What does the popularity of zombies tell us about American culture? How has the portrayal of zombies changed over the years? Can zombie movies help us better understand human nature and our relationship to God? Specifically, what can we learn from zombies about the body, the soul, and life after death?
From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to the popular television series The Walking Dead, zombies permeate the landscape of American culture. The idea of a “zombie” as an animated corpse emerged in the religious mythos of Caribbean Vodou. In that narrative, a sorcerer controls the zombie. On the other hand, popular portrayals of zombies offer no substantial rationale for the cadaver’s reanimation. In either case, a zombie is someone who lacks full consciousness but has the biology (and sometimes behavior) of a normal human person.
A group of seminary students and church leaders gathered to discuss the theological implications of zombies at Cedar Creek Cafe. According to John McAteer, professor of philosophy at Houston Baptist University, zombies can help Christians think about the relationship between the body and the soul. Is dualism correct? Is there a sharp difference between our soul and our body? Or should we adopt a more holistic perspective?
The conversation began with a quick tour of the progression of zombie movies over the last forty years. The Night of the Living Dead presents more of a dualistic worldview. The characters have no problem slaughtering a zombie since they do not believe the zombie is “really” the same person as before. In movies like The Dawn of the Dead, there’s a subtle shift away from dualism. Characters are confronted with loved ones who have been transformed into zombies and they have a more difficult time killing them. In The Walking Dead the attitude toward zombies is markedly different than previous movies. The characters have a difficult time seeing past the humanity of the zombies. They can no longer kill the zombies without feeling some level of remorse. For McAteer, The Walking Dead represents the evolution of zombie mythology. There is now more respect for the human body. The is a deep recognition of the continuity that exists between the zombie and their past human existence.
Christians are those who affirm the goodness of materiality and bodily existence (Gen. 1). By burying the dead and celebrating the Incarnation and Resurrection, Christians gladly affirm the continuity between a person’s soul (or life principle) and their body. The Platonic notion of the body as the prison of the soul is emphatically rejected. Whether the soul is a metaphysical substance or not (Nancey Murphy’s non-reductive physicalism) is an important but secondary question. What is crucial is the theological integration of the body and the soul.
The conversation ended with an exercise in cultural exegesis. Why has our culture embraced this more compassionate view toward zombies? McAteer believes that it is because the body is being seen more and more as a symbol of the soul. How we treat the human body is illustrative of how we treat the human person. To desecrate a human body (sex trafficking, torture, etc.) is to desecrate a human person. Far from embracing a dualistic anthropology, our culture seems to be moving in the direction of a holistic integration where respect for the human body signals respect for the human person.
Quique Autrey is the admissions counselor and M.Div student at Fuller Seminary Texas. When not doing one of these two things, he enjoys hanging out with his family, reading theology, watching Glee and eating hamburgers.