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The 'zombie theology' behind the walking dead
December 20th, 2010
06:00 AM ET

The 'zombie theology' behind the walking dead

By John Blake, CNN

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.”

I talked to Murphy after going on my own six-week zombie bender. I watched the final episode of AMC’s  record-breaking series “The Walking Dead.” I was one of 6 million viewers who tuned in to see how  survivors of  a zombie apocalypse fared after finding apparent sanctuary in Atlanta.

I then stumbled on a post by John Morehead in the Religion Dispatches online magazine titled  “Toward a Zombie Theology.” That got me thinking.

Is there a religious significance to people’s fascination with zombies?

Some "zombie scholars" say yes. After all, zombie stories grapple with common religious themes: the end of the world, resurrection and the nature of the human soul.

Stephen Joel Garver, a philosophy professor at La Salle University in Pennsylvania, says zombies also resonate with so many Americans today because of the Great Recession.

“We live in a time where we talk about ‘zombie banks’ and ‘zombie corporations’ -  the economic equivalent of the walking dead …,” he says. “This points to a bigger anxiety about an ‘apocalypse’ in which the familiar secure structures of our lives fall apart - in the face of economic collapse …”

Garver says zombies represent “human desire at its more unconstrained: ravenous and relentless.” Zombie films often depict authorities showing up to save the day. (The main character in “The Walking Dead” is a sheriff.)

But what happens when there’s no one, or no God, to save us? How do we decide what's right or wrong? Does acting morally even matter anymore? Those are some of the  implicit questions in  zombie movies, Garver says.

“Are there resources within our nature by which we can save ourselves?” Garver asks. “Is there any sort of transcendent reality - a God, a realm of morals - into which we can tap as a bulwark against the darkness?"

Most zombie movies say no. In most of my favorite zombie movies - “Dawn of the Dead,” “28 Days Later” - there are no happy endings. The government, the military, the scientists - they all become zombie stew.

Zombie theology also asks tough questions about redemption. Many religious traditions teach that no one is beyond redemption.

Not so with zombies, says Rebecca Borah, an English professor at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio. She says zombies are Cain-like figures, cursed and exiled from humanity.

“They represent our basic fears of death, decay and desecration,” she says. “Who wants to grow old, become ill and be isolated from our loved ones or a chance at redemption?’’

The final lesson in zombie theology is harsh, according to Borah.

Many religions  stress the importance of forgiveness. But Borah suggests a different theological response to a group of zombies chasing you.

Show  no mercy.

“It is you versus them, and the more of an anti-zombie zealot you are, the better for all concerned,” Borah says. “Take them out as fast as you can at all costs because - former loved ones or not - they are the damned and you don't want to catch it from them.”

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Art • Culture & Science • Death • Trends • TV

soundoff (229 Responses)
  1. TDJ

    I'm sorry. The what behind the who?

    December 24, 2010 at 10:00 pm |
  2. a

    This is the stupidist article ever.... If "stupidist"wasn't a word before, it should be approved to describe this article. So, now atheists are zombies?

    December 24, 2010 at 12:42 am |
    • Muneef

      a.
      Agree with you atheists are the zombies of our societies having nothing to believe in or fear of. Not caring about the consequences of their acts since they believe in no God or Judgment day.

