Of Zombies and Resurrections

walking deadThrough the history of humanity the pagans have always counterfeited the truth, whether it was ancient creation stories that mimicked aspects of the biblical story, or Gnostics counterfeiting Christianity, or the Qur’an’s tedious one-upmanship.

The latest counterfeit is the zombie craze. In case you’ve been saving brain cells for something more intelligent and you’ve missed this phenomenon, there is a popular television show that features zombies, dead humans who nevertheless walk and who seek to eat living humans. According to the Oxford American Dictionary a “Zombie” is a “corpse said to be revived by witchcraft, esp. in certain African and Caribbean religions.” This isn’t just a matter of pop culture. There is a apparently a thriving industry of academic writing connected with zombies. In what seems to be something “possible worlds” speculation, there are essays in philosophical journals discussing the hypothetical possibility of zombies and what that possibility does or does not entail. You know it’s serious when there is an entry for zombies make the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

The roots of the current fascination with zombies is essentially pagan (Hatian). There is another potential source, however, of the current interest in zombies, one of which I was ignorant until about 10 years ago. The influx of Mexican immigrants into the United States has brought with it aspects of popular Romanist piety including Dia de los muertos. It’s a major holiday in San Diego County. It’s a national holiday in Mexico, where it has been synthesized with All Saints Day and All Souls Day. The iconography alone is sufficient to show the similarities to the zombie fad.

To be sure, interest is not entirely new. There were zombie movies in decades past. The genre was well-enough established that Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis did their own zombie movie in 1953. The interest now, however, seems to have a different quality and that is because the context of the fad is different. In 1953 horror movies were entertainment, a diversion, something understood to be so far out of accord with reality as not to be credible. Horror films required the suspension of disbelief. Flash forward to 2013, to a culture in which most people are completely ignorant of even the most basic facts of Christianity and inject into that culture a more realistic, dolby 5.whatever surround sound experience of zombies and now we’re not escaping but providing an alternate, apocalyptic eschatology for neo-pagans.

One reason why there are more zombies about today is the evolution of post-Christian paganism. In a world dominated by the Christian account of creation, redemption, and the future, there is no place for zombies. A post-Christian culture is ripe for zombies and we got there in stages. For most non-Christians, in the Enlightenment(s), prior to the advent of late-modern hyper-subjectivism, the world was essentially closed. For materialists such as Auguste Comte (1978–1857) the world is closed. He proposed a religion without God or the supernatural. He had a three-stage explanation of world history (as did Bernard of Clairvaux and Joachim of Fiore) the last stage of which was post-Christian, closed, materialist. For rationalists (e.g., Kant), the world is limited to what can be comprehended intellectually. Note that I wrote comprehended. For Kant, God was nothing but a limiting category, a useful notion but empty of any particular (and especially) redemptive, actual, historical truth.

Simultaneous with the dominance of the Enlightenment account of the world, the remnants of a generally, if vaguely Christian view of the world persisted well into the modern period and modernists and Christians co-existed in the early 20th century. Nevertheless, Modernism took a devastating toll on the mainline churches and before long they were evacuated on any distinctively Christian account of the nature of things.

When, in the second half of the 20th century, the materialism and rationalism were found stifling, the culture lurched (pun intended) into radical subjectivism, as it was bound to do. The subject of the verb (I) didn’t changed between modernity and late-modernity but the expression of autonomy did. Sometime in the mid-1980s, the notion of objectivity was declared DOA or, at best quaint, and we slid into the jello-y netherworld of “your truth” and “my truth.” Of course it’s all nonsense and rubbish. No one actually lives like this but if a million public and pietist evangelical school teachers say the same thing, in roughly the same way, at the same time it does tend to affect the plausibility structures in which students come to view and interpret reality.

All that to say, in our current soup, the attitude seems to be: who’s to say that there aren’t zombies? The apparently seriousness that underlies the popular and light-hearted fascination of the walking dead reveals something about a deep inner desire of the human heart: life after death. Sadly, after Kant and Comte, the best we can imagine is Zombies.

This means that, when we talk to pagans about the reality of the resurrection their frame of reference is more likely to be zombies than the Exodus or Easter. We need to explain, especially to those under 30, that zombies are not actually real and that Jesus, when he was raised from the dead, was not a zombie. Indeed, it may be useful to point out that there were others raised from the dead at the moment of Jesus’ death and that Jesus himself raised Lazarus and that none of them were zombies.

Perhaps the biggest thing to take away from the problem of zombies is that it symbolizes a greater problem and opportunity. When we talk about the faith with others, we’re no longer talking to folk (especially under 30) who have any significant awareness of Scripture, redemptive history, church history, or Christian concepts and vocabulary. We need to explain ourselves and we need to pray. We shouldn’t assume that people understand, particularly people under 30. There’s a strong likelihood that what we’re saying to them is new, unfamiliar, and even unpleasant. This is an opportunity, however, because there is a smaller probability than ever before in American history of cultural Christianity.

In some ways, perhaps, zombies aren’t a terrible illustration of the effects of sin. People do sometimes go about like zombies, don’t they? They are dead but they are mobile. They are captive to appetites. We go about like zombies in other ways. Has any people been more medicated than this one? We’re a televised culture. People get a glazed appearance as they stare at their phones while they stumble through Best Buy. A zombie may be a hyperbolic analogy but it’s not worse than than the image used in Ezekiel 37, “Can these bones live?” Indeed, they can. You do not know whence or whither the Holy Spirit (John 3) but he does sweep over valley, as it were, and make them alive.

