By Jeff Brumley
One was that the standing-room-only session would not help determine if zombies and vampires are an unreached people group in need of the gospel. Nor would they debate whether the undead can be saved.
Instead, they would focus on the individuals, churches and culture that has become fascinated with those creatures, said Freeman, research professor of theology and director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School.
The hour-long session was peppered with video clips of historic zombie productions, including scenes from Night of the Living Dead, Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the ongoing hit AMC series The Walking Dead.
Freeman said the ever-increasing popularity of the genre “says something about who we are and what we’re thinking about” and is “a lens to what is happening in our culture and churches.”
Yes, even churches: Several raised their hands when asked if they had attended zombie- and vampire-related discussion groups hosted by a congregation.
After going through the history of the genre, Freeman focused on The Walking Dead, which has attained a mass following through four seasons. Initially set in and around Atlanta, the society depicted in the series has suffered an apocalyptic catastrophe via some sort of pathogen. The result is that when people die, they become zombies.
Separate groups of survivors emerge to compete violently with each other for safety and resources, with issues going beyond food, shelter and zombies to spirituality, morality and community.
Freeman said he sees these different groups as different churches today that are struggling for survival in a post-Christian age.
“The show talks about community and the breakdown of community,” Freeman said.
It also asks questions such as “Who am I?” “Is there hope?” and “Am I alone,” he said, the same questions many Christians and churches are asking in modern times.
The debate — in the show and in the church culture — is who are the walking dead. Is it the zombies or the living who are stuck and don’t know how to live fully into their faith and communities?
It’s much the same question pressing congregations grappling with declining attendance as overall religious affiliation declines.
“In our churches we need to do a better of job” of determining what it means “to be alive and dead.”
The issue also is a reminder of the radical and totality of Christ’s death and resurrection — as a model of passing over from life to death — and back again, Freeman said.
“The show helps us focus on the basic gospel story and what it means to be alive in Christ,” he said.