For the last 7 years “The Walking Dead” has reigned over TV ratings among the 18-49 year old market segment. Why? Why would young Americans want to watch something like this? There isn’t sex in this show and there is plenty of horror or gore in other places. Why are especially the young fascinated by it?
A Felt Denial of Apocalypse
The American Dream says that you can have it all.
- “Follow your passions”
- “If you can dream it you can do it”
- “You can be anything you want to be”
- “Because after all, you deserve the very best…”
These are the credos of our culture. The omnipresent advertising industry is always suggesting to us that everything is great. All we need is that one additional item or product they are promoting and all will be well.
We are told in countless times and in countless ways that if you “follow the rules”, if you work hard, if you are moral and kind THEN
- your life will be good,
- you’ll make enough money to afford your dreams
- your kids will do well
- your relationships will all be satisfying
- you will have the life you’ve always wanted.
On a deep level, however, we all know that none of this is true.
In past weeks I’ve outlined a lot of the data that suggests that the truth about life, even in the most affluent, powerful, stable and secure country in the world, is in fact hard, unreliable, unpredictable, and will end in you losing everything you’ve ever worked for or tried to secure. The age of decay always wins.
Even if we can’t publicly expose the Big Lie to one another, we indulge secretly in the revelation of the truth, identifying with the characters in these apocalyptic stories, wondering what we would do, or what we will do, when all of the pretense of control and security is stripped away.
On my Facebook page I regularly post pictures and stories of the homeless in my community. I find these to be the most popular postings I create. Why? I think we are fascinated, drawn to and horrified by this existence for the same reason people love The Walking Dead. We know that with just a few twists of fortune it could be us sleeping on the streets or suffering from insanity.
The Inadequacy of All That’s Possible
Within our progressivist cultural frame we are told again and again that our combination of wealth, technology and power can resolve the challenges before us. There is nothing we can’t do when we set our minds to it. But there is the problem. The greater we grow in power the more we realize the one thing we cannot control is ourselves. We are constantly self-defeated by our habits, our addictions and our politics. We are the problem and there is no solution for us.
“The Walking Dead” is often said to take place in an “apocalyptic” world. The word is more apt than most Americans realize. In the vernacular “the apocalypse” simply means a catastrophic end of our current reign over this planet, our current ability as a species to control events and outcomes.
If you know a bit about the Bible you might know that the word is Greek, and it means “from the hidden” “apo” “kalypto”, or “Revelation”.
What is being hidden by our cultural project of convincing ourselves that we can have what we want, that it is within our power to arrange the outcomes we desire for our lives, that if we can dream it we can do it. What is being hidden is the nasty truth that this is a lie, it is a covering over the fact that we are not in control, we can’t really secure outcomes, and that everything we have will be taken from is given enough time. All love in this world will be destroyed by betrayal or death.
If you look back in history you might realize that this dynamic is always with us. I was born in July of 1963, splitting the distance between the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the Kennedy assassination of 1963. I was in college in the 1980s when Hal Lindsey’s book “The Late Great Planet Earth” and “1980s, Countdown to Armageddon” were best sellers. Older Christians I knew were telling me that surely Jesus was going to return before the year 2000. If the 1980s are the new 1950s for those too young to remember the 50s we should remember that to Christians of the 80s things seemed so bad that surely the world couldn’t continue much longer.
Every four years and for the two years running up to us billions of dollars are spent by our two political parties to tell us that we surely must vote for them because this is the most consequential election in a generation. Unless we support their candidate and defeat the other our entire way of life will come to an end. The threat may not be zombies, but rather communists or Islamic terrorists or poverty or ignorance or bigotry or environmental collapse.
Apocalypse and the Reformation
Compared to our day life in the time of the Reformation was hard. This is from Brad Gregory’s course on the history of the Reformation.
Even though the Black Death didn’t have zombies life at that time saw immense loss and suffering that surely impacted the psyches of all who survived.
Young Martin Luther was a university student studying law. His father was a miner and hoped that his son Martin who showed academic ability would become a lawyer and upgrade his family’s financial prospects. Luther, on a trip encountered a thunder storm and was knocked to the ground by a bolt of lightning. In terror for his life he cried “St. Anne (the patron saint of miners) help me! I will become a monk.”
The choice was obvious for someone of his time and place.
Like everyone else in the Middle Ages he knew what to do about his plight. The Church taught that no sensible person would wait until his deathbed to make an act of contrition and plead for grace. From beginning to end the only secure course was to lay hold of every help the Church had to offer: sacraments, pilgrimages, indulgences, the intercession of the saints. Yet foolish was the man who relied solely on the good offices of the heavenly intercessors if he had done nothing to insure their favor!
Bainton, Roland. Here I Stand – A Life Of Martin Luther (Kindle Locations 373-376). Read Books Ltd.. Kindle Edition.
