered a variety of models for how survivors might organise themselves and define themselves against or in their surroundings. These have been urban, rural and semi-urban. They have been nomadic and settled. They have been democratic and authoritarian, familial and military, closed and open. Some have been aggressive and expansionist, others inward looking and enclosed. They have reached back into the past and looked hopefully towards the future. In every case they have been surrounded by threats and subject to the fear of the dead.

What they all have in common is that they know themselves displaced from a past in which being human made sense and was a norm against which other things could be measured into a present in which being human is an achievement in itself the nature of which is open to question. There is a constant sense that quite apart from the literal death that leads to transformation into a zombue there is the danger of a moral sense that would strip the living of what distinguishes them from the reanimate.

The resistance to both depends on strong and deep connection to others. Some of the most memorable scenes in the series, for me, are those in which the central group act as a team to perform difficult and dangerous actions on which their future depends. These tightly choreographed action sequences are astonishing and thrilling to watch, as the characters wheel and fight, switch places and support one another like a top sporting or dance team.

At other moments a point of crisis is reached in which someone, sometimes someone unexpected but always someone who makes sense in terms of narrative or character development, steps in to resolve some problem that has seemed impossible. The ways in which the central group depend on one another and complement one another is a key theme in the show’s development.

Balancing this is a willingness to keep killing off characters one has come to know. This is vital in reminding us both of the fragility of the project of survival and of the transcendence by the group of the individuals who make it up.

I may be finding all this so fascinating because the nature of the Church, of Christianity, as a community is currently preoccupying me as I settle properly in to my role as spiritual leader of two worshiping communities (whatever a minister is he or she is surely that).

One way of seeing Christians, risen to new life through their connection to Christ, is as the fully alive in a world of those only partly so. This may well, it seems to me, to be related to the fascination of the zombie genre. The question of who is alive and who is not can seem straightforward, if we confine our horizon to physical or biological life, but actually we all really know that that’s not enough. The various religious accounts of after life or its equivalent point to that, as does the popular-cultural fascination with the “undead”.

We also know that life, in the more demanding sense, is a matter of relationship and community. A show like The Walking Dead brilliantly explores this in ways that touch themes that more traditional Christian language fails to make urgent for many people.

The theological task of “reading” phenomena like this, which speak about the same things as we do but more effectively but, I would suggest, less completely and less truthfully than we do, is to understand what they tell us about who we are and what we think so that we can open ourselves more completely to the transformation of ourselves that is our re-birth in the Spirit (to use traditional language).

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