A glance around any congregation reveals a terrible truth. Too many of us are living like we are less than human. Inside each of us is a struggle between life and death, and at stake is whether or not we will live as the fully human or the walking dead. Think of the people you know with gifts that are undeveloped, friendships and marriages that are less than what they could be, or minds and hearts that are possessed with sinister traits such as jealousy or greed, and our condition becomes apparent. We are the living dead.
The Bible tells the story of our fall, separation from God, and the consequences that form our present, only half-alive, problem. Because of sin, death and evil now have a home in us, and it is in that reality human beings live every day.
What Christians may find surprising, however, is how the secular world tries to tell this story, too. People feel a struggle within. Non-believers know they are not fully alive. They see corrupting behaviors, gifts within them that go unused, and feel resistance when trying to change. All people are struggling to fully live, fighting something or someone that is holding them back. To put it in cultural language, they are zombies – living half-dead, and they know it.
The challenge for the church is to reach these zombies with the Gospel. Christians have a relationship in Jesus Christ that prevails against all that possesses fallen human beings. Through Christ, anyone can experience the transformation from the living dead into the fully alive. This is humanity’s one hope.
In American culture zombies are everywhere. While it is true that the original idea of the zombie came from Western Africa and Haitian voodoo culture, in America, the zombie changed into something else thanks to Hollywood. In 1968 George Romero released the movie Night of the Living Dead, and through that movie, the modern representation of the zombie came to be. The movie features all the hallmarks of the zombie tale. A radiation leak on a NASA satellite returning from Venus brings the dead back to life in Pennsylvania, a group of the unaffected barricade themselves inside a house, fight back, and then at last law enforcement organizes a plan to save the day. The zombies were slow and the makeup bad by 2013 standards, but Night of the Living Dead brought the “zombie” into the American cultural mainstream.
Since 1968 our cultural fascination with the living dead has only grown. In film, movies like I am Legend, Zombieland, the upcoming World War Z, and others have made zombies a mainstay of American cinematic storylines. In video games – where dollars spent on production are rivaling Hollywood budgets for films – games like Resident Evil, which has sold 50 million units and spawned dozens of other zombie games, have been top sellers and feature the fight of the living against the undead. On television, shows such as The Walking Dead focus on the same conflict of the living dead versus those truly alive. Zombies are everywhere in numbers when you start to look!
When stepping back and noticing this cultural trend, questions arise. What is behind our fascination with zombies? What does the zombie symbolize for our culture? Why do we retell this story of the living versus the half dead over and over? What are we saying about ourselves as we continually encounter this story?
My answer as a pastor? People want to be fully alive, but do not know how to find that life or live that way. Every person is engaged in a struggle against something that possesses them, whether corrosive behaviors, or evil and death and the fear both bring. The good news is that Jesus too fights against these forces and rightly postured the church to help people become more alive.
A second step into zombie stories reveals a pattern the church should also recognize. Virtually every zombie story is told in the same way, whether it is 28 Days Later or Shaun of the Dead. The typical zombie storyline goes like this:
• There is an outbreak (a virus, accident, etc.). People become zombies. Survivors gather, resist. A plan emerges to overcome. Victory occurs with external help (a cure, military assistance, other survivors).
Sound familiar? In many ways it is the church’s storyline:
• There is an outbreak (sin, evil). People are the living dead, less than God’s design. Survivors gather, worship, and pray. God delivers a plan. Through Jesus’ help, victories occur.
Through the zombie genre, our secular culture has created a story about the human condition. Human beings fear stumbling through life half-dead. We want to live life fully, not as a monster, and through the character of the zombie, the culture is speaking of its struggle. If listening, the church is perfectly poised to offer a cure, and will begin to teach people a way to fully live.
Jesus Christ: Zombie Fighter
Enter Jesus, zombie fighter. He fought the living dead. As the church seeks to engage a zombie culture, it must look back and see Jesus as the one sent by God to battle the evil and death that possess us in an effort to bring us back to life.
