Call to Worship
Why did the zombie go to the Unitarian Universalist church?
Good morning and welcome to The Community Church of Chapel Hill, Unitarian Universalist. Good morning and welcome to a most unusual worship service.
As we draw towards the end of October, as we draw closer to Halloween, as we draw closer to those holy days known as All Souls Day and All Saints Day, I thought we might get into the spirit of this season and spend our worship service talking about zombies.
And, you may turn to me and ask, “Reverend Thom, are you serious?” Of course I’m not serious. Being serious can be counterproductive sometimes when it comes to growing our souls and expanding our spirits. Of all the evolutionary gifts we’ve received, our capacity for playfulness is probably one of the most important. Playfulness is found only in mammals. It is never found in lizards or toads or turtles. Those creatures only know fear and appetite. We risk becoming monstrous ourselves when our human existence is dominated by fear and appetite, reactivity and acquisitiveness.
Look around us. Look at our culture, our world. So much fear. So much reactivity. Cable news with commercial breaks. Fear with regularly scheduled breaks for appetite.
Instead this morning we practice the antidote to such a life that cannot really be called life. We play. We become playful. We laugh and groan together. We’ll spend this morning talking about, learning about, singing about zombies. If you’re a first time visitor, I want to tell you that we don’t do this every week. But, other Sundays are pretty good too.
Let’s play together. Let’s worship together.
Zombie Hymn #1 “May Nothing Evil Cross This Door”
May nothing evil cross this door,
And may ill fortune never pry
about these windows, may the roar
and rain go by. [...]
With laughter drown the raucous shout
and though these sheltering walls are thin,
may they be strong to keep hate out
and hold love in.
from Our Zombies, Ourselves by James Parker
Look: there he is, out of focus and deep in the shot, in the fifth minute of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. He’s wandering through a cemetery, wearing a shabby blazer, with the air of a distracted groundskeeper. In the foreground are two soberly dressed young people, Barbara and Johnny. They are visiting their father’s grave. Barbara kneels and bows her head, but Johnny’s a scoffer. “Hey, c’mon, Barb—church was this morning, huh? Hey, I mean praying’s for church, huh?” Sniffs Barbara: “I haven’t seen you in church lately.” A breeze rises. Dark, frondy tree limbs wave above them like seaweed in the black-and-white afternoon, and the zombie draws near. He has begun to reel and lurch. He grabs Barbara. There’s death in his skin tone, but his face is alive with a kind of stricken fixity. He bashes Johnny against a tombstone. Barbara flees in a car, but wrecks it. And now we really see him, framed disastrously in the skewed rear windshield, advancing toward us at an off-kilter zombie trot. No mistaking the message: the world is out of whack, the car is off the road, here comes the zombie.
And he’s never stopped coming. After fertile decades bumbling in the gore/horror subbasement, he veered toward the mainstream in the early 2000s and currently enjoys a cultural profile unmatched even by his fancy-pants cousin, the vampire… [I]t’s the zombie… who’s really bringing home the bacon. He’s the one who rides the best-seller lists and consumes the pop unconscious, whose titles spatter the humor section of your local bookstore: Zombie Haiku, The Zen of Zombie, It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Zombies: A Book of Zombie Christmas Carols. People, sometimes hundreds of people, go on processional “zombie walks.” Video gamers are mowing down fresh multitudes of zombies with a fervor undimmed by habit. And AMC’s zombie series, The Walking Dead… [continues to be a] smash cable hit…
Sent freewheeling into postmodernity with nothing to say on his own behalf (because he can’t talk, because he’s a zombie), our hero would seem to be in a position of great semiotic vulnerability. And so it has proved: all manner of meanings have been and continue to be plastered onto the zombie. Much can be made of him, because he makes so little of himself. He is the consumer, the mob, the Other, the proletariat, the weight of life, the dead soul. He is too many e-mails in your inbox, a kind of cosmic spam. He is everything rejected and inexpugnable.
A decade ago, in the spring of 2004, Mel Gibson – remember him? – released his film The Passion of the Christ. The film was controversial and polarizing and a box office hit. After several weeks at number one at the box office, the movie that knocked it out of the number one spot was none other than a remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. That’s right, a violent and gory film about rising from the dead and consuming flesh was beaten out at the box office by a zombie movie.
In the past decade or so the popularity of zombies has only risen, no pun intended. Zombie movies have gone from cult-horror classics to mainstream box office hits whose casts include movie stars like Brad Pitt. The Walking Dead, now in its fifth season, is one of the highest rated shows on television with tens of millions of viewers tuning in each week. Zombie books are found in the humor section of bookstore, and beyond. The high school student who needs a bit of extra motivation with his English homework can read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies which sets Jane Austen’s classic inside a zombie apocalypse. Or, if you like serious literature, you’ll find that it is now acceptable for critically acclaimed literary talents – like McArthur Genius Award recipient Colson Whitehead – to write zombie fiction. Fitness enthusiasts can sign up for a Zombie 5K in which contestants run while weaving through and being pursued by swarms of the undead. Lest you think this is all a bunch of silliness, it was revealed last spring that the United States Department of Defense does in fact have a zombie preparedness plan, just in case.
