In today’s text, Jesus uses some pretty gnarly verbiage to continue getting his message across to the people around him. Literally, gnarly, as he says plainly: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.” Up front, I can’t help make a connection with the really widespread obsession that our culture has with some gnarly characters. That’s right my friends, zombies and vampires.
Read John 6:51-58 here.
I’ve wanted to avoid the zombie/vampire connection for obvious reasons – I don’t want to marginalize all those folks (a majority of our congregation I’m sure) who have no affinity whatsoever for these beasts. People might think such creatures have no place in the conversation during worship. So often in our media they have little purpose except horror and violence. Usually they only show up in B-movies and stories that are just ridiculous. But at the same time, the decent writers out there use these creatures not just as monsters, but to teach us all about the human condition. Like Mary Shelley and her Frankenstein, amongst others.
For instance, Tripp Fuller, a youth pastor from North Carolina, writes this article about trying to get his students to resonate with their Bible study. He said that as they got into heavy topics like original sin, temptation, salvation and sanctification, the stuff of the book of Romans, etc., the students were “checking out.” They were overwhelmed, or underwhelmed. Until one day a kid piped up and basically said, “you know, it sounds like we all have some zombie in us.” Check it out, they came up with some conclusions about zombies that are pretty insightful/theological:
- A zombie’s whole being is committed to the fulﬁllment of one desire. (sound familiar?)
- Zombies disregard their own well-being and the well-being of others to get what they want.
- Zombies have a mindless commitment to their herds, which are always destructive, and they don’t know it.
- You’re sad when you see one. They aren’t sad because they don’t know what they are doing, but you’re sad because you see them as someone’s mother, child or friend.
Applied to our faith, that’s deep stuff. Fuller says it was a theme for them that semester, one kid even prayed, “God, help us keep our zombies locked up so we live life in your eternal love.” I share that so we begin to see that even a strange realm like this can teach us about our deep selves and our needs, which means it can teach us about following Christ.
Really, maybe one of the best lessons that I think these creature stories have to teach us is tied to just how hugely popular they’ve become in our culture over the last few years. Millions and millions of Americans have been buying into these books, films, TV shows, etc. If not you, then guaranteed someone you know well – friends, co-workers, kids, grandkids. So that makes me wonder what draws us to them. And I think it’s that these stories seem to meet a few of our most basic human needs. We might even call them hungers, for…
None of us would pay $10 to watch a 2.5-hour movie about our neighbor mowing his/her front lawn. We have enough monotony of our own. Our day-to-day isn’t always terribly satisfying, exciting, or special. So when it comes to stories, we seem drawn to extraordinary characters and/or extraordinary circumstances that help us feel like life is bigger or wilder or more passionate than what we actually see everyday. Just take a look at Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, and this world she creates where an ordinary Washington town is secretly host to amazing creatures – creatures that are physically irresistible, strong, fast, supernaturally-gifted.
I’ll never forget being at a baseball game with some guy friends and I think we were actually making fun of the vampire books, when the guy behind us, a total stranger, chimes in. He’s stone-faced serious and tells us to never let our spouses/girlfriends read the books because his wife had gotten into them and had become totally infatuated with her beloved Edward Cullen (one of the vampire protagonists). If you’ve read it, you know what he means. See, not only are the creatures supernatural in the story, but the teenage romance is all-consuming and extraordinary (if not nauseating to a point). But, truly, human beings seem to long to identify with these kinds of circumstances. It’s our escape, our fantasy, the potential that more is out there.
Coleridge called it “the willing suspension of disbelief” when an audience lets itself be taken in even by the most fantastic/absurd stories, but that only goes so far. We also hunger for the very real. It’s hard to be swept up in a tale that is totally pie-in-the-sky. Maybe that’s why reality TV hits so big, too. It’s filled with absurd characters in ridiculous situations, but allegedly they’re real people and real lives. To me, realism is part of what keeps me from really getting into zombie stuff.
I mean, I liked Zombieland and tolerated the gross parts, but I have a harder time when it comes to something like The Walking Dead on AMC. It seems like too much blood and guts and eating people, all the time. Too graphic. But a friend of mine actually claims that’s why he likes the show at all – not because he’s a blood and gore fanatic but because the setting is realistic enough that it’s not cheesy. It’s believable, it’s well done, so the audience can feel transported into the storyline. Apparently, something like 10 million Americans agree because The Walking Dead has been setting cable TV records left and right.
