On the strong recommendation of a friend who has yet to steer me wrong on such matters, I began the New Year by watching the first two seasons of The Walking Dead. On the surface, it’s just another zombie show—this time in the form of an apocalypse that makes the book of Revelation look tame by comparison. By the end of the first few episodes, it’s apparent that civilization (as we know it) is gone. Cities are overrun, governments do not function (if they even exist), and all infrastructure is wiped out. To make matters worse, every human being carries the zombie virus. Upon death, we all become “walkers” (unless someone mercifully severs our brain function one way or another). The Center for Disease Control not only has failed to stop the contagion but also is obliterated.
On another level, however, The Walking Dead is far from your typical scary movie or television series. The zombie apocalypse creates an alternative world for exploring profoundly meaningful, timeless, spiritual questions about faith, hope, and love.
Faith: Is there a God who cares about or intervenes in human affairs? A God who will give some sign of hope to people walking in darkness on a completely uncharted and terrifying path? Is God dead or worse cruelly turning resurrection into a nightmare?
Hope: Is there any reason to live? Is there anything beautiful, good, and true left in the world? Should anyone bring new life into the midst of this horror especially given that a crying baby will attract hordes of zombies? (FYI . . . any sound is a magnet for mobs of the bloodthirsty creatures.) Can zombies be saved, cured, or rehabilitated?
Love: Can forgiveness and reconciliation overcome betrayal and infidelity? Will compassion for the other (and here I mean humans not zombies) prevail over fear? Or will the raw instinct for self-preservation at all costs dominate survivors’ interactions with one another?
When faith, hope, and love disappear from interpersonal relationships, the distinction between the living and the walking dead blurs. The show startlingly demonstrates how in extremis we can lose our humanity. “Who are the actual monsters?” is a question that implicitly arises in various forms as the show progresses.
While any of these existential questions could become fodder for blogging, the show itself draws explicit and repeated attention to hope. Perhaps most startling is the sheer power of hope and the resilience of the human spirit. A small band of survivors—the main characters in the series—lose children, siblings, spouses, and lifelong friends to death and worse. In more than one episode, I found myself asking how the writers could possibly kill off so many significant characters in one fell swoop: “Don’t they know that the viewers are attached to them?” I think that’s part of the point though. Somehow this group bears unbearable loss again and again. Not without detriment but also not without entirely losing their humanity. They don’t lose their capacity for attachment, self-giving, and love—even though those human qualities often hang in the balance.
From a theological perspective, of course, hope is not merely an innate capacity of the human spirit but rather the work of the Spirit in persons and communities of faith. Hope determines believers’ knowledge of, solidarity with, responsibility for, and witness to the world. Hope means that we expectantly await the coming of Christ when reconciliation with God and each other will be completely manifest. Hope also means we yearn for the in-breaking of the kingdom in the present. Hope neither seeks refuge in the eternal nor overestimates transformation in the temporal. Hope lives because God lives.
As the start of the third season approaches, I am eager to see how, if at all, the show will take on this transcendent dimension of hope. We’ve already seen unanswered pleas and cries for help seemingly go unanswered. Bibles have been set aside and once dearly-held faith seemingly crushed. But then again perhaps not. Perhaps it has merely gone underground and is waiting for its own kind of resurrection by the Spirit’s power.