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The Zombies Of Pentecost

Here’s a wild talk by the Orthodox Christian artist Jonathan Pageau , who talks about the theological meaning of zombies in pop culture. [1] Excerpts:

At a social level we can feel and see all around us the growing polarization, the acceleration of what we can only call a strange breakdown, the decomposition of culture, the progressive dissipation of any center which can rally us as societies.

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And it is here on the edge that we find the zombies wandering aimlessly in a world that is losing its center. Unlike most of his monstrous brothers, the zombie is truly the harbinger of contemporary nihilism. The zombie has no magic, its arrival usually has no clear reason, but rather the zombie is couched in a biological accident, a disease, a plague. Simply an animated corpse, the zombie inhabits the indeterminate space of living death, roaming around in packs, the zombie shows us the mindless wandering of a mindless mob with an insatiable hunger for devouring others, for swallowing life. If the vampire is the monster of aristocracy, the zombie is the monster of the mass, of the accidental, of quantitative leveling. The zombie is the atheist insistence on the illusion of free will. It is an image of nihilism and of idiosyncrasy taken all the way to decomposition.

In almost every major city in North America they have these events, they call them zombie walks. People dress up as zombies and walk in thousands down the streets, dressed up and made up to look like corpses, shifting around with dead empty eyes and pretending to be the walking dead.

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The zombie both typifies the mob, while simultaneously the absolute individualism, the absolute isolation of contemporary life, for the zombies in a horde only interact with what they desire and never interact with each other. The trope of cannibalism is a very ancient one. We find it in so many ancient stories. But the tweak in Zombies of eating brains is a very powerful one, because it is truly an image of the nihilist. The zombie is a creature without meaning, without intelligence, it misses any forms personhood, and has this insatiable desire which mirrors what it lacks. It desires what it lack, identity, meaning, and this desire appears in that materialist reduction of identity and personhood to a clump of cells up there in your cranium, the zombie wants to eat your brains because it cannot eat the mind, it cannot inhabit the mind.

Strangely enough the desire to eat the living is the extreme perversion of our desire for communion and it is also the distilled image of all our passions, our attempt to fill the unquenchable yearning through our passions always transforms others into commodities which can get us what we think we need. The zombie is both an image of the social breakdown, the person as a meaningless statistic, the disappearance of common values except the overwhelming desire to consume, so also as it is an image of the breakdown of the person itself into an soulless desiring death machine.

change_me

There is a rather strict analogy between these different levels of the world. The social breakdown and polarization is to the state what the abandonment to the passions is for the person, and the zombie is both those fragmentations at the same time.

So to pull back a bit. As we look around, As the narrative fabric of the world begins to fill, in quantities that are barely possible to believe, with images of the monstrous — as we feel the world being torn apart by fragmentation and conflict, we are simultaneously as individuals being constantly assaulted by images, images with the purpose of awaking our desires. And we have come to the point where we have often even become accustomed to a constant exposure to the stranger and stranger fringe of desire whilst being enticed by the siren song to indulge, to give into the waves and the storm and to sink into the mire.

What does this have to do with the Feast of Pentecost, and the iconography of Pentecost (remember, Pageau is an artist)? You have to read the whole thing to find out. [1] I find this to be an ingenious meditation, not what I would have expected from a Christian artist talking about the zombie apocalypse. Check it out; you’ll be surprised, and enlightened.

(And I shouldn’t have to say this, but I will: I’m not going to publish any critical comments from people who don’t evidence having read Pageau’s talk first.)

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "The Zombies Of Pentecost"

#1 Comment By Nicholas Jagneaux On February 9, 2018 @ 10:22 am

Thanks for posting this. It was very interesting. For me, his line, “Christianity, considered even at its minimum as just an underlying set of assumptions, was the only glue that ever held the West in some kind of balance after the conversion of Rome,” is crucial.

It is hope-filled, but also it places a responsibility on Christians, that we do not “compromis[e] the purity of the altar, the rigor of the sacramental life”, that we do not “confuse the altar with the narthex”.

How do you see this essay – that “even as we become besieged, we find a way to keep the door of Pentecost open, for if we close those doors, we abandon the world to its fragmentation” – in comparison with your vision in the Benedict Option?

By the way, the explanation of St. Christopher ties into the previous post about Fr. James Martin’s comment in an interesting way.

#2 Comment By Luc Lalongé On February 9, 2018 @ 10:53 am

Bonjour Rod from Montréal.

Mon frère en XC Jonathan is not just a good speaker and a great artist (see his christian work with wood at [2]) but a great soul. He asked me a few years back to become his son’s Godfather. I did not hesitate and it was an honour. (May God always bless him and his beautiful family.) With our present O.C.A. Archbishop up here in Canada, vladika Irénée (Rochon), he’s probably the best-known French Canadian Orthodox in this world.

-En XC

[NFR: Luc, I really hope that one day I can visit Montreal, and you. — RD]

#3 Comment By JonF On February 9, 2018 @ 11:40 am

Re: The zombie has no magic

Well, no magic it can consciously call upon, maybe, but depending on the specifics of the background story zombies do defy natural laws every bit as much as vampires do. Now, most “zombie plagues” are presented these days as natural events with natural causes (viruses, chemicals) not due to the magic of some voodoo master, but there is a lot of hand waving involved in explaining how the zombie thing works and the supernatural and (dark) miraculous is never far from the story no matter how naturalistic it pretends to be.

