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The Gnostic Zombie

Last week, during my interview for this show, I was asked several questions about zombies in culture. Have they supplanted vampires in popularity? Why zombie-brainis the public so fascinated with the undead right now? I’m no expert on zombies (except the ones I work with), but am fascinated by the trend.

Especially its religious overtones.

In case you missed it, zombies now have a virtual “theology” all their own. In his article on CNN Belief Blog entitled The ‘zombie theology’ behind the Walking Dead, John Blake writes

Some people find faith in churches. David Murphy finds it in zombies.

Murphy, the author of “Zombies for Zombies: Advice and Etiquette for the Living Dead,” says Americans’ appetite for zombies isn’t fed just by sources such as the AMC  hit series “The Walking Dead” or the countless zombie books and video games people buy.

Our zombie fascination has a religious root. Zombies are humans who have “lost track of their souls,” Murphy says.

“Our higher spirit prevents us from doing stupid and violent things like, say, eating a neighbor,” Murphy says. “When we are devoid of such spiritual ‘guidance,’ we become little more than walking bags of flesh, acting out like soccer moms on a bender.”

This is the most common theological spin on zombies. Zombies reinforce how “the body without the spirit is dead” (James 2:26) and speak to something immaterial but essential to man’s biology — an “essence” which transcends our brains and organs. Without which we are just brains and organs. Thus, the zombie represents the soulless human.

However, there’s another angle to this traditional interpretation, which I haven’t seen emphasized as much, pointed out to the interviewer, and wanted to take  minute to expound upon here.

The biblical picture of man is holistic. We are not just souls. We are triune beings consisting of spirit, soul, and body (I Thess. 5:23). While our immaterial selves may constitute our essence and be the distinguishing feature of “human” (as opposed to simply animal) life, the body is not inconsequential in Christian theology. Man did not become a “living soul” until God breathed His image into a physical frame (Gen. 2:7).

God’s breath / image + human body = living soul

Furthermore, we are not intended to dwell eternally “unclothed” (II Cor. 5:4), as the apostle Paul put it, referring to a bodiless existence. But according to Scripture, a future bodily resurrection of all the dead will mark the end of this age. And souls will be “rejoined” with a physical body. Thus, being a real human does not just mean possessing a soul or spirit, but having that soul / spirit fused into a body.

This is important because of the gnostic heresy. Gnosticism was a belief that ran concurrent to the early church. It took on many forms, caused considerable controversy, and eventually brought charges of heresy.  Gnostics held to a dualistic worldview in which matter was evil. Thus, man’s soul or spirit was of divine substance, but was trapped inside an evil physical carcass and needed to be awakened. It could only be liberated by “secret knowledge” which, you guessed, only the Gnostics possessed.

More importantly, because the Gnostics viewed the body as evil, they believed Christ did not come in a real physical body. He was a phantom, of some sort. Of course, some of the New Testament epistles are direct rebuttals to Gnostic doctrine.  As when the apostle Paul declared about Christ: “in him dwells All the fullness of the deity bodily” (Col. 2:8). With an emphasis upon bodily.

So let me bring this back to zombie-ism.

If the Bible portrays a holistic view of man, that our uniqueness is not just tethered to a soul/spirit, but also a body, then…

Zombie lore does not just speak to the value of an immaterial soul, but a physical body.

What makes a person a zombie is not simply that the soul has left the body, but that there is no body in which to regain its soulishness.

Not only is a soul needed to make a human, but a body is needed to make a soul.

In all our interpretation of zombie culture, let us not miss out on the import of the body. Which I’m afraid we have. Rather than seeing zombie culture as simply reinforcing the essence of the soul and how utterly zombie-like we are without it, we should acknowledge the opposite as well: A soulless body is only half a human, as is a bodiless soul. The horror of it is not just that zombies no longer possess souls, but that those souls no longer possess a body.

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{ 9 comments… add one }
  • paula cappa June 14, 2013, 7:52 AM

    This is very insightful post, Mike. I like your analysis a lot. I’m not a zombie fiction fan but I came across Guy de Maupassant’s short story, “Was It A Dream?” which he wrote in the mid 1880s and it’s about zombies but with an interesting moral twist about their evil at the end of the story. It’s on my web site if you’d like to take a read. De Maupassant’s zombies are a bit different from our modern day ones … and preferable, at least to me. Of course, De Maupassant’s stories often revealed the hidden side of people in every day life; a great writer who we don’t read much anymore.


