I recently finished the third season of the Walking Dead. I have always been a big movie guy, not much of a television watcher. I like the punch of a two hour story that has it all, including rich characters, human drama, with climax and resolution. It has a very satisfying sense to it, like eating a good steak dinner. However, I have grown to appreciate television series as the best writing that is out there these days in storytelling. The advantages of this medium is more about the characters. Its purpose is to get you to love the characters so much that you want to see them go through their extended journeys. So the focus on movies is more on the story and the focus of television is more on characters. Of course there is much story going on in a series but it is more drawn out and takes much longer to achieve its character arcs and resolution. A series is more like engaging in a new diet. It takes more patience but you see the effects down the road and they can be more lasting. But this is why I think it has a more powerful influence on our cultural values. Because the longer you saturate within the worldview of a narrative, the more affected you are by its values. This is why television is also more dangerous in its ability to saturate viewers in the worldviews of its storytellers for a longer period and change their values and worldview so widespread through the emotional immersion.
So I try to be careful what I immerse myself in regarding these television narratives. I have found though that The Walking Dead has been quite a positive extension of the positive values of zombie movies, along with a few cautionary dangers to be aware of.
First off, many people already have a hard time with zombie stories. They think they are just a glorification of blood and gore and should be rejected as dehumanizing. Not true. Some are. But not all. In fact, the very essence of the zombie story is as a cultural critique of social values that dehumanize us. They explore the moral question of what makes us human? What gives us dignity? How are we any different from animals? What keeps civilization from falling apart into anarchy? These are all VERY relevant and important issues in our morally relative culture of naturalism and atheistic evolution. I have written about this elsewhere in an article on the value of the horror genre as morality tales that address the reality of evil, our sinful nature, and social injustices, and in a blog post of World War Z.
The Walking Dead is very simply the story of a band of refugees in a post-apocalyptic scenario of America overrun by zombies. The lead character, Rick Grimes, is a cop who leads the multicultural group that contains a proper diversity of men, women, black, Asian and sometimes “other” people on a quest to find a safe habitation, first in the American South and then in the Midwest.
They are in fact looking for a home, a place of safety and order in a world of chaos. A primal urge in all of us. As they scavenge for survival, they encounter various groups of other survivors whose values come into conflict with their own, as they themselves struggle to maintain order and authority within their ranks. Otherwise they will end up killing each other, just like the zombies around them.
The power of a zombie story is that it strips down our outward mask of values that we wear in society. When we are faced with survival our true natures come out and for too many of us, that is an ugly nature indeed. This is not imagination. This is reality. Many people’s true selfishness comes out when they are forced to choose between saving themselves and helping others. The Walking Dead (TWD) shows that when we no longer have law and order keeping society in line, some of us will struggle to create a new structure and others will lay aside their moral veneer and seek to exploit and use others for their own survival. This is an incarnation of the moral challenge that who we are is determined by how we behave when no one is watching us, or when we think we won’t have consequences for our behavior.
But it is more than that. It also is about the question, “What makes us human or civilized?” In season two, Rick’s group finds their way to a farmhouse that has been happily untouched by zombie attacks. But it’s owned by an old geezer. Now, in the outer world, its pretty much a free for all scavenge fest. Nothing is owned by anyone anymore, except those who can protect it with violence. Now at this safe haven, do they respect the old man’s authority because it is his own property, or do they just take him over? Is there such a thing as private property in such a lawless state? TWD proves that you must respect private property as a foundation of civilization, and you must respect authority, or you end in chaos. In season three, they commandeer a prison that provides the first real rest and security in a long time (with all its fences and locked bars). The irony being that it was a place that was used to keep monsters in, now it is used to keep them out.
