Just Another Zombie Tale?

John 11:32-44 – The 23rd Sunday after Pentecost – for Sunday, November 1, 2015

“Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, ‘Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.’” (John 11:39)

The Raising of Lazarus - Caravaggio
The Raising of Lazarus – Caravaggio

When given the choice of movies with vampires, werewolves, or zombies, I’ll usually watch the living dead.

As a bright, insightful reader, you may wonder if referencing the zombie genre is my gimmicky way to muse about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.

Of course it is!

In John’s Gospel, Jesus stands before the tomb of his friend Lazarus, now dead for four days. As most scholars and many Sunday school teachers know, the four days was critical. According to Rabbinic traditions, the dead were officially dead after the third day.

Thus, the crowd crowding Jesus had many reactions.

Lazarus might stink.

Jesus was such a jerk for taking so much time to arrive.

It was an opportunity for a few (or a bunch of) folks to insult the Nazarene. If Jesus could heal the blind, why couldn’t he keep his pal Lazarus from meeting his maker?

And then Jesus called Lazarus forth.

The dead lived.

The sleeping awoke.

The glory of God was revealed.

*      *      *

But what about zombies? In the undead stories I enjoy, Lazarus-like “happy” endings are rare.

Carol reacts to seeing her daughter in "The Walking Dead"
Carol reacts to seeing her daughter in “The Walking Dead”

For Hollywood, the zombie apocalypse is uniformly grim. With television’s oddly popular The Walking Dead, the optimistic characters (like wise veterinarian Hershel Greene) and the innocent characters (like Carol’s 12-year old daughter Sophia) experience horrific deaths. And while the Brad Pitt blockbuster World War Z concluded with Pitt’s movie family intact, and a plan for defeating the zombies, the earth felt far from safe when the credits rolled.

According to Lakshmi Ghandi’s 2013 article on National Public Radio, the first mention of “zombi” (no final “e” in the initial references) occurred in the 1830s. Ghandi wrote that, “zombies in the United States were closely associated with slavery and connected the word to African traditions.” She continued,

By 1872, the linguistic scholar Maximilian Schele de Vere would define a zombi as “a phantom or a ghost, not infrequently heard in the Southern States in nurseries and among the servants.”

But the mainstreaming of the word would begin in 1929, when the travel writer William Seabrook released his book on Haiti and “voodoo,” titled The Magic Island, in which Seabrook writes about seeing “voodoo” cults in Haiti and the concept of the zombi to many readers. Several film scholars believe the book was the basis of the classic 1932 horror film White Zombie.

One of my favorite theology professors taught classes on movies. While George Romero’s gritty, low budget Night of the Living Dead (1968) never appeared on any course’s syllabus, I first watched the horror classic during seminary. Because of my newborn “film and faith” insights, I couldn’t help viewing Romero’s film with a critical eye. The “monsters” weren’t weird werewolves or blood-sucking offspring of the Dracula clan from Transylvania, but “average” humans.

Thing will get worse for Ben in "Night of the Living Dead."
Thing will get worse for Ben in “Night of the Living Dead.”

In other words, the neighbor next door had become the enemy. Ben, a “hero” in Night of the Living Dead, was a black man. [Spoiler alert: he is shot and killed in the final moments . . . by “healthy” white humans.] Whether 1968 or now, let discussions about racism begin. Later, in his gory 1978 Dawn of the Living Dead, Romero filmed crucial scenes in a shopping mall. The consumer society was consuming itself. While under assault from zombies, social commentary and scary images grasped hands, albeit fairly bloody ones.

The zombie genre has included awful and artful films; it has provided viewers with straight-on frights and strangely funny films (see Bill Murray in Zombieland). Some movies explain why the undead roam the streets, while others depict mayhem without clues or cures.

When flipping the undead coin, I see Lazarus on the other side. Many embrace Lazarus as a fact of faith . . . but not me. Only John’s Gospel—with its poetic openings, elegantly structured miracles, and polemics against Jews—mentioned Jesus’ friend Lazarus. Isn’t it peculiar a person returned to life wasn’t celebrated elsewhere in Christian scripture? I believe Lazarus served as a precious reminder of Jesus’ human grief (Jesus wept when informed of his death), and to the demanding divine call to choose life over death each day.

Will we remain in our “tombs” or come forth?

When putting flesh and blood on the story’s symbolism, I can’t avoid the likelihood that weeks or years after “the dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied,” Lazarus would eventually die. He didn’t stumble from his tomb, immune from human limits and mortality. Like everyone, whether accident, illness, or by the hand of another, Jesus’ friend would die.

And yet Lazarus lived again. Awoke. Came forth. Not as a “consumer” of society, but as a vivid harbinger of God’s call to enter a living, forgiving community. Most of us, at some point, will feel like the living dead. We’re average folks, heading to work, longing for the weekend . . . and then the worst happens.

Your elderly parent falls again, can no longer live alone, and you are the only child who lives in the same town . . .

The phone shrills after midnight and a police officer calls from the hospital, specifically asking for you . . .

Reports of gunfire at your child’s school suddenly scroll across your Twitter account . . .

Metaphoric tombs loom long before our final breath. In those tombs, with the unplanned, unfair and terrible pain that can paralyze us, will we consume ourselves or choose life?

Or, as Henri Nouwen wrote . . .

We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not “How can we hide our wounds?” so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but “How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?” When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.

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    1. Sometimes I “stretch” and get at least a bit of a connection to the verses. But some stretches . . . we all fall down? Hey, thanks for reading John. Zombies aren’t everyone’s messy cup of tea, though mayhaps I saw them as appropriate to Lazarus in ways they weren’t . . . at least not for you!

      Take care!

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