In our culture they stand for despair, the writer David Goldman explained a few years ago, the despair people feel when they don’t really believe that God loves them and will love them forever. They stand for the belief that death and nothingness have the last word. Which seems, looking at the world, to be probable. What can defeat reasonable despair? Who can beat the zombies?
That newborn child in a manger in a back corner town in a back corner of the Roman empire, that baby defeats everything the zombies stand for. During Advent we reflect on the end of the world. The Christ child tells us the end of the world isn’t the end of the world.
Images of Death
Why, Goldman asks, does our society “wallow in images of death — not merely death, but death in massive doses, in the form of zombie armies of the walking dead?” He points out that in the 1930s only one in two hundred movies was a horror movie, in 2000 — before 9/11 — one in twenty-five. By 2009, the number had risen to one in ten, and The Walking Dead was the most popular cable tv series ever.
I don’t know what the number is now, but it remains weirdly high. And then there are all the very popular and very violent video games that the player wins by killing hundreds and hundreds of zombies. Making their heads explode with gushers of blood seems to be the preferred way to kill them. It’s really creepy.
Goldman explains why we wallow in images of death. “We have,” he wrote in another column, “dismissed the Jewish and Christian hope of eternal life as superstition offensive to reason, but instead, we find ourselves trapped in a recurring nightmare. We know that we will die, but (as Woody Allen said) we don’t want to be there when it happens.”
To put it in an even gloomier way some of us will remember from our childhoods: We fritter away our lives, not realizing we’d get old, as Pink Floyd sang in their song “Time” from The Dark Side of the Moon album. The band describes growing older: “So you run and you run to catch up with the sun, but it’s sinking, racing around to come up behind you again. The sun is the same in a relative way, but you’re older, shorter of breath, and one day closer to death.”
Reacting to the fact that they will die some day no matter what, and that day isn’t all that far off, many people do everything they can to live and to put off all the signs of death life gives us. If you’re shorter of breath, take up jogging or hit the gym. Build up your wind.
“We act,” Goldman notes, “as if exercise, antioxidants and Botox will keep the reaper away, but we know that our flesh one day must putrefy nonetheless. The more we try to ignore death, the more it fascinates us. The more we tell ourselves that mortality doesn’t apply to us, the more it surrounds us.”
He Who Will Keep His Life
Jesus tells us that whoever tries to save his life will lose it. What we see now is that he who tries to save his life by trying to live as long as he possibly can will lose his life by becoming obsessed with death, even if he deals with this obsession in the imaginative form of zombies.
I can think of people like this. People who really don’t want to die think about death and the signs that it’s coming (like being short of breath) a lot more than the Christians I know. They live with fanatical devotion to minimizing risk and protecting their health. They will rob themselves for decades of the world’s great pleasures in the hope of adding a few years to their life. They can’t enjoy a pleasure for itself (like wine), but for the benefits it provides (it’s good for the heart).
That’s no way to live. We can’t live happily by earnestly not dying. Having the hope of eternal life makes living in this world a lot easier. Jesus led the way, becoming one of us when Mary said yes to the angel, knowing he would die on the Cross. That child in Bethlehem gives us reason for hope and joy even though we will some day die.
The Christian doesn’t exactly believe that we should eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. It’s more that we believe that we should eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we live, and will live for all the tomorrows.
And Is It True?
The English poet John Betjeman begins his poem “Christmas” describing London before Christmas. The world he describes is nice enough, with all the decorations and the cheerfulness and “the bells of waiting Advent” ringing out, but there’s not much point to it. It’s a world that’s not dying. It’s the optimistic version of the world filled with zombies, and for my taste the less realistic of the two.
Then the poet asks, “And is it true . . . the Maker of the stars and sea, become a Child on earth for me?” Because if so, life changes entirely. Because if the child born of Mary was the Son of God, nothing — not “bath salts and inexpensive scent, and hideous tie so kindly meant” — not even the
. . . love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells,
Can with this single Truth compare —
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.