Early on, Rick says, “This is not a democracy,” as in we must have a leader who has strong authority over the group or they will fall apart. And for most of the show, this proves true. Until Rick himself starts to break from the strain, and is challenged by his best friend, another cop, Shane. Rick is a mental leader, and a man of strong ethical emphasis. He even continues to wear his uniform and hat for quite a while. But Shane is more the “muscle” and earthy pragmatic man who seeks to lead by doing the dirty work that no one else wants to do, but must be done. He is not a survivalist, but he is more of a survivor mentality. He is willing to give up on those who are weak in order to survive. Rick however, tries to balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the community. To be a man of justice, but also compassion. He tries to keep a high value on the dignity of others. But survival bears heavily on his ethics and he becomes a harder man as the series goes on. He also almost breaks down mentally at the death of some significant characters in his life. He eventually softens and includes the group more in the decisions when he learns his lesson that he needs his followers as much as they need a leader.
Through many episodes the people are faced with difficult life situations that place the two ethics of survival and sacrifice in conflict. Should they go back to save one person if it jeopardizes everyone else? Should they keep searching for a little lost girl when doing so also endangers the rest of them? Can they kill their beloved if they “turned” into a zombie? By and large, those who would stress survival over sacrificial helping of others tend to be the least humanized and we see that we must maintain an elevation of human life if we are to maintain our own dignity, society and sanity. Those who maintain the ethic of sacrifice for others are sometimes killed, but always the ones upon whom “civilization” continues to grow. This is of course assuming that the zombies are truly no longer “human” so the killing of them is NOT the same thing as killing a human. They are undead. They are more like rabid animals to be put down because they destroy living humans. This is more self-defense than anything. But we will talk about that in a minute.
Suffice it to say that this elevation of civilization being founded on us maintaining the Christian ethic of self sacrifice for others rather than the evolutionary ethic of survival of the fittest is something that makes this show so important. Because humanity is still so thoroughly evil we still have a strong contingent who believe that there is no absolute morality, we only “socially construct” morality to control others. Might makes right. Sure, these relativists may not all be Kim Jong Ils or serial killers, but they are university professors and “scientists” and sociologists teaching kids these values in a world of constant evolutionary change. Our modern universities are breeding zombie nihilist kids, because teachers and professors deny all moral absolutes (with the exception of their Leftism of course) and with it all religion as patriarchal fascist control, but they themselves are behaving as if there are moral values of civility and such. But the next generation becomes more consistent and starts to live consistently with those relativist values. They start to behave as if there are no moral absolutes. It’s that simple really. And thus we have the growing zombie apocalypse thanks to public education and the universities.
In season three, they run into another walled community, Woodbury, that is led by a benevolent dictator, affectionately called The Governor. On the outside, he is a nice Southern gentleman who also rules as a benevolent dictator, but in reality, he is a dark violent soul. Their “Bedford Falls” of happy suburban life contained within a walled perimeter turns out to be a police state underneath of human experimentation and gladiatorial games with zombies for cathartic violence. But the Governor also seeks to kill Rick and his band.
But here is where I would like to encourage all Christians to support this series by watching it. This setup of the Governor and his little town is the classic Hollywood scenario of an outwardly happy traditional suburban world with a dark underbelly that almost always includes a Christian religious element to it. The usual revelations would be that they pray as they kill people, or the Governor uses “right wing” religious rhetoric because he wants to set up a theocracy.
BUT THIS NEVER HAPPENS IN THE SERIES!
There is not an ounce of religious rhetoric from the survivalists or the Governor! I could not believe it. I applaud the writers of the show for not exercising the typical bigotry and hatred of Christians that network and cable writers so often display.
It is pathetic to me that the bigotry and discrimination against Christians and their faith has become so ubiquitous in Hollywood storytelling that I get excited about a series just because it doesn’t attack Christians!
But there is more to it than that.
