[A]lmost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety. But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. – Flannery O’Connor, The Grotesque in Southern Fiction, 1960
Why are zombie movies so popular these days? I’ve heard a few theories lately but haven’t been satisfied with them so I figured I’d offer my own. One thing to keep in mind is that zombies have changed in film over the past 30 years. At first they were living dead who were under the control of a voodoo witch doctor. They didn’t eat your brains and you couldn’t become one if they bit you. So for clarity, we really need to consider the zombies of today’s movies.
One of the ways to understand American eras is to consider what they were afraid of and one of the best ways to do that is to consider the horror movies of that era. Invasion of the Body Snatchers was so powerful at the time because of the fear of Communist invasion. What if your neighbor was a secret Communist? The Day the Earth Stood Still, Them and The Incredible Shrinking Man (for example) demonstrated our fear of nuclear war and nuclear radiation. So what are we afraid of today that makes zombie films so popular?
Given the modern version of zombies, I think they are popular because we’re afraid of people who don’t think like us. They appear to be human but distorted humans. They appear mindless, yet driven by some force we don’t understand. And there is a fear that we might become like them if we get close.
Who is “them”? Could be anyone who is different from us. Conservatives, Christians, Muslims, Liberals, atheists, whoever. “They” are so different and scary because they don’t think like us and we have a sneaky suspicion that they’re out to get us. This difference feels like an attack and so the only response is equally violent. They must be destroyed. Their thought process has be obliterated. That’s why the way you kill a zombie is to destroy its brain.
Multi-culturalism seems to be such a great idea but in practice it doesn’t really overcome our basic fear of those we don’t understand. Why can’t they become more “normal”, that is, more like us? And yet we see them as essentially human yet their differences are frightening. Fortunately, people don’t act on their fear-fantasy and attack others. And that is the another function of our fear-fantasy; it expresses our fears and gives us a safe vent for a reaction to them where no one gets hurt.
There is a lot that is weird about the West these days. We have a Nobel Peace Prize winning president who is fighting wars on three fronts and Donald Trump looks like his most viable opponent. Pia Toscano was the contestant with the best voice and Casey Abrams was the best entertainer and yet both are voted off American Idol. Certain bird eggs are protected by law but babies in mother’s wombs are not.
But today I saw and heard what I think is the cream of Western culture. Yes, I am speaking of the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. Start with the architecture. Westminster Abby is stunning. None of the stark utilitarianism of Modernism or the goofy pointlessness of Post-Modern architecture, the abbey represents some of the best of what the West has built. Not that there haven’t been stunning buildings since then but the abbey has that soaring, reaching for heaven look. It isn’t so much focused on us as it draws us to look elsewhere.
What of the ceremony itself? Other cultures have marriage ceremonies but more and more they are including elements of the Western ceremony. The white dress, the bouquet, the kiss. The beauty of our ceremony is being recognized and adopted around the world. Again, not that other cultures’ ceremonies are inferior, but some of the beauty our “fairy tale” weddings is being adopted.
The music in the ceremony was almost other-worldly it was so beautiful. The choral piece written by John Rutter made me remember why God gave humanity voices and why he calls us to use them. The Motet ‘Ubi caritas’ by Paul Mealor was almost as peaceful and wonderful as a summer sunrise over a mountain valley. Western culture produced this and I think this is an example of some of the finest music in the world.
Milton and Chaucer were quoted and sung. They are samples of some of the best of Western literature. Sure, Shakespeare was missing but we’re just getting samples of the finest at the wedding, not a complete index.
The Judeo-Christian tradition has formed us in the West; we are bound to it by ties which may often be invisible, but which are there nevertheless. It has formed the shape of our secularism; it has formed even the shape of modern atheism. – Flannery O’ConnorAnd above all of this was the Christianity the West shaped and was shaped by. I was impressed at how Christian the royal wedding remained. There were prayers offered in the name of Jesus Christ Our Lord, blessings invoked in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and scripture was read and sung. No matter what the New Atheists say, no matter what modern detractors claim, Christianity brought the West to its pinnacle. It liberated man so that nature could be studied and questioned rather than worshiped and feared. God created the world but he is not part of it. Creation is his handiwork and to study and understand it is to learn more about God. As I said above, God has commanded man to sing and make music. Western music was influenced the belief that God is reasonable and rational and his creation is reasonable and rational and humanity, as the greatest created thing, should create what we may in that same fashion. Likewise, God created humanity as male and female and Jesus said that this arrangement was a marriage. Therefore, since marriage was instituted by God we should honor it and it should reflect the dignity and honor which God intended it to display. As was said in the royal wedding, marriage reflects the relationship between Christ and His Church. It is therefore insoluble. God wrote and God spoke and so these things should be done in a way that honors and reflects him.