So, zombies are a thing. This morning what I want to do is spend a little bit of time exploring why zombie culture has such a wide appeal to so many in our society. I also want to go deeper and put zombie culture in conversation with Unitarian Universalist theology and values and find out if they have anything to say to one another.
The first thing I want to say is that zombie movies in particular, and horror movies in general, contain an aesthetic dimension, but also dimensions that are psychological, emotional, moral, and political. The aesthetic dimension of horror films is problematic for many of us. How many of you would say that you are fans of horror movies? I would guess that the aesthetic dimension of horror movies – the gore, the screaming, the suspense, the sudden jolts – turns a lot of us off. Beyond the aesthetics, there is a psychological dimension that has to do with fear and disgust. Those are the emotions that horror tries to evoke. Horror movies often have a moral dimension as well. They are morality tales. Take a classic like The Fly or, say, Jurassic Park. These films ask a moral question: whether our capacity for scientific knowledge exceeds our capacity for wisdom and prudence. The films are a warning against our own hubris or greed or obsession, those qualities that can lead to something monstrous.
Zombie movies, perhaps more than any other type of horror movie, are moral critiques of the world in which we live. The first modern zombie movie was George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. It came out in 1968 and captured a world that was tumultuous and uncertain. The film is a metaphor for the social unrest of the times: Vietnam, the civil rights movement, the assassinations of Martin and Malcolm and Jack and Bobby, and the unraveling of the sexual, gender, racial, and economic norms of the 1950s. Night of the Living Dead was controversial for its depiction of gore, but it was also controversial because it cast a black man in a position of authority and leadership over the white actors in the film.
George Romero says of this film,
[We] were children of “The Sixties” [angry] that “Peace and Love” hadn’t changed the world. Some of our anger made its way into the film and journalists began to write about what we had done, calling it ‘essential American cinema.’ I had never thought of myself as in any way “essential”. Nor had I ever thought of myself as a filmmaker.
It’s only in the years since Night of the Living Dead that I’ve taken myself at all seriously. The response to that film made me realize that I could inject socio-political satire into the sort of “horror” fictions that I loved since I was a boy. So, I continue to do it. When I want to speak about what I perceive to be happening in the world… I open the door to my closet, ask the zombies to come out into the light, and I shoot a movie with those zombies.
Romero continued to inject social-political satire into his movies. In Dawn of the Dead, the survivors of the zombie apocalypse find refuge in a shopping mall. The movie is a commentary on consumerism and the camera shots of hordes of zombies trying to break into the mall look exactly like the throngs of shoppers trying to get in the door for a “Black Friday” sale. In Resident Evil it is the sinister Umbrella Corporation – part pharmaceutical company, part military contractor, part media conglomerate – that causes the zombification of the population. The enemy is unchecked corporatism. In 28 Days Later the virus that causes people to become zombies is known simply as “rage.” And, in the comedy Shaun of the Dead, the recurring gag is that it is hard to be sure who’s a zombie and who isn’t. The lurching, groaning person stumbling through the streets at night? It could be zombie or could just be someone who had too much to drink at the pub. The guy sitting on the sofa staring at the TV screen and drooling on himself while playing video games – is he a zombie or not?
Zombie movies offer moral critiques of the world in which we live – are we the victims of corporatism or consumerism? Is anger or apathy making us less than human? Zombie stories also ask us what it means to live life to its fullest.
The Walking Dead comic books are all introduced with the same teaser:
How many hours are in a day when you don’t spend half of them watching television? ... How long has it been since any of us really needed something that we wanted? The world we know is gone. The world of commerce and frivolous necessity has been replaced by a world of survival and responsibility. An epidemic of apocalyptic proportions has swept the globe, causing the dead to rise and feed on the living. It a matter of months society has crumbled, no government, no grocery stores, no mail delivery, no cable TV. In a world ruled by the dead we are forced to finally start living.
Here we find one of the most significant recurring features in zombie literature and film: the idea of living one’s own life with meaning and purpose and intention instead of mindlessly living something less than life. So we find that the characters in zombie films don’t fear dying. They fear becoming zombies. They fear that their life may be devoid of thought, devoid of choice, and spent trying to find some brains to consume. In Colson Whitehead’s zombie novel Zone One, there are a minority of zombies called stragglers who don’t become aggressive cannibals but rather return to a familiar place and spend the rest of eternity holding a pose or just repetitively doing the same thing over and over again. The protagonist in the novel, Mark, has the job of clearing out the stragglers and reports discovering a straggler in the copy room of a high rise office building, repetitively pushing the same button on the copier, over and over and over again. This is horror.
