It was during a visit to an antique store in Senoia, Ga. last year that I picked up a beaten, paperback copy of John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” At one time, this book occupied a place in English-speaking households second only to the King James Bible. The allegorical journey of Christian to the Celestial City was long used as a lesson to stand alongside Gospel truth as to the perils of living in a corrupt world, full of potential snares and pitfalls.
It was somewhat appropriate I found a copy of the book there, as Senoia and its surrounding towns often serve as locations for AMC’s popular television series, “The Walking Dead.” Senoia was the town of Woodbury in the show’s third season, an apparent haven from a world overrun by flesh-eating zombies, where the living are ruled over by a dictatorial leader, The Governor. “The Walking Dead” follows a group of would-be pilgrims in that world, though instead of the goal of a city beyond suffering, our pilgrims are merely trying to stay alive amid suffering, holding on to a slim thread of faith that somewhere, there exists a safe place for them.
Early in “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” Christian encounters a character, Worldly Wiseman, who tries to convince him how fraught with difficulty the trip to the Celestial City will be:
“Thou art like to meet with in the way which thou goest wearisomeness, painfulness, hunger, perils, nakedness, sword, lions, dragons, darkness, and in a word, death and what not?”
This is an apt description for “The Walking Dead,” which follows the journey of former King County Deputy Sheriff Rick Grimes, who awakes from a coma to find that most of the world has succumbed to a virus that causes death and has turned its victims into zombies. He immediately begins a quest to find his family, and from there, he moves with a group of like-minded survivors to find some safe place where they can rebuild their lives.
Many times during the course of “The Walking Dead’s” five seasons, the show has found some ironic play from Christian iconography and theology. For example, when the Governor’s henchmen attack the prison fortress that Rick and the group use, they find an open Bible with a highlighted portion:
“And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.” (John 5:29)
Resurrection would be an easy fit, given Christianity’s themes of eternal life. But the show has also, like Bunyan’s classic, occasionally touched on deeper themes with a Christian resonance that stands out amid the corpses of the evil undead.
The New Testament often refers to the present reality as one that is passing away, a transitory world of those who are dead in sin. The picture would sound familiar to Rick – oblivious, twilight figures, wandering aimlessly, lost, insensible, unaware that their lives are over. They are sentenced to either continue their journey with no destination, or worse, to infect others and condemn them to the same existence. A world with no hope, or one where hope survives precariously, subtlely, until revealed in the person of Jesus.
Take the season two premiere, “What Lies Ahead.” Rick and his family, along with the survivors, have just learned the hopelessness of their situation in a visit to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Civilization has gone silent. The lone scientist left there committed suicide rather than live. The group heads south for Fort Benning. But while stuck amid the vacant cars of the Interstate leading out of Atlanta, they manage to lose Sophia, a little girl who wanders off to escape the zombies, or “walkers."
The group’s search takes them to the vacant Southern Baptist Church of Holy Light (Welcome Bikers! its sign proclaims). Inside, they find walkers which are quickly dispatched. The sanctuary is dominated by a life-sized crucifix, with the writhing figure of the suffering Jesus – not the sort of thing you would usually find in a rural Baptist church. “J.C.,” says Daryl Dixon, the bowman who is the show’s badboy, to the suffering Savior. “You takin’ requests?”
The moment in the church sees Sophia’s mother, Carol, pray fervently for her missing daughter, and hint that she may have allowed her late abusive husband Ed to have abused the girl. “Don’t let this be my punishment,” she begs in whispers.
But Rick gives a longer, angrier prayer when alone, talking directly to the figure on the Cross:
“I don’t know if you’re looking at me with what? Sadness? Scorn? Pity? Love? Maybe it’s just indifference. (takes hat off) Guess you already know I’m not much of a believer. I guess I just chose to put my faith elsewhere. My family mostly. My friends. My job. Thing is – we – I could use a little something to help us keep going. Some kind of acknowledgement. Something to indicate I’m doing the right thing. You don’t know how hard that is to know. (pauses) Well, maybe you do. Hey, look, I don’t need all the answers. Just a little nudge, a sign! Any sign will do.”
As he leaves the sanctuary, his friend Shane asks, “Got what you needed?” “Guess I’ll find out,” Rick replies. Only a few minutes later, Rick will watch his son Carl track a deer, only to fall from a gunshot. This leads the group to Herschel, a man who can operate on Carl, and who owns the farm where the group will briefly find some peace.
Herschel is the show’s most overtly Christian character, and his subtle attempt a few episodes later in “Cherokee Rose” to witness to Rick gives us this exchange as the two men look out over the farm:
Herschel: Rick, take a moment. Come look. That’s something isn’t it? It’s good to pause for an occasional reminder.
