Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Zombie Apocalypse! (for Advent?)

Some months, we hardly use Netflix at all.  And then there are months like this one, when we've been sick, and at points can hardly move off the sofa--months like this one make me wonder what we did before we had Netflix.

We spent much of last week watching the Christmas episodes of every television show we've ever loved; it's amazing how many of them are on Netflix.  And then, on Friday, I came home, and my spouse said, "I watched the first episode of a TV series I think you'd like.  It's about zombies, but it's got an apocalyptic theme too."

Oddly, I had just heard this episode of On Being, where Krista Tippett and Diane Winston talked about theological themes in recent television, and they devoted a significant amount of time to The Walking Dead.  So I was already interested in the show even before my spouse told me about it.

We've just spent the last few days devouring every episode from Season 1.  I'm struck, of course, by the theological themes.  I'm also struck by how the show is a metaphor for non-zombie-apocalypse life.  In one episode, the main characters discover survivors that seems like a holdover from inner city gang life--but what a shock to discover that they're really a group of employees and families working hard to keep a nursing home (or is it a hospital?) going.  The gang leader turns out to have been a custodian in his former life.

One of the characters of the main group laments over how things have changed, but the former custodian disputes that anything essential has changed.  He points out that the strong still prey on the weak.  Likewise, in the finale of season 1, a CDC scientist reminds the group that they will lose everything if they go back into the zombie-occupied world.  But really, isn't that what we all face?  We know that everything we love will be lost sooner or later. 

As we watched, my brain drifted back to earlier apocalyptic loves of mine, most notably those nuclear war movies of the 1980's (The Day After, Threads, and Testament).  I thought of lovers and families who are separated by apocalypse, who aren't quite sure what has happened to their loved ones, who want to maintain hope, even as the likelihood of reunion grows ever dimmer.

I've also wondered about what our apocalyptic scenarios say about our deepest fears. Sometimes, it's obvious: the nuclear war movies of the 1980's seemed rooted in what might happen any day as Ronald Reagan joked about bombing the U.S.S.R.  The episode with the gang who turns out to be inhabiting a nursing home or hospital has clear Hurricane Katrina allusions--it's what we're all afraid of, being helpless, whether it be in the hospital or helpless in some other way, during a catastrophe.

We're in a zombie renaissance right now. Everywhere I turn, I'm seeing zombies in popular culture, whether they're taking over Jane Austen or appearing in Colson Whitehead's The Zone. What does it say about us? Are we worried that we're losing our humanity, that we're becoming little more than reactivated brain stems? I'll keep thinking about those questions.

You might not approve of my habit of watching apocalyptic movies during holiday times, but I'd say that it works theologically.  I'll write more about this on my theology blog later this week, but for now, I'll just say that I come out of a liturgical tradition that stresses eschatology during Advent.  We read the ancient prophets, like Isaiah, while remembering to stay alert and watch for the light.  Some years, the texts stress the rebuilding of the ruined devastations of human endeavor; some years, the focus remains on the ruins.

It's also interesting to watch zombie apocalypses in the midst of Advent, which is part of our 6 week food fest that goes from Thanksgiving Week until New Year's Day.  The Walking Dead has lots of scenes of zombies feeding, and rather voraciously, on very bloody corpses.  Last night, I got the Santa Lucia bread started, while my spouse made homemade pizza, and then we settled in to watch different feasting.

I also have food on the brain because my grandmother lies in a hospital bed 700 miles away; she's not eating.  I think that if I was any kind of good granddaughter, I'd get in my car with her cast iron skillet, and I'd head up there to cook her favorite foods.  If life operated like a holiday movie, that would be all it would take!  My grandmother's eyes would open, she'd eat the peach cobbler I would make for her, and she'd be magically cured of her pneumonia.

Of course, real life doesn't imitate that art, does it?  I'd more likely drive 700 miles to an unresponsive grandma would wouldn't be able to eat the food I made, no matter how wonderful the out-of-season peaches in the cobbler.

Well, this post is not a cheery one, is it?  For those of you hoping for a Santa Lucia Day reflection, head here to my theology blog, where you'll see I've been doing some baking while the rest of the world slept.  Or if you're in the mood for some background about this feast day, head here.

Whatever way you use to chase back the winter dark, if you're in this hemisphere, or the metaphorical dark, I hope it's working for you.  Beat back that chill however you can!  That's the Advent message.

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