So, whether it’s the stragglers, or the zombies trying to break into the mall, or the catatonic videogame player, or just your average run of the mill zombie shuffling after some brains, there is a point being made again and again about how we actually live and how we ought to live. There is a concept in Buddhism known as the hungry ghost. The hungry ghost is the person whose life has given in completely to greed, jealousy, or envy. Their whole life is one of constant hunger, constant grasping desire. However, what the hungry ghosts crave will never be enough to satisfy them. The hungry ghost will never be full. The zombie can never have enough brains.
Have you ever felt like you are surrounded by zombies? Have you ever felt like you are surrounded by thoughtless people just going through the motions? How many of us will admit to feeling this way from time to time? I’ll admit to feeling this way. I feel this way in the fall every other year. I feel this way during election season. (There are a number of ways I could go with this…) This year is a mid-term election. We know from history, from the past four decades, that voter turnout for the mid-term elections never climbs much above 40%. Sixty percent of Americans eligible to vote won’t bother to cast a vote. Let me put this another way: we know that Kay Hagan and Thom Tillis are locked in this very close race for the US Senate. Whoever winds up winning, the results will be that almost exactly one voter out of five voted for Hagan, one voter out of five voted for Tillis, and three voters out of five didn’t bother to vote. Let me say that again: one out of five will vote for Hagan. One out of five will vote for Tillis. Three out of five won’t vote. Do you ever feel like you are surrounded by zombies?
Anti-populism is a major recurring theme within zombie entertainment and it is a theme that I think we ought to struggle with. Take, for instance, Jess Walter’s zombie short-story entitled “Don’t Eat Cat.” “Don’t Eat Cat” is about a zombie workplace retraining program offered by Starbucks. The first step is the cat test. The zombie being retrained must have the self-control to be in a room with a cat without trying to eat the cat. The second step is learning how to operate the cappuccino machine.
It doesn’t quite feel right to laugh at that, does it? I mean, we can all from time to time feel tempted to label some other group of people as a bunch of mindless zombies. That group of people – that socio-economic class, that generation, the people who vote for that political party, the people who go to that church – they’re all just a bunch of sheep, a bunch of mindless zombies.
I think the best in our Unitarian Universalist religion calls us to resist such thinking. It calls on us to humanize one another – to sympathize, to understand, to identify with one another. We call that the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
Two features of zombie entertainment help us to resist such anti-populism. The first thing is that the zombies are never the bad guys. Nobody chooses to be a zombie. Zombies are never at fault. “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” The other thing we find is that in zombie movies the non-zombies are always capable of being a lot scarier than the zombies. The survivors don’t exactly behave like paragons of human virtue. Far from it. We ought to remember this whenever there is a temptation to think of others as sub-human.
What should we take away from this morning? What should we take away besides the fact that your new minister has spent a frightening amount of time watching movies about, reading about, and thinking about zombies? Here are the three takeaways:
The first thing I want you to take away is that parts of our culture that are unfamiliar to you, or even off-putting, can be more than just mindless fun. I’m not saying you should go watch a horror movie. The Walking Dead isn’t for everybody, even if it is for tens of millions of Americans each week. I don’t want anyone here who is squeamish going and getting frightened and having nightmares and blaming me. But, please don’t dismiss culture that doesn’t do it for you.
The second thing I want you to take away is to challenge your thinking about the masses. It is somewhat natural to feel, from time to time, like we’re surrounded by mindless zombies. This way of thinking is actually kind of problematic and unproductive.
And, the third thing I want you to take away is a passionate commitment and desire to live what is truly life. We’ve seen this morning that fear and hate and discrimination and consumerism and corporatism and rage can lead us to act less than fully human. Join the living. Rejoin the living. Say yes to life.
And, to inspire us to do that third thing, I’d like to invite you to join me in our closing affirmation, the words of Henry David Thoreau. Why did Thoreau go to live alone in the woods for more than two years, you ask. My theory is that it was to survive the zombie apocalypse. Or, alternatively, maybe Thoreau was a zombie. Let’s read his words together and I’ll let you decide for yourself.
Why should we live in such a hurry and waste of life?
We are determined to be starved before we are hungry.I wish to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.
I wish to learn what life has to teach, and not, when I come to die, discover that I have not lived.I do not wish to live what is not life, living is so dear, nor do I wish to practice resignation, unless it is quite necessary.
I wish to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, I want to cut a broad swath, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.
If it proves to be mean, then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it is sublime, to know it by experience, and to be able to give a true account of it.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
28 Days Later (2002).
Resident Evil (2002)
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Day of the Dead (2008)
28 Weeks Later (2007)
World War Z (2013)
Max Brooks, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
Robert Kirkman, The Walking Dead, Volume 1-15 (#1-90)
Paul Legault, ed., The Emily Dickinson Reader
James Parker, “Our Zombies, Ourselves,” The Atlantic
Jess Walter, “Don’t Eat Cat” in We Live in Water
Colson Whitehead, Zone One