© Jeremy D. Nickel 2013. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
January 13, 2013
Listen to Audio Version of Whole Service (mp3)
Listen to Audio Version of Sermon (mp3)
A 2004 movie called Dawn of the Dead has largely been credited for kicking off our latest wave of Zombie movies. In Dawn of the Dead, we follow the struggles of a few survivors in one Midwestern town who have taken refuge in a shopping mall from a world-wide plague that is turning otherwise healthy human beings into undead monsters solely interested in devouring them.
In an early scene one of the characters relates a common Zombie movie theme when hypothesizing about where these Zombies have come from, which is that somehow hell has filled up and so the damned amongst the dead are now walking the earth. While there are certainly other explanations for the existence of Zombies throughout this Movie genre, besides being one of the more prevalent, this is also the most theological.
So, does this claim make any theological sense? Can Hell fill up? Could Zombies walk the earth? Lets check in with the three major monotheistic faiths:
Originally Judaism didn't even have the concept of hell, simply believing that everyone went to Sheol when they died, regardless of choices made during earthly life.
But in what is known as the Hellenistic period of Judaism, as these ideas came more into contact with the surrounding religious climate of the Mideast, and the influence of Greek culture, it inherited some ideas about hell that later found their way into rabbinic teaching. The main concept being Gahanna, which was a purgatory like place that bad people's souls could go to after death, however the term one could spend in this place was limited to one cycle of the seasons, or one earth year, and then they went all went to Sheol.
In modern times this concept has also evolved to include the idea of our experience of our misdeeds in this life, that is to say, if one is feeling a strong sense of shame for actions they have taken, they can be said to be experiencing Gehinom, or hell on earth, but this is still a long way from being a Zombie.
So technically this is a faith that has no room for Zombie's. But it is also hard to ignore Zechariah 14:12 which reads: And the LORD will send a plague on all the nations that fought against Jerusalem. Their people will become like walking corpses, their flesh rotting away. Their eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongues will rot in their mouths. Which sounds an awful lot like the first Zombies to me!
Christianity for the most part continues the understanding of Hell developed previously in Judaism, with a key addition. The Jewish term Gahanna actually derives from a real place, a garbage dump on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Not only were there perpetual giant fires there to burn the trash, but it was also the place that human bodies no one would claim upon death would be destroyed. In the book of Revelations the temporary understanding of Gahanna from Judaism morphed into a more permanent Hell in the classic sense we now think of it, with its ever-present fires and eternal damnation.
Which takes us to Islam. Due mostly to the fact that Islam historically evolved after Christianity, and Judiasm it has an even fuller articulated vision of hell, which they call "Jahannam." Jahannam is a multi tiered place, with descending levels of horror to correspond with how bad an earthly life you lived. One thing that is clear is that it will not ever be filling up because, as Sura 51:47 puts it: "it is We Who have constructed the heaven with might, and verily, it is We Who are steadily expanding it." This is universally understood within the Islamic world to mean that the Universe, and Hell and Heaven along with it, are always expanding. So this is a faith system with no space problem in Hell. So, no Zombies right. Well, not so fast, there is this little tid bit from sura 54 verses 7-9: "On the Day the Summoner summons them to something unspeakably terrible, they will emerge from their graves with downcast eyes, like swarming locusts, necks outstretched, eyes transfixed, rushing headlong to the Summoner." So again it looks like the possibility is there.
Now, finally, and most importantly, what does our faith tradition have to say about all of this?
Well, Unitarians for the most part have been uninterested with any talk of the after-life, preferring to focus on what they are sure exists: this life and how to make it better. Our Universlist ancestors on the other hand got their very name from the heretical belief that eventually everyone would be saved, that is, end up in Heaven. Originally this was meant within a Christian framework, that everyone would be saved specifically through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, but Universalism has come to mean something very different within our modern Unitarian-Universalist tradition.
Since we have moved away from any concept that the message of Jesus Christ is the only one that can legitimately inform our values and bring meaning to how we live our lives, the idea of Universalism has been expanded to something much wider. Now it means that we recognize that there exist an almost infinite set of authentic paths to truth. This has the implication that rather than focusing on one set of wisdom words like the Bible, or Bagavad Gita, that we are encouraged to make use of as much of the revealed and collected wisdom as we can, whether it is found in an ancient book, under a microscope in a science lab, or even, and perhaps most importantly, from a personal insight.
So whether due to its original focus on Universal Salvation, or its more modern ideas of multiple paths to truth during our earthly life, our movement is simply incompatible and uniterested with an after-life concept that includes Zombies. Or as noted UU theologian Chuck Rosene put it in a conversation about this topic earlier this week: "Universalists can't believe in Zombie, because zombie are dead, and if they are dead, they'd be in heaven. But maybe we are already in heaven, here on earth - that's the only rational explanation for zombies and Universalism!" I couldn't have said it better myself!
So, next time you stumble upon a Zombie movie late at night, and get freaked out by the idea of the damned walking the earth after death, remember that your tradition rejects any such notion as not only a bad plot, but bad theology as well!
"All I want to do is eat your brains." This classic Zombie refrain originates from the 1985 Zombie movie classic Return of the Living Dead. The plot of this particular Zombie flick revolves around the actions of three men and a gang of punks as they attempt to deal with a plague of brain eating Zombies that has been released on their town. Up until this point, Zombies had always been portrayed in movies as general flesh eaters, but it is easy to see how this evolution to brain eating in Zombie lore stuck.