      December 24, 2010 at 6:31 am |
    • Muneef

      Al-E-Imran sura03:
      In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful 
      This is part of the tidings of the things unseen, which We reveal unto thee (O Prophet!) by inspiration; thou wast not with them when they cast lots with arrows, as to which of them should be charged with the care of Mary; nor wast thou with them when they disputed (the point). (44) Behold! the angels said "O Mary! Allah giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from Him: his name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary held in honour in this world and the Hereafter and of (the company of) those nearest to Allah. (45) "He shall speak to the people in childhood And in maturity and he shall be (of the company) of the righteous." (46) She said: "O my Lord! how shall I have a son when no man hath touched me?" He said: "Even so: Allah createth what He willeth; when He hath decreed a plan, He but saith to it `Be', and it is! (47) "And Allah will teach him the Book and Wisdom, the Torah and the Gospel. (48) "And (appoint him) an Messenger to the Children of Israel, (with this message): I have come to you with a sign from your Lord, in that I make for you out of clay as it were the figure of a bird, and breathe into it, and it becomes a bird by Allah's leave; and I heal those born blind, and the lepers and I quicken the dead by Allah's leave; and I declare to you what ye eat, and what ye store in your houses. Surely therein is a Sign for you if ye did believe. (49) "(I have come to you), to attest the Law which was before me, and to make lawful to you part of what was (before) forbidden to you; I have come to you with a Sign from your Lord. So fear Allah and obey me. (50) "It is Allah who is my Lord and your Lord; then worship Him. This is a way that is straight." (51) When Jesus found unbelief on their part, he said: "Who will be my helpers to (the work of) Allah?" Said the Disciples: "We are Allah's helpers we believe in Allah and do thou bear witness that we are Muslims. (52) "Our Lord! we believe in what thou hast revealed, and we follow the Messenger; then write us down among those who bear witness." (53) And (then unbelievers) plotted and planned, and Allah too planned, and the best of planners is Allah. (54) Behold! Allah said: "O Jesus! I will take thee and raise thee to Myself and clear thee (of the falsehoods) of those who blaspheme; I will make those who follow thee superior to those who reject Faith, to the Day of Resurrection; then shall ye all return unto Me, and I will judge between you of the matters wherein ye dispute. (55).

      Al-E-Imran sura 03:
      "This is what We re-he-ar-se unto thee of the Signs and the Message of Wisdom." (58) This similitude of Jesus before Allah is as that of Adam: He created him from dust, then said to him: "Be" and he was. (59) The Truth (comes) from thy Lord alone; so be not of those who doubt. (60).

      An-Nisa sura 04:
      That they rejected Faith: that they ut-te-red against Mary a grave false charge. (156) That they said (in boast), "We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah";― but they killed him not, nor cr-uc-if-ied him, but so it was made to appear to them and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not.― (157) Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise. (158).

      An-Nisa sura 04:
      O mankind! The Messenger hath come to you in truth from Allah: believe in him: it is best for you. But if ye reject Faith to Allah belongs all things in the heavens and on earth: and Allah is All-Knowing,All-Wise. (170) O people of the Book! commit no excesses in your religion: nor say of Allah aught but truth. Christ Jesus the son of Mary was (no more than) an Messenger of Allah and His Word, which He bestowed on Mary, and a Spirit proceeding from Him: so believe in Allah and His Messengers. Say not "Trinity": desist: it will be better for you: for Allah is One Allah: glory be to him: (for Exalted is He) above having a son. To Him belongs all things in the heavens and on earth. And enough is Allah as a Disposer of affairs. (171) Christ disdaineth not to serve and worship Allah, nor do the angels, those nearest (to Allah): those who disdain His worship and are arrogant― He will gather them all together unto Himself to (answer). (172).

