The Undead and Theology. edited by Kim Paffenroth and John Morehead. Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2012.
The Undead and Theology was, I thought, my best find at the ETS book exhibit this year. I was really excited about buying this book. And then I started to read it. My enthusiasm was quickly deflated as I read the first two essays, and I was seriously reconsidering my purchase (which for me and books is very rare). To put it bluntly, the first two essays were dreadful. But, I persevered, and if you ignore the first two essays, this book is fantastic.
The book is divided into three parts or themes: vampires, zombies, and other undead. (For the sake of brevity, I will only be discussing the sections on vampires and zombies. I hope to interact with the “other undead” in a future post).
In the first section there are four essays. The first two essays, “Vampires and Female Spiritual Transformation: Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter” by Vicky Gilpin and “Crossing the Spiritual Wasteland in Priest” by Joseph Laycock function no so much as essays looking at the intersection between vampire-lore and theology, but instead are more like essays on religious themes in vampire-lore. These essays were weak, focusing more on describing the story rather than analyzing them in relation to some theological tradition. When they do touch on “theology” it’s more to point out “look here, a religious allusion.” The second essay by Laycock is even worse because on top of it spending most of its time just describing the movie Priest, it is riddled with typos and grammatical errors. The worst example of this, one that calls the author’s expertise into question is his repeated reference to the lead actor in the movie Priest as “Paul Brettany” (his name is Paul Bettany). Frankly put, these first two essays are not even worthy of being published as a series of blog posts let alone being chapters in an edited book.
BUT, saying all of that, there is a dramatic jump in quality in the essays after the first two. Jarrod Longbons’ essay “Vampires are People, Too: Personalism in the Buffyverse” looks specifically at the character of the vampire Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And while I wish he would have included the last of Spike’s arc after Buffy season 7 that occurs in Angel season 5, the essay is strong, engaging and actually engages with theology and not just religious themes.
W. Scott Poole’s “The Vampire that Haunts Highgate: Theological Evil, Hammer Horror, and the Highgate Vampire Panic in Britain, 1963-1974” was a fascinating read. Here, Poole looks at the theological and pop-culture factors that led to the very real vampire panic, including the influence of the rise of British evangelicalism including the preaching and writing of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John Stott, as well as the popularity of the Hammer Studios horror movies that were produced starting in 1957. This essay immediately created a new “to do” to add to my list of further reading, namely to read up more about the events that took place at the Highgate cemetery.
The second section on zombies includes four essays. All of these essays are strong, and starts off with a creative essay by Jessica DeCou “The Living Christ and the Walking Dead: Karl Barth and the Theological Zombie.” Now of course, you may say that of course I’ll like this essay because DeCou focuses on Barth, but it is more than that. Instead of a point-by-point analysis, DeCou chooses to instead put herself into the story of the Walking Dead, creating a first-person narrative of a theologian who is trying to survive the zombie apocalypse and her reflections of the events that have happened. Specifically, DeCou’s narrator explores the ethical implications of killing zombies. Are they human? When did they cease to be human? Is it okay to kill them even though at one point they were fully human?
John Morehead’s “Zombie Walks, Zombie Jesus, and the Eschatology of Postmodern Flesh” looks at the rising popularity of zombies and what it represents for our North American culture that is increasingly secular in orientation. John Morehead suggests that one of the reasons for the fascination with zombies is the sanitization of death, in that “eventually Western culture shifted from a time in which death was an intimate part of daily experience, to the present period, where most people die in sanitized places removed from the presence and experience even of loved ones.” (pg. 109). Morehead suggests that the phenomenon of Zombie walks “represents an expression of the postmodern eschatological imagination. It draws upon the Christian metanarrative…but also subverts it. The result is that the dead reanimate, but the form of resurrection is one in which personal identity is lost…” (pg. 118)
In “When All is Lost, Gather ‘Round: Solidarity as Hope Resisting Despair in the Walking Dead”, Ashley John Moyse looks at the themes of hope and despair as presented in the t.v. show The Walking Dead. Moyse argues that the key to defeating despair and cultivating hope is the importance of community. Moyse looks at despair and hope by engaging with not only philosopher Friedrich Nietzche but also with philosopher Gabriel Marcel, and theologians Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Kim Paffenroth’s contribution, “Apocalyptic Images and Prophetic Function in Zombie Films” is a reprinted essay, which may be familiar to readers, but is still a strong addition to this anthology. Here, Paffenroth focuses on the George Romero zombies of the “Night of the Living Dead” series, and argues that what makes zombies so scary is the fact that they are “overwhelmingly ordinary…they are terribly and fully human. This ultimately, I think, is their appeal, for they seem so much more “real” to us than more superhuman monsters, such as vampires and werewolves.” (pg. 147).
The final essay in this section is J. Ryan Parker’s “Negotiating (Non) Existence: Justifications of Violence in Robert Kirkmans’ The Walking Dead”, where he too looks at the ethics of killing zombies, though here he focuses not on the t.v. show, but on the graphic novels that were the inspiration for the popular t.v. show. This essay is the weakest of the zombie essays, but provides a good overview of the graphic novel series and points the reader to several other essays on zombies and violence that are must-reads.
So would I recommend this book? If you skip the first two essays yes. Though, I will say that, in general, the book is in need a more thorough edit, as I found typos even in several of the strong essays. Stay tuned for a post interacting with the last three essays in this book that looks at other examples of undead.