Reviewed by Zachary Lee | October 23, 2017
IVP’s new release The Zombie Gospel is likely to surprise (and possibly offend) many readers with its title alone. But author Danielle Strickland, a western territorial justice secretary for the Salvation Army, has written a compelling analysis of AMC’s hit show The Walking Dead that extrapolates the show’s themes of human suffering and the importance of rebirth and hope. Given the proliferation of zombie literature and media in recent years, from Max Brooks’s World War Z and Seth Grahame-Smith’s more obscure Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to South Korea’s Train to Busan, it is interesting that Strickland is one of the first to so articulately draw parallels between the gospel message and zombie media.
The overtly nihilistic themes, bleak premise, and gratuitous gore and profanity in The Walking Dead don’t exactly invite viewers to mine it for theological insight, but embedded in the desolation and darkness Strickland finds the larger gospel narrative. She does not excuse the show’s glorification of violence (at one point stating that she thought the show was merely “a fascination with darkness that desensitizes us to the realities of real darkness”), yet she does not view its problematic content as a reason to dismiss it. Rather, she claims that “God is shouting for a new humanity through a medium that may offend us in order to awaken us.”
In addition, Strickland uses the storyline as way to tackle social justice issues, reaffirming that whether the world is rife with political turmoil or overrun by the zombie apocalypse, the church must remain firm in its commitment to help the widow, orphan, and refugee. She interweaves stories from her own experiences abroad with some of the show’s most poignant scenes. The Zombie Gospel is a call for Christians to be “truly human” in the midst of zombie culture.
Strickland begins by drawing a parallel between the world’s consumerism and a zombie’s insatiable appetite. We live in a world that tells us to follow after our desires and that it is in our possessions and occupations where we find our meaning and significance. That’s what makes the zombie apocalypse so frightening. Individuals are stripped of everything that give their lives purpose. Their once-solid identity becomes amorphous.
This uncertainty is both liberating and frightening. The characters in The Walking Dead are forced to grapple with what it means to be human. Strickland highlights how their questions reflect a larger cultural attitude. Are we solely our occupation or our possessions? Can our identity be derived from anything more than what we do or own?
In the face of such questions the gospel message shines and flourishes. Our identity is found first and foremost in Christ, who loves us infinitely apart from our actions. Rather than fear those moments when it seems as though all we have is being taken away, as Christians we can embrace the opportunity to rely on God.
The Walking Dead clearly analyzes how human greed and fear give way to social ills such as human trafficking and slavery, but it also challenges the church to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the face of such evils.
This book is an apt companion to The Walking Dead, highlighting the “groaning of all creation,” while offering a solution in the heart of the gospel. Strickland invites us to understand the show as a painful and heartbreaking letter that asks for a “cure” to the world’s selfishness, greed, and insecurity. Thus, with expert synthesis and a compelling call to action, The Zombie Gospel leaves more than enough food (and brains) for thought.