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Fighting zombies—and our own fears

copyright AMC/Walking Dead
Zombies are everywhere. Film, television, novels, video games—even church. My daughter’s youth group recently held a “Zombie Night” to launch a month long series on engaging culture and relationships.

Why is our culture so fascinated with zombies? And is there any redeeming value to stories about them?

In his essay “Locating Zombies in the Sociology of Popular Culture,” sociologist Todd Platt says we resonate with zombies because they personify so many things we struggle with—from apocalyptic, cultural, political or social anxieties to personal fears like infectious disease, loss of personal autonomy or death. Zombies are, says Platt are flexible creature “whose likeness adapts to contemporaneous tumult, concerns about manmade and natural disasters, conflicts and wars, and crime and violence.”

In our always shifting and conflicted world, zombies put flesh on our anxieties and fears.

That makes them a rich and malleable metaphor in the hands of story-tellers. And, believe it or not, their stories can bring God-talk into open spaces.
                          
The acclaimed AMC series The Walking Dead confronts us with profound questions about life, death and meaning. The zombies are lumbering, rotting corpses that have lost all connection to their former humanity, consumed with hunger for live flesh. But a big question in the series revolves around who exactly is the walking dead: the zombies or the surviving humans?

In the more light-hearted Warm Bodies, we find an unexpected metaphor for spiritual transformation. The zombies still lumber about, but they can become human again if they experience sacrificial love.

And in last summer’s blockbuster World War Z, we discover a compelling metaphor for the power of love and sacrifice in a broken world.

Former U.N. worker Gerry Lane has retreated with his family to a pleasant suburban life after a career mired in the world’s brokenness and darkness. But darkness, at some point, shatters our illusions of isolation and security; for Lane, it comes in the form of swift hordes of ravenous zombies.

His journey to find a way to stop the outbreak becomes a metaphor for our own: What can we do to stop the overwhelming tide of suffering, violence and destruction in this broken world?

Lane’s answer is intriguing. It echoes our own Story with a sacrifice, death, and resurrection of sorts. Compared to the military efforts to fight the threat, the solution is surprisingly nonviolent and simple—and something against which the stemming tide of animalistic and hungry darkness simply (and literally) parts.

There’s a humility and meekness in Lane’s solution that stands in stark contrast to the violence and destruction of Superman’s choices in Man of Steel, another summer blockbuster. And whereas Superman’s solution to save the world plays out in grand and epic style, Gerry’s sacrificial solution is witnessed only by a few. It reminds us that our own acts of unseen sacrifice in the midst of death, darkness, and brokenness can also change the world.

Of course, zombie metaphors fall apart at some point. And the violence and gore in many of these stories can push boundaries we don’t want to cross.

But stories like these help us face and wrestle with our own fears and better understand the anxieties we face. They confront us with darkness both in the world and within ourselves. They explore what makes relationships and communities work, and what breaks them apart.
                                                                                                                  
Keep that in mind the next time you run into a zombie. Oh, and run.


This is a slightly longer version of my column that ran in MWR

For more in depth explorations of God-talk in zombie stories, see church planter and pastor T.C. Moore’s series on Warm Bodies at TheologicalGraffiti.com, Ryan Robinson’s reflections on The Walking Dead at EmergingAnabaptist.com, and my thoughts on the same series.

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