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The Walking Dead Goes to Church: The Search for the Divine in “What Lies Ahead”

Last Sunday night AMC aired the premiere episode for season 2 of The Walking Dead. In the process the series set new records:

The 90-minute episode drew 7.3 million total viewers, becoming the strongest telecast for any drama in basic cable history among two key demos.

The zombie drama based on Robert Kirkman’s long-running comics drew 4.8 million viewers in the advertiser-coveted adults 18-49 demographic, 4.2 million adults 25-54 and registered a 4.8 household rating, shattering a nearly 10-year-old basic cable record among the demos for a single drama telecast.

The 4.8 household rating and 7.3 million total viewers represent a 36 percent and 38 percent increase, respectively, over the drama’s freshman season ratings.

This episode, “What Lies Ahead,” did not disappoint in many ways. From the continued development of character relationships and the storyline from the first season, to the intensification of zombie makeups, making this one of the best genre programs currently on television.

One of the more interesting subtexts for The Walking Dead is the place of hope and faith in the midst of an apocalyptic scenario. The series not only asks viewers to wrestle with whether life is worth living in such a context or whether suicide is a more sensible response (thus raising questions about whether self-conscious beings should live at all in a vicious and seemingly nihilistic universe), but also raises questions about the place of religion in such a setting.

In season 1 religious questions lay below the surface. As in other zombie stories, in particular the early films of George Romero, some characters wrestled with whether the zombie apocalypse was the result of God’s judgment. Others expressed doubt about the efficacy of hope and prayer altogether in light of the struggle to survive. Season 2 picked upon on such religious considerations and pushed them further.

With the Center for Disease Control destroyed at the end of last season, the beginning of the new season finds the group of survivors traveling toward an Army base. Along the way they find the highway littered and blocked with traffic, and the vehicles filled with the bodies of the dead. The group decides to use the opportunity to scavenge for supplies. Shane discovers a truck filled with water bottles, and as he opens them and lets the water pour over his head he tells one of his fellow survivors that the experience is like a baptism. This phrase sets the stage for the religious aspects of the episode that follow.

As a major portion of the group searches for a missing girl (interestingly named Sophia, meaning wisdom, raising questions about wisdom, perhaps even divine wisdom, leaving the group), chased into the woods by two zombies, they hear a church bell ringing in the distance. They run to follow the sound, hoping that either the missing girl is ringing the bells herself, or that someone who found her may be doing so as a signal. They find the church, and as the group enters viewers see three zombies sitting on the pews facing forward, a bloody crucifix in the center of the undead worship. The group quickly kills the three zombies, with Rick Grimes looking up at the crucifix after his killing.

Following the zombie church member executions, two of the characters use the setting of the church for prayer and the search for guidance. Carol prays and asks for forgiveness for wishing her abusive husband dead, the victim of a zombie attack near the end of season 1. She fears that God may be bringing judgment through the disappearance of her daughter, the incident that brought the group to the church in their search. Rick Grimes also uses the church for spiritual reasons. He has been functioning as the group leader and tries to provide hope, even when he admitted to the CDC worker at the end of last season that he felt all was hopeless and that everyone was eventually going to die. In a form of prayer, Grimes looks at the bloodied Christ on the cross in the church and shares his frustrations, desperately asking for some kind of sign that he is leading the group in the right direction.

This episode raises several questions whereby zombies, and their presence in relation to a church, provide for spiritual reflection. An obvious question is why a crucifix is found in this church at all. The characters are still in Georgia, a very Baptist state, and as the group makes its way toward the church after running through a graveyard, they pass a sign that provides the name of the church as Southern Baptist Church of Holy Light. Southern Baptists are very Protestant, and such these churches tend to have little to no religious symbols present. When they do it is an empty cross emphasizing resurrection, not a crucifix with a battered and bloody Jesus. The crucifix is out of place in this religious setting and its anomalous presence raises points for consideration. The figure of the body of Jesus suggests a more readily present figure of the divine than does an empty cross which points more toward transcendence. In addition, the beaten and bloodied figure of Jesus makes for a point of connection between Christ and the survivors of the zombie apocalypse, but it also connects Jesus to the walking dead when the resurrection of a dead corpse and the “zombie Jesus” of popular culture are considered.