In almost all fantasy portrayals of Zombie's, once a human is transformed into a Zombie, the main change, besides appearing undead and slowly walking in a shuffling gate, was the lack of motivation to do anything except consume other humans. That was it. You as a Zombie are no longer concerned with anything else, and appear to lack any ability to think for yourself. And since the brain is the seat of consciousness, the place from which our supposed Free Will is expressed, it only makes sense that this would be the part of our body that should be destroyed in order to convert a healthy person into a Zombie.
Now, I find Free Will to be a fascinating concept and it has pretty much always been at the center of my theological questing. One the one hand, my experience as a thinking human being leads me to naturally feel pretty strongly that I have free will. But from a young age this troubled me because it felt incompatible with the world of meaning I knew I lived within.
I reasoned that if every choice was fully my own, if I was truly a completely free actor in this world, then it was a pretty unromantic place: no destiny, no purpose, and thus no underlying meaning. And this felt not only unsatisfying, but also not in line with all the meaning I experienced in the world. I had always lived as if each moment was like a riddle intentionally placed before me, waiting to be wrestled with so the wisdom within could be slowly exposed and learned from.
It was not until I found my way to Process Thought that I realized this was a false dichotomy, that in actuality Free Will was the key to my understanding the relationship to meaning and what underlies it. Because what Process Thought helped me understand about the world was that although we do have Free Will, the ocean of possibility we live within has a preference towards those actualities that would bring more beauty into the world. A preference, but no ability to make it so. Which leaves us to do the doing. The implications for free will are that we are indeed completely and radically free with our choices, but that our destiny, our purpose as created beings is to help discern and actualize in each moment the possibility that would bring the most beauty with it. Its meaning with accountability
For me, this felt like a synthesis of this false dichotomy I realized I had created, between Free Will and something larger than myself to ground meaning in. Process Thought says that every moment is an invitation from all that is to help decide what the next moment will look like.
And, when I think about Zombies in this light, it all fits together. Our colloquial use of the word is really to describe someone who is going through life on auto-pilot, with as little participation as possible, and thus in no way partaking in what I consider to be the most holy and important part of life: saying yes to that invitation, and co-creating a beautiful world out of the infinite possibilities of every moment. It certainly does sound like a terrible fate to me, which makes me think that the most important inoculation against becoming a Zombie is not going to come out of a lab or a syringe but rather will come out of a community just like this one, that encourages and empowers all people to see what happens when we answer yes to that invitation.
Even in todays new generation of Zombie movies, which are largely defined by their fusion with other genres like comedy and romance, the scripts are riddled with chaos, destruction and apocalyptic scenarios, so at first blush this appears to be an odd place to talk about hope.
But in the end, almost every Zombie movie is infused with exactly that. Whether it is the genius of the human mind to find a cure to the plague, or an homage to our resiliency in overcoming staggeringly long odds, Zombie movies as much as any other genre always offer a large dose of hope to the viewer.
A great example of this is a Zombie movie coming out next month, called Warm Bodies, which details a love affair between a young Zombie boy and healthy human girl. As it revealed in the film, it turns out a Zombie can be cured and returned to their human form by the awakening of their heart through love. Not necessarily scientifically solid, but completely in keeping with the genre. As much as Zombie movies purport to be about the undead, they are really, like everything else we self-obsessed people create, wholly about us, and what makes us human.
And so what I think Zombie movies ultimately tell us about ourselves is that humans are defined by our capacity to hope, that no matter how dark and scary a world we find ourselves in, we will always find a way to believe that something better is out there.
And this feels extremely relevant to me right now, in a time when the world does truly at times feel dark and scary. Climate change, dysfunctional politics, rampant and unchecked gun violence, staggering poverty - we don't need to step into a movie theater to be scared out of our minds, just opening up the newspaper or turning on the news can do the trick. And if I ever stop long enough to add all of these very real ills together, the odds of handing a world I can be proud of off to my daughter and her generation feels remote.
But I know that hopeless place is not where I reside. Far from feeling hopeless, like all those protagonists through the years in Zombie movie after Zombie movie, I am full of hope. I truly believe that there is nothing so wrong with this world that what is beautiful about creation cannot find another way, a fix, a solution.
And I think this goes a long way to explaining our fascination with Zombie movies. Obviously no one wants to relate to the Zombies, those un-thinking, un-dead shuffling corpses and their never ending search for living humans to consume. But those few humans that remain alive and healthy amongst that chaos, and continue to find a way to save not only themselves, but also the whole world from this mess, that is who we watch those movies for. Because it stirs something deep within us, that elemental belief that no matter how much this world throws at us, whether it be by our own causing or random chance, we will not give up. We will not only find a reason to believe, but a real way forward.
That is who we are as a species, and I think that is in large part why we at Mission Peak UU exist. Because one other thing those Zombie movies make clear is that there is strength in numbers. You always know someone is about to become Zombie food when they go off on their own. It is always about those who band together, who put their backs against one another and keep pushing forward as a community.
So next time your load feels heavy, the next time you feel the darkness creeping around you, the next time you think things might be hopeless, remember you have friends right here who are with you, and we don't even believe in Zombies.
May it be so. Ashe.
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