Living with the Living Dead: The wisdom of the zombie apocalypse by Greg Garrett

by
21 December 2017

Whether you view the TV at Christmas from on the sofa or behind it, John Saxbee looks at two popular genres of fiction

 

ANYONE who has experienced family life on Christmas Day after a bacchanalian lunch will not question the appropriateness of including in this Christmas issue Living with the Living Dead. And this “wisdom of the Zombie Apocalypse” may be timely for other reason, too. For example, it is likely that up to one third of Christmas stockings this year will contain zombie-themed DVDs, games, or graphic novels. Titles such as The Walking Dead, Zombieland, The Road, and, of course, Game of Thrones will feature prominently.

By no means least, Greg Garrett makes a somewhat counter-intuitive case that these zombie genres are characterised by the virtues of hospitality, peacemaking, and generosity which Christians would certainly want to associate with the birth of Christ. Indeed, a zombie crèche featuring a zombie Christ-child in a small town in Ohio made the national news in 2015.

What Professor Richard Burridge did for the likes of Star Trek and The Matrix in his Faith Odyssey, Garrett does for what he calls “the most ubiquitous narratives of post-9/11 Western culture”.

An introductory chapter defines “the Zombie Apocalypse”, and explains how, throughout human history, times of danger and insecurity have spawned dystopian narratives that provide “a laboratory for observing human emotions and experience. . . We get our daily requirement of ethical and philosophical reflection, all in the guise of stories about the living dead.”

 

But what are zombies? They are “whatever keeps you awake at night. . . Symbols for all sorts of free-floating twenty-first century anxieties”. Zombie narratives are particularly strong, he says, when it comes to questions such as what it is that makes us human, and how we build and maintain community, and ethical considerations regarding how we live and how we ought to live. Chapters are devoted to each of these topics, and the final chapter is about how zombie wisdom might inform our responses to suffering, death, and whatever may lie beyond.

While he acknowledges that nihilism is a dominant theme for the zombie apocalypse, he offers numerous examples of how hope ultimately prevails over disaster in these narratives, and good comes out of evil.

Using his full range of academic qualifications, Garrett skilfully combines literary criticism, cultural studies, and philosophical theology to scout these always gory, sometimes humorous, and potentially insightful creations.

Inevitably, all of this will divide opinion. Garrett tends to read more into these narratives than they can bear, and his appeal to scripture for corroboration can be somewhat uncritical. But he sees himself as someone who likes to help people understand things, and those bewildered by zombies and their popularity will certainly appreciate his analysis and explanations.

Finally, at Christmas, we might or might not be reassured by the zombie maxim: the family that slays together stays together.

 

SCIENCE fiction, on the other hand, is a capacious genre encompassing an extraordinarily wide and varied range of written, audio and visual media. Nailing down a common denominator to help contain and comprehend this burgeoning cultural phenomenon is never going to be easy.

Nevertheless, Alan Gregory, Principal of St Augustine’s College of Theology, in Canterbury, makes an inviting and plausible case for the sublime as just such a generic concept. Furthermore, sublimity offers a point of connection between science fiction and religion.

It is generally agreed that the modern understanding of the sublime dates back to the dawn of the scientific age, with an increasing awareness of the complexity and awesome scale of the created order. It is also traceable to the age of romanticism, with the natural world front and centre in all its grandeur, power, and mystery.

While much of this movement pertains to “high art”, it also affected everyday human experience, thereby fuelling an appetite for tales of the supernatural, gothic novels, and what has become known as science fiction.

The book is in three parts. The first traces a history of the sublime, from Kant finding awe in “the starry sky above me” to Norman Mailer greeting the launch of Apollo XI with shouts of “My God, Oh my God” over and over again.

It is what we might nowadays call the “wow factor” or, as Gregory defines it: “A certain range of imaginative and affective responses to vastness and extreme power, to the fearful and threatening, the grand and imposing, the vertiginous and appalling, to that which strains imagination and stumps reason.”

The second part focuses on how such ideas of sublimity made their impact on the development of science fiction, especially in the late 19th century, when social, technological, and publishing conditions facilitated its production as popular literature.

Of especial interest here is how the sublime has come to include the brave new worlds invoked by advances in science and technology: “Power, the exhilarations of possibility, human grandeur appearing in a context that also places the human within vastness, intimations of technological promise — these provide some, at least, of the ingredients of science-fictional sublimity.”

Separate chapters deal with pulp fiction, the works of H. G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon, Philip K. Dick’s novels, and the modern obsession with apocalyptic scenarios.

Each of these sub-genres tends towards a negative take on theology. For example, Wells and Stapledon see religion as a constraint on humanity’s capacity to advance sublimity to positive ends. Dick explores how human beings might be saved from the dehumanising effects of technology, but has little confidence in traditional soteriologies to do what is needed. In apocalyptic sci-fi, the transcendental claims of Christianity are rendered irrelevant as sublimity is essentially imminent, and Christian eschatology simply fosters naïve and ultimately unrealisable hope.

Gregory’s final chapter challenges the negativity towards Christianity (and, to a lesser extent, other religions) in much contemporary science fiction.

Why does the sublime have to be reduced to exclusively human immanentist categories? What about beauty, which, as Gregory argues, following Jonathan Edwards, points to a more accurate conception of creation, humanity, and the divine? And what about mystery that can transcend science fiction with the promise of divine truth?

Certainly, other commentators have credited science fiction with more theological sympathy and insights than Gregory concedes. Also, as he admits, his choice of sources will not be to everyone’s satisfaction. But deploying the sublime as a prism through which to compare and contrast science fiction and theology is a master stroke.

 

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

 

Living with the Living Dead: The wisdom of the zombie apocalypse
Greg Garrett
OUP £16.99
(978-0-19-026045-3)
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

 

Science Fiction Theology: Beauty and the transformation of the sublime
Alan P. R. Gregory
Baylor University Press £57.50
(978-1-60258-460-0)

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