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Rapacious, inarticulate, hungry, but never full

24 August 2012

The popular obsession with zombies can tell the Church something about consumerist culture, argues Rachel Mann

WE ARE living in an age that seems to be obsessed with monsters. There have been endless films and books about vampires, werewolves, and zombies. While the Church has never been called to chase after the glittering coat-tails of popular culture, Christianity's desire to share the good news always demands that it be brought into creative relationship with the interests of the day.

Nevertheless, many might conclude that being interested in zombies - fantastical flesh-eating creatures from the vulgarist expression of the popular mind - is simply incredible. I suggest, however, that the current fascination with zombies is not merely about entertainment: it reveals something powerful about Western culture - something that the Church is being called on to respond to, and even be challenged by.

Zombies, like vampires and werewolves, have undergone a radical makeover in the past 50 years. Before the 1960s, zombies were portrayed as reanimated dead bodies used as servants by a voodoo magician. Since George A. Romero's seminal 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, however, they have typically been understood as the dead returned to life with an insatiable desire for human flesh.

These aggressive monsters have been a sure-fire financial banker in numerous media, and a staple of popular culture. Recent films such as Shaun of the Dead, made in the UK, and Hollywood's Zombieland combined comedy with horror, and took the zombie flick to a new mass audience.

Equally, the series The Walking Dead, made in the United States and available in the UK on cable, has become one of the most compelling shows on television; and the zombie-slaughtering video game Resident Evil is immensely popular. There have also been literature hits, such as the Jane Austen parody Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. In Brighton recently, 3000 people turned out dressed as zombies for a promenade along the sea front. And, of course, zombies are all over the internet.

AT ONE level, the well-established zombie trope indicates nothing more than our desire to be simultaneously entertained and scared. I have been a horror-movie fan since childhood, and I am convinced that one dimension of the power of horror movies is the desire to be frightened in a controlled environment. In this respect, horror is similar to the desire to scare ourselves on roller-coasters.

The zombie genre, however, has particular characteristics. First, unlike vampires, for example, it has no glamour. Zombies are typically (although not exclusively) slow-moving, ugly, relentless, and mindless. I have always been especially scared by them because, more than other monsters, they represent our most unthinking and relentlessly hungry selves. They are interested in one thing only: consumption. And they can never be filled.

This dimension was explored most famously by Romero, the zombie-maestro, in his film Dawn of the Dead, which is set mostly in a shopping mall. Although it follows the classic zombie pattern - a group of humans fail to survive the rapacious attention of hundreds of zombies - its presentation of the living dead wittily satirises our consumerist culture.

Many of the zombies continue to push shopping carts around the mall, and act as if they were still alive. Crucially, their prime remaining desire is to shop. Although it was made in 1978, its vision of the basic human instinct as "shop till you drop" - even if you are the undead - was not only prescient, but troublingly accurate about rapacious consumerism.

I sense that part of the reason for the current fad for zombie walks lies in an unconscious recognition of the way in which post-industrial, consumerist culture wishes to reduce us to narrow modes of identity. Yes, people want to have fun, but they also want to expose the ways in which society damages our sense of self. In an age where many lives, especially those of the young, are constrained by long-term unemployment, and many who have a job fail to find it challenging, the zombie metaphor has genuine power.

YOU do not need to be a poet to recognise that the spoken word is one, if not the single most, defining characteristic of our humanity. Zombies, by contrast, are utterly inarticulate, although they constantly moan and make noises. It is intriguing to note how our consumerist age seems to make words - the very things that should enrich us - empty, untrustworthy, and unsatis-fying. They do not nourish us, and become adjuncts of marketing strategies and meaningless phrases.

So, for example, advertising campaigns will tell us that vegetables are "flavour-fresh", or invite us to "live the dream" by owning a pair of expensive trainers. These words seek to make us associate good feelings with products, and yet we discover that they mean nothing. When we eat a "flavour-fresh" apple, we discover that it has no flavour at all.

A mark of our zombified age is the extent to which our words are dust in our mouths and do not nourish us. We multiply words, in the hope that we will be satisfied. As the Revd Barbara Brown Taylor once put it, we have a "famine of excess": we have an excess of words, and yet, because they contain no nutrients, no matter how much we seek to feed on them, we are not satisfied. Like zombies, we are always hungry for the next meal.

IN SO FAR as we are living in an age that seeks to zombify us and make us relentlessly hungry, the Church - seen so often as wilfully obscure and out of touch - clearly offers the promise of new life and hope. And, at the heart of that Christian hope, is fullness of life. The "bread of life" is precisely the food that satisfies; Jesus is the "living water" that fills us with a spring of eternal life.

The very nature of the Kingdom - which prioritises the poor and the vulnerable, and invites us to be our true selves in Christ - is a work of resistance against the emptiness of rapacious consumerism. This is good news in its rawest form.

There is an unavoidable challenge, however. The Church is in a dynamic relationship with our times, and we ignore this at our peril. If we are living in the time of the zombies, then we should be honest enough to acknowledge that we are not immune to zombification. We are perfectly capable of being mindlessly monstrous.

The Church often presents itself as endlessly hungry for more time, more money, and more bums on pews for its sometimes inward-looking purposes. Equally, in a consumer culture, the Church will be under pressure to offer "consumer salvation" - words that are easy to consume, yet offer only short-term satisfaction; and good news that offers what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap rather than costly grace.

INEVITABLY, because of our limited human perspective, the Church will always struggle to judge precisely where it is an agent of zombification rather than fullness of life. We shall have to ask ourselves constantly whether what the Church offers, through the grace of God, helps people to have greater life, and participate in richer relationships.

We shall need to return, again and again, to the deepest, most potent, and yet often most mysterious truths of faith: that the food that satisfies is the flesh and blood of Christ; and the voice of God is most readily heard in silence. One thing is clear: in focusing excessively on reducing financial and human resources in the Church, we place the very pulse of the Kingdom at risk.

One of the silly questions asked by those who enjoy the zombie trope is: "Where would you go if the Zombie Apocalypse happened? What would you do to survive?" Many of the answers involve heading to the kind of place that might ensure that we have sufficient weapons and supplies to stave off attacks. Equally, many people would head for the wilderness.

No one heads to church. And yet, in so far as the zombie metaphor has influence on what modern society does to people, the Church may yet be our best hope, and also the kind of refuge that it often has been historically.

The Revd Rachel Mann is Priest-in-Charge of St Nicholas's, Burnage, Manchester, and poet-in-residence at Manchester Cathedral.

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