On Zombies and Communion
Over 22 million Americans watched the Season 5 premiere of The Walking Dead, making it the most watched cable show of all time. The series, airing on Sunday nights, routinely outperforms Sunday Night Football in the touted 18-49 demographic. The Walking Dead is only the most recent success story in the zombie apocalypse genre. The Resident Evil film franchise has a combined gross of over $900 million worldwide and last year’s World War Z, a best-selling novel turned Hollywood blockbuster, grossed over $200 million at U.S. box offices. One could easily say that America currently has a serious infatuation with zombies. But what is it about this genre that captivates audiences?
I too am a huge fan of The Walking Dead and the zombie genre. While I cannot accurately speak to why others love zombie-themed entertainment, I can speak to its appeal for me. When it all falls apart, when everything we know and love is taken from us, when our laws, our careers, and our institutions are gone, how will we live? How will we respond to both the situation itself and to others suffering from the same tribulation? Will we conserve and protect what is good and beautiful about human civilization or will we be consumed by the evil? These are the questions that fascinate me as I watch The Walking Dead and other post-apocalyptic films.
A common element in all post-apocalyptic stories is the severe fragmentation of humanity. All communication breaks down. Communities and nations become tribes and gangs. Families are separated and broken. Instead of helping others and reuniting humanity to overcome evil, people tend to be consumed by the evil and become monsters themselves. With the chains of law and order broken, people lie, cheat, steal, and kill one another for food and weapons or just for the fun of it. It is the complete opposite of God’s will for humanity.
God created man and woman as relational beings. We reflect the image of God most clearly when we are in a proper relationship with God, with other people, and with the natural world. Just as the human body is a complex system of interconnected parts working together for the good of the whole, the Church, as the body of Christ, needs all of its parts to be interconnected in order to function properly. The sacrament of Holy Communion is one of the ways by which this unity is achieved. By sharing in the Eucharist, members of the Church become one whole body, a complete and unified system. When churches are in communion with each other, they are interconnected. They are joined together as integral parts of the body of Christ. When people are in communion with God, they reflect that communion back into the world. Thus, through communion each part of the whole comes together into one unified system.
There is no communion in the post-zombie apocalyptic Georgia of The Walking Dead. There is no interconnectedness and no properly functioning system. Everything is fragmented. People reject their God-given nature as relational beings.
We can learn important lessons about working together and proper human relationships from post-apocalyptic entertainment, but unfortunately, the lesson many are taking away from shows like The Walking Dead is quite different. A new ideology sometimes referred to as survivalism has emerged in recent years. In this train of thought, people must prepare for their own survival in the case of a major catastrophic world-altering event. The survival of civilization, of civil society, of cities and communities seems to be of no concern for survivalists. Their plan involves isolation and separation, not communion and togetherness. Adherents of survivalism, often called preppers, often follow conspiracy theorists or adhere to extreme political ideologies and have created numerous organizations and websites. The National Geographic Channel has even produced a show about survivalists called Doomsday Preppers.
The reaction of many Americans to the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa is another example. For many, the outbreak was a reason to shut down borders and to break down relationships. Healthcare professionals volunteering for Doctors Without Borders were treated as lepers upon their return to the United States despite undergoing strict self-monitoring guidelines. People traveling anywhere in Africa, regardless of how far from the affected regions, were looked upon as suspects with some teachers being forced to take leave from their jobs upon their return due to frantic parents calling in to their children’s schools.
The first generations of Christians reacted to epidemics quite differently. As Rodney Stark points out in The Rise of Christianity (1997), the first Christians embraced the sick and nursed them back to health. While most segments of Roman society isolated themselves during times of plague, the early Church converted many to the new religion through their medical efforts which built up relationships instead of tearing them down. It should be noted here that Christian missionary groups like Samaritan’s Purse are indeed following the example of the early Church by participating in relief efforts in West Africa.
It is through relationships that we most brilliantly reflect God back into the world. We must reject all ideologies and all systems of thought that break down relationships and turn us away from our fellow humans. We must embrace communion as the only way God ever intended us to live—connected and together.
(Photo by Jennifer M. Smith)