Martin’s existential brush with death sharpened his desire to save himself. This won’t be a surprise to any pastors out there. Again, in our age of antibiotics and air bags it is often the old who eventually drag themselves into church. The threat of death tends to sharpen one’s focus and raise larger questions above the mundane distractions of wealth and entertainments.
The monastic life was the best and most obvious haven available to young Martin as he and there rest of Medieval Europe anticipated the coming of Jesus.
And what better could he do than take the cowl? Men believed the end of the world already had been postponed for the sake of the Cistercian monks. Christ had just “bidden the angel blow trumpet for the Last Judgment, when the Mother of Mercy fell at the feet of her Son and besought Him to spare awhile, ‘at least for my friends of the Cistercian Order, that they may prepare themselves.’ ” The very devils complained of St. Benedict as a robber who had stolen souls out of their hands. He who died in the cowl would receive preferential treatment in heaven because of his habit.
Bainton, Roland. Here I Stand – A Life Of Martin Luther (Kindle Locations 379-383). Read Books Ltd.. Kindle Edition.
The apocalptic vision was not only a function of Luther’s time, but of Luther’s ministry throughout.
Luther would find little lasting consolation in the monastic life. His vicar Johann von Staupitz, having expended all of his religious resources to bring solace to poor Martin finally gave him the assignment to teach theology at Wittenberg. It was a town less than a mile long and of less than 2000 people but the prince who owned it was trying to turn it into a religious center and Luther would be one of the preacher/teachers to do it. Luther’s confessor likely hoped that Martin might find for himself what would bring him peace by being forced to teach the Bible. Luther poured himself into the Psalms, the book of Romans and the book of Galatians. Neither Staupitz nor anyone else could have imagined where this would lead Luther, or the rest of the world for that matter.
Luther’s torment was not so much fear of death as fear of hell and what to do with his sins. The medieval Roman Catholic system had their processes and procedures locked down in order to manage sins and deliver forgiveness. Luther tried to work this system but found, again and again, no matter how hard he tried he could never be fully aware of all his sins nor work the system to cover them.
There is, according to Luther, something much more drastically wrong with man than any particular list of offenses which can be enumerated, confessed, and forgiven. The very nature of man is corrupt. The penitential system fails because it is directed to particular lapses. Luther had come to perceive that the entire man is in need of forgiveness.
Bainton, Roland. Here I Stand – A Life Of Martin Luther (Kindle Locations 671-674). Read Books Ltd.. Kindle Edition.
This was a problem the Roman Catholic system of penance seemed unable to fully address.
From Luther to Paul
Luther would find the answer to his dilemma by finding in the Apostle Paul a compatriot how lived 1500 years before him who too was knocked to the ground by light from the heavens. Paul too had been a zealous young man earnestly seeking not just to save himself but to save his people from what he perceived to be the theological threat of this supposed Messiah Jesus Christ. After his confrontation by the Risen Lord Paul would employ his considerable education and gifts to see the story of God in a whole new way and to see it apply not only to his people but to the entire human story.
Paul also lived in a time of competing schemes that sought to save the world from itself. The dominant scheme in Paul’s day was of course the Roman way. Rome had the power, the might and the strength to bring their way of salvation to the world by conquering and sharing its power and technology with the unenlightened world. There is a great scene in Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian” where the Jewish revolutionaries have to fess up to all the wonderful things the Roman way has brought to them.
We might imagine that Roman way to be analogous to the American way which promises to make our dreams come true, if only we give ourselves fully to it.
Paul, a Jew born into the empire, was less held by that grip as he was by the story of the Jewish God who rescued the Hebrews from Egypt and revealed the law to them in the hopes that they could represent God to the world to undo the rebellion of the Garden of Eden. The problem with the Jewish way, however, was that it too always seemed to fall short. If God had given the law to his people shouldn’t the people be successful in this world? If you read the promises and threats in the book of Deuteronomy, wouldn’t it have been logical for Israel to follow the law to her own power, prosperity and supremacy over the world. Shouldn’t Jerusalem replace Rome and the reign of Yhwh over the reign of Caesar?
The question of the failure of the people of God in comparison to the pagan nations to whom God had not revealed himself bothered the prophets. Habakkuk pleaded with God to explain the fact that the pagan Babylonians could march on and conquer God’s chosen people. How could God let this happen? How could God again and again allow his people to lose?
Paul had learned to not place his hope in a political system. Now he had to learn to not place his hope in a religious system that would teach him how to avoid sinning.
Luther too had come to the conclusion that he couldn’t place his hope in a religious system that taught him how to avoid the consequence of his sins. But where than might humanity find its hope?
