Toward a Zombie Theology

Last Sunday evening, AMC broadcast the season 1 finale for its hit series The Walking Dead. Based on a graphic novel, Dead tells the story of a group of people struggling to survive and relate in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. The director, Frank Darabont, shopped the idea to several channels with no success until AMC decided to greenlight the project. It certainly looks like it was worth the risk.

To nearly everyone’s surprise, the show attracted 5.3 million viewers for its premiere episode on Halloween night, and continuously sustained viewers twice that of AMC’s other hit series, Mad Men. The season finale provided an exclamation point to that early success, attracting 6 million viewers.

For some time now horror has been the focus of academic study, especially within religious studies. Turns out the final episode of Walking Dead was a case study for the intersection of zombies and theology, and a pointer toward the evolution of both scientific and popular thinking on the soul.

The title of this episode, “TS-19″ referred to “Test Subject 19,” an unfortunate victim of the zombie infliction who allows scientists to monitor his brain as he goes from human to zombie. The scientist doing the computer recording, Dr. Jenner, narrates the changes he sees as the infection progresses. He makes a distinction between “the first event,” or infection leading to death, and a “second event” or “resurrection event” that marks the reanimation of the subject.

But even with Christian overtones the writers of Walking Dead end up coming down in favor of brain-based consciousness. In death, including the death of the brain, Dr. Jenner says, “Everything you ever were, or will be…[is] gone.”

So does this leave theology out in the cold? The dominant theological understanding for anthropology in Christianity is still dualistic, a synthesis of the physical body and an immaterial spirit or soul, but in recent years those advocating a monistic view of human nature have arisen, articulating a perspective they call “nonreductive physicalism.” This view, advocated by scholars like Fuller Seminary’s Nancey Murphy, recognizes the significance of the cognitive neurosciences that have cast doubt on philosophical and theological concepts of the soul, but argues for human significance and the divine as opposed to materialist interpretations in the field.

I find it fascinating that an aspect of popular culture, and a horror television program no less, includes aspects for reflection on human identity that is the focus for academic reflection among scientists, philosophers, and theologians alike. Perhaps if more theologians become comfortable with engaging the texts of popular culture, including the fantastic genres of horror, science fiction, and fantasy, then we might discover examples of what Peter Berger called “signals of transcendence,” windows into the divine or the sacred in the mundane things of life.

Who knows? With the burgeoning field of religion and popular culture, perhaps the future might even see a zombie theologica.