God’s Grace Draws Me to ‘The Walking Dead’

Blog | | Friday, January 20, 2012
A Christian pastor argues: man is made in God’s image, but is sinful, and therefore makes stories based on “grace-mixed idolatry,” including “The Walking Dead.”

The Walking Dead is a television show created by the American Movie Channel (AMC).  If you haven’t heard about it yet, a preview is provided below.

Yes, this show is about a zombie outbreak that threatens to destroy humanity.  The story is told by accompanying a local sheriff, his family, friends, and several acquaintances as they seek safety and survival. The looming question throughout the series is “Will humanity survive the zombie takeover, or will humanity lose its human identity in its attempt to survive; thus, functionally becoming ‘the walking dead,’ although not metaphysically?”

So, why would a Christian pastor argue that God’s grace is what draws him to this zombie television show?  The answer is since all humans are created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27) and all are sinners (Rom. 3:23), and since all forms of media are created by these fallen image-bearers (Gen. 3), it logically follows that all forms of media contain grace-mixed idolatry, The Walking Dead included.  In other words, God’s fallen image-bearers mirror or image God through creativity while simultaneously marring this image with sin.  The task of the Christian observer is to enjoy the grace and reject the idolatry.

Dr. Ted Turnau (PhD Westminster Theological Seminary Philadelphia) explains this reality well in his article “On Being Wise as Serpents”:

There is no piece of popular culture so banal or twisted that it does not contain some glimpse of God’s grace. And there is no piece of popular culture so pure and profound that it does not contain an invitation to idolatry. Popular culture appeals to non-Christians for a reason, namely, they sense some of God’s beauty, power and goodness in it. This is what theologians call ‘common grace’ – fragments of grace that God spreads to everyone – even those who will never come to believe. As Paul says in Acts, these gifts of God are ‘testimony’ to God’s being and character (see Acts 14:17). Popular culture contains such ‘fragments of grace’ woven into the very fabric of the popular cultural song, movie, television show, book, etc. But in non-Christian popular culture, these fragments of grace are bent to serve false gods. In fact, the idols presented in popular culture become persuasive for non-Christians (and sometimes Christians) precisely because of the attractiveness of those glimpses of God’s grace.

For example, James Cameron’s summer [sic] blockbuster Avatar (2009) won accolades for its stunning visual effects, and rightly so. The digital artistry created a beautiful and fascinating alien world filled with realistic and delightful creatures. It served to remind us of the real and delightful creatures God has made. In this way, the film served as a reflection of God’s creative artistry, and ultimately, the beauty and power of God Himself.  But the film bends that fragment of grace into the service of pagan nature worship (the nature deity ‘Eywa’). Likewise, all meaningful and attractive popular culture succeeds by drawing its audience in with such reflections of God’s beauty, while putting those grace fragments into service to another god.

Grace-mixed idolatry

If you participate in any form of media: TV, movies, songs, books, etc., you participate in grace-mixed idolatry. Scooby-Doo, Sponge Bob, American Idol, Avatar, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Walking Dead, etc. all contain elements of God’s grace, but also elements of idolatry. Turnau argues, and I agree, that Christians should participate in such media while exercising discernment. This means that as Christians participate in media, they must extract God’s grace from the surrounding idolatry and turn it to the service of its rightful Owner: God. This is accomplished by qualifying this grace with the truth of man’s sinful condition and Christ’s redeeming work to save sinners and sinful creation. In other words, Christians should participate in pop culture; however, they should participate like Christians, not Atheists.

