11 August 2017


Greg Garrett, Living With the Living Dead: The Wisdom of the Zombie Apocalypse, Oxford University Press. 2017.

If you’re intent on impressing your tutor with a wide-ranging dissertation on zombies, or you’re a vicar intent on impressing your congregation and increasing your street cred with your moral take on Game of Thrones, or if, perhaps, you’re even intent on adding to the ever-increasing library of zombie-theme books with your own magnus opus, this is the book for you.
It’s got everything you’d need to know about the ethics in zombie tropes, memes, themes and narrative arcs in all media from movies through TV to gaming, and boasts quotes with a possibly-zombie-relevant theme from everyone who’s anyone, from the Dalai Lama to Archbishop Desmond Tutu. But perhaps, if you believe that the collective noun for theologians should be ‘an irrelevance’, are seeking pure entertainment, or possibly, are actually Simon Pegg, it’s best to turn away now.

You have been warned: after all, the word ‘wisdom’ is there in the subtitle, and a bit of book-jacket browsing tells you that the – obviously genial – author is an authority on the sort of weird combination of stuff one has come to expect from great universities in the 21st century – e.g. Christianity and zombieism. According to BBC radio, Professor Garrett is ‘one of America’s leading voices on religion and culture’, including pop culture. The zombie/religion mix must have been irresistible.

It must be said that the zombie apocalypse does lend itself with spectacular, glorious potential to all manner of ethical debate, especially the problems that inevitably come in the wake of the breakdown of law and the re-setting of society after the most traumatic of circumstances. Jesus had a lot to say about it… well, no, he didn’t of course, but he had quite a bit to say about issues that can, with greater or lesser legitimacy, be crow-barred into the discussion. You do get a few intense pages of Christian wisdom in here. It’s that sort of book, though as it’s also a very readable and fascinating work, whether those particular passages prove a serious obstacle to your overall appreciation is up to your personal level of tolerance for such things. (And that’s if you can forgive the author’s unquestioning acceptance of Mother Teresa as the genuine embodiment of goodness and compassion – a potentially jarring note.)

Professor Garrett does set out very carefully in the opening pages that, as his background is in Judaeo-Christian religious literature, he will favour it. (He signs off the book, dating it as ‘Pentecost’.) Fair enough. It’s his book, his background, his choice. But it very probably isn’t the background of many of his potential readers, especially in the secular west of Europe. So when he says, for example, that the focus of the Johannine material in the New Testament (the gospel and epistles ascribed to St John) is love, with respect one has to point out that to many of us actually its, albeit implicit, focus is Christianity. Of course that is a given, both to St John and Professor Garrett, but to some of us it just isn’t.

Similarly, when he is discussing the myriad problems of ‘the End’, he writes, re the story of Noah and the Flood: ‘consider how the story concludes with God’s promise never again to destroy the world by water, and one faithful man and his family survive to offer the world a chance to start anew, without the evil that so offended God in the first place’, he adds in parenthesis: ‘(Of course, this proves to be a vain hope, human beings being as they are, but hope is hope all the same.)’ But hang on. Shouldn’t that also be ‘ human beings being as they are, and God being as he is’ ? If we’re expected to take the Flood myth seriously, even as a metaphor, some might note that God needs to be rather less vindictive and tyrannical than he appears to be in both this example of his spite and throughout the entire Bible. Society starting anew might not get very far, once again, if he destroyed yet another huge swathe of humanity in one of his infamous hissy fits.

(And Professor Garrett seems oblivious to a rather obvious potential zombie/vampire crossover interpretation of the very famous story of a certain dead man walking and whose followers drink his blood and eat his flesh.)