Take for example the story of the Gerasene Demoniac in Mark 5:1-5. “They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an impure spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.”
Does this passage introduce us to the first Biblical zombie? Clearly the man is possessed by something making him less than fully human. He lives in a cemetery, cannot be restrained, can break through anything, and has been placed by his fellow citizens in the graveyard as a last resort.
In spite of his possession, however, Jesus sees humanity still in him and takes action. The story continues in Mark 5:6-8: “When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. He shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!’ For Jesus had said to him, ‘Come out of this man, you impure spirit!’”
Jesus drives the demons out, where they then enter pigs and force the swine into the sea. But the man is healed, his humanity is restored, and the townspeople, hearing the commotion in the graveyard, come running to see what has occurred. Jesus takes the once living dead and offers the chance, in this case for a man from Gerasene, to become fully alive. Romero would love the scene.
When preaching this story to The Loft – the church I serve with the mission of reaching the unconvinced for Jesus – I summarized the story this way. Jesus takes on the living dead within and around us. He can take on the zombie you and I have become by removing what possesses us, and offer us real life.
A second Jesus story further illustrates the zombie-fighting role of Jesus. Jesus tells this story in Luke 11:24-26. “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.”
The theme of the passage is that within and around us rages an ongoing battle against what possesses us. In the Biblical story, evil and death are out to grab us, where in a zombie film it may be radiation or a virus. Of course, in the Biblical story, the stakes are much higher. In the passage above, Jesus describes an ever-escalating fight with evil.
As a pastor, I wonder if it is time in our preaching to return to these basic themes of good versus evil, life versus death, and speak boldly about what can possess us. After all, isn’t the church the place where Jesus continues his fight against what possesses us and makes us live half-human?
Let me confess that when it came to preaching about possession or using a text like Luke 11:24, in the past I would shy away. Surely the congregation I serve would think me crazy? But as I read the gospels, saw Jesus in his fight against demons, and watched our culture so easily talk about a human being becoming possessed and changed into a zombie, my thoughts changed. Pastors can speak about what possesses us, the demons within, and our culture is already telling us it is a message the culture is waiting to hear.
Finally, God gave me an experience. On a mission trip to Haiti (the home of the zombie), I got the chance to attend Haitian worship services along with others from our church. As I listened to the preaching, I was taken aback by how freely the pastors there spoke of evil and demons and called upon Jesus to cast out what had laid hold of a person. The worship was vibrant and powerful. I left with the awareness that the vibrancy of the worship was directly connected to the severity of the struggle in which the Haitian Christians were engaged. Upon coming home, it was time to talk about possession, and how good and evil, and life and death are waging war within us.
The church is the community of the saints. It is the place where Jesus and believers work together to become completely human. In the zombie film the church is like the place where survivors gather and then work together to figure out what to do.
In United Methodism, John Wesley expected pastors and churches to be about this task when he asked pastors, “Do you expect to be made perfect in this life?” In other words, are pastors going to fight against what holds them back, become more like God’s intention for us, and then work with congregations on how to achieve the same?
This victory over evil and death, of course, only occurs through the power of Jesus Christ. Think of the witness though, as Christians lead increasingly more fully human lives. Others around us will take note and ask the question – How did you become like that? How can I be more alive? Then we have a ready answer – Jesus and the church – a relationship with both helps us live fully human. If we as the church return to this basic task of creating people who are completely alive, the world will see. Because even though it can express through metaphors like the zombie that we are the living dead, our culture has no solution to this pandemic.
The world knows we are the living dead, and it is time for the church to step into the fight and offer the cure. His name is Jesus Christ. He fights zombies.
Andy Nixon is the lead pastor of The Loft, a campus of The Woodlands United Methodist Church in The Woodlands, Texas. Over the last five years, The Loft has grown numerically in worship from 250 to 1,300.