  • Bob Avey June 14, 2013, 8:51 AM

    Interesting material for thought, Mike. I’d never considered zombies as tools for education. Your insight into such things is inspiring.

  • Kessie June 14, 2013, 10:39 AM

    Ooh, very good points. One reason I’ve thought that zombies have become so popular (among the reasons you list here) is the backlash of our culture against itself. We’re the culture that worships youth and beauty. What’s the antitheses of that? Corruption and death. It’s cathartic in a twisted way.

    It’s also interesting that while zombies are about the decay of the body, werewolves are the decay of the mind, and vampires are the decay of the soul.

    • Brad June 14, 2013, 12:05 PM

      Kessie, you beat me to it. I really don’t like zombies, but I love “Walking Dead,” and it’s creating cognitive dissonance. One explanation is aesthetic: TWD is a very well done show whose narrative is more about the people than the zombies. But why zombies at all? My best explanation is similar to yours: that it represents our growing cultural disgust with who we are morally. Zombies are literalizations of how we feel inside and provide an outlet for us to both fear ourselves and to triumphantly destroy ourselves. This is truly horrifying in ways like Mike is arguing – it means a despair of both the spirit and the flesh.

  • Laura K. Cowan June 14, 2013, 12:14 PM

    I love everything about this post. I think about this topic often because I write books that are at the crossroads of literary or religious themes and speculative fiction, but I’ve never thought about the corporeal side of the issue. Well thought out! Thanks!

  • Robert H. Woodman June 14, 2013, 6:13 PM

    I’m really no fan of zombies in any form or on any show, but this is a very well done, thoughtful post on the subject of zombies.

    It occurred to me that the rise in fascination with zombies may be linked to the rise in forms of technology that make us essentially soulless. Social media, for example, tends to bring out the worst behavior in some people because it permits them to hide their true identities behind some clever online nickname. Being able to hide like that is, possibly, a form of soullessness. What do you think?

  • Guy Stewart June 16, 2013, 2:59 PM

    So given that we’ve run through (with a slight twist on Kessie’s interpretation):

    vampires: bodies without souls
    werewolves: animals without reason
    spock: human without emotion (the original one)
    zombie: bodies without souls

    The next step to explore?

    ghosts: passionate, unreasoning spirits without bodies or souls

    Watch for a resurgence of GHOST stories at a bookstore/theater near you!

    • Teddi Deppner June 16, 2013, 6:26 PM

      Great hearing the variety of interpretations of the core issues of these creatures. I’ve broken it down this way:

      Werewolf: out of control (cannot manage self, obsess on others) / hot
      Vampire: total control freaks (self-centered, manage self and dominate others) / cold
      Zombie: total apathy (no focus, uncaring of self and others) / lukewarm

      There’s a lot of variety in the details (my werewolves mostly have rage issues, vampires mostly have addiction issues, zombies have… I don’t know yet – focus issues? commitment issues? awareness issues?) and I’m having fun with the themes. For example, for each story arc I’m focused on one of the creatures and a central question they are facing:

      Werewolves: To whom will you belong? It’s an obedience thing (yeah, I’m playing on the dog/devotion).

      Romans 6:16 “Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin [leading] to death, or of obedience [leading] to righteousness?”

      Vampires: Whom will you serve? It’s an adoration thing. Don’t have a key scripture for this one yet, just happened to think of the one above while typing this all out.

      Zombies: Whom will you follow? It’s a pursuit thing. What in life is worth chasing after? What is motivation enough to jar us out of our apathy?

      Anyway. Fun to discuss this with folks who see themes in pop culture.

      Interesting idea with the ghosts, Guy. Do you watch “Being Human”? A vampire, a werewolf and a ghost walk into a bar — er, I mean, share an apartment. I really do think these shows (some of them) are wrestling with the questions of what it means to be human.

  • Teddi Deppner June 16, 2013, 5:52 PM

    Hey, Mike. Most of the other comments have covered what I might say in response to this post, except for this: my personal and individual appreciation for your insight.

    This hits home for me, since I’m writing a series that deals directly with the spiritual aspects of these creatures (primarily werewolves, vampires and zombies). My story path starts with the werewolves, segues into the vampire world and will eventually deal with zombies — and the zombies are the ones I am least familiar with. I’m still exploring the direction I’ll take in terms of the spiritual illness they reflect, the struggles they experience (or whether they force those around them into a struggle due to their zombie nature) and the form of their cure.

    I hadn’t considered this aspect of the creature, so it’s a great tidbit for my creative stew! Thank you, sir! *tipping my hat*

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