In general, though, the breadth of knowledge the author displays about zombie-related media is deeply impressive – he even includes scattered references to Doctor Who – and his examples cover all possible genres. Simon Pegg’s spoof movie Shaun of the Dead, perhaps rather crazily, features quite heavily. I had no idea it was so profound, and possibly neither did Mr Pegg, but Professor Garrett does seem to enjoy it both as a comedy (which it was always intended to be) and another source of profundity (which it probably wasn’t but obviously is now). Yes, Shaun hesitating about killing his zombified mother is – or would be outside the world of comedy – a terrible ethical choice. But let’s not forget, it’s played for laughs.

(As an aside: of course, to a Brit, the urge when faced with the Apocalypse to go down the pub is presumably deeply etched in our DNA. But in Shaun of the Dead there is an added layer of reference. In fact the pub is named after the Winchester club in the classic TV series Minder, thus, if anything - apart from Simon Pegg’s obvious love of the comic capers of Arfur and Terry – simply reinforcing the idea of the pub as cosy, familiar hub where funny stuff, even farce, happens. I don’t think we need to look much deeper.)

But should we take a book about the ethical implications of the zombie apocalypse seriously anyway? Isn’t it just akin to, say, debating that other great fictional cataclysm, the Rapture? Well, yes and no. Mainly no, actually. In many ways this is – despite all my caveats given above – an important book. Professor Garrett might have fallen for the myth of Mother Teresa, but quite clearly he’s both a thoroughly decent man and a very knowledgeable commentator. He is, for example, an expert on screen-writing and the whole movie business.

He totally understands the emotion packed into the superficially mindless subject matter, its power and enduring appeal. He presents us with many of the stark choices – but hopefully only ever in theory – those under threat from the living dead will face: whether to kill those shambling un-humans who were once, perhaps just seconds before, your husband or wife or small child or mother, and who are intent on consuming your flesh to turn you from being One of Us into One of Them. Whether to run or stay and fight. How to organise and order a new society – just how draconian would it have to be? Do you always obey the mantra ‘kill or be killed’?

(It’s at this point that one realises that the zombie apocalypse scenario is potentially an absolute gift to all manner of pressure groups – the gun lobby or crusading vegans, for example. Presumably all that is still to come, but come it no doubt will.)

But in real life that kind of lawless evil would be up against – certainly in the UK – the good old Blitz spirit, where neighbours who had rarely ever so much as exchanged a word suddenly pull together, sharing what they have and helping out. 

One of the major problems – or at least concerns – about the post-apocalyptic world is just how deep a sense of community would go, or whether groups would fragment along certain lines. How deep would previous prejudices, continue to run, for example?

Rather endearingly, the author admiringly mentions the Muslim emphasis on community, but as a religion it’s not exactly famous for its inclusivity, is it? Yet… who knows how ordinary people, suddenly finding themselves no longer necessarily defined by their religion, tribe or even family, would react to an ongoing life-or-death struggle against the living dead? Possibly the overall reaction would be considerably more cheering than the pundits would have us believe.

As I write, a UK TV channel is advertising a new reality series called Paradise Lost, where a group of people have to build a community from scratch somewhere inhospitable. The whole point, it seems – given away in the title itself for a start – is to reveal the darker, nastier, more self-aggrandising aspects of humanity. But of course that was the concept from the very beginning. That’s what lay behind the choice of the participants, as most likely to provide that euphemistic ‘good telly’ – i.e. the most self-seeking, loud-mouthed exhibitionists they could find. Without even seeing a single episode (and I won’t, as I usually try to keep my meals inside my stomach), I can say with certainty that it will be hell from the start, much to the joy of the producers.

Yet that’s not what actually happens, or more accurately, not what happens overall, in life-or-death situations (and, let’s be honest, being ‘trapped’ even in the bleakest surroundings for a finite amount of time while being filmed isn’t exactly fighting for your life). Look at how the ordinary people rallied – immediately, passionately and efficiently - when officialdom exhibited the most outrageous and chaotic lack of response to the conflagration of Grenfell Tower in west London not so long ago. Suddenly, black and white, Muslim and Christian and pagan and atheist, and the posh locals and the not-so-posh locals, were all in it together, offering food and clothes, shelter and money. It was quite extraordinary.

