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No Zombies Allowed! (in Christian Fiction)

No Zombies Allowed! (in Christian Fiction)

by Mike Duran · 30 comments

no-zombies-allowedOne of the major hurdles I encountered when shopping my first novel “The Resurrection,” had to do with two factors: 1.) It was aimed at a Christian audience, and 2.) The story contained a ghost.

And Christian fiction doesn’t do ghosts.

The eventual publisher accepted the book on the basis that the ghost was peripheral, a MacGuffin (or so they believed). Nevertheless, they asked me to write an Afterword clarifying the inclusion of a ghost in Christian fiction. (You can find a summary of that Afterword in this post Another Perspective on Ghosts.)

I’ve since learned that my feelings about Christian stories containing ghosts, are no different than my feelings about Christian stories containing vampires, werewolves, leprechauns, and mermaids.

Everything’s fair game.

This puts me at odds with mainstream Christian writers and readers who consider certain fictional archetypes off-limits.

I recently learned of another fictional archetype that is, apparently, off-limits for mainstream Christian fiction — zombies.

In his recent post How Then Can It Be ‘Christian’? novelist James Somers states what has become the rubric, the defining principle, for what guides many Christian authors and readers:

…while we do have freedom to explore many avenues, we should never find ourselves compromising God’s Word or his person…

Likewise, we should never present a view of the world that contradicts God’s Word. (emphasis mine)

Of course, this is fairly open-ended. I happen to think Harry Potter, Stephen King’s The Stand, Dean Koontz’ Odd Thomas, and Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find all meet these specifications. However, the devil’s in the details. Because something can be found in each of these tales that potentially “compromises God’s Word” to someone, in some fashion.

And that’s the rub with this approach. Forcing fiction to neatly fit your theology is a losing proposition… at least, if creative storytelling is your aim.

Case in point is the conclusion Somer’s draws based on his prescription:

I’m currently working on a new novel series that would seem like a zombie plague has broken out and threatens the world. Are zombies–the living dead–real beings? Could they actually exist? Of course they couldn’t. Dead is dead. Muscles don’t work without blood flow and a heart to pump it and lungs to oxygenate it. So, I can’t do living dead, but I can explore a story about infected individuals who are living and what such a pestilence or plague could do. (emphasis mine)

So “while we do have freedom to explore many avenues… we should never present a view of the world that contradicts God’s Word.” And since the dead can’t reanimate, the Christian author “can’t do living dead.”

Interestingly, the author gives himself a bit of wiggle room in describing his new novel by employing a plague “that would SEEM like a zombie plague.”  Thus, the only way for a Christian writer to employ zombies without presenting “a view of the world that contradicts God’s Word,” is to create a plague that doesn’t reanimate the dead but zombifies the living.

Problem solved.

I have long argued that one of the inherent problems with Christian speculative fiction is that Christian spec-fic, by its very nature, cannot be speculative enough. We impose overly strict theological expectations on our fiction. Our fiction needs fit snugly within a biblical worldview, however we interpret that view. Thus, basic fictional archetypes like ghosts, vampires,  dragons, zombies, werethings, space aliens, mermaids, shapeshifters, and shades can all pose tremendous problems for the Christian author. Why? Because they potentially “present a view of the world that contradicts God’s Word.” (This is also one of the reasons Why Christian Fiction Writers Love the Nephilim and why Christian spec author write so much epic fantasy — Fantasy fiction is our buffer against theological scrutiny.) So in “real world” settings, some characters or archetypes become totally off-limits for Christian authors.

Like zombies.

Unless they just SEEM like zombies.

But if zombies are simply fictional constructs, why can’t they be just what they are: the living dead?

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Brent King February 3, 2014 at 8:43 AM

Zombies are metaphors and, like Tolkien said, they may be the best way of describing the truth. And he proved it! Look at the Army of the Dead (The Dead Men of Dunharrow) in his epic story. What better way could he find of describing and impressing upon our minds our true condition before God.

It is the same with all the mythic horror creatures. They survive in our myths for a reason. They are power archetypes of man’s fallen condition, archetypes we should use in our tales if we are to succeed as storytellers.

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John W. Morehead February 3, 2014 at 8:59 AM

I wish Evangelicals were more thoughtful in what they are able to interact with in fiction. I touched on this in relation to horror: http://www.theofantastique.com/2007/05/16/christianity-and-horror-redux-from-knee-jerk-revulsion-to-critical-engagement/

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Jessica E. Thomas February 3, 2014 at 9:02 AM

“We impose overly strict theological expectations on our fiction. Our fiction needs fit snugly within a biblical worldview, however we interpret that view. Thus, basic fictional archetypes like ghosts, vampires, dragons, zombies, werethings, space aliens, mermaids, shapeshifters, and shades can all pose tremendous problems for the Christian author.”

