Now that autumn is in the air, my thoughts turn to zombies. I’ve read a few monster books lately, and as I pondered the attraction of zombies to the post-modern psyche, I began to wonder if they weren’t becoming, in their own secular way, a religion. Think about it. Zombies, first and foremost, are about resurrection. In a world ruled by rationality and science, we know that resurrection is impossible. What isn’t possible in science may indeed emerge in the world of monsters. The zombie, often not speaking, proclaims a distorted kind of gospel that the end is not really the end. Resurrection is not all that it seems. Zombies are spattered with gore, reminding us that the visceral existence we know as quotidian experience is temporary. Resurrection comes at the loss of a soul. The zombie is the monster of science: the animating principle is no longer spiritual. It’s just physical.
Not only do zombies proclaim resurrection, they are the ultimate proselytizers. Their zealous hunger leads them to bite and their biting infects and creates new zombies. Their brainless goal—as they are unthinking consumers—is to convert the entire human world to their point of view. Once the zombies take over completely, there will be nowhere left to go. The way of the undead flesh may be a dead end, but rationality doesn’t always play a role in zealotry. The zombie is all about making more zombies. They are unbelievable, and unbelieving, but they have the making of a mega-religion nonetheless.
As a student of religion, I wonder how belief systems get started. We hold irrational beliefs on any number of things, including our religions. The difference that zombies make is, in real life, nil. And yet we can’t help tuning into the Walking Dead, or watching World War Z. The zombie is the most recognized symbol of the proletariate among the workers of the world—the brainless, soulless drone in the machine. Mega-churches draw in thousands every week for a religion that doesn’t require much intellectual engagement. Keep doing what you’re doing. Think of others once in a while. God really does want you to be rich. And the minions go out and make disciples of all nations. It is a world full of zombies. We see them in our dreams and in our mirrors. And although we think they’re only entertainment, they are oh so much more.
A question never adequately resolved revolves around the status of atheism. What exactly is it? Well, I suppose it is many things, actually. One thing that seems indisputable is that religion has been part of human culture from the beginning. It would seem likely that not all believers carried the same level of conviction, and there may have been “atheists” shortly after theism evolved. The difficulty is that both belief in god/s, and/or the lack thereof, are matters of personal conviction. That somewhat blurred line has been crossed, according to some, by the recent growth of “atheist churches.” In several web stories my friends have pointed out to me, a growing movement of atheist “mega-churches” has been noticed. These are groups of atheists who meet for many of the same reasons religious folk do, sans salvation. It is a social occasion, and a chance to fellowship with like-minded non-believers, and to support their lack of faith. Some atheists bristle at this (as do some religious), claiming that it cheapens the atheistic enterprise (or that religions somehow hold a copyright on belief-based gatherings).
Herein lies the rub. Atheists are no more cut from the same cloth (or lack of cloth) as religious believers are. There are varieties of unbelief. Some obviously see that the weekly gathering has benefits. There’s no question that atheists can be every bit as humanitarian as religious believers are. Besides, who doesn’t like to meet with people who think like them? “Minister” might not be the leader’s title of choice, although it has a long pedigree in politics as a secular title (as, for example, in the Ministry of Defense). The slow decline in mainstream Christian services, however, might suggest that atheist services would be inclined to grow. Weekends were originally created for religious reasons and still generally remain the religious meeting days of choice. Some religious groups do not insist on doctrine to be members—Unitarians are a prime example of this—but the value of meeting together is human, all too human.
Clearly the purpose of an atheist gathering is not primarily worship. I should imagine, however, that wonder is still part of the non-religious vocabulary. God is not necessary for feelings of awe and joy. And sometimes it is fun to get together for some structured activity that isn’t work (for those who have jobs). An Associated Press story, however, points out the irony of the gathering of “people bound by their belief in non-belief.” There is, however, believing going on here. There can be no escaping it. Despite all the problems associated with omnipotence, the idea of a deity where the buck indeed stopped was an ebenezer for grounding belief. Even the most outspoken of atheists share this with the literalist and the moderate—they all believe. And as long as people believe, they will seek groups of those who share similar views. Why not? Even the truth requires belief.
Religion and theater have much in common. I suspect that this is one reason several religious traditions initially protested against the secular theater. Morality plays were one thing, but dramas about purely human matters are quite another. Being given the very generous gift of tickets to the Phantom of the Opera, I recently had the opportunity to experience Broadway’s longest continually running show. It occurred to me that theater can often, if done right, draw in huge crowds—the line to get in was certainly impressive—while other than megachurches and very conservative religious movements based on reaffirmation of one’s superiority, many religious houses struggle to draw people in basically for free. It could be argued that secular entertainment requires less of an attendee than a religious service, but I wonder if that’s true. To receive your money’s worth for a show, you must be willing to put yourself into it.