Jesus has the power of an indestructible life (Heb 7:16) and by his powerful Gospel Word (Heidelberg Catechism 65; Rom 10) the Spirit raises the spiritually dead to life, grants faith, and through faith, union with Christ (WSC 33). At the last day we shall be raised (1Cor 15), not zombies but to be renewed and glorified in the image of the Firstborn from the dead (Col 1:18).

I discussed this post with Bill Feltner on Pilgrim Radio:

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  1. RSC: “For materialists such as Auguste Comte (1978–1857) the world is closed. He proposed a religion without God or the supernatural. He had a three-stage explanation of world history (as did Bernard of Clairvaux and Joachim of Fiore) the last stage of which was post-Christian, closed, materialist.”

    You’re saying that Bernard of Clairvaux’s last stage of world history was post-Christian, closed, materialist? I associate him with “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”, so I went ad fontes (which for us philistines is wikipedia) and found that OSHNW is now attributed to Arnulf of Louvain. But from the “fontes” I learned that B of C was involved with Maryology and settling papal claims.

    To change the topic completely, I went to a wedding in 2010 on the campus of a Seven Sisters college where at the reception was a groom’s cake with black icing, called a “Zombie Cake”.

    • Hi Bob,

      No, I was only saying that the threefold division of history is not unusual. Comte did not invent that scheme. Typically, however, the scheme is self-serving since since the last stage is typically the stage the writer is in or just ahead of the writer as in the case of Joachim of Fiore.

      Did the cake get up and move?

  2. Thanks for the insight, Dr. Clark, but my local Foursquare (Sister Aimee!) beat you to the punch and is in the middle of their Zombie sermon series:


    [In case this link doesn’t work, you can go to their other url, notyourmomschurch.com]

    Us Reformed folks always seem to be late to the party…

  3. Don’t sell yourself too short Dr. Clark. For a Reformed guy, I think you’re pretty hip. I’ve seen you on your neon scooter. If that doesn’t scream “Hip” I don’t know what does.

  4. And in a freak stroke of providence, FEMA personnel in Moscow, Idaho, just received training on how to respond to mass casualties caused by zombies and UFOs (source). I personally can’t think of any credible reason why a government agency could possibly believe the citizens of Moscow would need to prepare for such a bizarre event, unless, of course, they associate ground zero for the Federal Vision with walking corpses — albeit baptized walking corpses (objectively speaking). And if this is the case, then let’s hope some ambitious documentarian recorded the exercise — to be sure, he could call his film Night of the Living Doug.

  5. Allow me to speak in defense of Zombies.
    Zombies are a useful fictional construct for exploring a couple issues:

    (1) Plague. Zombies are basically exaggerated pictures of some of the worst sicknesses that can befall us. Combine rabies and ebola, and you have something like a Zombie. Contra the notion that technological progress will always continue to make life better and better, Zombies confront us with a more accurate biological reality: tucked away in little corners of the world live some pretty nasty, drug-resistant viruses. It is entirely conceivable that a large proportion of the world’s population could be wiped out by a pandemic within our lifetime. Zombies could be used open a dialogue about the truth of our mortality in this regard.

    (2) Total Depravity. What better picture of our death in trespasses and sins than Zombies? Indeed, “Walking Dead” has explored this theme rather eloquently. Ultimately, even the survivors are zombies on the inside, capable of wanton disregard for human life in their pursuit of their passions. Of course, “Walking Dead” has no inkling of the answer to this problem, which we receive in Christ’s resurrection. But it could provide an interesting apologetic point of contact.

    I guess what I am saying is don’t write of the Zombies to quickly… with a little imagination, I think they could be put to sanctified use.

  6. @Chunk: That is totally hilarious!

    @RSC: this reminds me of a recent WHI (I think) where Horton interviewed a female author who had written a book about vampires in culture, including how that myth is also a corruption of the concept of resurrection.

    So we’ve passed through our dracula obsession (I hope!), we’re currently on zombies (I prefer), what’s next, mummies? Maybe we can get a phase of Frankenstein(‘s monsters), and corrupt the Creation story instead.

  7. You’ve touched on something here, but I think you are more pessimistic than I am. It is important to understand that the popularity of zombies is the symptom, not the problem. Zombies are so popular because they resonate with our cultural fears. We (North Americans) are attracted to zombie movies because they represent the deepest fears of our culture. As Christians, I think we should strive to understand what lies behind the popularity of these monsters so we can be more effective conveyors of the light that will keep these abominations in the grave where they belong. This is not easy, but there are resources–one of them is cureforzombies.com. It’s for a Christian understanding of zombies, without being preachy–call it a pre-apologetic. I think zombies ask some tough questions about ourselves–the answers to which lead to Christ–if someone is informed enough to point the way. Thanks for the post.

  8. As with “The Walking Dead” series and movies “Crazies” and “World War Z” a virus or chemical has effected the once living. My own theory is that since it is scientifically believed that humans only use ten percent of hour brains own our best days that a virus could render us effectually brain dead while keeping the nervous system active like an automaton. As scientists continue to tamper with creation new meaning to “our own worst enemy” may become reality sooner than later.

    There’s something about adding zombies to an apocrypha event as if the event itself is not bad enough. Writers add zombies to deal with during disasters. We can recognize from actual events like Katrina, Super Storm Sandy, as with earthquakes, fires etc that the worst of mankind comes out in looting, assaults, extortion etc., etc., all despite the disaster that has just occurred. Current TV series illustrate man’s self destruction as with “The Walking Dead” and “Revolution” which shows man turning on man with an overlaying menace that the survivors have to deal with each day.

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