      Al-Maeda sura05:
      One day will Allah gather the Messengers together, and ask: "What was the response ye received (from men to your teaching)? They will say: "We have no knowledge: it is Thou who knowest in full all that is hidden. (109) Then will Allah say: "O Jesus, the son of Mary! recount my favour to thee and to thy mother. Behold! I strengthened thee with the holy spirit, so that thou didst speak to the people in childhood and in maturity. Behold! I taught thee the Book and Wisdom, the Law and the Gospel. And behold! thou makest out of clay, as it were, the figure of a bird, by My leave, and thou breathest into it and it becometh a bird by My leave, and thou healest those born blind, and the lepers, by My leave. And behold! thou bringest forth the dead by My leave. And behold! I did restrain the Children of Israel from (violence to) thee when thou didst show them the Clear Signs, and the unbelievers among them said: `This is nothing but evident magic'. (110) "And behold! I inspired the Disciples to have faith in Me and Mine Messenger: they said `We have faith and do thou bear witness that we bow to Allah as Muslims'." (111) Behold! the Disciples said: "O Jesus the son of Mary! can thy Lord send down to us a table set (with viands) from heaven?" Said Jesus: "Fear Allah if ye have faith." (112) They said: "We only wish to eat thereof and satisfy our hearts, and to know that thou hast indeed told us the truth; and that we ourselves may be witnesses to the miracle. (113) Said Jesus the son of Mary: "O Allah our Lord! send us from heaven a Table set (with viands), that there may be for us― for the first and the last of us a solemn festival and a sign from Thee; and provide for our sustenance, for Thou art the best Sustainer (of our needs). (114) Allah said: "I will send it down unto you: but if any of you after that resisteth faith I will punish him with a penalty such as I have not inflicted on anyone among all the peoples. (115) And behold! Allah will say "O Jesus the son of Mary! Didst thou say unto men, `worship me and my mother as gods in derogation of Allah"? He will say: "Glory to Thee! never could I say what I had no right (to say). Had I said such a thing, Thou wouldst indeed have known it. Thou knowest what is in my heart, though I know not what is in Thine. For Thou knowest in full all that is hidden. (116) "Never said I to them aught except what Thou didst command me to say: to wit, `Worship Allah, my Lord, and your Lord'; and I was a witness over them whilst I dwelt amongst them; when Thou didst take me upThou wast the Watcher over them and Thou art a Witness to all things. (117) "If Thou dost punish them they are Thy servants: if Thou dost forgive them, Thou art the Exalted in power the Wise. (118).

      Maryam sura 19:
      Relate in the Book (the story of) Mary, when she withdrew from her family to a place in the East. (16) She placed a screen (to screen herself) from them: then We sent to her Our angel, and he appeared before her as a man in all respects. (17) She said: "I seek refuge from thee to (Allah) Most Gracious: (come not near) if thou dost fear Allah." (18) He said: "Nay, I am only a messenger from thy Lord (to announce) to thee the gift of a holy son." (19) She said: "How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me, and I am not unchaste?" (20) He said: "So (it will be): thy Lord saith `That is easy for Me: and (We wish) to appoint him as a Sign unto men and a Mercy from Us': it is a matter (so) decreed." (21) So she conceived him, and she retired with him to a remote place. (22) And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm-tree: she cried (in her anguish): "Ah! would that I had died before this! Would that I had been a thing forgotten and out of sight!" (23) But (a voice) cried to her from beneath the (palm-tree): "Grieve not! for thy Lord hath provided a rivulet beneath thee; (24) "And shake towards thyself the trunk of the palm-tree: it will let fall fresh ripe dates upon thee. (25) "So eat and drink and cool (thine) eye. And if thou dost see any man say `I have vowed a fast to (Allah) Most Gracious, and this day will I enter into no talk with any human being.' " (26).

      Az-Zukhruf sura 43:
      When Jesus came with Clear Signs, he said: "Now have I come to you with Wisdom, and in order to make clear to you some of the (points) on which ye dispute: therefore fear Allah and obey me. (63) "For Allah; He is my Lord and your Lord: so worship ye Him: this is a Straight Way." (64) But sects from among themselves fell into disagreement: then woe to the wrongdoers, from the Penalty of a Grievous Day! (65).

      As-Saff sura 61:
      And remember Jesus, the son of Mary, said: "O Children of Israel! I am the Messenger of Allah (sent) to you confirming the Law (which came) before me, and giving glad Tidings of an Messenger to come after me, whose name shall be Ahmad." But when he came to them with Clear Signs they said "This is evident sorcery!" (6) Who doth greater wrong than one who invents falsehood against Allah, even as he is being invited to Islam? And Allah guides not those who do wrong. (7) Their intention is to extinguish Allah's Light (by blowing) with their mouths: but Allah will complete (the revelation of) His Light, even though the Unbelievers may detest (it). (8) It is He Who has sent His Messenger with Guidance and the Religion of Truth, that he may proclaim it over all religion, even though the Pagans may detest (it). (9).

