The power of popular culture lies, among other things, in its story-telling. Television shows, movies, YouTube videos usher us into simple and complex stories alike. In more complex narratives, such as long-lasting TV series, we are drawn into personal histories, group dynamics, and communal longings layered and woven together in creative and surprising ways. These stories shape our cultural and personal imaginations perhaps more profoundly than any other stories today. The church can’t compete with this story-telling on many levels, yet of course the church’s story—God’s story—is the definitive one. We’re faced with what to do with all these other stories that shape us and the people in the pews whom we love, serve, and fellowship with. Many of these stories are gifts to preachers and theologians today, providing us with an entry point and much fodder for the Spirit’s work of transforming our hearts and minds. Much has been written about the lack of biblical and theological imagination in North American Christianity. Engaging the narratives at work in popular culture provides a powerful opportunity for developing the capacity to interpret human existence in light of Christian faith.
Walking Dead is one of those complex narratives that begs for theological interpretation. I’ve written about it on this blog in the past for that reason, and I pick up that blogging thread again today. (Spoiler alert: the rest of this blog contains detailed information on this past Sunday’s episode.)
Considered theologically, one of the persistent themes of this season of Walking Dead is redemption. The show implicitly raises the questions: Who can be redeemed? How is one redeemed? What is the evidence of redemption?
These questions are lived out in four characters: Rick, the former sheriff and newly restored leader of the main small group of survivors; Carol, one of the leaders in this band who now has been banished from the group; Hershel, a farmer whose faith (he’s the one who character who reads the Bible and prays) and moral grounding make him a rock of stability and fount of wisdom in the group; and, the Governor, who uses every means possible, including the most violent, in his attempt to construct and control a community free from outside dangers.
In a previous episode, which I discussed at length, the theme of redemption surfaces in an episode-long, tension-filled dialogue between Rick and Carol. Rick questions whether Carol can be redeemed. Does she have any remorse for killing two of the group members because they threatened (on account of their sickness) others in the community? Can she turn back from this action? Her lack of remorse, her indifference, leads Rick to decide that she can’t or won’t turn in another direction, that she’ll become a threat to others’ wellbeing. So he bans her from the group. Of course, as I stated in a previous blog, the problem is that Rick decides this unilaterally.
Rick faces the same set of questions about himself. He nearly lost his humanity in the previous season when he agreed to turn over another character, Michonne, to the Governor, who would surely have tortured her, in order to keep his group safe in their prison home. (For those who don’t watch the show, this group of survivors has been living in a former prison. Its walls and fences protect them from the walkers [zombies] and provide shelter and fields for harvesting food.) Terrified by his actions, which at the last minute he turned back from, Rick spends the first part of this season refusing to pick up a gun or participate in any leadership function. Hirschel reminds Rick, however, that redemption is possible. People can turn back; they can change for the good; no one is ever too far gone.
And that leads us to the Governor. He returned to the series in the past three episodes appearing at times to be a changed man, softened, vulnerable, and caring. The audience is skeptical, of course, though again Hirschel—who functions like a Christ-figure in this episode especially—has the same conversation with him that he had with Rick. “You can change. Your people can live with ours. You can turn back from the path that you’re on. But that means caring as much for your neighbor as for yourself.” (Those aren’t Hirschel’s exact words but that’s the meaning of them.)
What is interesting about the Governor is that he chooses to orchestrate and control redemption, which is not only impossible but also an actual performative contradiction. He chooses who is saved and who is killed. He chooses substitutes for his dead wife and daughter. He chooses to create community by killing those who threaten his version of it. He chooses to use Hirschel and Michonne as incentive to force this decision about Rick and the others—holding a long blade at Hirschel’s neck. When Rick pleads with him to choose another way, to learn to live together with those in the prison rather than expelling them by violent force, the Governor pauses, as if wondering if a new life is possible. Then in a split second he turns from this possibility. Hirschel is serene at this moment, ready for this fate, with eyes full of love and acceptance. Then down he goes. Death and destruction ensue for all.
Who can be redeemed? remains an open question at the end of this episode. There’s still a sliver of hope that Carol might find a way to return and be restored to the community. What is the evidence of redemption? is more clearly answered—not a perfect life, but a changed life, one that seeks the good for community beyond one’s own. How is one redeemed? is answered partly and in ways that Christian theology can affirm (and, of course, add to): in community; in response to wisdom’s beckoning; with honesty and humility about one’s proclivities; through repentance. All of this works in one’s soul over time as Rick illustrates.
Who does the redeeming? is perhaps another question buried within these recent episodes. When Hirschel reads scripture as he’s tending those who are infected with a life-threatening virus, as he affirms that he still has some faith in a God who saves humanity, he points toward the Christian answer to this question: God alone. How, if at all, that answer might resurface in the episode now that Hirschel is gone remains to be seen. But for now, there’s more than enough to engage the theological imagination, our own and that of others.