Rick: Of what?
H: Whatever comes to mind. For me, it’s often God. No thoughts on that?
R: Last time I asked God for a favor and stopped to admire a view, my son got shot. I try not to mix it up with the Almighty anymore. It’s best we stay out of each other’s way.
H: Lori told me your story, how you were shot, the coma, yet you came out of it somehow. You don’t feel God’s hand in yours?
R: At that moment, no. I did not.
H. In all the chaos, you found your wife and boy, then he was shot, and he survived. That tells you nothing?
R: It tells me God’s got a strange sense of humor.
Indeed. Rick’s prayer, in some ways, was answered. The group found security, new members, a brief sense of rest, and Rick received a very hard-won affirmation of his leadership instincts. It also tells us that, in this life, as in their lives, any lessons, or signs, occasionally come at a terrible price. We get what we ask for, but we are forever changed. The Almighty has His own purposes.
Herschel, we learn, at first does not believe the process that transforms men into zombies is irreversible. It is only later that he learns the hard truth, when his farm is in flames and he too has to take to the road. Yet he does not lose his faith, despite his statement that he thought Jesus” had something else in mind” when He spoke of the resurrection of the dead. He goes on to serve as the group’s conscience in the seasons that follow.
The group made a second trip to a church in the second show of the fifth season, “Strangers,” after rescuing a minister, Father Gabriel, from a pack of walkers in the forest. Rick is a different character by now. He has tried to abdicate his role as the group’s leader, and found it thrust back on him. He has had to kill without remorse, and he no longer finds he can fully trust anyone. From their first meeting, he feels Father Gabriel is hiding something about himself.
The group itself has changed. The members who have traveled the farthest have seen the worst of humanity. The zombie apocalypse has warped most of the survivors the group encounters. Like the Governor, those who live have to do terrible things to survive. Rick, before accepting anyone into the group, asks three questions: How many walkers have you killed? How many people have you killed? Why did you kill them? The way the questions are phrased shows there is no way anyone could survive and not have made despicable moral choices. One character, later referencing a painting found in the ruins of the High Museum, likens those choices to the one made by Simon Peter in denying Jesus: He betrayed the best part of himself because he merely wanted to survive.
Just prior to meeting Father Gabriel, the group has survived a group of secret cannibals populating the town of Terminus, a town that advertises itself as a sanctuary for all. Those who stray in end up being eaten by the living. Like Christian in “Pilgrim’s Progress,” who avoids the Slough of Despond and Vanity Fair, the group is still together, still alive, and still somehow clinging to hope, but very different people than they were in the old world. They leave Terminus in flames.
Father Gabriel’s secret is slowly revealed. On the wooden exterior of his church are claw marks and the words, “You’ll burn for this.” The priest is evasive when talking about himself, or how he has managed to survive. When members of the group disappear, Rick demands the Father’s secrets, believing him to be a threat, or working with someone following them. Instead, Father Gabriel’s secret is that he is alone, and has been since the fall of humanity.
“I always lock the doors at night. They starting coming, my congregation. When Atlanta was bombed, they were looking for a safe place. It was so early. The doors were still locked. You see, it was my choice. They were so many of them. Screaming at me. The dead came for them. Women. Children. Entire families calling my name, as they were torn apart. Begging me for mercy! Begging me for mercy! Damning me to hell. I heard it all. The Lord sent you here to finally punish me. I’m damned. I was damned before.”
A church with its doors locked as people come to beg for sanctuary, just as the corruption of the world devours them. Jesus warned about this in the Sermon on the Mount, telling His followers to let their light shine, and not keep it hidden. If there is a Christian message in Father’s Gabriel’s confession, it is that those who believe are many times content with their own security in salvation and shut the doors of the church through their actions, rather than flinging them open to welcome in those who might also escape death in sin.
But despite what the group in “The Walking Dead” survives, there still remains a persistent note of hope in their story. The audience mistrusts this – after all, it has been proven illusory so many times, as with the false promises of Eugene, the man posing as a scientist in Season 5. In Father Gabriel’s church, there are several “Easter eggs” – Biblical references on the wall that reference death and resurrection. But one of the group sees a needlepoint verse of a different kind:
“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9)
Jesus told his disciples to take heart because He had overcome the world. Perhaps the survivors of “The Walking Dead” will, like the fictional Christian pilgrim of 400 years earlier, eventually find a shining home at the end of their stony, bloody, heart-rending path.Buy my book, "Brilliant Disguises," for .99 cents here. Available in all e-formats.
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