While Andrew Lloyd Webber has never been afraid of religious themes—think of Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, or even Whistle Down the Wind—Phantom of the Opera is loosely based on the early twentieth century novel by Gaston Leroux, the story of a hideously deformed musician who falls in love with a beautiful opera star. Although characterized as “a monster,” the Phantom is, after all merely human. Lloyd Webber’s adaptation leaves much of the story undeveloped, allowing the imagination to chart its own course. This is precisely where theater diverges from religious performance—imagination. Religions frequently claim to possess all the answers and questioning or imagining new approaches to age-old dilemmas is often discouraged. Unless, of course, the dilemma is how to draw more people in. Those who run megachurches learned the lesson of theatrics long ago.
For all that, Phantom of the Opera is hardly devoid of religious sensibilities. In one moody scene where Christine visits her father’s grave for solace, and perhaps advice, the first set piece visible is the cross atop the tomb. It is from this cross that the Phantom in the guise of the “angel of music” comes to her. Having the representation of death emerge from a cross is a powerful enough symbol. During this scene Christine’s plaintive cries to her father sound like a prayer. The prayer is heard, however, only by a phantom. The end of the story is ambiguous, something religious performance simply cannot tolerate. And yet, as I was being pushed and propelled down a crowded Broadway after the show, amid a flood of humanity that had emerged from many theater doors, I wondered if this “secular” experience might not be religious after all.
Among the vibrant areas of interest for scholars of religion is the emergence of new religions. Unlike the religions of antiquity, New Religious Movements provide a direct view, occasionally in “real time,” of what constitutes religious belief. The possibility of sitting Jesus, or even Paul, down for an interview remains vastly remote. The same is true of Ellen White or Joseph Smith, but here we have many historical records upon which to draw and a clearer context against which such religions might be read. Supposing the religious urge is something people of antiquity felt, we can get a sense of what might have satisfied that itch, at least in an oblique way, by looking at the modern period. As a student of religion I was mired in the ancient period. Learning obscure, dead languages, I supposed, would lead me back to the earliest forms of religious belief, therefore the most authentic. Like many of my colleagues, I came to discover that the origins quickly disappear into the distorted view our poorly ground telescope into the past reveals. As one writer recently suggested, if humanity evolved in Africa, so did religion.
This past week I read Jon Butler’s New World Faiths: Religion in Colonial America. Growing up I always felt that our own history was too young to be interesting. As I learned more about the horrid treatment of Native Americans, my sense of newness was accompanied by a sense of collective guilt. I like to think I wouldn’t displace a population in hopes of getting wealth, but as Butler demonstrates, the colonial experiment from the beginning was a profoundly religious one. We all know the pilgrims were dissenters from the established Church of England. Butler takes time to pause and consider the unwritten religions of those subjugated to European rule and sometimes extermination. How many of the first to brave the Atlantic crossing did so with missionary zeal, convinced of the superiority of a Christian culture. Not incidentally, they noticed great wealth could be had in this new land. Slaves would be needed to extract it and the Bible seems a slave-friendly document.
Butler’s little book is a good guide to the larger issues. The religion of African slaves grew into something to be feared. Colonial religion split along hairline fractures of doctrine, leading to the fascinating multiplicity of religions we now have in this country. Then, in his discussion of the early Presbyterians of Philadelphia, I ran across a sentence with immense explanatory value: “At the same time, congregations found that they could exercise their own power over clergyman through controlling their ministers’ salaries.” Conviction quickly falls by the wayside with a God whose arm is too short to save. The paycheck is something you can take to the bank. Religions develop into something different once gold enters the equation. I have watched the birth of empires with megachurches and televangelists in my own lifetime. I know that we are witnessing the birth of yet another human scheme to acquire eternity in the form of liquid assets.
An Associated Press story this weekend fetes Saddleback Church’s Rick Warren’s ability to raise 2.4 million dollars at his megachurch in an economy where many are suffering because of our national plague of greed. I find the story distressing not because people are willing to put out money for what they believe in — that is human nature — but because what they believe in is so shallow. Oral Roberts is not yet a month in the ground, and megachurches are again begging for money. Worse, they are getting money.
The greatest stumbling block to the humble message of the teachings of Jesus has always been the greed and concupiscence of the church. Whether it be the Vatican or some evangelical Crystal Cathedral, churches that stockpile wealth, although they may indeed distribute some to worthy causes, ultimately become a major part of the problems that create an unjust society. The concentration of wealth into the hands of any religious body will corrupt it. I have known clergy to purchase vestments costing hundreds of dollars per piece while their children were fed with food stamps. I have seen televangelists wearing suits that cost more than a month’s salary for many of their parishioners. I have heard them giving God the praise for their personal glorification.
Glory to God at what cost?
Once the glitz is removed, whether it be priceless Renaissance art or the supreme comfort of a Rocky Mountain resort or southern California ranch, the real purpose behind such driven lives becomes clear. No amount of prevaricating will make the working-class founder of the religion touted by wealthy clergy a friend of the rich as long as the poor continue to suffer.