A Review of
The Zombie Gospel:
The Walking Dead and What it Means to Be Human
Reviewed by Jeff Nelson
“We are the walking dead.” This line, uttered by main protagonist Rick Grimes in both the TV show and comic versions of The Walking Dead, sums up what the real focus of this popular series is. While the presenting conflict that frames the characters’ experiences and problems is the zombie apocalypse, the true focus is their reactions and sense of identity as a result of everything they know collapsing.
Early on in The Zombie Gospel, Danielle Strickland notes this as well. Recounting a conversation with a friend, she shares this thought: “’Think about it,’ he said to me, ‘everything that defines your life has been deconstructed. What then’” (9)? In other words, if we can no longer define our lives by our jobs, our creature comforts, our favorite places to hang out, or even our enemies, what is our identity to ourselves and to others?
Strickland’s aim is clear enough. Using this question that is at the heart of the show as a beginning point, she moves from one notable scene to another, recapping them and reacting to them in light of Biblical passages, personal anecdotes, present-day justice issues, and theological analysis. Given that the TV version is, as of this writing, in its eighth season, Strickland has a large trove of material to work with, although this volume only clocks in at 114 pages in a compacted space.
An example of Strickland’s basic approach comes in chapter 7, which begins with an anecdote from a friend who was abused by a priest while growing up in an aboriginal community. She segues into a brief summary of a scene from a later season after Rick’s group of survivors has taken refuge at a church with a priest named Gabriel. The group had discovered a message carved into the outside of the building and confront their new companion about it. After presenting a brief bit of dialogue, Strickland reflects on the imperfection and moral failure of priests in general, and notes how we are called to be the people of God as imperfect as we are, rather than prop up an image of clergy as the infallible heroes meant to do this work on everyone’s behalf.
Her basic approach is sound, as she honors the intent of the show and doesn’t do much to impose her own preferences onto the source material. Returning to this example chapter, her use of Gabriel as an example of a flawed servant runs true to the character and episode in which the sample conversation happens. Her friend’s experience is a relevant and contemporary example of what she wants to convey as part of this chapter as well. Again, this is typical of what the reader will find in every chapter.
If there are flaws to this work, I would identify several. First, as mentioned, this is a brief treatment that provides the broadest overview of the show. It does not often drill down to characters’ experiences or interactions much beyond the surface. Most of the characters mentioned are treated as archetypes—and perhaps one could argue that they are that besides—for the theological points that it wants to make. She gives an overview of the arcs that people such as Carol, Daryl, Glenn, and Michonne travel, but very well could have spent much more time analyzing what each went through in order to arrive at later personifications, which could have resulted in a much deeper and richer text.
This leads me to the second flaw, which is that at times the snippets of dialogue or scenes used are not necessarily the focus of the chapter. In the example I gave above, Strickland briefly discusses Gabriel’s imperfections, but a page later introduces an idea from a recent movie and seems to focus more on what that idea brings to the concept of tearing down preconceived notions about people in leadership than on what the show providing the purported focus for the book could contribute to the discussion.
Books that use a piece of popular culture as a touchstone for theological reflection can be tricky. They involve a careful balance of letting the chosen artifact lead the discussion while maintaining theological integrity, while being careful not to read the latter into the former. Strickland avoids this danger and it is obvious that she is a genuine fan of the show. She takes care in presenting her chosen scenes and a few larger points about how the zombie genre has served as societal critique. But I think this book could have gone much further in dissecting major shifts in plot and developments in specific characters to present an even richer commentary on human identity and our shedding of social expectation to get at the heart of who God intends for us to be. This was a good starter, but left me craving more.
Jeff Nelson is a pastor, spiritual director, and writer. He is author of the book Coffeehouse Contemplative: Spiritual Direction for the Everyday. He lives with his wife and two children in Uniontown, Ohio, where he serves in ministry at Grace United Church of Christ. He regularly blogs about ministry, spirituality, and pop culture at http://www.coffeehousecontemplative.com.