LIVING WITH THE LIVING DEAD: The Wisdom of the Zombie Apocalypse. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. 248 pages.
Apocalyptic literature comes in many forms. It often expresses feelings of being oppressed, persecuted, and threatened. These sense is that the end of the world is drawing near. We see it present in the biblical texts, especially the New Testament. The book of Revelation is by design apocalyptic, but Jesus appears in the gospels as an apocalyptic figure and Paul gives us the sense that the end is near. The world is filled with apocalyptic movements, many with religious origins or overtones. Sometimes in pursuit of sophisticated religion, believers set aside or ignore the apocalyptic elements of the faith. Calvin, for instance, chose not to write a commentary on Revelation. Yet the apocalyptic seems to reappear regularly in our cultural and societal conversations. With that we give our attention to the possibility of a Zombie Apocalypse.
I am not a devotee of zombie literature or movies. I’ve not seen The Night of the Living Dead or the more recent Walking Dead. The horror genre has never attracted my attention. Perhaps that goes back to childhood and my attendance at a showing of Dracula at the local movie theater. I didn’t make it through to the end and endured nightmares that night. So, in the interest of good sleep, I have avoided such movies, unless, like Young Frankenstein they are comedic. With that confession in mind, I come to review Greg Garrett’s Livingwith the Living Dead. Appealing to the book’s subtitle, I ask the question: is there wisdom to be found in stories of a Zombie Apocalypse?
Before I get to that question and any possible answers provided by the book, I need to introduce the author. Greg Garrett is a professor of English at Baylor University and an Episcopal priest. He has written twenty books that cover the genres of fiction, nonfiction, and memoir (the last of which I read recently). His interest in literature and theology provides a good background to exploring this particular genre, which to my astonishment has intriguing theological possibilities.
While I do not have much experience with Zombie stories, it’s clear that Garrett has done his homework. He introduces us to a variety of stories, interpreting them theologically. He weaves the stories together with a theological vision that raises important questions about community, ethics, and life itself. I will admit that due to my own lack of familiarity with most of the stories and the characters of those stories, I was often at a loss. However, even though I don’t know the stories or the characters, and found myself skimming some of the sections, I found the interpretations fascinating. I can’t judge as to the accuracy of the interpretations, but they demonstrate a good grasp of weighty issues facing us today, issues that apparently give rise to apocalyptic feelings.
Garrett raises the question of why zombie stories have become so popular. There is this feeling, it seems, that the end is near. Disaster is waiting for us, and we find ourselves feeling helpless in the face of the impending disaster. Society seems broken, and we struggle make sense of it. It’s possible that we’ve not yet reached full collapse, but we find ourselves on the edge of the apocalypse. With these feelings in mind, Garrett writes that “The Zombie Apocalypse has become one of the most prominent stories we tell in the twentieth-century West” (p. 6). The point of the book is the exploration “of a common story: the world faces an impending or actual breakdown of society because of creatures that are spreading across the earth, killing everyone in their path or turning them into beings like themselves” (p. 6). Do you feel like this might be true for you? Do you feel helpless in the face of societal breakdown? Maybe it’s not a zombie. Maybe it’s the political system? Whatever the case, it does appear at times that the dead are awake and walking in our midst, seeking to eat our brains? With this as our fear, we look to stories like this to give us a sense of the possibility that we can and will survive. As we wrestle with that question, the stories invite us to explore other questions, like what means to be human and live an ethical life. The popularity of the stories suggest that something is going on beyond mere entertainment. They appear to stand in for perceived threats that are looming. They also raise questions about the meaning of life, as well as what it means to be human.
Garrett begins the book by providing us a lengthy introduction to the identity these zombies, whose stories we will look to for wisdom. This is helpful, especially for one like me who is less informed about the genre. He also uses this chapter to help us wrestle with the question of death our own relationship to it. Unlike the Medieval Period of our history, death is not an everyday experience, and yet we wrestle with it. As part of that conversation, we wrestle with it means to be human. In this case, considering stories about transitioning from life to death. These beings are in essence soulless bodies. As Garrett puts it, they may “retain some of the visible aspects of the living. But they are generally bodies vacated by souls and they are certainly no longer the persons they once were” (p. 55). Zombies are driven, we’re told, by a hunger that seemingly cannot be satisfied. Ultimately, zombies are “solely physical, not spiritual.” They lack the image of God, the spark of divinity. They “are made in the image of humankind, but because they are dead, they cannot sustain the imago dei” (p. 65-67). Whether the creators of these stories have such issues in mind is irrelevant. The stories serve to raise important questions about what it means to be human and about the meaning of life. They raise questions about values that we hold dear (and often violate). They offer us opportunity to look at values like compassion and what it means to be a neighbor. The contrast between zombie and human is that humans, unlike zombies can govern their impulses and hungers for the sake of others. These are important questions that we need to deal with, especially at this moment in time, in this “political season.”
Having explored questions of life’s meaning and what it means to be neighbor, Garrett then explores the concept of community. He suggests that zombies don’t have community. They do gather together, but not with thought or purpose, only instinct and hunger. Humans, however, gather in community to find hope for the future. In these stories, the threat of the zombies pushes people together for safety and support. Now, these communities can and do fail, but there is this sense of need for the other, to create families. Since the primary audience for this book is the Christian community, Garrett notes that community is essential to Christianity. This is not an individualistic religion. It is designed for community, and he draws on the doctrine of the Trinity to support that notion. Thus, while love marks the Christian community (or it should), such is not the case with zombies.
The chapter on community is followed by a chapter on ethics. He invites us to explore what it means to live the ethical life in the context of this apocalypse. What does it mean to survive? What is power? What is sin? Are there limits? Again, these zombie stories raise questions for our theological reflection. They allow us to name our fears and recognize when forces are using fear to manipulate and control. He writes “if safety and security replace compassion and hospitality and justice as our highest goods, then we will continue to make decisions privileging safety and security” (p. 161). Again, look around; is this not what we’ve been doing? Is this not the foundation for our political decisions in recent years, especially since 9-11? The choice is ours, but Garrett wants us to explore a better way, one of hospitality and justice.
In the fourth chapter, titled “And in the End,” he asks us to consider whether this zombie apocalypse is good or bad. In essence, he brings us into a conversation about the value of apocalyptic stories. These stories reflect a nihilistic vision. But, if we pay attention to the stories, they give visions of hope. Community emerges. People come together and support one another. He notes that secular apocalypses tend to be devoid of any sense of hope or redemption. The same is not true of religious versions, such as found in Revelation. I found this chapter and its discussion of nihilism especially poignant. Perhaps that is because we seem to live in a time of nihilistic movements like ISIS. He writes that "by admitting that things are bad, by sharing our dread, and by allowing ourselves to mutually agree that we are all a part of this alarming reality, we are at least taking away the suffering experienced by Robert Neville in his solitude. We are not alone, for others suffer alongside us" (p. 203).
As I stated up front, I’m not a fan of zombie stories. I don’t know the stories or the characters. That makes the book tough sledding at points. I had to put it aside from time to time, because I got lost in the minutiae. If I knew the stories, I would be better able to make sense of things. That said, even though I’m not an aficionado, I found the book compelling. Garrett is a good, insightful author. He knows how to weave the stories (like parables) with the theological reflections. He has a good theological sensibility, which is helpful, especially when you are more attuned to the theological component! This book is also a reminder that the prominence of certain genres might tell us something about how we as a society are feeling. That Zombie apocalypses are popular and not Westerns might be telling. We’re not feeling overly optimistic, or at least that’s what it feels like. So, perhaps these kinds of stories, like the Book of Revelation, can prove spiritually beneficial.