      Al-Baqara sura 02:
      They say: "Become Jews or Christians if ye would be guided (to salvation)." Say thou: "Nay! (I would rather) the Religion of Abraham is True, and he joined not gods with Allah." (135) Say ye: "We believe, in Allah and the revelation given to us and to Abraham Isma`il Isaac Jacob and the Tribes and that given to Moses and Jesus and that given to (all) Prophets from their Lord we make no difference between one and another of them and we bow to Allah (in Islam)." (136) So if they believe as ye believe they are indeed on the right path; but if they turn back, it is they who are in schism; but Allah will suffice thee as against them, and He is the All-Hearing the All- Knowing. (137) (Our religion is) the Baptism of Allah; and who can baptize better than Allah? and it is He whom we worship. (138) Say: Will ye dispute with us about Allah, seeing that He is our Lord and your Lord; that we are responsible for our doings and ye for yours; and that we are sincere (in our faith) in Him? (139) Or do ye say that Abraham Isma`il Isaac Jacob and the Tribes were Jews or Christians? Say: Do ye know better than Allah? Ah! who is more unjust than those who conceal the testimony they have from Allah? But Allah is not unmindful of what ye do! (140).

      Al-E-Imran sura 03:
      It is not (possible) that a man to whom is given the Book, and Wisdom, and the prophetic, office should say to people: "Be ye my worshippers rather than Allah's; on the contrary (he would say): "Be ye worshippers of Him (Who is truly the Cherisher of all) for ye have taught the Book and ye have studied it earnestly." (79) Nor would he instruct you to take angels and prophets for Lords and Patrons. What! Would he bid you to unbelief after ye have bowed your will (to Allah in Islam)? (80).

      December 25, 2010 at 10:19 am |
  3. Muneef

    Yunus sura 10:
    They say "Allah hath begotten a son!―" Glory be to Him! He is self-sufficient! His are all things in the heavens and on earth! No warrant have ye for this! Say ye about Allah what ye know not? (68) Say: "Those who invent a lie against Allah will never prosper." (69) A little enjoyment in this world! and then to Us will be their return. Then shall We make them taste the severest Penalty for their blasphemies. (70).

    Ghafir sura 40:
    Those who dispute about the Signs of Allah without any authority bestowed on them― there is nothing in their breasts but (the quest of) greatness, which they shall never attain to: seek refuge, then, in Allah: it is He Who hears and sees (all things). (56) Assuredly the creation of the heavens and the earth is a greater (matter) than the creation of men: Yet most men understand not. (57) Not equal are the blind and those who (clearly) see: nor are (equal) those who believe and work deeds of righteousness, and those who do evil. Little do ye learn by admonition! (58) The Hour will certainly come: therein is no doubt: yet most men believe not. (59) And your Lord says: "Call on Me; I will answer your (Prayer): But those who are too arrogant to serve Me will surely find themselves in Hell in humiliation!" (60).

    December 23, 2010 at 11:28 am |
  4. Muneef

    Al-Anaam sura 06:
    "It is those who believe and mix not their beliefs with wrong― that are (truly) in security, for they are on (right) guidance." (82).

    Al-Araf sura 07:
    Say: The things that my Lord hath indeed forbidden are: shameful deeds, whether open or secret; sins and trespasses against truth or reason; assigning of partners to Allah, for which he hath given no authority; and saying things about Allah of which ye have no knowledge. (33) To every people is a term appointed: when their term is reached not an hour can they cause delay, nor (an hour) can they advance (it in anticipation). (34).