But this is a monarchy, isn’t Democracy one of the greatest things Western culture has produced? Had the English monarch not been so heavy handed and greedy there would have been no need for democracy. Democracy is itself a response to abuse of power; it seeks to give authority to many instead of one. Christianity itself is a benevolent monarchy and had the West stuck to that model things might be very different today.
I just hope that this isn’t sort of the West’s swan song. I’m not sure that many of those in attendance or presiding over the service believed any of what was said and sung. They may have just viewed all of this as traditional and meaningless words and songs. I hope not. It would tragic to see the West come so far only to abandon it all and head back into barbarism in the name of “progress.” It was, at least, a wonderful glimpse into what is wonderful about Western Culture.
Last year I took Cultural Hermeneutics with Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer. It was a rather mind expanding class. For my term paper, I wrote on how faith fairs in two movies, The Ladykillers and The Truman Show. I reread that paper this weekend in preparation for forwarding it to a friend I spoke with this summer. I thought the summary was interesting:
[The demise of the characters who seek to kill Marva, who represents faith in The Ladykillers, and their transport to hell] seem[s] like good lessons and if it were not for the constant stream of profanity that emanates from Gawain’s mouth, this film could be used as an object lesson. But there is a danger beyond the vulgarity. While faith is given a good ride in this film what is missing is God. If Othar represents him, he represents a silent, distant, dead God. Othar is present only in a painting high above the scene, looking on but unable to act. He is in a shrine, circled with candles and talked to by Marva, but he never answers. God is far off and silent. The “bad guys” do themselves in and God does not judge.
There is a faith presented here that we must be weary of also. What is missing is redemption. Marva’s faith is in moral reform. Her pastor’s sermon is all about getting people to behave. Her response to catching the criminal is that they must give them money back and come to church with her. In short, there is no gospel. Faith for the Coen brothers is a positive force for good in our culture. It will withstand the assaults of various worldly systems not because it is superior but because it is simple and good. This is faith in faith but not faith in God. Again, Othar is not involved; he is a spectator to all that is happening and nothing more. Faith stands on it’s own.
Putting together the views of faith presented in The Truman Show and The Ladykillers may seem like an impossible task but really the answer is the same. If the Western mind is dissatisfied with pretend faith, or assumes that faith is a positive social influence and nothing more we should ask where this misconception came from. It probably came from caricatures of religion pictured on television or passed on verbally in jokes. What the church must be careful of is to make sure that they are not correct. If we are committed to following Christ, these distortions should never fit us.
Christians certainly do not agree with [Andrew] Niccol [, the director of The Truman Show,] that our world is a fabrication and our god an impotent sham, but we can still learn from him. Niccol’s message is to be suspicious of the world we’re presented and to think outside the box. Truman got free and so can you. But what “fiction” was Niccol presenting in that soundstage? Was it genuine Christianity or was it the sham we all react against? The staged cheeriness of Seahaven can easily be repeated in our churches. We can be tempted to put on that fake smile and glad hand our way through a Sunday morning talking vaguely about “The Big Guy” and, like Truman, be ultimately dissatisfied. We can be tempted to put on thick make-up to cover our scars and sins, showing a perfect face to those around us. But we’re offered more than a shallow, thoughtless faith held in place by pretend cheeriness. God did something that Christof could not. He became a man and he came to serve. This is an aspect of faith that is missing from Truman’s soundstage. Yes, Christof seems to really love Truman. He lovingly touches and strokes images of him from his control room 221st floor of the stage, but Christof never came to him.
Our God is not a feeble watcher we can elude the eye of. Neither is he an aloof image stored in a temple. If our culture asks God “was nothing real?” his answer is “Me. I am real. And I came to you in the person of My Son, Jesus Christ.” The message of both of these films is that God is not here. He is removed from us. It is a false message that we cannot speak against as well as we can live against. The answer we have to offer our culture in the face of these charges is transformed lives of genuine love and commitment to Jesus and one another. Not at the expense of truth, or we are in Marva Munson’s world of faith abstracted from its object. Not truth at the expense of life, or we have joined the cast of The Truman Show, knowing the lines and going through the motions but not being real.
God is not far off, impotent and silent. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb. 1:1-2). If our culture’s thoughts of faith in God are lost somewhere between The Truman Show and The Ladykillers, the Church’s answer is as it has always been: Jesus Christ. The way we can change our culture is by living lives under the headship of Christ that are transparent and transformed. Our worship should be Christ-focused and sincere, not entertainment. When we speak of Jesus our words and thoughts should betray a heart that is captivated by his glory. In other words, we have to be Christians who cannot fit the stereotypes our culture has cast. It would be a mistake live only in a way that reacts to what the culture is thinking, instead we should be “the light of the world.” We contend for the faith by deepening it and living it. Genuinely.