The Walking Dead is one of the best series to appear on television. This series about a zombie apocalypse is gruesome. (Should I have used “the” instead of “a”? Can there be more than one zombie apocalypse?) Zombies stumble out of cities and into the countryside like broken mannequins. They prove to be as ruthless and gross as any zombie movie. The “walkers” move in herds without communication or conscience and focus solely upon their prey, the living.
If you are a zombie fan you probably love this program. Some episodes are pretty light on the zombie fighting. It is a series, however, so wait one episode and you’ll find enough violence to meet your quota. Unlike other zombie movies the human characters remain important. What they think, in addition to how they feel, matters. One would be hard pressed to find a zombie film that is as thoughtful as The Walking Dead.
What makes The Walking Dead so good is that it is not about zombies. Zombies are a pretext for deep human drama. Being a series allows for this kind of development. It is a drama about life and death; love and attachment. I would go further. The zombie apocalypse, as portrayed in The Walking Dead, is an excellent pretext for raising theological questions specific to the 21st Century. I know I’m seeing things most viewers will say aren’t really there but I beg you to pay attention and consider the questions that are unwittingly raised in The Walking Dead.
Here is a non-exhaustive sampling:
- Theodicy: “Why does a good God allow such horrific suffering?” “Where is God in such a situation?”(One character, an older gentleman named Hershel, asks these questions directly. His answers change as the series progresses.)
- Incarnation: How does God relate to creation? Is creation essentially good, as the Bible teaches, or is it so thoroughly corrupted it that it is beyond redemption? How should the church incarnate Christ in such an environment? Can it?
- Euthanasia: It is a recurrent theme related both to the humans and the “walkers”. Debate ensues on whether the walkers are living or dead. Can they be cured? Should they be put down like wounded, rabid animals? The closely related topic of Suicide, the euthanasia of oneself, emerges too. As human survivors hide within the CDC I was reminded of the Jews at Masada. The options for each group are eerily similar.
- Personhood: This is one of the first and most important theological questions. Just what is a person? When does one begin to be a person? When does one stop? Has anyone else asked about the relationship between zombies and Alzheimers? Hershel does.
- Violence permeates the film. The question is raised: When is violence permissible? Just war theory and pacifism are apparently not options in the zombie apocalypse. Should one kill preemptively? An entire episode is committed to this question as Dale, the conscience of the group, fights for what he believes is right. He’s actually fighting for the groups soul and hoping that they prevent themselves from becoming zombies before they are dead.
- Resurrection, of a perverted kind, takes place throughout the series. Again, our friend Hershel makes this point when he says, “God promised a resurrection but I believed he had something different in mind. Now I begin to wonder.”
Religious and metaphysical themes dot our cinematic landscape. Many of these films use the supernatural or religious to express themes that are anything but. The Walking Dead is not a religious film but it raises these questions in spades.
In the 1970’s the famous evangelical apologist, Francis Schaeffer, asked this question of Christians he believed were coming under the treacherous influence of postmodernism: How Shall We Then Live? Not long ago I was asked what I thought was a very odd question by a young man in our youth group: “Which do you think you could survive? A zombie apocalypse or an alien invasion?”
I think The Walking Dead asks, over and over again, the question that Schaeffer posed.
Shall we combine Schaeffer’s question with that of my youth group member? How Shall We Then Live in the zombie apocalypse? I’m not worried about zombies but I am concerned about the church. Theology is too far removed from everyday life and is replaced by pop psychology and market economics. Even Christians rarely examine their lives through the lens of theology. We keep big questions abstract.
Can it be that herds of the undead marching through Georgia will help us put these big questions back into our everyday lives?