An atheist would merely enjoy The Walking Dead without considering the ultimate source of its excellence: God. Christians, however, if they participate in The Walking Dead, should seek to enjoy God through enjoying The Walking Dead (1 Cor. 10:31). So, as a reference point concerning the common grace present in The Walking Dead, look at the awards this show won and was nominated for due to the visual and audible excellence of its first season (only 6 episodes):

The first season of The Walking Dead won the Saturn Award for Best Television Presentation and was nominated for Best Actor on Television (Andrew Lincoln), Best Actress on Television (Sarah Wayne Callies), Best Guest Starring Role on Television (Steven Yeun), and Best Supporting Actress on Television (Laurie Holden). It also received a Director’s Guild Award nomination for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Dramatic Series’ — Night (Frank Darabont), a Golden Globe nomination for Best Television Series — Drama, and a Television Critics Association Award nomination for Outstanding New Program of the Year. In addition, The Walking Dead recently won the Emmy award for Outstanding Prosthetic Makeup for a Series, Miniseries, Movie or a Special; and was nominated for Emmys in Outstanding Sound Editing for a Series and Outstanding Special Visual Effects for a Series.

In the creating fingerprints of humanity are the creating fingerprints of God. Without Him providing these directors, producers, and writers with the various gifts and abilities it takes to create The Walking Dead, these men and women could not have created this TV show. Without God’s common grace, there would not be excellent special effects, excellent story-telling, displays of morality, spiritual implications, etc. in The Walking Dead.

Without the excellent special effects, few people would want to watch The Walking Dead. The special effects are second to none. If there is ever a zombie-like outbreak, I have a good idea of what it will look like. It’s that good.

Issues of life, death, and living death

Furthermore, the suspense is amazing, and rivaled by nothing comparable on television today. You never know when a zombie may pop out, or when another cast member may succumb to or escape the grasp of the walking dead. This question looms in every episode, “Will humanity survive the zombie takeover, or will humanity lose its human identity in its attempt to survive; thus, functionally becoming ‘the walking dead,’ although not metaphysically?” And we do not know how the writers will answer this question from one episode to the next.

The moral implications and questions are far-reaching beyond anything else on television. (Morality and conscience come from God’s common grace; otherwise, mankind would be as evil as he possibly could be.) Here are some examples:

  1. Does disease nullify human identity? If so, at what point?
  2. If there is no cure for said disease, and the infected are dangerous, should they be eliminated for the sake of the human race; or, at the risk of infecting others or eliminating the rest of the human race, should the infected be quarantined until a cure is found?

I realize the moral implications are hypothetical, but our children may indeed be forced to answer similar questions one day. At the very least, asking such questions will help Christian watchers apply a consistent Christian ethic to this fantasy world so that they may apply a thorough Christian ethic to the real world.

I fear that such questions concerning the value of human life, although not to the extreme presented in The Walking Dead, are being asked today; such questions as “If a human being merely ‘feeds’ off of other human beings, and provides nothing beneficial to the rest of society, should he or she be eliminated for the sake of the rest of the human race”? In other words, do the severely handicapped, those in the nursing home, and those in the womb deserve to be treated like those humans who are beneficial to the rest of the human race? Or, is the value of humanity based on a “What have you done for me lately” mentality?

The biblical answer is easy: all humans are created in God’s image and are valuable based on His identity alone, not based on the arbitrary opinions of those humans who may be in power at the time (Gen. 1:26-27).

The spiritual implications are present explicitly and implicitly. Each character is battling evil, both without (zombies) and within (self-preservation vs. loving one’s neighbor as oneself). At times, there is a clear good and a clear evil; while at other times, evil is revealed in each human. Furthermore, there is the perseverance of faith and the questioning of faith. Some continue to trust in God through Christ while others question Him or live as if He doesn’t exist.

Moreover, even though the zombie fantasy world present in The Walking Dead is hard to compare and contrast with our non-zombie world; nevertheless, allegorically, all humans are running from the walking dead. On the show, the walking dead are both inside (evil desires) and out (zombies). In real life, the walking dead are both inside and out, but we cannot escape them through mere moral willpower or a gun and athletic prowess. The sherriff in the story reveals that regardless how much he wants to save others from death, he is incapable of saving everyone. The truth that must be added to the story is that humans need Jesus Christ for He is the only cure for what plagues humanity: sin (John 14:6). We must be born again in and through Him (John 3:3). The answer for both metaphysical and functional “walking dead syndrome” is Jesus Christ.

The list can go on and on. At the very least, everything in The Walking Dead that is true, is true because God created it true. Also, everything that is worthy of praise, is worthy of praise due to the gifting of God. Man is not the ultimate source, God is. Thus, as Christians recognize this reality, they can enjoy God through Christ through The Walking Dead. Furthermore, everything that is false in The Walking Dead is false because man created it “true,” not God. These things must be rejected.

A brief note on conscience

If The Walking Dead violates your conscience, do not watch it. I must warn you that the gore is over the top. It’s just as bloody and gory as any movie I’ve ever seen. I actually don’t like the gore. I don’t know why anyone would like it. But, I reject the gore and every other evil, while qualifying the common grace with special revelation (the Bible). There is also foul language, misuse of the Lord’s name, and some sexual implications and innuendo. Since the 2nd season is ongoing, and there is a 3rd season already under contract, there may be more things I reject on the horizon in this series. You must practice discernment! At this point, I personally would allow my 14 or 15 year old child to watch this show with me for the purpose of teaching him or her to enjoy God while recognizing His common grace and rejecting the fingerprints of the Fall. The goal would be to send him or her running to Christ as the only Answer for what plagues humanity: “the walking dead” within and without every human; AKA sin, self, and sinners, not zombies.

What are your thoughts?

Jared Moore has served in ministry for 11 years and is currently the pastor of New Salem Baptist Church in Hustonville, Ky. He has an M.A.R. in Biblical Studies from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, an M.Div. in Christian Ministry from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and is currently completing a Th.M. in Systematic Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Amber, reside in Hustonville, Ky., with their two children. If you have any questions or if you are interested in inviting Jared to speak, you may contact him through his website. Jared writes at http://jaredmoore.exaltchrist.com. He is also a contributor at www.sbcvoices.com and www.servantsofgrace.org.

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Born in 1981, Jared Moore has served in pastoral ministry in a Southern Baptist context since 2000. He currently pastors New Salem Baptist Church in Hustonville, KY. He is happily married to Amber and has three children. He has authored a book about enjoying the final four Harry Potter films, and blogs at JaredMoore.ExaltChrist. He is also a regular contributor at SBC Voices, Servants of Grace, Sermon Central, and Church Leaders, and occasionally writes for Speculative Faith, Credo Magazine, Gospel Husbands, and SBC Focus. He received his B.A. in Biblical Studies from Trinity College of the Bible, his M.A.R. in Biblical Studies from Liberty Seminary, and his M.Div. in Christian ministry from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is currently completing his Th.M. in Systematic Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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8 responses

  1. Jared,  I really liked this article and have “enjoyed” this series for reasons you have described.  I am a particular fan of the zombie, post-apocalyptic, dystopian genre(s) because of the ways in which the methods serve to relay the message, in a stark, unflinching way.  I like Turnau’s comment, “There is no piece of popular culture so banal or twisted that it does not contain some glimpse of God’s grace. And there is no piece of popular culture so pure and profound that it does not contain an invitation to idolatry.” I have found the first sentence harder to accept in genres like horror which at times, is horrorific for its own sake.  I think that may be why I tend toward the genres listed above because them seem less “bastardized” or less “used.”  As well, and as you point out, my personal goal is participating in media is to look for signs of redemption as I believe that is one of the key themes necessary for media to be considered worthwhile.  For example, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Macbeth is very depraved and has moments where redemption is offered and possible. At times, as a reader, I’m begging for him to repent and turn away from sin and temptation and he never does to his own demise.  His heart is harden, much like Pharaoh’s.  However, there are media representations that I feel don’t offer this key theme, such a film like Human Centipede.  I have not seen it, nor will I, because no review and no research I have done anywhere suggests that redemption is possible. It’s depraved for the sake of being depraved.  I also have a tough time with films like The Silence of the Lambs (and subsequent sequels and prequels) which seems to me to be a psychological fascination with evil and its outworkings than anything else (and I’m open to insight into this particular film).  It’s a film that’s well made, well written, and well acted, but has grave flaws.  Conversely, a film like District 9 is also a very tough film to watch, but the character of Wikus has an incredible arc.  Everything he does is for selfish reasons and he even tells his wife late in the film that he knows how to save himself and be made right.  He has no idea and no ability to do so, just like humanity has no ability to save itself apart from Christ.  However, at the very last moment, literally the last two minutes of the film, he begins to understand his selfishness and commits one selfless act to save another, sacrificing himself for someone else’s opportunity to be saved from destruction.
    I love the concept of common grace especially in regards to pop culture, media, etc.  I hope, pray and encourage my students that they and others might have the calling to participate in media for God’s glory and our responsible enjoyment of it.  I really think Christians need to more fully participate in creating good, creative media rather than creating their own subculture of media. 
    Thanks for your article!

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  2. I have been working through some of the same issues since coming to college and exploring more secular media.  While all truth originates in God, it is important to determine how much of the idea is diamond and how much is mud.

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  3. The task of the Christian observer is to enjoy the grace and reject the idolatry.

     

    If only we could do more than just observe the grace. If only we could make it real in our dreary little world!

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    • I’m curious … how do you mean, Paul? (Not a rhetorical question.) When I had read what you said, I thought, But of course, grace is real, and God’s redeemed people only reflect that pre-existing grace, both common grace and specific saving grace, to others. We do not make grace real; we only act and sing with the song of Grace that has already been and is being written. Perhaps, though, you meant something else by that?

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      • I was thinking two things.  Primarily, I’m a little jaded that this world doesn’t seem as great as fictional worlds.  But I was specifically thinking that we should do something other than just enjoy the grace that inspires us about the various forms of media, if it’s indeed possible to do anything specific.  How can we actualize the courage, beauty, redemption, etc, that we read about and view?  Can we take the material of fiction to literally make our world better in a concrete way?

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  4. I think your post here is solid and really applies beyond just TWD. 

    As a Christian I really understand why one of the most compelling aspects of TWD resonates so broadly.  The need to preserve humanity and Rick’s family and human culture on the whole is so important in the inherent dignity of those things placed their by their creator.   The threat of the zombie outbreak creates a real conflict (which is also compelling) because it’s threat isn’t aimed at just a different kind of organism (humans in this case) but image bearers who have real value.

    Back to your point, I’ve been listening to a seminar by Tim Keller called Writing from a Christian Worldview to use in our Writing class at school.  It’s rich in a lot of ways (of course) but one significant way is his statement that Christians should be the most astute of cultural observers, rejecting virtually nothing (because we see the good of God’s creation in them) and embracing virtually nothing (because we see the taint of sin on that which is produced in a fallen world.  Pretty good counsel.   

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  5. Having gone through a good-quality Christian liberal arts school with a degree in Cross-Cultural studies, I’ve read articles similar to yours (and agree with them).  What I did particularly appreciate in this post was your careful breakdown of the Biblical “whys” behind looking at cultural redemptively.  This is also the first time I’ve heard the phrase “grace-mixed idolatry”, which is a wonderful way of phrasing the tension between exploring/enjoying popular culture for the elements of God’s grace while still resisting the temptation to make it an idol (which is so easy for us humans to do!).  Also, I like your inclusion of the awards “The Walking Dead” has won–sometimes those tend to be dismissed by Christians as merely “secular evaluations,” but I believe they still have merit, because a secular reviewer can still have level of expertise that enables them to be a good judge of scripting, acting, etc.  

    Being a fan of dystopian futures myself, I would recommend the book “Rot & Ruin” by Jonathan Maberry.  Same disclaimers apply about gore, violence, and some innuendo, but this book has some profound things to say about the nature of man as revealed by how they deal with the zombies.

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  6. […] fashion, He can surely use resources from our modern popular culture to speak to our hearts. Jered Moore and A.T. Ross wrestled with this issue in recent articles here, and the discussion continues at […]

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