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Toward a Theology of Zombies
A. Trevor Sutton

This story begins like a bad joke: A clergyman and three zombie experts walk into a room. They are presenting papers at an academic conference. After the clergyman presents his paper, a graduate student raises her hand and asks: “Does the Lutheran faith have anything to say about zombies?”

Through what must have been a clerical error, I was the lone clergyman on a panel of zombie experts at a humanities conference hosted by a Midwestern university. Since my paper was about early Christian funerary art, the conference organizers decided it would be best to place me on a panel with three PhD students working in the field of zombies. I lectured on the dead; they lectured on the undead.

My fellow panel members addressed some vexing zombie issues: Why are Haitian zombies confused with filmmaker George Romero’s zombies? In a full-fledged zombie apocalypse, is it better to hunker down in a basement or ascend to the tops of buildings? Can one ever fully recover from zombification? These questions—ostensibly jokes, yet debated with the utmost seriousness—filled the allotted presentation time and bled into the discussion period.

As the conversation lingered over the bacterial nuances of Haitian zombies, I drifted off into my own zombified state of boredom. When the discussion had reached undead levels of monotony, a question was finally hurled in my direction: “Does the Lutheran faith have anything to say about zombies?”

At first, I was tempted to say that Lutheranism has as much to say about zombies as it does about snipe hunts, unicorns, and leprechauns. I resisted. As I thought about the question, it became apparent that one thing does unite the zombiologists and me: we both love a good ­mystery. For zombiologists, love of mystery drives them to speculate tirelessly about an impending zombie apocalypse. For me, and others in the Lutheran tribe, our love of mystery allows us to hold a cornucopia of seemingly paradoxical beliefs.

Although both Lutherans and zombiologists love mystery, each group handles mystery very differently; the very thing that unites these groups also divides them. Mystery, for the zombiologists on my panel, is an invitation to probe deeper into ontological questions of being. For them, a mystery is a problem begging for a solution. Mystery, for me, is a chance to marvel at the miracle of creation. Life’s mysteries call for reflection, not dissection.

Zombies, or the notion of embodied unconsciousness, can only exist in a world that mishandles mysteries. Reductive science, with its canine appetite for perfunctory answers, has reduced the mystery of creaturely life down to a series of mechanical components. If human life is but a series of mechanical components, then zombie life is what happens when these components go awry.

Take neuroscience as an example: researchers have fileted every nook and cranny of the brain, with a haughty lot of them declaring that creaturely life is merely the result of complex operations within the brain. This expectation of mastery over mystery is precisely what makes zombiologists.

Zombiology is an epiphenomenon of reductive science, a fascination that results from imbibing too much Cartesian dualism. If the recipe for a human is one part body and one part soul, then the recipe for a zombie is merely one part body and then substitute flesh-eating bacteria for the soul. Zombie lovers, like ghost hunters, are the bastard children of traditional Cartesian dualists; while ghost hunters are fixated on the possibility of the bodiless soul, zombie lovers are fixated on the possibility of the soulless body.

The desire to master the mystery of life is not limited to zombie panels at humanities conferences. The attempt to dissect life down to unrecognizable pieces goes beyond human subjects. Our food and animals have been subjected to a thorough zombification. Salmon have been genetically altered to grow at alarming rates. These aptly named “Frankenfish” are almost fish. GMO plants can produce sterile seeds so that it is almost a soybean. Meat from cattle has been infused with some sort of pink slime so that it is almost beef. This leads us to wonder: We have zombie food, what is to say that we cannot have zombie people as well?

Into the midst of this zombie chaos our faith makes some mysterious assertions about miraculous things. These declarations sometimes appear impotent. They are dismissed on account of the questions they leave unanswered. Take for instance the assertion that God formed creatures from the dust of the earth. Is this dust made of electrons, atoms, or quarks? And what exactly is the divine glue used to hold this dust together? Is it covalent bonds, quantum ­physics, or ­laminin proteins? Our mysterious claim leaves these questions unanswered. It simply says one thing: Life is from God.

Another mysterious assertion is that life is from the breath of God. This leaves us wondering: What of the liminal state between breath and breathlessness? What do we make of the body’s electrical signals long after clinical death? What of the heart’s spontaneous reperfusion after being stopped for a time? To these questions we have only one mysterious claim: Life comes from the breath of God. Life is removed when the breath of God is removed.

The mysterious claims of our faith do not account for all of the subtleties of reductive science. In fact, the mysteries of our faith add a great deal of opacity to the conversation. Yet, in these simple gems we find something of substance to offer the zombie-loving community. While they may be experts on the undead, Christ has made us experts on the abundantly-lived life.

Our faith refuses to reduce life down to anything less than a miracle. Mysteries are not problems. Mysteries are not promptings for further inquiry. Instead, mystery is simply a part of the creaturely experience. Into a world of chaos we carry a handful of mysterious assertions. Our claims answer few questions about zombies. Yet, somehow the mysteries of our faith answer the questions that are worth asking.

 

A. Trevor Sutton serves as pastor at St. Luke Lutheran Church in Haslett, Michigan. His newest book, Creature Life: God’s Story of Restoration, was co-authored with Dr. Charles Arand and is being published by Concordia Seminary Press.

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