In this interview I sit down with culture savvy monster aficionado Clay Morgan. Clay is a professor, blogger, podcaster, and author of the book Undead: Revived, Resuscitated, Reborn (Abingdon Press, 2012). You can visit Clay online at http://claywrites.com/
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RR: Clay, thanks for joining us. When I first saw the title of your book, Undead: Revived, Resuscitated, Reborn, I was immediately intrigued. Turning to the back cover I found a suggestive reference to “zombies, vampires and the undead.” Zombies? Vampires? Undead? Come on Clay, what’s a Christian doing talking about zombies and vampires?
CM: One night I was thinking about how popular zombie books and movies and more had become. Then I began thinking about Lazarus, this dead man who walked out of a tomb after all those days. By modern standards, that’s pretty zombie or undead like, and I started looking into how many people are reported to have been raised from the dead in the Bible. Turns out there are six just in the New Testament. I began asking people if they knew how many or who they were and no one did. Seemed like these stories would be fun to research.
But the reason I reference zombies, vampires and the like so much is because the book is really about spiritual life and death. Monsters make perfect metaphors for human struggles. And who better than Christians to talk about zombies and vampires? As director Scott Derrickson said, our faith owns the horror genre. Look at the stories in the Bible or consider The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis which is a conversation between demons. So I talk about these things because it’s relevant and reflective of our spiritual condition.
RR: I agree that zombies and vampires can be powerful metaphors. One thinks, for example, of the way George Romero lampoons consumerism in “Dawn of the Dead” by having zombies walking mindlessly through a suburban shopping mall. But what do you find especially theological about monsters? And is there a danger that associating a concept like biblical resurrection (or revivification) with zombies is as likely to obscure as illumine?
CM: Monster myths have contained moral commentary for centuries. Theologically, vampires provide a great case study when you consider all the religious symbolism. They selfishly take blood, the opposite of Christ’s sacrifice. Holy water and crosses historically harmed them. But we see them becoming protagonists in recent years. Eternal damnation doesn’t seem to be as terrifying as it once was.
The powerful thing about zombies is how they are destroyed versions of us. The walking dead still wear curlers and suits and blue jeans. They are humanity destroyed and the living are so close to becoming just like them. To build on your point about Romero’s use of the creatures, they represent insatiable appetite. Like many people today, they consume without ceasing and are never fulfilled.
The concept works, I believe, because everyone knows what it’s like to go through life feeling like something is missing. Many of us find ourselves shambling through mundane routines at times and feeling dead inside. So apart from God’s grace we are spiritually dead, but as Paul told the Ephesians, the light of Christ is enough to wake us up so we can climb out of our coffins.
RR: Before we wade into some deeper theological waters, the SNL Church Lady wanted me to ask you the following question:
“Why is Clay so concerned with evil things like zombies and vampires? The Bible says ‘have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them.’ So why the fascination? Why, oh why? Could it be … SATAN?”
I think the Church Lady speaks for a lot of conservative evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, folks who look with suspicion at everything from Harry Potter to Halloween to heavy metal. What would you say in reply?
CM: Oh, SNL Church Lady, we love you. I understand the feeling that much of pop culture isn’t exactly what you would call fruitful. I am sensitive to that and have many friends who aren’t able to watch something like The Walking Dead or a scary monster movie. So first off I completely respect a personal recognition that such things are not for everyone.
That said, I see a generation filled with individuals who have never stepped foot in a church. Their entire outlook on the supernatural comes from the canon of Hollywood entertainment. Yet they’re asking important questions a lot of the time. I’ve heard so many people watch a zombie story and say, “Could you imagine if a dead person came back to life?!” What a great opening for a conversation about resuscitation and resurrection (and those deeper theological waters). Yes, I enjoy films, but movie theaters are also mission fields. I’m inspired by Acts 17 and the Apostle Paul’s willingness to show up at the meeting of the Areopagus to have a conversation about faith. He was well versed in their pop culture, the words of Athenian poets.
RR: Two questions. The question I want to ask is this: Can you give us a fuller sense of how you mine monster-themed films for theological gold by exegeting one or two movies?
The question I have to ask relates to a concern that I suspect drives at least some of the Church Lady’s suspicion about your project. That question concerns fear. Obviously “Zombieland”, “Fright Night” or “Shaun of the Dead” aren’t really aiming at scaring the audience (though no doubt those films raise their own moral concerns). But many other monster movies are aimed at creating fear in their audience. I think, for example, of the masterful Spanish film “Rec”. (Brrr, I’m getting shivers now just thinking about it.) Is it okay for Christians to seek the cheap thrill of a scare.