    December 23, 2010 at 11:22 am |
  5. Erik

    Good article. I think that Zombie theology touches on all these issues.

    Been writing some fiction on my own. Stop by and let me know what you think.

    http://papias.blogspot.com/

    December 22, 2010 at 1:21 pm |
    • Muneef

      Erik.
      Reading your fictions left me to believe that no one will help another upon accidents in fear of walking dead?? I think if people would think seriously of your fiction writings the Chilian minars would have been left down 700 meters underground with out help? Think about it and write more about people helping another rather than fearing each other? Some at your make an arguments that they are not ready to read the bible because of the horrible killings and punishments of infidels but are ready to read and even watch such fictions of blood man killing another in filthy scenes that bring fear to heart and the feeling of loneliness... !? They mind the fear of God but do not mind the fear of man to man?

      December 23, 2010 at 10:32 am |
    • Erik

      Muneef – I'm not done yet. Wait for it...... 😉

      December 23, 2010 at 2:48 pm |
    • Muneef

      Erik.
      You are serious! Well personally I never liked stories or movies about man to man horrors but was more attracted to spiritual and satanic or sorcery or space alians or sea creatures but never ever liked to watch those as the scream or the saw or face...such films are of brutality and only such has messed up your society in to fear of each other and lack of brotherly feelings but more negativity build up by such movies and vedio games igniting and fueling hatred or distrust...?

      December 23, 2010 at 5:47 pm |
  6. billp

    It always seemed to me that the zombies were parodies of religious believers, who are devoid of intelligent thought, find strength in numbers, and attempt to destroy all others not of their kind. At least they don't carry Bibles or Korans with them.

    P.S. Do you ward off a Muslim vampire by using a copy of the Koran?

    December 22, 2010 at 2:00 am |
    • Muneef

      Oh just show him your back side and sure he will word off.

      December 22, 2010 at 5:29 am |
    • Muneef

      Sorry bad joke. But yes we have verses of the Koran that we read during day and night that keeps all evils aways from us whether Vimpires or Zombies or Satanic ones and sort of evils that we fear...! We have verses of the Koran for every thing up to even becoming invisible to others and many more but all it needs to become as wished for is a strong faith and belief with out an atom of doubt.
      Beside that we say that Sadaqa,or acts of sincere charity and not publicity do help protect the person saving him or minimizing the damages that could have accured....

      December 23, 2010 at 8:25 pm |
  7. anthony

    seriously? this is the dumbest article ever, especially since i am a huge zombie fan!
    zombies are scary because the simple fact is a dead corpse is coming back to life and trying to eat you. END
    im so tired of this religious crap trying to find connections in everything, i saw a study on some game site that showed majority of big gamers are athiest. and the whole zombie fad came back because of resident evil in 1996! this whole stupid article tries to act as if the whole world is religious and this is why we are afraid of zombies and it is beyond stupid. i cannot understand how anyone would even attempt to believe this insanely illogical article.
    try reading into things a little less people, especially when the answer to things are so obvious

    question: why are we afriad of monsters
    answer: people only fear what they dont understand

    December 21, 2010 at 11:33 pm |
  8. Muneef

    Abdullah Ibn Amru Ibn Alaas narrated that Prophet Muhammad said: "When the death of the Messenger of Allah Noah approached, he admonished his sons: 'Indeed I would give you far-reaching advice, commanding you to do two things, and warning you against doing two as well. I charge you (to believe) that there is no god but Allah and that if the seven heavens and the seven earths were put on one side of a scale and the words 'There is no god but Allah' were put on the other, the latter would outweigh the former. And I warn you against associating partners with Allah and against pride.'"

    December 21, 2010 at 8:44 pm |
  9. korea killer

    ..

    December 21, 2010 at 8:17 pm |
  10. korea killer

    MIKU became zombie..

