That Old Time Religion: The Walking Dead and Belief

zombie mobThe zombie apocalypse. By now, we know the drill. Something happened. Something terrible. Because of it, the dead have come back to life—if that’s what you call rotten corpses shambling around in half-comatose states—and they want to eat us. Worse, if they decide they’ve had their fill, leaving us, say, partially eaten and gutless in a sun-baked parking lot, we’ll become one of them, dragging ourselves along the ground in the most abject fashion if that’s what it takes to find a snack, stat.

It is a premise that has been around at least as long as George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. For the past six years, AMC has been airing one of the premise’s most successful incarnations, The Walking Dead, a TV series based on the Image comic book that, according to co-creator and writer Robert Kirkman in a recent interview on Marc Maron’s WTF, was born of Kirkman’s frustration that zombie movies are so self-contained. The heroes are besieged by zombies. A whole bunch of people die and a few survive, successful in having defended their house or fled the shopping mall or whatever it was they were attempting. But then what, Kirkman wondered. How do these people survive another day? How do they negotiate their day-to-day lives in the midst of the Zombie Apocalypse?

The Walking Dead is an attempt to answer those burning questions. As anyone who has seen the show can attest, it’s a mixed bag. At its best, it puts characters into morally ambiguous situations that reveal just how provisional morals can be, or it provides ample opportunities for scores of zombies to be killed in spectacularly gory ways, depending on your frame of mind. At its worst, characters can be less than compelling, the pacing of the show lurches, and the plotting occasionally veers toward the unnecessarily arbitrary. At times characters are killed so offhandedly that rather than suggest the threat imminent in such a world, one feels the writers throw darts at the characters’ names. If one hits, that character’s gone!

zombie ministerOverall, I enjoy the show, but, with all its moral hand-wringing, it is not as deep as it would have you believe. Nowhere is its shallowness more obvious than in its handling of religion. Religious characters have been few and far between, and those who have appeared understandably have had their faith shaken. Even the devout Christian patriarch Hershel Greene, the show’s spiritually richest character, practically throws away his Bible when he understands what he’s really up against.

And that’s all that ever happens to religious characters on the show. If someone believes in God, it will only be a matter of time before they either give up their faith entirely or temper it to some degree—usually to a pretty large degree. It reveals a tepid understanding of religious belief that is indicative of the tin ear our contemporary world has regarding religion. Where, in The Walking Dead, are the zealots, those who revel in the Apocalypse, seeing in it not their damnation but instead joy and salvation?

Believers, true believers, don’t give up as easily as the faithful on The Walking Dead. Rather than be decimated by evidence to the contrary, beliefs of all kinds, religious or not, can be strengthened by it. Having grandma turn into a zombie can easily be seen as evidence of God’s will. After all, how else would something like that happen, and why your grandmother? His ways are mysterious, and nobody told us it would be easy.  On the other hand, if you’re an atheist, it might be proof positive that there is no God at all. Grandma’s a zombie because of the zombie virus, not because of “God,” or, in a more generous, agnostic mode, perhaps, the atheist might argue that even if there were a God, if he’s going after grandma, then believing in him doesn’t really amount to a hill of beans anyway, so why bother? In the end, then, there will be those whose faith in God will be confirmed by the Zombie Apocalypse.

apocalypseAnd that’s to say nothing of those who would not only welcome the Apocalypse but would want to speed it along. This is where our culture really has problems understanding religious belief because it is in such denial of its own dark desires. We might recognize apocalyptic tendencies in others, particularly those we want to demonize, but rarely in ourselves. Those who are religious might say that such eschatological daydreams aren’t part of what they believe, while atheists will probably cluck their tongues while pointing out that such self-destructive nonsense is precisely why they don’t hold any religious beliefs. Following the kind of logic volubly articulated by Richard Dawkins and his ilk, religious belief is toxic.

But when one looks at it, stripping it of narration, explanation, or gnomic, visionary incantation, one sees that the desire for self-annihilation is simply the desire for the cessation of the seemingly endless vexation of life, a wiping away that is peace, stillness, no more horror of this thing, right here, emptying into … God? Eternity? Silence? Nothing? Whatever. ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished, regardless of your metaphysics, though in a manner that’s so human you want to hug the lot of us out of deep recognition and compassion, we only allow that others desire it, others whom we want to be done with for once and for all so we can finally have some peace and quiet!

Given the universality of this impulse and its protean aspect, hiding, always hiding, even when looking at us dead in the mirror, one can’t help but wonder to what ecstatic heights it might aspire if fueled by a Zombie Apocalypse. We’ll probably never know because, given the nature of the beast, The Walking Dead is bound to get it wrong and turn it into another dead thing that we can stab in the skull when it gets too close.

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