To the Romans
Romans 1:8–17 (NIV)
8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. 9 God, whom I serve in my spirit in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you 10 in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you. 11 I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong—12 that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. 13 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles. 14 I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. 15 That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome. 16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
Paul believed that it was in Jesus that all of this comes together. It is the risen Lord who is the answer to our sins, the answer to our sin, the answer to our rebellion, and the answer to our decay.
Paul sees Jesus through the words of Habakkuk. When the Babylonian armies are dismantling Israel, the son of God, God is working still to save his people from themselves.
When the Romans are crucifying Jesus, the son of God, God is working still to save the world from itself.
Now Luther can see that it is the gospel itself that saves him, not a system to manage his sins that rescues him and he will, as he will be pushed by the church, increasingly dismantle that whole system so as a preacher to uncover for his flock the truth that the wisdom of God is finally Christ, and him crucified.
At the cross of Jesus he doesn’t just forgive our sins, he deals with our sin. This is not something we can do, because we ourselves are sinful.
He first takes upon himself our flesh in the incarnation. He then takes upon himself the penalty of our rebellion under the right judgment of God. He then gives us, in his resurrection, new flesh, a new creation, a new kingship that will not decay.
What haunts the unexplored imaginations of the fans of The Walking Dead should not be denied. What they hardly dare whisper is true. We have no answers. The reason we are so apocalyptic, even in our secular way, comparable to the time of Martin Luther is because we have no answers.
The vast majority of voters have no faith that either candidate from the major parties will save us. While we might put up a good show and imagine that somehow everything will be OK on our own it is a lie and we know it. Life IS hard, we see it all around us even in this, the most powerful, secure, affluent nation in the history of the world. Our might and our power will not deny death and the age of decay from taking from us everything we have and love given enough time. We watch Rick and Carl in the Walking Dead try to navigate their world and we ask “what would we do?” because we can relate to the challenges they face.
We have little confidence the world can endure. If an asteroid doesn’t get us, maybe it will be economics collapse, or a North Korean nuke, or environmental collapse or the collapse of the American government. We are afraid, but our culture won’t allow us to break the positive disney-esqe script.
On this Reformation Sunday we should look back at Luther, but not simply with nostalgia. The life and times he lived in were at least as tumultuous as ours. There was a reason they imagined the world could’t go on much longer just as we do. The world is always this way both within the focus of our tiny little lives or the macro picture of a planet always at risk. We are small creatures who make up stores of control to sooth ourselves in our fears. Where can we find our help?
The Apocalypse of Deliverance
There in the bloodied, grotesque image of the son of God crucified Luther sees God uncovered just as the hollow power of the empire is exposed. In that bloodied man beneath the sign “King of the Jews” he sees God himself, punishing himself, taking the hit for his creatures who have failed to love him. Luther like Paul is not ashamed of the gospel, the image of the man of sorrows, because it is the power of God that brings rescue to not only us but to this world of the walking dead.
Many have tried to psychologize away Luther’s moment and the birth of the Reformation as simply a neurosis. If that had been the case then Luther could not have found consolation in Paul, it would have simply persisted. Instead Luther’s discover would give birth to a movement that radically reshaped Europe, would in fact reform many things in the Roman Catholic church, and travel now to every corner of the world today. If Jesus is the most influential man in all of human history it can be argued that Luther could very well be second. After Luther millions could find rest for their souls not in their ability to avoid sinning, or in their ability to confess their slip ups, but to see the Son of God paying for all our sin, addressing not just about behavior but our core, and giving us new life.
Gratitude in the Age of the Walking Dead
The creator of The Walking Dead explained his purpose for writing the graphic novel turned into a show.
Those who watch the show know that the dramatic tension of the program is the question of whether kindness can be afforded in a world of zero-sum games. Very quickly the real threat to the main characters are not the zombies but the other human beings. Must they always kill or be killed? And when they live this way can they ever once again afford love, generosity or kindness? The threat of the zombies is not so much mere death, it’s the threat of their capacity to be kind, generous and in any way moral or loving.
The walking death reveals the tensions beneath our lives. Can we be kind in a world that demands power and vengeance to maintain order? Can we afford to love someone who will, if given enough time, betray our trust?
If you are a sinner like the kind Luther says he and we are, can you live in self-righteous superiority over the worst you can find in our society?
If you are saved not on the basis of your own moral performance but on the sacrifice of Jesus can imagine that God owes you a better life than the most miserable sick or homeless person you can find?
If Jesus, who out of love came from heaven to pay the debt for your sins, and make you into a new creation secured not by your works but by his resurrection, can you spend your life in any better way than to bless the undeserving and show mercy to those who feel they are the only losers in our society of denial?
The hard world of both the show “The Walking Dead” and our present world of walking dead shows to us that only the strong can survive. Jesus says “the meek will inherit the earth” and it was only by seeing the end of every other human system, political and religious, that Luther, starting the Protestant Reformation invites us to follow the crucified and risen Jesus in exactly that.