Over the last few years, one of the TV shows that I have followed on a regular basis has been AMC's The Walking Dead. Following the aftermath of a seemingly worldwide zombie apocalypse, the show follows former sheriff's deputy Rick Grimes and his band of survivors in the state of Georgia, as they attempt to re-establish something that resembles civilisation amid the chaos of a society that has destroyed itself.
(Warning–some minor spoilers below!)
As the narrative of the series has progressed, the protagonists have moved beyond mere survival, to the point where they actually have the opportunity to attempt to build a society that may just have a chance to endure.
Throughout its duration, the moral dilemmas brought about by living in such a dangerous, anarchic state of existence have been one of the major recurring themes of the series. For example, the value of human life, capital punishment, and the needs of the many as opposed to the rights of the individual are themes that have been returned to again and again.
Most of all though, the idea of hope is the theme that perhaps resonates most strongly throughout the show. In such a bleak, brutal, and unforgiving existence, what is it that motivates people to persevere—and not lose their humanity in the process?
Religion in the post-apocalyptic world
In such a morally challenging and ambiguous world then, it intrigued me as to how Christianity (and religion in general), with its crucial role in defining morality and purpose, would be portrayed and understood.
To be fair, the show's writers have certainly not ignored the subject, with two characters storylines revolved heavily around their religious faith.
One story concerns Father Gabriel, an Episcopalian priest who is wracked with guilt after inadvertently causing the death of many of his congregation members, locking them out of his church to face the zombie hordes on their own.
The other involves Morgan Jones, a man driven to despair and insanity by the loss of his wife and son, who is rehabilitated through taking up the pacifistic philosophy of Aikido.
However, while these characters' faith plays an important part in their personal development, it is a faith which is clearly contained within the individual sphere. While their beliefs and actions may have an impact on the other characters around them, it seemingly never finds a communal voice.
While within the series there is scope to see the transformative effect of faith in the private lives of individuals, it is far more rarely expressed in the life of a community. Although religion can solve personal problems, it cannot seem to be trusted to solve the existential crisis of Rick Grimes and his followers.
Christianity, and most religions in general however, are expressed most fully not just in the lives of individuals, but within the context of a wider community. Indeed, the core beliefs that we adhere to as societies, are foundational to the very ability of societies to function in a healthy and cohesive manner.
An interesting illustration of this idea dates back to the French Revolution of the late 18th century, and the challenges created by the aggressive de-Christianisation movement that swept through France during 1793–1794. During that time, churches were destroyed, priests forced out of their parishes, and every reminder of Christianity—from street signs to the Sabbath—was torn down and replaced.
The problem for those seeking to remove Christianity and God from the fabric of French society, was the huge vacuum that its absence left behind.
Some, such as Jacques Herbert and Antoine-Francois Momoro, tried to fill the void with the 'Cult of Reason'—an atheistic philosophy which directed its devotion towards the abstract concept of reason.
Others, such as Maximilien Robespierre, recognised the importance of religious faith to the health and good function of society, and sought to soften the excesses of the de-Christianisation programme.
In May of 1794, a replacement for Christianity in France was devised—the 'Cult of the Supreme Being'. Although it was deistic rather than Christian, it affirmed two key aspects of Christian doctrine: the existence of one God and the immortality of the human soul.
Eventually though, neither of these schemes would amount to anything in the end. With the death of Robespierre in July of 1794, both the Cult of the Supreme Being and the Cult of Reason faded into obscurity—leaving Christianity to refill the vacuum which the revolution had created.
Two hundred years or so since that time, in countries like New Zealand, we have reached a stage where Christianity is fading more and more from the public consciousness. When Christian faith is expressed, more often than not it is limited to the private, individual sphere—its effects not seen clearly in the public realm.
Shows like The Walking Dead reflect this contemporary understanding of Christian belief. However, Christianity is more than just a private faith. It provides a real, lasting hope for humanity, and gives voice to God's plan to redeem the world from sin and death.
Tim Newman lives in Christchurch, New Zealand. He holds an MA in History (focussing on attitudes towards warfare in Islam and Christianity).
Tim Newman's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/tim-newman.html