In fact, God has an increasingly positive role in this series. In the first season, there was only one sequence where they stumble upon a church with a few zombies sitting in the pews looking at the cross of Christ up front. Okay, that’s a funny irony. But it pretty much just became a scene where Rick prays to the Christ statue for some help, while having a hard time believing he is there. Okay, That’s fair. Of course, we all question God with serious tragedies. Some cool possibilities. But unfortunately nothing ever really came of it. In fact, I remember thinking that it was not a very honest portrayal to have people in this life and death lifestyle and none of them really be dealing with the whole God and suffering and evil thing. You don’t have to be a believer to acknowledge that when you face death, you at least wrestle with God. Also, the fact that there was a crucifix in a Baptist church showed the ignorance of the writers about Evangelical faith. But that is forgivable.
Anyway, in season two, they meet Herschel, the old man with the farm, who read his Bible and kept his family members who had turned to zombies penned in his barn. He was unwilling to kill them because he thought they were still human. Okay, you could say that this is a kind of critique of Christian’s elevation of the sanctity of life to the point where they give something dignity that does not deserve it according to these story tellers. Plus he was a pacifist, an unlivable worldview in a world of pure survival. So I was thinking, uh oh, here it is, the stupid Christian stereotype coming.
BUT IT DIDN’T HAPPEN! I am very glad to admit I was wrong twice on this account.
Herschel had a traumatic experience that got him to overcome his pacifist silliness and false views of zombies and he ends up in season three as the moral conscience that keeps Rick in line when he starts to sway. Herschel even describes himself as “losing his way” by being out of line with the Bible. I was blown away. In fact, the whole series is an incarnate argument against pacifism and left wing theories about the “goodness” of human nature and the need to “understand” evil instead of condemn it and strike it down. The zombies are not the only ones who will keep coming to eat you until you destroy them. The villains like The Governor will not stop in their lawless pursuit of killing the good and controlling everyone else until you put them down — as in permanently — as in with a gun.
Take that you immoral gun control advocates who seek to arm the evil and disarm the good.
Not only that, but Herschel’s faith becomes a little more positive element when he quotes the Bible to unruly Meryl, a man who is sure to become a Judas in Rick’s group. Both Meryl and Herschel had a limb cut off, Meryl cut his own to save his life in the first season, and Meryl had his leg chopped off because a zombie bite in the leg would have turned him if Rick had not cut it off in time. Meryl quotes Matthew 25 to Meryl: “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” This is a powerful metaphor for the seriousness of sin, but also for the power of repentance for Meryl, and he sees this. It would be nice if season four brings some kind of redemption for a rather brutal and bad man. We shall see.
Well, there’s a ton more of course, but I will end with my one caveat of caution. While TWD does not have a whole lot of zombie violence, there is some in every show, and it is not a pretty sight for those of weak stomach, since the only way for zombies to be fully stopped is by cutting off their heads or smashing their brains in. TWD is quite responsible in not becoming gratuitous. But we should be careful of the amount of such violence in our entertainment diet, even if it is morally appropriate violence. Because too much of a good thing can be bad. It may even have the very effect the storytellers intend to avoid: A tendency to dehumanize real people in our world.
But that is a small caveat to an otherwise powerful and morally rich tale of survival and sacrifice that lands decidedly in the camp of Christian values for civilization.
So far. We shall see about season four. After all, we all know what happened to 24.
3 comments on “The Walking Dead: Zombies, God, and What Makes us Human”
Before I read your article, I believed the Walking Dead was a show that I should never watch, because of the killing of bitten survivors, a few sexual scenarios, and the violence. After I read the article, I changed my mind. I finished watching Season 1 on Netflix, and got partway through Season 2. I stopped watching it after I learned that Rick’s son, Carl, becomes a heartless, cold killer after he loses some of his loved ones. He even calls one of the survivors an idiot for believing in Heaven and Hell. Worse is that he never apologizes to her throughout the series. As much as I applaud the show for not becoming totally anti-Christian, I do have a problem with a young innocent boy like Carl turning into a cold, disrespectful person. Should I keep watching the show in spite of all that?