*Caution: This post contains spoilers.*
It was summertime and I was home alone for a few weeks. AMC was replaying their series The Walking Dead all the way through and, although I’m not a horror/suspense/zombie fan per se, I’d seen enough chatter by Facebook friends to give it a shot. I’m glad I did. On its face, The Walking Dead doesn’t seem to be FHE fodder, but you’d be surprised at the deep theological and philosophical reflections zombies can foster.1
The Walking Dead follows a small group of survivors from Atlanta struggling to endure a zombie apocalypse. In their world, the idea of zombies didn’t previously exist, so the characters are forced to work out for themselves the nature of what looks like a spreading disease. Government structures are in complete disarray and people are fending for themselves. “Walkers” roam the streets seeking to eat human flesh; their bites and bodily fluids spread the disease. The virus essentially invades human neurobiology, killing the consciousness of its host and taking control of the body through the brain stem. The only way to kill a Walker is by destroying the brain.
Instead of being a scare-em-and-shoot-em-up thriller (though it has its moments!), overall the series finds its real emotional power in the conflicts of the human protagonists. Its true genius is underscoring the fact that many of the problems we encounter aren’t black and white; The Walking Dead focuses on complexity and shades of gray.2 The rest of this post highlights three areas of off-the-cuff theological reflection the show spurs.
The writers do a brilliant job depicting how different personalities respond to the tragic circumstances. Daryl Dixon and his brother are rednecks, cut-throat motorcyclers, plenty racist and plenty arrogant. But they have a strong ethic of family loyalty. After losing his brother, Daryl nurtures kinship with the Peletier’s, the other white-trash-esque family in the group. When young Sophia Peltetier goes missing he risks his life trying to track her down. Daryl’s character begins to find redemption, purpose, and a sense of caring for others which he lacked before the world spun out of control.
While Daryl is elevated, another character, Shane, seems to deteriorate. Shane is a police officer with a strong Southern ethic of protecting the women and children. But his ethic takes a dark Machiavellian turn as his desired ends (trying to save the life of a boy) justify some terrible means (shooting another man in the leg, turning him into Walker-bait in order to provide for his own escape). Through these characters the writers show how the same circumstances seem to exalt some and damn others, depending on their respective reactions to the situation. There is soul-shaping afoot.
2. Faith and Doubt
Officer Rick Grimes is the de facto leader of the group, but he’s finding the role too burdensome. In the first episode of season two the group comes across a church while searching for Sophia. After dispatching the creepy Walkers sitting in the pews Rick approaches a large crucifix at the front of the church (an oddly Catholic statue despite it ostensibly being a Baptist church!) and offers a “help thou my unbelief” type of prayer:
“I don’t know if you’re looking at me with what — sadness? Scorn? Pity? Love? Maybe it’s just indifference. I guess you already know I’m not much of a believer. I guess I just chose to put my faith elsewhere; my family, mostly, my friends, my job. The thing is we — I could use a little something to help keep us going. Some kind of acknowledgement, some indication I’m doing the right thing. You don’t know how hard that is to know. Well, maybe you do. Hey look, I don’t need all the answers. Just a little nod, a sign. Any sign will do.”
He gets a sign. He and his young son are traipsing through the woods searching for Sophia when a deer leaps into their path and stops, allowing them to bask in its beauty. Then a distant shot rings out and the son collapses. A shotgun blast hit the deer, scattering shot into the stomach of the boy. This tragedy leads the group the an isolated farm where a physician named Hershel tries to save the boy.
3. Human Anthropology
Most characters in the series are neither extremely religiously devout or academically trained in the sciences, but their religious and scientific views inform their reactions to the Walkers nevertheless. Dr. Jenner at the Center for Disease Control believes he’s facing humanity’s “extinction event,” but he works to find a cure anyway until all avenues are exhausted. Through direct experiment he develops a solid grasp on the nature of the virus and believes that as it takes over the body it kills the human host early on. The lights are on but nobody’s home. The body is just a shell, a machine employed by the virus to feed itself.
Hershel Greene is a physician and a devout Christian who lives with his extended family on an isolated farm. Undoubtedly Hershel would argue that life begins at conception, but more importantly here, he believes that life does not end at infection. He views the Walkers as temporarily disabled and hopes a cure will be found.
What makes us human? For centuries, at least in the west, the definition of humanity has been substantialist: humans are defined according to identifiable characteristics or abilities, in addition to simple biology. Our memories, our language, our ability to self-reflect, our ability to make choices–all of these things make us human as differentiated from animals. But this view would leave out infants, the comatose, or people with severe intellectual disabilities.
This question comes to the fore in what was one of the most powerful television watching experiences I’ve ever had; the mid-season finale of The Walking Dead. The group has been staying at Hershel’s farm while Rick’s son recuperates from his gunshot wound. They spend their days searching for Sophia, the lost little girl. Hershel begins pressuring the group to move on despite the protestations of his daughter, who turns to a New Testament passage to ask her dad why he won’t take these strangers in for good. The group discovers that Hershel has a locked barn full of Walkers, including his own wife. Any Walker who stumbles onto the farmland is rounded up and put in the barn. Rick takes a pragmatic approach to the situation, trying to appease Hershel while preparing to convince him that the Walkers are an extremely dangerous lost cause. Shane’s dark descent is nearly complete, knowing that Hershel’s barn poses a direct threat to everyone in the group. In a rage, Shane opens the barn and, a feeble Hershel looking on, opens fire as the Walkers emerge. But the line between human and Walker is most starkly drawn when the final Walker emerges from the barn–little Sophia.
I’ve left out so many details that this spoiler fails to carry its full weight, so you can still get a lot out of watching the series. Suffice it to say, The Walking Dead should give you much to reflect on concerning our assumptions about what it means to be a human, and how such assumptions are entwined with powerful ethical and moral questions.
What other sort of unique Mormon/Christian questions are raised by The Walking Dead?
-Is such a large-scale disaster threatening enough to warrant a warning revelation? Suppose no new revelation was received beforehand. A zombie apocalypse doesn’t fit particularly easily with our current readings of the scriptures regarding end times. Would such an event lead to a prevalent questioning of the utility of the restoration? Some characters in the series continue to pray and have faith in God.
-How does resurrection shake out in this world? If a zombie consumes other human flesh and thus incorporates said flesh into its own body, who gets that bit of flesh in the resurrection? (Sam Brown’s recently-published In Heaven As it is On Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death discusses related questions on biology and human resurrection on pp. 56-64.)
1. Amongst philosophers, zombies have provided grounds for discussion about the weight of thought experiments and conceivability, consciousness, physicalism, and the nature of the human mind, among other issues. See Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on “Zombies.”
2. All this isn’t to say the series doesn’t mess up at times. Some of the dialog is overwrought, the acting in the first season was pretty uneven, and the level of violence will certainly unsettle some viewers. I tend to squint really hard whenever they depict with great detail a zombie head getting mashed in.