CM: I think a lot of sermons are aimed at creating fear in their audience too. Those intense preachers will no doubt say that they’re emotional manipulation is justified evangelism. I’m not so sure. I like to think about difficult questions and arrive at conclusions based on reason. Shallow, fear-based commitments can also be pretty scary.
You know, I find a lot a horror stories throughout the Bible. If we told some of the tales in scripture accurately through modern cinema they would have an “R” rating (even NC-17 in some cases), and I’m pretty sure we can glean moral lessons from the Old Testament. As I said, many great conversations happen with people, especially the college students I teach everyday, because I’m informed about their culture. I may not speak Spanish or French, but I am fluent in twenty-something.
As for an example from a zombie story, the first that comes to mind is from The Walking Dead (TV version). A character named Andrea can’t handle the terror of living among the undead anymore. She decides to commit suicide, but a character named Dale forces her to choose life. And she hates him for it. She wanted to die and tells him he had no right to stop her. Stunned, confused, and hurt, Dale can only respond, “I saved your life.” That scene reminds me of how we throw hurtful things in God’s face. He must look back at us and think “But I save you.” The most heartbreaking part of the cross for Jesus was the full knowledge of every person who would ever choose death in place of his love.
RR: At the beginning of the interview you recalled how the resurrection of Lazarus got you thinking about zombies. But zombies aren’t really alive, as I understand them. Rather, they’re in a shadow land of animated being, the “undead”. Can you say something about those six resurrections in the New Testament and what we can learn from them about the afterlife?
CM: The five individuals, other than Jesus, brought back to life were resuscitated. Their spirits returned to their bodies. Some of them were only dead a short time, others for days. I would love to know what that experience was like for them! One writer considered what it would be like for Lazarus to be threatened with death after having already spent four days in a tomb. Would he burst out laughing? When the son of the widow at Nain is raised from the dead the verse says he began talking. I asked my students what they thought he said. “Dad says hi,” suggested one clever undergrad.
Who knows what it’s like to die and be raised from the dead, but I imagine those New Testament people lived a full life after coming to terms with death. The most important thing we can learn from them is we must do the same. We will never get the most out of life as long as we let death keep its sting. Of course we’re not robots and still need to process human emotion like fear and grief, but ultimately God promises victory for those who turn to the cross. We need not fear eternal death.
RR: These days claims of resurrection aren’t hard to find. Some of them form the kernel of inspiring (if undocumented) missionary stories. Others top the bestseller charts. Do you think people are still being resurrected today? And what drives the public fascination for such stories?
CM: One of the interesting facts I uncovered while writing the book is a medical phenomenon known as Lazarus Syndrome in which people can autoresuscitate after being declared dead. In a couple cases a person was declared dead and didn’t wake up until the autopsy was just getting started! So on one hand we hear many accounts of near death experiences and the like from the medical community and even from skeptics.
But can someone be clinically dead and brought back to life by a miracle? I’m skeptical of such claims in modern times but do believe anything is possible. I’m a supernaturalist, and if God wants to violate laws of physics, nature, or biology he can. The last two stories of New Testament people being raised from the dead happened after the Ascension of Jesus when Peter and Paul both performed the feat. So possible in our time? I suppose. Likely? I’m not so sure. If a miracle worker performs a miraculous sign and it affirms the message of Christ’s love I’m willing to listen, but we need to be on the lookout for frauds and charlatans.
CM: It’s amazing how many people have predicted the end of the world throughout human history. Over and over again, self-proclaimed prophets from a wide range of cultures have made bets that the apocalypse would happen at specific times. The destruction of humanity has been predicted to come by way of birds of prey, flaming fireballs, wolves, and various other creative doomsday devices. A number of individuals have ignored the statement in Mark 13 that no one will ever know when the end will come.
RR: While I may not know when the world is going to end, I do have a solid prediction that this interview is soon to draw to a close. But first one final question. Often the writing of a book is transformative for the author. How did the writing of Undead affect you?
CM: Undead came to me during a time when much of my identity had been stripped away and life was in a major state of flux. A couple months before getting the idea for the book I sat on the floor in a friend’s house staring at a blank wall in a dark room and trying to figure out how my life had gone wrong and if I would ever be excited about it again. I wondered how many other people were living hollow lives stripped of wondrous realities they once expected. I knew there was something more and believed in God’s life giving power but was not feeling it. I was spiritually dying, and it wasn’t pretty.
As I sought God from a new perspective that year, he began to reveal himself to me in a way I had never experienced, and I realized it’s not just “unbelievers” who feel like something is missing in their life but often people who punch in at church every week too. As I worked through the material for this book I emerged from darkness, like Lazarus coming out of his tomb into the light. I began to hear an unfamiliar heartbeat pulsing but realized it wasn’t coming from inside of me. It was the heartbeat of a God whose love shocks me back to life.