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Month: October 2014

New life in the zombie apocalypse, part 2: Defining “alive”

Note: I love zombie apocalypse stories because they are a great metaphor for life crises. This blog series on the topic has four parts: 1) waking up in the crisis; 2) defining “alive”; 3) abandoning self-sufficiency; and 4) spiritual weapons and sustenance. All scriptures are NIV unless otherwise noted.

As we continue our spiritual journey through the zombie apocalypse, let’s consider the zombies themselves. To me, the most intriguing aspect of zombies is the nature of their existence (I know, zombies don’t really exist – but it’s a metaphor, so hear me out).

Zombie-EvolutionZombies, in contrast to human survivors, are often described as the “living dead” – subhuman beings who seem to be alive, yet not alive. How can they exist in two incompatible states at once? Yet in a zombie story, they do. The story pulls us “outside the box” and hands us a paradox. It twists what we know. It forces us to consider the definition of life: What is life? What is living? And what does it mean to be truly alive?

The definition of life is, of course, endlessly debated. However, if we stay “inside the box,” we might define life by simple measures – such as, say, the presence of brain waves and a heartbeat.

But there are huge gray areas. For example, both zombies and humans may exhibit brain waves and heartbeats, yet without being fully alive.

In the opening credits of Shaun of the Dead, a zombie comedy (a paradox in and of itself), the camera pans across several routine scenarios – commuters waiting for a bus, cashiers scanning groceries, hoodlums shuffling down the street – all on autopilot, without thought or awareness.

All of these people are technically alive, engaged in what some might call the drudgery of everyday existence. Yet they look no more alive than the zombies who appear later in the film. They intentionally beg the question: is there really any difference between the living dead and the living dead? What is the difference between a live person working mindlessly for some-thing to eat, and a dead person searching brainlessly for some-one to eat?

A spirit.

This was illustrated in the first season finale of AMC’s The Walking Dead. At the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the last remaining scientist shows visitors a brain scan of his last test subject as she dies and slowly turns into a zombie. He explains that all parts of the brain that “make you you” become black on the screen, indicating death. However, after a few minutes a tiny part of the brain that controls basic motor functions begins to show renewed activity. Conclusion: the spirit—the personality, the humanity—has left the body. The only part “living” is the body, the shell. And its only goal is to find sustenance. For some inexplicable reason, that sustenance consists solely of the living.

This is a profound concept, indeed, when we consider God breathing his spirit—life—into the first human. It tells us we humans are unique, special, created in God’s image. Without that God-breath, there is no true life.

However, as shown in Shaun of the Dead, even the living can be fully alive or only partially alive. After getting off the plane from my disastrous postgraduate oral defense, I was technically “alive”—I had a pulse and a few readable brain waves; my basic motor functions worked, though with more effort than before; and Jesus was still living inside me.

Yet like a zombie I shuffled through the next few years, numb and dead, attacking innocent people to feed my inner monster of rage and self-pity. My existence consisted of moments of anger, followed by bouts of weeping. Finally, my days devolved into standing at the edge of the abyss, staring into the blackness before me. I was certain the previous seven years were the climax of my life, and I was now just waiting to rot.

But one question haunted me—a typical job interview question: “What do you see yourself doing five years from now?” How does a zombie answer that question? I really needed a job, but my self-confidence was flushed down a British loo. The real answer—the answer I couldn’t say—was: “I don’t know. I am just trying to survive to the end of the day.”

I had a spirit, but I wasn’t living.

So I will take the definition of life one step further. Life is more than brainwaves, a heartbeat, and a spirit. It also requires vision, passion, and hope.

That’s what I lacked: hope. A voice to guide me, to snap me out of my trance of hopelessness and pull me away from the edge of the abyss. Sadly, we often can’t do this for ourselves. Maybe you too have been killed by hopelessness and rejection. Maybe you too have settled for “good enough”—which is often not that great.

So how does a zombie come back to life? I can’t answer that for everyone, but I can relate a few things that have been helpful for me personally. Here is what I suggest.

First, find within yourself a seed of self-awareness to acknowledge, to yourself and God, exactly where you are. Denying our zombie state will only entrench it, so we must first admit it. Remember, God is not bothered or intimidated by this admission.

Second, take one tiny step of repentance away from the abyss and toward Christ, who is true life. One step, however slight, is enough to shift our focus off our own anger and self-pity and onto Christ.

Third, commit to an intimate community of Christ-followers who will pray for you, support you, and allow you to heal in God’s time.

Fourth, don’t waste time asking, “Why?” In a zombie apocalypse, that question almost never gets answered. Ask instead, “What now?” In other words, whatever happened is now in the past. It can’t be undone and the “why” question only amplifies the hopelessness. You are in a new reality. It’s uncharted and scary. But God is there also. To paraphrase Henry Blackaby: Find out where God is working (and believe me, in this zombie apocalypse, there are oodles of places where he is at work), and go join him.