Similarly, there have been a series of dramas about post-apocalyptic Britain in which gangs roam, looting, torturing and killing. No one is suggesting that that, tragically, would not be the case, at least to some extent. But in real life that kind of lawless evil would be up against – certainly in the UK – the good old Blitz spirit, where neighbours who had rarely ever so much as exchanged a word suddenly pull together, sharing what they have and helping out. True, there were many cases during the actual Nazi Blitz on London of criminals using the cover of the bombing raids to commit burglaries, rapes and murders. It wasn’t all Cockney jollity. But the decent, human community spirit was, and still is, a real thing. You see it after catastrophic flooding, for example, let alone an invasion of the walking dead. You don’t have to be a main character in Game of Thrones to be a hero.

Professor Garrett quotes the Dalai Lama: ‘where love of one’s neighbour, affection, kindness, and compassion live, we find that ethical conduct is automatic. Ethically wholesome actions arise naturally in the context of compassion’. (Sometimes throughout this book, you just long for more Dalai Lama and less, say, Rowan Williams. Yes you do - he was the Archbishop of Canterbury before this one. The beardy one. Apparently he’s a personal friend of the author, so fair enough. And he does talk sense in these contexts.)

Humanity is complex, and disasters bring out both the good and the bad in us – as zombie movies such as 28 Days Later, with its visceral cynicism but thread of hope, vividly show. The dark/light balance is meat and drink to a theologian, of course, and even with a fair bit of resistance, even I found there are many moments of solemn nodding in agreement with the author.

One thing he is very clear about from the start is that these questions have a much more urgent and obvious relevance in the post-9/11 world, when a new sort of horror was imposed on the world’s greatest superpower, brutally awakening it to a reality other countries were only too familiar with. (To be fair, he does also mention the UK’s trauma of 7/7.)

The balance of terror and hope is, in the post 9/11 world, a daily drain on our collective psyche, zombies or no zombies.

One of the major differences from a more conventional war setting, however, is that the War on Terror is fighting hidden evil, anonymous faces in the everyday crowds. Men (and women) who can mow down innocent travellers or sightseers, or stab party-goers. Similarly, it can be hard to distinguish between the living and the merely wounded, say, and the walking dead. Yet hesitation to rid the world of these monsters might well prove deadly. The moral and ethical parallels are there between those negotiating a world full of actual monsters and those straining to combat men and women who have chosen to become monsters. And in both scenarios, those who will have to deal with them might well not be professional military or security personnel – they might be you and me.

That is why this is an important book.

And how can you resist a man who writes, in the context of the moral conflict of Rick, the survivor in The Walking Dead:

‘When after the 9/11 attacks President George W. Bush said that the United States – like Rick… - would use any means necessary to protect its citizens, and his ally Tony Blair stood by him to say Britain would support the United States, they committed two of the world’s great democracies to a course of action that violated their core values. In the process, both nations lost a great store of their moral standing, while acting in the name of defending freedom and fighting evil…’

Constantly this a man saying it’s hard, it’s hard being human right now, so how much harder would it be if there were so few humans left, fighting the monsters that once were us?

Sadly, this book is probably not an obvious choice as a stocking filler for your mad-on-Game-of-Thrones teen or to tempt your Millennial mates away from their devices. Yes, it deals with relevant digital games, and shows a dazzling insider knowledge of movies and TV. But basically, it’s not a mainstream book. Too much Book of Revelation, too many psalms, too much Rowan Williams. But after all, it is published by Oxford University Press. And it is impressive.

And perhaps unexpectedly, it’s recommended. In fact, highly. Professor Garrett is clearly not only a nice guy but a genuinely fascinating gent and acknowledged authority on all sorts of good stuff like the history of movies. Even given the gulf between us on so many matters – all the better for a lively debate, then - I’d be more than happy to buy him a pint down the Winchester. (Oh, I take it back. I think even Simon Pegg would love to meet him, too.) – Lynn Picknett.

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