Below is something of an abstract of my talk from “Walking WIth the Dead: A Conference on Zombies and Zombiethics” sponsored by the Emory Center for Ethics. All around a fun day with audience participants dressed as zombies and zombie killers, neuroscientists talking about zombie brains, philosophers wondering about how zombies fit into the free will versus determinism question, etc. Hope you enjoy my thoughts on zombies, the body and religion.
Rick: “Have some faith
Herschel: “I can’t profess to understand God’s plan. Christ promised the resurrection of the dead. I just thought he had something little different in mind.”
Is it possible to talk about the zombie as a theological subject, the zombie as object of religious contemplation? In fact, such a discussion has been going on for a while There’s discussion of zombie theology, of the zombie as a postmodern reflection on human suffering, the zombie as Christ figure.
I want to make it clear that I think the zombie is a worthy topic to have a religious conversation around. But it’s a conversation happening in a Post-Christian America
Post Christian—I wish I had not put that in the title of my talk. I’m not here to make the announcement that God is dead in America.
The term itself refers to the idea that we are a society profoundly split over the religious narratives that hold our attention, so much so that what’s called the “new atheism” has found something of a place at the table in way unthinkable a few decades ago. This is not a new condition (there’s a sense in which it’s a post-Enlightenment condition for the western world). But it’s a prevalent enough condition that religious symbols, and symbols of sacrilege, are up for grabs in a way that we never seen before.
We get a better sense of how the zombie fits into this religious (and non-religious) milieu by placing our obsession with the undead in historical context. This suggests that they are more that the monster du jour. We can actually link their rise in popularity to the growth of what we might call “apocalypse culture.”
This really has its beginnings in the 1970s. Christian apocalyptic became part of popular culture in the early 1970s especially through the pop-Apocalypse of Hal Lindsey.
Notably, this fascination with the apocalypse included a fascination with the body in apocalypse…what would become of the bodies of the blessed and the damned. Bodies are raptured and bodies are glorified. Lindsey and his many imitators poured out gallons of ink describing the physical details of the resurrected body. Almost as much was said about what would become of the bodies of the damned…those left behind. There’s an interest in what sort of tortures they might suffer on earth. And even the idea that the already damned, those already suffering in hell, would be resurrected and their souls reunited with their bodies. This would allow them to essentially be double-damned, cast into the lake of fire body and soul for a kind of second eternity of torment.
What’s wrong with these people?
In part because of the horrific nature of these claims, there has been a backlash against fundamentalist apocalypse culture. We’ve seen numerous reimaginings of the Christian apocalypse especially over the last twenty years…many of these are subversive versions of fundamentalist narratives.
The zombie apocalypse is yet another subversive reimagining of Christian eschatology. In fact, it takes a central element of that system and turns it into a symbol of sacrilege.
Zombies enter this field of cultural change in several other ways:
1.) They are the nightmare both of notions of the resurrected body and, lets also note, the secular (and sometimes religious) versions of dieting/exercise/elective surgery culture
2.) They are part of a longer process in western culture (going back to at least the 16th century) of the disenchantment of the body. The body became a medical subject and imagined as mechanism that breaks down, or unstable elements subject to decay and rot. The idea of the body as a miracle animated by God fades into the background.
3.) They literally embody a certain kind of nihilism about death. But their nihilistic symbolism does not mean that they cannot become objects of contemplation…though perhaps not Christian contemplation.
I’d like to explore the last point in a future post. By the way, an excellent response/rejoinder/nuancing of the points I make here can be found in John W. Morehead’s essay “Zombie Walks, Zombie Jesus and the Eschatology of Postmodern Flesh” in the new essay collection. The Undead and Theology. John gave a version of this essay at the Zombiethics Symposia.