“This…is my BOOMstick!”Last, with all that in mind, I think the creature stories tap into our human hunger for having to rise to an occasion. It seems anchored inside all of us that, as much as we like to avoid discomfort and usually choose paths of least resistance, we also have a deep yearning to be challenged, to pursue a worthy cause, and to give everything we’ve got for it.
If you’re familiar with anything zombie/vampire related, you’ve seen a setting where human beings are fighting for their lives, or even where the fate of the whole human race rests on the actions of a few. It’s more than just an adrenaline rush, it’s about standing strong even against terrible odds (like Ash Williams pictured at the right). It’s do or die, non-stop survival, war in the trenches. It’s demanding, which means we consider ourselves in demand, needed, and worth something.
“Taking it too far, Jesus…”
Now, the thing is, if we judge by these criteria then tens of millions of Americans, and the media, and many of us, could all be buzzing equally as much about the Gospel. I don’t mean for that to be guilt-inspiring exactly, or to be a “Jesus juke” that says, “Hey, why don’t you love Jesus as much as Twilight?” But, honestly, this passage in John 6 shows us that Jesus’ story is absolutely extraordinary. The events leading up to today, remember, included his miraculous feeding of the crowd of 5,000. The people loved it! But the problem today is that Jesus has gone so far as to talk about the possibility of eternal life. Free food is one thing, but that’s harder to swallow.
The passage gives us a picture of the realistic, too. Call eternal life “pie-in-the-sky” if you want, but Jesus approached it seriously. He didn’t claim to have a magic live-forever pill; he didn’t preach that he came so that everybody would go to a land of rainbows and unicorns when they die. He hinted that his coming was to reconcile the rift between humans and God, and that this reconciliation would be based in great sacrifice, even of his own body and blood. For some in the crowd, and some today, that was a little too real. The crucifixion turns out to be a lot to stomach. It’s just too graphic.
His words are also demanding. Extremely so. He talks about our being so devoted to him that it’s like he is all the food that we need. The image is of an intimacy so close that it’s scary, like our life is wrapped up only in him, like he is our only means of survival. This is intimate imagery and if you’ve been in any kind of intimate relationship, it’s tough – the vulnerability and commitment. And so, for some, Jesus’ words get a little too pricey to buy into. Just a little too demanding.
Overall, the followers in the crowd were hungry, but they were also disturbed with how far Jesus was asking them to go.
Undead, Half-living…or More?
Maybe it’s a stretch to draw this parallel between creature stories and the Gospel. After all, someone could say to me, “The thing is, Josh, we like our zombie/vampire shows and all, but we don’t take them seriously. You can’t compare them to faith because we don’t actually believe in them. We don’t claim they’re true, or shape our lives around them.”
And I’ll obviously agree with that. But, I think that’s actually the problem. I’m not asking anybody to try to live their zombie/vampire fantasies in the real world, for pete’s sake. I’m asking: what if we settle for stories like these in part because they do half-heartedly fulfill our desires, while also not requiring any real-life commitment, or buy-in, or participation? We get a small fix of adventure and excitement, with ease. If that’s so, it begs another question: what if our deep hungers aren’t meant to drive us to just an escape or some temporary entertainment, what if we were created to actually live in pursuit of them?
If that’s the case, and the kingdom of God is just as Jesus describes it, then some of us are only using our stories, shows, and movies to half-live. Forget about just zombies and vampires. How about other fictions? Novels and bestsellers, films, soap operas and talk shows? From 50 Shades of Gray to Rocky IV. What about sports, or politics, or video games? Or addictions? Or even some of our relationships? Some of the imaginary worlds, escapes, and obsessions that we plunge ourselves into can be used as inferior substitutes for the reality that God has set us in.
So no wonder Jesus felt the need to use some special language, even some grizzly wording, to clarify what’s at stake and what it costs to follow him: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.” It’s an invitation to the most extraordinary, most real (even graphic), and most utterly demanding lifestyle known to humankind. And it begs the question, “How hungry are we, really?”