    December 21, 2010 at 8:16 pm |
  11. jasonb.fulchier

    F u everytime too

    December 21, 2010 at 7:47 pm |
  12. Muneef

    You know who are the real Zombies in our present life;
    – They are the heavy drug addicts and alcoholics.
    – They those who make money from the miseries of the people.
    – They those multinational cooperates who suck up national treasures for profitability but not national needs..
    Am sure you can add more to above in the same category...

    December 21, 2010 at 6:26 pm |
  13. Jeff

    Did someone say "Different Strokes" arnt they all dead? A Gary Coleman Zombie? lol Oh and has anybody seen the best Zombie comedy ever , NOT SHUAN ... yuk. But "Fido"? All are pets are taken by a virus and we use Zombies as our pets that are controlled by a special coller. "Ah man Fido ate Mrs Beaver next door" Damn coller.!!

    December 21, 2010 at 4:09 pm |
  14. Jeff

    If there is a god why would he have us watching so many Zombie movies? Knowing when Jesus raises from the dead during the Superbowl one of the ref. linesman is going to put that pole thru his head because 80,000 people will be screaming "Hit it in the head" Oh and why doesn't a zombie movie put a jesus lookalike as Zombie?

    December 21, 2010 at 3:29 pm |
  15. sera

    Zombies are humans who have “lost track of their souls"... that's about 90% of the population... to bad I can't take them out as fast as I can.

    December 21, 2010 at 3:24 pm |
  16. G

    Author is right about the morality thing, however, he should take into consideration that Zombie's in orginate from the concept of Haitian Zonbei (I am sure I misspelled that) which is based on the fear of being enslaved even after death, as Haiti was original the colony where horrible amounts of slavery happened. That is a large part of the morality issue of Zombies.

    December 21, 2010 at 2:51 pm |
  17. Dude

    To compare the son of the loving, living God to a walking corpse is an abomination. It's not cute or funny or witty. It makes you look like insulting, spoiled, elitist jerks. I love all the cavalier atheists who know-it-all. I guess you've died and been on the other side? Oh, you haven't? But still, you KNOW it all, do you? I don't know it all. I err on the side of caution and history that there is a God who loves us enough to humble himself and sent his only Son to be killed by us. What do you have to lose if you're wrong. Your eternal soul? Is it worth that? It's dumber to follow a creed of non-belief than it is to blindly follow one of faith....of any faith. What do I have to lose if I'm wrong and there is no Heaven? Nothing because my faith has made me a better person.

    December 21, 2010 at 10:56 am |
  18. Zombrex

    "Most zombie movies say no. In most of my favorite zombie movies – “Dawn of the Dead,” “28 Days Later” – there are no happy endings. The government, the military, the scientists – they all become zombie stew."

    Clearly, the author didn't see 28 Day Later. At the end of the film, the protagonists discovered that only Britain was quarantined and that hope for humanity existed as the remainder of the world was largely unharmed (remember the fighter plane flying over head as they spelled out 'hello' in cloth on the field?). Perhaps they should try researching their work prior to claiming to know something about it- typical, yet still disappointing, CNN.

    December 21, 2010 at 9:43 am |
  19. Muneef

    For more information on Gog and Magog whom we are told will consume all green and dry on planet earth:

    http://www.google.co.uk/search?q=gog+and+magog&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&hl=en&client=safari

    December 21, 2010 at 9:33 am |
  20. Rose

    You can develop a belief off of any creative genre or fandom: plenty of people have done it off Star Wars and others. However, reading this 'theology' it just sounds like another excuse to justify the unrestrained human impulses run wild ie people's just wanting an opportunity to justify their BS. In other words, do we really need someone preaching a doctrine of 'Show No Mercy'? Get them before they get us? Yeah, let's look around the world and see how well that's going for the world. Way to take a fun fandom and turn it into an excuse for unrestrained, excessive behavior at its narcissistic, self-indulgent best.

    December 21, 2010 at 7:49 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.