In the zombie apocalypse, the zombies are not ill; they are truly dead and cannot be revived. However, God is a God of resurrection. I am proof that God can resurrect zombies and breathe new life into them.

In Christ, death is never final.

Not even in the zombie apocalypse.OCREk

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New life in the zombie apocalypse, part 1: Waking up in the crisis

Note: I love zombie apocalypse stories because they are a great metaphor for life crises. This blog series on the topic has four parts: 1) waking up in the crisis; 2) defining “alive”; 3) abandoning self-sufficiency; and 4) spiritual weapons and sustenance. All scriptures are NIV unless otherwise noted.

In the 2010 pilot episode of AMC TV’s “The Walking Dead,” Rick (the protagonist) awakens from a coma to find his city deserted except for a horrific new reality: flesh-eating zombies. He dodges them for awhile, trying unsuccessfully to find his wife and son, but the need for safety finally drives him to seek refuge in an abandoned military tank.

In the episode’s final shot, the camera points directly down from above to show several zombies climbing around on the tank, looking for a way in. Then the camera slowly pulls back, widening the scene to reveal hundreds more zombies shuffling toward the tank from all directions.

And then the scene fades to black.

From AMC’s “The Walking Dead” – pilot episode

It is one of rare shots in film that conveys total terror and hopelessness.

That closing shot, that whole episode, resonated with me on a deeply emotional level. It all served as the perfect metaphor for how I had been feeling for over two years—alive but trapped, temporarily surviving but with absolutely no way forward.

In 2008, my world collapsed in utter failure. When I got off the plane after a day’s travel from London, still numb from having my doctoral dissertation rejected just days before, I realized I was facing a whole new reality—one where nothing made sense, every moment was uncertain, and every dream I had tried to form was gone, with a finality for which there was no cure.

I had stepped into my own personal zombie apocalypse.

For months after I returned home, I barely shuffled through the days. I don’t know if I was a zombie or a survivor, but in a zombie apocalypse, both could be called “the walking dead” (the zombies actually are dead, and the survivors’ future is so bleak that they might as well be). So every day I had to choose whether to be a zombie, feeding on baser animal instincts like rage and self-centeredness, or a survivor, determined to cling to higher spiritual values like faith and love.

I had been living in this strange existence for over two years before that “Walking Dead” premiere. And that hopeless, terrifying final scene captured every single feeling I experienced at the time.

Zombie stories are my guilty pleasure. I can relate to the desperate plight of the survivors, and the fascinating “what if” questions—questions such as…

– If I were trapped in a zombie apocalypse, what would I do?

– Could I survive? Do I have what it takes?

– Would I choose to “opt out,” as some characters do, by committing suicide?

– What would I look like with a zombie face—would it hurt or help?

It’s not the inevitable gore that draws me to the zombie genre—that would just be weird. Instead, it’s the scenario itself that intrigues me.

Zombie stories almost always start with the protagonist (typically a male, though it could be a female) inexplicably waking up in a zombie apocalypse and slowly realizing that something is not right. Numb and disoriented, he staggers through the landscape, passing through new stages of awareness and struggling to interpret what he sees and hears in this dangerous new world. Suspense builds due to fear of discovery—discovery of new horrors. As the mental fog begins to clear, panic rises at these new realities, then desperation as he remembers his family and determines to look for them. Finally, sorrow sets in as he realizes the finality of it all: his old familiar world is gone, and only this horrific new one remains.

The zombie genre rarely, if ever, explains what caused the apocalypse, or what might happen next. There is no big picture, no answer to “how?” or “why?” Instead, there is only an individual or a small group of survivors just trying to get by. The only question is, “What now?” The protagonist must simply accept the new reality, and learn to survive and remain human within it.

Kind of like life.

The truth is, you will probably never, ever have to answer the questions that confront the protagonist in a zombie story. But we each have to face our own apocalypse. The catalyst could be anything, from a divorce to a serious illness to an unexpected death. Whatever the cause, we awaken in a new reality. We are numb, foggy, angry, desperate, and saddened as we try to put the pieces together. We are forced to get past the “why” question and start to answer “what now?” as we trudge through the new chaos.

However, the zombie apocalypse—whether real or metaphorical—is never completely without hope.

The next episode of “The Walking Dead” opens with Rick still in the tank—but something unexpected happens: a voice suddenly crackles over the radio. Someone is watching the whole scenario from a higher, safer vantage point, offering to guide Rick out of his desperate situation. Immediately, he decides to trust that voice.

Like Rick, we too have a voice that speaks into our situation. It’s the voice of the Holy Spirit—unexpected, higher than we are, and able to see the whole picture. If we are to survive our own apocalypse, we must learn to know and trust that voice without hesitation.


Somehow, I have survived my apocalypse for nearly seven years. My survival skills are far from perfect. But that voice—the wise, loving voice of the Holy Spirit—has helped me limp along.

So get up, clear the cobwebs from your brain, and allow the voice to guide you too.

Welcome to the zombie apocalypse!

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