I’ve just finished reading a short book that I didn’t quite expect to enjoy, but that I will now be recommending and commending widely. The Walking Dead (Henceforth TWD) is a cultural phenomenon – massively watched, talked about and discussed, and tapping into something primal and painful and oh so close to the bone. Danielle Strickland is a Christian author and speaker – I’ve heard her a few times, some of which I found inspiring, others I found slightly bemusing. This book is a short, pithy, punchy little Christian reflection on one of the biggest TV shows of our generation.
Many Christians are innately wary of violent television – and often for good reasons. I’m sometimes one of them – but then I read and think about far more violent things than take place in TWD, and that debate is not for now. In the US, somewhere between 11 and 17 million people watch this program – in the UK it is also a high number, particularly (I think) among those aged 18-30, and these numbers of course don’t take into account the online (legal and illegal) watchers, downloaders and streamers. I should say at the outset of this review that I am not recommending, as a Christian, watching TWD (although I have), but I am saying that in order to effectively understand and reach the culture we live in, we will need to at the very least be aware of why, and the questions these programs are asking.
TWD is violent – a virus infects the majority of the world’s population, brining the dead back to life to eat the living. If that doesn’t make your blood curdle, however so slightly, then this book is for you. If that makes you feel queasy – but you have any friends or family who watch this show – then this book is for you.
I don’t want to spoil the book – though the book does summarise the show, saving you from watching it but also featuring some fairly graphic spoilers – so I want to engage with two of the big ideas that Strickland ponders beautifully. Firstly, around violence and sacrifice. This is an unashamedly Christian book – but not cheesily so. The death and resurrection of Jesus are at the heart of what Strickland is writing about – the violence of salvation in a world turned to violence. I love how she sums up some of the most poignant moments of the film:
“all that fighting and killing and destruction seems to leave everyone with less, not more.The main characters long to give, not take, to create, not destroy. What makes us human is reflected in the sacrifice of Lori for her baby, and in Rick laying down his guns to grow a garden”
These moments of beauty and hope are few and far between in TWD. In that respect, looking past the zombies, it is unrelentingly real. This point is made well by Danielle throughout as she invites us to think about what the zombie genre, and TWD in particular, might say about capitalism, human worth, and social justice.
Secondly is the profound question of what it means to be human. That is the question at the heart of TWD’s appeal – whether viewers identify with the survivors or the zombies – and the question that makes this book such a helpful one. Strickland has watched and dissected the program thoroughly (Genuinely – as a fan, I read her summaries nodding knowingly, but also thinking that it would help non-viewers to engage with TWD without investing time and emotional energy [and this show definitely drains both!] in 8 seasons of bleak film), and at the heart of what she sees is the hints of an invitation:
“In an important scene in The Walking Dead, two community members are discussing what they might have to do to survive, and one of them says he would rather die a human than live with what he’d have to do to simply survive. That’s an amazing perspective. I’d rather die as a human: living for others, not on others”
Danielle Strickland goes on, and she goes deeper. In short paragraphs she shares with her readers the horror of the world painted in TWD, and then invites us to consider if it isn’t that dissimilar to our own world.
This is a practical book. I want to recommend it to anyone who watches The Walking Dead, to Christians seeking to understand it’s appeal, and to those of us who wonder how we can use the stranger artefacts of contemporary culture to talk about something meaningful.