#4 Comment By VikingLS On February 9, 2018 @ 11:54 am

@JonF

I think his point is that the zombie origins are not presented as something connected to or contrasted with a higher power. To fight Dracula is to fight to forces of Satan. To fight zombies is usually to be beset by some horrible mistake of science.

Zombies in Voodoo are slaves and have little to do with what zombie has come to mean in popular culture, but I am sure you know that already.

#5 Comment By Chris in TN On February 9, 2018 @ 12:04 pm

The whole article is so dense in meaning that I just bounced off of it. I don’t have the energy at present to delve into it more deeply. When I was a kid there were other kids who would call me peanut head. How ironic that my name saint – St. Christopher – was also regarded as “monstrous” in appearance, with a dog’s head. There is far more to this article than just zombies. It is about more than that.

#6 Comment By lancelot lamar On February 9, 2018 @ 1:41 pm

I will never be able to thank you enough for posting this talk.

It opened whole worlds of meaning and truth for me, not just about the church and the world, but about myself.

Pageau’s explanation of the Pentecost icons, and those of St. Christopher was so illuminating. As with many icons, what deep truth is there if we can only see it.

For myself, I often see and feel myself to be one of the dog-men seen outside the door of the church in the Pentecost icons, someone at the edge of the world. My bestial nature, my gluttony, lust, and sloth, are always getting the best of me.

And yet the dog-man, Christopher, became a saint! The door of the church is open at Pentecost, and we can all come through the door, into the narthex, and maybe eventually to the nave, where we can sit and eat with the saints and apostles, and where Christ rules over all from the dome of heaven.

His story of Marjolaine, the transgender homeless person who comes to his church and sits in the narthex, was so powerful. It helped me to remember that it is never “flesh and blood” that we fight against when we oppose things like transgender ideology, but only the “principalities and powers” that espouse it. The door of the church is open to all the Marjolaine’s of the world. The narthex is a shelter to them as it is to us, and the nave beckons.

Again, that you so much for aggregating and linking to this kind of material in your blog. It is something that someone like me, a Southern Baptist, would never come across otherwise, and it is such a blessing.

[NFR: So glad to hear it. Pageau’s take on the Pentecost icon really illuminated me too. I had never even imagined things like that. He’s got a YouTube channel, btw. — RD]

#7 Comment By Turmarion On February 9, 2018 @ 2:11 pm

Fascinating article–thanks for posting it!

#8 Comment By Eric Blair On February 9, 2018 @ 7:30 pm

If anyone would rather hear it straight from Pageau, AFR was all over it:

[3]

#9 Comment By MK On February 12, 2018 @ 1:02 am

This is truly awesome. Only an artist could really explain what is wrong with the society today. This guy nails it.

I’ve listened to this talk many times; here are some transcriptions that are profound:
——————————————-

The zombie both typifies the mob while simultaneously the absolute individualism, the absolute isolation, of contemporary life.

Zombies in a hoard only interact with what they desire, but they never interact with each other.

The image of zombies desiring to eat the brain which is a very powerful one. Because it is truly the image of the nihilist.

Because the zombie is the creature without meaning, without intelligence, it misses any form of personhood, and it has this insatiable desire which mirrors what it lacks; it desires what it lacks, identity, meaning.

And this desire appears in that materialistic reduction of identity and personhood and clump of cells that we have up in our cranium.

The zombie wants to eat your brains because it cannot eat the mind, and it cannot inhabit the mind.

Strangely enough, this desire to eat the living is the extreme perversion of our desire for communion.

It’s also a distilled image of all our passions; our attempt to fill the unquenchable yearning through our passion; always transforms other people into commodities that we think will bring us what we need.

The zombie is both an image of the social breakdown, the person as a meaningless statistic, the disappearance of common values, except the overwhelming desire to consume.

But so it is it is also the breakdown of the person itself into a soulless, desiring, death machine.

There is a strict analogy between these different levels of the world.
The social breakdown and polarization is to the state which is the abandonment to the passions is for the person; the zombie is both of those fragmentations at the same time.

So as we pull back a bit, as look around at the narrative fabric of our world begins to fill in quantities that are hard to believe with images of the monster.

As we feel the world pulled apart by fragmentation and conflict, we are simultaneous as individuals being constantly assaulted by images, images with the purpose of awakening of our desires.

And we come the point where most of us have been so accustomed to the stranger and stranger fringe of desire, while being enticed by the siren song to indulge; to give into the waves and the storm and sink into the mire.

#10 Comment By JonF On February 12, 2018 @ 12:54 pm

Re: To fight Dracula is to fight to forces of Satan.

In the Dracula mythos up through Christopher Lee’s Dracula, yes.
But Vampires have been dechristianized too. Anne Rice’s vampires were more or less naturalistic monsters, who only assumed a demonic guise because medieval Europe assigned it to them. And the “Twilight” vampires come closer to being Nietzschean supermen than they do to the demonic (though to be sure some of them are very bad characters). There’s been a small move to “humanize” zombies too. The film “Warm Bodies” led that trend, and the CW’s “iZombie” has zombies who are conscious, morally capable beings who pass for human– as long as they get a bite of brain every now and then.

#11 Comment By Northmoor On February 14, 2018 @ 6:21 am

Probably too late for a comment, but no matter. The writing is more important than any expectation it will be read.

I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but I read you at TAC as much for what you link to as for what you write yourself. And this – this was oddly beautiful in the way of those shimmering Byzantine mosaics. Something indeed to meditate on.

And personally very resonant for one of those non-religious who “are looking around and seeing things collapsing, seeing the hemorrhaging out of our culture, and . . . looking to understand how to stop the bleeding.”

Thank you for posting this.