(written on Good Friday 2015)
I will end my Holy Week preaching on Jesus rising from the dead, but I began my Holy Week with a whole lot of dead people coming to life--or at least a sort of life if you call being a human flesh-eating zombie living. I along with over 15 million other people tuned in to the TV show The Walking Dead last Sunday night. It turns out there might be a good reason I as a religious person am attracted to a show about zombies--in addition to being attracted to it because it's a really good (if gory) show.
Scholar Jess Peacock on the great site Religion Dispatches wrote a piece this week about the similarities between the final days of Holy Week and scenes from horror movies. He writes:
"In their overturning of our understanding of the world, these classic tropes of horror are what I would call theological terrors. They challenge the sacred order by introducing existential chaos. . . Within the Bible, the natural order is routinely shattered, never more famously than during the Easter narrative.
While Jesus hinted at a reversal of the natural order when he reanimated Lazarus, it is the Easter narrative where Scripture downshifts into full horror-movie mode. . .
The natural, sacred, and accepted orders are turned on their collective heads throughout the final days of Holy Week when, after Jesus breathes his last, the light of day ominously and unnaturally transforms into darkness followed by a rock-splitting earthquake, frightening and supernatural imagery echoed in countless apocalyptic horror narratives in contemporary entertainment. . .
Following this, the gospel of Matthew, predating the zombie craze in popular culture by several thousand years, reads, "The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many." While we don't know whether these revived corpses were muttering "brains" or "shalom," it's safe to say that the sudden reappearance of the dead amid unnatural darkness is, read literally, nothing short of a terrifying turn of events."It's true, the Gospels, especially Matthew's Gospel, have a mashup of images that would fit nicely into disaster films and horror movies. Given that all the tropes are there for a big Hollywood blockbuster, why is it that all the Hollywood depictions of Jesus look like my second grader's art class did the special effects? The stone rolling away from Jesus' tomb in every Jesus movie I've seen looks like a paper mache leftover from a third rate caveman movie! (In my book, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ doesn't count. To me, his movie was less a horror movie and more of a snuff film.)
Whether Hollywood ever plays up the horror of Holy Week or not, the prevalence of zombies, demons, vampires and other scary creatures in our culture reveals something deep that people are looking for. Peacock goes on to make a significant point re: the place of horror movies, zombie TV shows and comics, novels about vampires, etc. He says:
"While I offer some of these reflections in an ironic spirit, I do think it's important to acknowledge that religion and the horror genre are dueling narratives revolving around the unknown, of what lies beyond human reason and understanding. I would argue that one of the reasons The Walking Dead consistently draws tremendous ratings is that horror entertainment has emerged as another form of religious language. In some sense, due to the need for palatable religious ritual, the ghastly elements of scripture have been buried, only to arise in the sinister form of vampires, zombies, and malevolent elder gods, symbols that enable us to explore the shadow side of the divine."
Could it be true that as we sanitize the horrific aspects of Holy Week and Easter and in the Bible in general we leave people in search of narratives--however entertaining--that touch on issues of flesh and bone, life and death, mortality and immortality, existence and nihilism, civilization and societal collapse?
I won't apologize for turning away from a theological point of view that does not emphasize the blood of Jesus Christ. I continue to believe a Christianity that stresses the blood of Jesus was necessary to appease an angry God is a religion that justifies violence in the name of God and downplays divine mercy.
Yet, the world is a violent place where bad things happen. People die, sometimes in terrible ways. Now more than ever in human history technology allows us to bear witness to the barbarity of humanity. Just think how often every day you hear news about child sexual abuse, homicides and terrorism. At the same time, our American culture allows many of us the privilege of denying death's ever present reality. The industrial complexes of medical care, pharmaceutical conglomerates and the funeral industry sanitize the grim reality of our physical existence. We don't have to deal with death until we are forced to deal with death--either our own or someone else's.
Yes, The Walking Dead is a really good TV show with really good writing, acting and special effects. It is also really gory and bloody. Yet within the gore and blood the characters struggle constantly with what they must do to survive and whether or not survival alone justifies all they must do to remain alive. Is one really alive when one must do inhumane things? Often the characters on the show bear a striking similarity to the undead whom they fight--a purposeful decision on the part of the show's writers.
The show is entertaining--absolutely, but does it speak to a deeper human longing? In the back of our minds, those of us who are privileged enough to turn our thoughts away from survival toward reflection upon what life means have to wonder about just how fragile our human society actually is. The chaos of a zombie apocalypse is a metaphor for all the small outbreaks of chaos within our lives--all the things we cannot control--all the ways we are unable to overcome our mortality.
I will continue to set my DVR to record The Walking Dead when it returns in October (and for the spin-off which airs this summer ), but now I'm wondering about what the appeal of the show says about us at this particular time in our culture. Now, as much as any time, we need a Christianity that does not offer us simplistic answers about existence and meaning. We need a religion that helps us take in the suffering and death that is a part of the human condition--what we see when we look upon Jesus on Good Friday--and helps us to embrace the mystery that is Easter. We need a reason to do more than survive or else we become the zombies. Despite the internet meme of "Zombie Jesus," the resurrected Jesus of the Gospels is not the same as the zombies of The Walking Dead. This walking dead man offers hope of something greater than mere survival, greater even than death.
Horror movies, books and TV shows are appealing, because they allow us a glimpse of the things we are afraid of and want to avoid. There is pleasure in facing one's fears of death, pain and powerlessness. By facing such fears one can overcome them. Isn't it time for a Christianity that acknowledges the horrific realities of our world in order to reveal a God who is greater than our fears?
The angel's words in the empty tomb were, "Do not be afraid."
Grace and Peace