I have already noted that the question of God’s judgment through the zombies has been hinted at in The Walking Dead. That possibility is raised again in “What Lies Ahead” as the church sign includes a Bible verse below the church name reading Revelation 16:17. This passage discusses the pouring out of the final bowl of seven of God’s wrath upon the earth. Are the writers hinting at divine judgment through zombie apocalypse or does this cataclysmic event simply overlap with a church’s weekly sermon on “end-times”?

And what are we to make of Rick Grimes and his desires for a sign from God as he functions as something of a new Moses leading his people through the desert of the undead? In his prayer he is very forthcoming about his doubts about God’s existence, and yet at the same time his prayer indicates a tension of doubt and faith, reminiscent of a man in Mark’s Gospel who tells Jesus, “Lord I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). Interestingly, this passage is part of a narrative in Mark where Jesus is about to heal the father’s boy, thus providing a sign that will lead to the father’s faith and the overcoming of his doubt (Mark 9:14-29). This is related to the situation for Grimes where at the conclusion of the episode (spoiler alert) Rick, his son Carl, and Shane find a deer in a clearing. The boy approaches with wide eyed wonder and gets very close. Smiles form on the face of Rick and Shane as his boy gets close to touching the deer. We begin to wonder, is this the sign that Rick was searching for? Is God answering his prayer, and in a positive way? Such hopeful thoughts are quickly dashed as a shot rings out, hitting both the deer and Rick’s son.

The conclusion of “What Lies Ahead” is a pessimistic one, and viewers are left to grapple with the presence or absence of the divine in the midst of the struggle for survival. Is God present in the midst of even the worst suffering and threat to life imaginable, somehow leading and guiding despite the difficulties encountered? Or is religious hope and faith merely a placebo that may have worked in an ordered civil society with evil and violence escaping through the cracks, but now that death and destruction rule the day religion is shown to be an illusion? Why were the zombies sitting in church in a pose reminiscent of their church attendance and worship in life? Were they going through the familiar routines of their previous life, or do the zombies serve as a metaphor for the deadness and futility of Christianity, and perhaps of all religion?

I don’t know that future episodes in season 2 will provide answers or insights related to such questions, but I am pleased to see The Walking Dead providing a multi-layered story that makes for multiple levels of entertainment and reflection.

Related posts:

“Can Zombies Be Spiritual?”

“Religion Dispatches: Toward a Zombie Theology”

“Matt Cardin: Spirituality in Romero’s Living Dead Films”

Comment Pages

There are 3 Comments to "The Walking Dead Goes to Church: The Search for the Divine in “What Lies Ahead”"

  • [...] Some of it is a stretch but there were parts of it that I found intriguing nonetheless. TheoFantastique | A meeting place for myth, imagination, and mystery in pop culture. Interesting that the crucified Christ was in a baptist church. That may have been an oversight by [...]

  • [...] Those paying close attention to various aspects of The Walking Dead television series will note that this is not the first time that religious ideas have surfaced. In its most glaring expression, in the episode “What Lies Ahead,” Rick’s group of survivors look for a missing Sophia, and hearing the sound of a bell they enter a church building. Inside they find a large crucifix, and a group of zombie “parishioners” seated on the pews which they quickly dispatch. As this scene continues Rick asks his group to give him a few moments alone, and he spends a few moments in prayer asking for guidance in the midst of the apocalyptic scenario in which he has been thrust into leadership. (See my further commentary on this episode here.) [...]

  • Jackie says:

    It wasn’t just the giant crucifix that seemed out of place. There were also Catholic icons on the walls. I saw the “Sacred Heart” and, I think, “The Queen of Heaven” as well. Southern Baptists would never have anything like that. I guess the producers weren’t paying close attention.

    Interestingly, I’m now watching Season 5, and the building used to depict Father Gabriel’s Catholic church around looks much more like a Southern Baptist Church. Very simple exterior with a simple cross, and and interior with a plain table as its altar. Go figure.

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