I’m reading Donita K. Paul’s latest and she includes shapeshifting dragons. I would say that’s a double-whammy, but her book is published by Zondervan, so I guess it’s not.

“Everything’s fair game.”

Yes. And no. Everything is fair game in the initial creative process, perhaps, but then we have to submit our work to God…like we are asked to do with everything else in our lives. Personally, I try to stay open, during the editing process, to remove stuff that doesn’t “sit right” with my understanding of who God is via scripture. I don’t take a legalistic approach, but I don’t give myself a free-for-all pass either. I think deciding what goes into our speculative fiction should be a “problem” for Christians. Or perhaps, calling it a process is better, and it’s a process which can be arduous.

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Johne Cook February 3, 2014 at 9:24 AM

This sort of creative restriction is what sours me on Christian speculative fiction. It’s also what makes me cheer those who can expand the frontier while continuing to glorify God with tales that tell the truth in fiction.

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Kerry Nietz February 3, 2014 at 9:38 AM

I’ve seen this same “how could it possibly be redemptive” attitude with regards to the vampires in AViS. (From family member, no less.) That was before they read the book, though.

The beauty of science fiction is that with enough research and heavy thinking you can make a lot of seemingly impossibly things plausible and therefore absolutely acceptable for Christian fiction.

Though I also don’t think it should HAVE to be plausible to be fair game. Why should fairies and gnomes be acceptable, but zombies aren’t?

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Amy February 3, 2014 at 9:38 AM

Wait… The dead can’t live? I know if some dry bones that might contradict that supposition.

As far as I’m concerned, everything really is fair game as long as the outcome is grounded in God’ truth. So zombies? Werewolves? Rapists? Mass murderers? Talking animals? Fairies? Liberal politicians? Impossible outer space explorations? None of it is a deal breaker as long as God is glorified in the end.

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Samuel R Choy February 3, 2014 at 11:00 AM

I went back and read the blog post Mike refers to. Like Mike, I mostly agreed with what the Somers was saying up until the point where he talks about zombies.

It seems to me, if we take the author’s statement, “we should never present a view of the world that contradicts God’s Word” to its logical conclusion, we shouldn’t write fiction because fiction isn’t true and therefore a lie and lies contradict to God’s word.

Another problem with Somers’s argument is it implies if something is not mentioned in the Bible, it is off limits. Period. This prevents us from asking and exploring “What if” questions. What if God created things that aren’t mentioned in the Bible? What if God made fairies and elves and trolls? What if God created hobgoblins and minotaurs and fauns?

Why shouldn’t we ask questions like that? Yes, those fictional creatures have pagan origins, but why can’t we Christianize them? Is that similar to what Paul did when he was in Athens? Though the Bible doesn’t mention which one of the Greek poets he quoted, a quick Wikipedia search reveals that he was quoting “The Eumenides” by Aeschylus, which is most definitely pagan.

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E. Stephen Burnett February 3, 2014 at 11:13 AM

Eh, I’m not worried about this either way.

If someone says a story’s theology should not contradict God’s Word, I chalk that up to him/her striving to be faithful to our personal Savior. Any fiction could be said to “be contradictory to God’s Word” because God’s Word describes reality, which fiction isn’t, no matter how contemporary.

What I think such folks are actually trying to say is that a work of fiction, by a Christian, should not end up tweaking God’s Nature or salvation.

You can invent a world in which down is up or water is dry. But do not, as a Christian, invent a world in which if God exists (e.g. if the story touches on this) then He is evil, or else non-omnipotent, cruel, ignorant, etc.

Ergo: ghosts are allowed. A cruel spiteful or stupid God is not.

Source: Jesus Christ Himself. He told stories in which God is often absent. Or if He is absent, He is seen acting in what is arguably Christ’s work of fiction — e.g. the boastful rich man of Luke 12. But four chapters later comes what is perhaps the great Storyteller’s most fanciful-sounding tale, of another rich man who dies, enters Sheoul, and is yet somehow able to converse with Abraham across the divide with the “good side” of the grave. Jesus here changes the “rules” of the real world. And yet God’s nature remains intact.

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Johne Cook February 3, 2014 at 11:19 AM

Stephen wins teh internets today.

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Leanna February 3, 2014 at 12:23 PM

What confuses me is that so many of the people who argue against having supernaturals like zombies and ghosts in stories are perfectly fine with using angels and demons in very speculative ways. :P

e.g. Demons can have babies with humans because Genesis!

I much prefer zombies, ghosts and fairies personally.

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R. L. Copple February 3, 2014 at 12:46 PM

Hey, this is called speculative fiction for a reason. We’re speculating “What if this was true?” But it’s not, at least as it relates to SciFi, not yet.

Memo to whoever: Of course there are zombies in real life. Everyone who does not have the life of Christ flowing in their souls is a zombie.

Another memo: Of course there are ghosts in Scripture. Obvious examples are Samuel, Moses (would count Elijah but he didn’t die as such), and the souls (no bodies) of martyrs under the altar mentioned in Rev.

Note Jesus, when the Disciples thought him a ghost after the Resurrection, ate food to show He wasn’t a ghost. Jesus didn’t say, “You foolish disciples, there’s no such thing as ghosts.” Instead, he responds as if they do exist.

Even then, because something is not in Scripture doesn’t equate with it being contrary to it. Otherwise we’d have to ditch cars, planes, supermarkets, computers . . . the list could go on.

Fiction is a lie? Nope. Not strictly speaking. A lie is to deceive. No one who slaps “fiction” on their book is lying, that is, attempting to pass it off as reality. But I know some non-fiction books that lie.

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Johne Cook February 3, 2014 at 12:50 PM

(Claps.)

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D.M. Dutcher February 3, 2014 at 3:43 PM

Just because people believe in ghosts doesn’t mean the concept is true, though. You also have to be careful because not everyone believes in a spirit or soul that exists after death, or that they will be conscious and able to act before the last judgment:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_mortalism

I think we take some things as ironclad when they are actually speculative. Just because Moses talked with Jesus doesn’t mean all spirits are conscious and capable of crossing whatever gulf there would be to contact others.

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R. L. Copple February 3, 2014 at 10:16 PM

DM,

Yes, it doesn’t mean that, but it also means the common perception among certain people, fed more by certain theological interpretations than Scripture, could very well be wrong. Point being, “ghost” are shown to be real in the Bible. Has nothing to do with what I believe or not. Either the medium did contact the spirit of Samuel, which Scripture says happened, or the Bible’s lying to us.

Maybe that’s an exception. Maybe God allowed it under certain circumstances. Who knows. But they are in the Bible. Why can’t a writer speculate on another “exception,” if truly that is what they are?

But I get it that some will not accept that anyway because it goes against their theology.

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Don Mulcare February 3, 2014 at 2:39 PM

The Communion of Saints, cited in the Apostle’s Creed describes an interaction between those living in the body and those living in spirit only. Ghosts or spirits might be sent as apparitions to warn or direct earthly humans toward heavenly goals. Similarly, evil spirits or ghosts could interfere with the believers path toward God. In today’s Gospel reading we heard about the interaction of Jesus and the man possessed by Legion. These demons or spirits might well fit the ghost genre. The appearance of angels might also fit within these parameters. Didn’t Saul consult the Witch of Endor to consult the ghost of Samuel, only to receive a rebuke? Ghosts are scriptural.

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D.M. Dutcher February 3, 2014 at 4:07 PM

This is complex. I agree with Mike, but there’s also some to agree with on the other side.

It depends on the tone of your story and how the speculative elements are used. If you write a whimsical fantasy, it’s okay to make the moon out of green cheese. If you write a realistic story about moon travel, doing so won’t come across so well.

However, the default setting for many Christians when it comes to specifically Christian spiritual elements in a story is “that’s realistic.”If you write about the real world, they expect not just the physical state of the world to be accurate, but the spiritual state as well. So if cause something that would change the theology that they know, and it’s in a realistic setting it’s going to grate on people.

I think it helps to de-spiritualize any such things if the goal is a real-world setting. Zombies caused by the T-virus aren’t spiritual, but zombies caused by the actions of a bokor who worships Papa Shango will cause problems unless you go for the realistic Christian explanation of such, namely “It’s demons.”

The thing is though, most Christian writers can’t do this to save their lives. They go for the easy cliches instead of taking the time and doing decent worldbuilding, and that exacerbates the problem.

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Kat Heckenbach February 4, 2014 at 8:23 AM

I keep coming back to this and wanting to comment, but so much of what I’d say has already been covered. I agree wholeheartedly with what E. Stephen Burnett said. What else can I add??

Oddly, though, the thing that is haunting me (pun intended) is the commentary on the use of angels and demons in Christian fiction. My current WIP has both, and I supposed technically a nephilim if you go by the interpretation that defines them as half-angel/half-human. But I use them in such a way that meets E. Stephen’s criteria of keeping the nature of God, yet otherwise theologically…well, I wouldn’t be surprised if some Christians came after me with crosses and holy water. *shrugs* I guess I’ll find out eventually….

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Don Mulcare February 4, 2014 at 9:39 AM

If, as Mike said:

“One of the major hurdles I encountered when shopping my first novel “The Resurrection,” had to do with two factors: 1.) It was aimed at a Christian audience, and 2.) The story contained a ghost.”

Then, the demonstration that ghosts appear in the OT and NT would clear the path–from a Christian point of view– for the use of ghosts in a manuscript submitted to a Christian publisher. Ghost stories abound and may lead to the reform of sinners–Scrooge reforms after visitations by the ghost of Marley and then the spirits of Christmas past, present and future. Scrooge ascribed the apparitions to the effects of indigestion, nevertheless he reformed his life even if he may not have “believed” in ghosts.

Since I’ve had no personal encounters with ghosts, I’m not sure I believe in them, but see their value in spicing up a story. My intended use of ghosts in fiction in no way denies or contradicts my Catholic Christian beliefs. In fact it may support them.

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Johne Cook February 4, 2014 at 11:03 AM

The problem with ghosts is in the definition of terms (and, I think, misplaced fear or simple ignorance). When some people read ‘ghost,’ they think ‘that concept that goes against scripture and is thus either lying about God’s created beings or outright heresy, but in either event does not please God and therefore we shouldn’t have anything to do with it.’

When I read ‘ghost’ I think ‘another way to tell the truth in fiction.’ For example, my favorite vampire book, Agyar, never mentions the term – and, indeed, is so different from the rest of the genre that it stands alone. (See Jo Walton’s review here: http://www.tor.com/blogs/2012/12/rediscover-steven-brust-agyar) While the story features a character you eventually discover to be a little more than human (but not in a good way), the story isn’t really about the special effects commonly associated with vampire stories, it’s about bondage and power and a desperate fight for freedom and a musing on what is and isn’t love. (Among other things. It’s astoundingly rich for such a slim standalone novel.) And it features Jim, a Negro ghost. (I use that term because ‘African American’ is a relatively recent term and Jim is far older than that.) The ghost in this story doesn’t represent a refuting of God’s creation, it’s simply another perspective, an Other occupying the same housing as the protagonist while hiding in plain sight from normal mortals. Jim’s presence gives the protagonist somebody to talk to on behalf of the reader.

I think the real question is this: are Christian authors free to use any tool at their disposal to tell a story. I believe the answer is yes, but fear they may have to resort to marketing those stories to extra-Christian outlets because of the stigma associated with the terms.

tl:dr – I don’t think writing about ghosts as a Christian means I am disobeying God’s prohibition against occult spirits in scripture because Fiction. And I can’t recommend Agyar by Steven Brust highly enough -it’s not Christian fiction but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain a lot of truth. (As always, what you do with that truth is up to you.)

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Nick Houze February 6, 2014 at 5:30 PM

I didn’t read all of the comments, so this may be redundant. I guess this would exclude the Narnia books, with talking animals, magic, and alternate universes.

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Don Mulcare February 7, 2014 at 1:21 PM

Note that G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown believed in ghosts. If you have the complete Father Brown series on your Kindle, search for “ghosts.” You’ll find that he “believed in them.”

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Lyn Perry February 8, 2014 at 7:31 AM

Mike, this is one reason you can’t give up blogging. We need to keep having these kinds of conversations. Best wishes as you try to balance it all.

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D.M. Dutcher February 9, 2014 at 10:51 PM

I don’t think the conversations will change things, Lyn. I hope Mike does whatever works best for him so he can be published and I can buy more of his books. He’s been cool about tackling difficult subjects and letting people talk frankly on his blog, but I can’t imagine the psychic cost of constantly being beaten up for unpopular opinions. Well, maybe I can a little.

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Janice Campbell February 11, 2014 at 8:35 AM

“since the dead can’t reanimate”

Funny–I thought that reanimation of the dead was one of the basic premises of the Christian faith;-).

It’s an interesting conversation, Mike. I think the challenge lies in the fact that “however we interpret [a biblical worldview]” is deeply divided across the spectrum of Christianity. There are factions that find read nothing more than the Bible; others who immerse themselves in bonnet fiction and the like; still others who love Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton and/or the literary classics. There is little that will please all the groups, and still less point in trying. It can be frustrating, though.

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