It seems to happen whenever Steve Beard hangs out with friends -- especially folks who don't go to church -- talking about movies, television and whatever else is on their minds.
"It may take five minutes or it may take as long as 10, but sooner or later you're going to run into some kind zombie comment," said Beard, editor of Good News, a magazine for United Methodist evangelicals. He is also known for writing about faith and popular culture.
"Someone will say something like, 'When the zombie apocalypse occurs, we need to make sure we're all at so-and-so's house so we can stick together.' It's all a wink-and-a-nod kind of deal, but the point is that this whole zombie thing has become a part of the language of our time."
Tales of the living dead began in Western Africa and Haiti, and zombie movies have been around as long as Hollywood has been making B-grade flicks. However, the modern zombie era began with filmmaker George A. Romero's classic "Night of the Living Dead" in 1968, which led to his "Dawn of the Dead" and "Day of the Dead." Other directors followed suit, with hits such as "28 Days Later," "Zombieland," "The Evil Dead" and "Shaun of the Dead." Next up, Brad Pitt in the $170 million-dollar epic "World War Z," due June 21, which could turn into a multimovie franchise.
In bookstores, classic literature lovers will encounter a series of postmodern volumes clustered under the title "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies." Also, videogame fans have purchased more than 50 million copies of the "Resident Evil" series, and these games have inspired countless others.
But anyone who is interested in the worldview -- if not the theology -- of zombie life must come to grips with the cable-television parables offered in the AMC series "The Walking Dead." This phenomenon, said Beard, has become so influential that it cannot be ignored by clergy, especially those interested in the kinds of spiritual questions that haunt people who avoid church pews.
Truth is, "The Walking Dead" is not "about zombies. It's a show about people who are trying to figure out the difference between mere survival and truly living," he stressed, in a telephone interview.
"How do you decide what is right and what is wrong? How do you stay sane, in a world that has gone crazy?
... "Where is God in all of this? That's the unspoken question."
In his classic book "Gospel of the Living Dead," religious studies scholar Kim Paffenroth of Iona College argued that Romero's zombie movies borrowed from one of the key insights found in Dante's "Inferno" -- that hell's worst torments are those humanity creates on its own, such as boredom, loneliness, materialism and, ultimately, separation from God.
As a final touch of primal spirituality, Romero -- who was raised Catholic -- added cannibalism to the zombie myth.
"Zombies partially eat the living. But they actually only eat a small amount, thereby leaving the rest of the person intact to become a zombie, get up, and attack and kill more people, who then likewise become zombies," argued Paffenroth. Thus, the "whole theme of cannibalism seems added for its symbolism, showing what humans would degenerate into in their more primitive, zombie state."
The point, he added, is that "we, humans, not just zombies, prey on each other, depend on each other for our pathetic and parasitic existence, and thrive on each others' misery."
This is why, said Beard, far too many women and men seem to be staggering through life today like listless shoppers wandering in shopping malls, their eyes locked on their smartphones instead of the faces of loved ones. Far too often their lives are packed with stuff, but empty of meaning.
Romero and his artistic disciples keep asking a brutal question: This is living?
"One of the big questions in zombie stories is the whole 'Do zombies have souls?' thing," said Beard. "But that kind of question only leads to more and more questions, which is what we keep seeing in 'The Walking Dead' and other zombie stories. ...
"If zombies no longer have souls, what does it mean for a human being to be soulless? If you have a soul, how do you hang on to it? Why does it seem that so many people today seem to have lost their souls?"
(Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.)
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