Through 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: