Arise, all ye zombies: Sydney theologian makes the faith strange, and that’s good

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Tasty nosh: Matthew Tan’s theological take on the pop culture phenomenon of zombies has something to teach us about where we are in relation to God, and where we need to be.

Back in 1996 John Milbank published a book with the title The Word Made Strange. Not “The Word Made Rational” or “The Word Defended” but “The Word Made Strange.”

Sydney theologian Matthew Tan speaking at the launch of his latest book, Redeeming Flesh: The Way of the Cross with Zombie Jesus at the University of Notre Dame Australia, Broadway (Sydney). PHOTO: Robert Hiini

Milbank’s point is that in order to evangelise post-Christian people one has to get them to see Christianity from a different angle from that to which they have become accustomed.

In other words, the significant difference between the evangelisation of people today and the evangelisation of people in the first few centuries of the Christian era is that in the first few centuries Christianity was new. The novelty of Christianity was obvious for all to see. It was radically different from anything the Greeks and Romans and the Celts and the Norse had known, and though in significant ways it was closely related to Judaism, it was even so different for the Jews that St Paul had to be thrown off his donkey before he got the central insights.

Today however every person living in a Western country has some concept of what Christianity is. The problem we have is that these conceptions are often a long way wide of the mark. Catholics born before 1960 will sometimes equate Christianity with cranky nuns or priests obsessed with hell.

Catholics born after 1960 will often think that being a Christian means supporting leftist political movements. People completely outside the Catholic Church often associate the Catholic faith with puritanical ideas about sex or opposition to the British monarchy.

UNDA philosopher Renee Kohler-Ryan (left) introducing her colleague Dr Tracey Rowland, who launched the book. PHOTO: Robert Hiini

Milbank’s point is that to get the attention of people who have been poorly catechised or not catechised at all, we need to make the Word strange.

We need to upset popular presumptions about what Christianity is by approaching the presentation of Christianity from an unusual angle. We need to come through the back door or the side window not the front door.

Matthew Tan’s Redeeming Flesh: The Way of the Cross with Zombie Jesus is an excellent illustration of this kind of evangelical operation.

Tan is an expert in monitoring trends in popular culture. He doesn’t do this because he is a pop culture addict but because these trends reveal important information about what post-Christian people are thinking and doing about the big ticket issues like death, redemption, guilt, sex and marriage.

Since God created human persons according to his own blue-print they have been hard-wired for grace and nature to work together in tandem. When grace is missing, for example, when people are never baptised, the human need for an identity which is resolved by baptism is addressed in other ways.

Audience members got to put questions to the author after remarks. PHOTO: Robert Hiini

Some people try to find themselves in drugs, others go walking in the Himalayas and still thousands acquire tattoos. When we notice that thousands of young people are into body art we can work backwards from this social data. We can make the following judgements – body art means a quest to give oneself an identity, thousands of people are doing this, so thousands of people are suffering a crisis of not knowing who they are.

In short, body art is becoming a post-modern analogue for the sacrament of baptism. It is a search for an indelible mark which will convey an identity.

If we want to approach the question of baptism with a post-modern sensibility, then the subject of body-art is one possible back-door entry to this topic.

This is the kind of exercise that Matthew has undertaken in his Zombie Jesus book. Instead of focusing on tattoos, which do receive some treatment, Matthew is focused on pop culture’s fascination with zombies.

Matthew begins his book with a social history of the rise of the zombie. He explains that the word zombie comes from the Haitian creole – zonbi – referring to a slave under the control of a witch doctor.

In the first chapter Matthew mentions quite an impressive list of books and movies I have never read or seen. But I trust him when he claims that they are all about zombies. He also weaves in insights from social theorists. Social theorists are to humanities academics what the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is to faithful Catholics. This is to say that their judgements are treated with great reverence.

To be a very important social theorist one needs to have either an obscure French or German surname, like Finkielkraut or Horkheimer, or even better, a name from one of the minority Slavic tribes in the former Austro-Hungarian empire. For example, Matthew peppers his early chapters with references to the ideas of Slavoj Zizek, a Slovenian from the University of Ljubljana, who produced the documentary The Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema. For many contemporary Humanities’ department academics, the mere association of the name Zizek with an idea or argument is enough to confer a hallowed status upon it.

PHOTO: Robert Hiini

However Matthew John Paul Tan is not one of those academics who is content with the blessing of Zizek or Pierre Bourdieu, Zygmunt Bauman or Zdzislaw Krasnodebski. For Matthew, who was brought up in Queensland, the Christian narrative is still somewhat hegemonic.

Chapter 3 of his book therefore says farewell to the insights of the people with obscure names from even more obscure places and he begins to examine the pop culture phenomenon of the zombie through the lens of creedal Christianity, explaining the superiority of St Paul’s thoughts on the Resurrection of the Body over those of Zizek.

He also examines the ways in which pop culture zombie gatherings are a parody of the Eucharist. As he writes: “Christ handing over [of his body] is at one level, a handover of his physical body to be crucified. But it is simultaneously a handing over of that body to the Creator, an act already initiated in the Son’s offering of the Eucharistic body to the father at the Lord’s Supper – the Synoptic Gospels mark the pattern of Christ taking bread, giving thanks, then breaking it to give it to his disciples. It is an act that continues on in his passion and culminates in the handing of his body to be crucified, and the subsequent entrusting of his spirit into the hands of the Father.

“Handing over one’s body into the hands of others is at complete cross purposes with a culture that posits the individual will and imagination as the source of all agency and creativity, with the body as a mere instrument of that will.

“The act of handing over and making one’s body subject to the wills of others is an act of recognition that the source of agency does not lie in the individual will. Agency reaches far beyond the individual will to someplace else, indeed to someone else.”

PHOTO: Robert Hiini

Further insights are brought in from St John the Evangelist, St Mark, St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas and, to add some variety to the usual list of suspects, the Estonian Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann.

In the fourth and final chapter Matthew follows through this theme of Christ’s complete handing over of his body through a thoroughly theological reflection on the Stations of the Cross which makes for very fine Eastertide reading. He ends his book with the words of the prophet Isaiah, “See now, I am doing a new thing. Look there, it springs up. Can you not see it already?”

By writing a book which presents the Paschal Mystery as the only viable alternative to humanity’s so-called death drive – by juxtaposing Christ to the pop culture zombie – Matthew has definitely done something new. He has made Christianity seem new by making it seem strange.

Although I was evangelised the old-fashioned way, through the front door, as it were, by a nun wearing a medieval habit complete with veil and rosary beads, who pointed to large pictures of bible stories draped over a blackboard with the same stick she used to cane the boys when they were bad, such methods are unlikely to work with members of the millennial generation.

My hope therefore is that Matthew’s book will come to the attention of some highly placed members of the commentariat, the sort of people who pride themselves on knowing how to pronounce Zizek, and that the Zombie Jesus book will become a topic for discussion among the thoughtful millennials on the ABC and in the pages of The Sydney Morning Herald and even the Times Literary Supplement.

Upon this note, I declare Redeeming Flesh: The Way of the Cross with Zombie Jesus, officially launched.

These are the edited remarks of Prof Tracey Rowland at the 23 May launch of Redeeming Flesh: The Way of the Cross with Zombie Jesus, available from The Mustard Seed Bookshop. Headline and links added by The Catholic Weekly.