§1.14: Karl Barth and The Walking Dead

Jason Micheli —  October 24, 2013 — 2 Comments

1872747

“Look, I know that I’m a shitty wife and I’m not winning any Mother of the Year awards, but I you to know that not for one second do I think there is malice in your heart. You’re not a killer, and I know that. I know that, so – so do whatever you have to do to keep this group safe. And do it with a quick conscience.”

– Lori Grimes to Rick Grimes, Walking Dead: Season 3

“There is no way from us to God — not even via negativa not even a via dialectica nor paradoxa. The god who stood at the end of some human way — even of this way — would not be God.”

– Karl Barth

I’ve been on both a Karl Barth and a The Walking Dead binge the past couple of nights. One might imagine that the drudgery of the former would militate against the insomnia provoked by the latter but I’m here to report that this has not been the case.

No, the past few nights I’ve dipped back into §1.14 of Barth’s Church Dogmatics and then, very much awake, have turned to Netflix to watch the most recent season of The The Walking Dead.

Today, bleary-eyed with only a few hours of sleep, I’m nearly caught up in both my Barth and my Grimes.

Happy accidents happen when Barth’s ‘strange new world of the bible’ elides into the wasteland of the zombie apocalypse.

Just last night, I was underlining phrases and sentences concerning Barth’s understanding of revelation, in which Barth refuses to countenance any culturally palatable ‘low’ Christology; that is, for Barth Jesus is no mere human teacher of (humanly-deduced) divine wisdom.

No, Barth insists that, in Jesus Christ, God entered history.

The infinite entered the finite.

For Barth, ‘revelation’ names the once for all, decisive interruption of time by God. Better yet:

Revelation = Jesus Christ = The Eruption within Time of God. Barth Homeboy

The incarnation, Barth argues, is the first dawn of New Creation, the light, as John says, shining in the darkness.

The cross, meanwhile, is the perfect sacrifice for sin.

The world changed on Good Friday, 33 AD.

For all time.

Redemption, we profess, has been accomplished by God. In Christ. At Golgotha.

And we know that for certain, we confess.

Through the empty tomb.

And we are to live now as though that were true.

Or, as the Barthian Stanley Hauerwas writes, we are to live in such a way that makes no sense if Christ has not been raised from the dead.

Or, as Barth’s student and Hauerwas’ mentor writes, we are to live in the confidence that people who bear crosses for mercy’s sake work with the grain of the universe.

Now, I admit the above can sound like so much abstract theologizing- just one more example of an esoteric, impracticable intellectual.

Except when you follow your Barth with a zombie chaser.

Because when applied to the deracinated world of Rick Grimes, it suddenly becomes clear just how radically cruciform is Barth’s insistence on living as though the New Age has dawned.

In its macabre exaggeration, the world of The Walking Dead brings to the fore the paradox of faith that is only latent in our ‘civilized’ world:

“…the Christian is the incomprehensibly daring man, who affirms in an unredeemed world that its redemption has been accomplished…”

Unlike our present world perhaps, a world crawling-swarming- with walkers/biters/zombies is pretty obviously an unredeemed one. And it’s “unredemption” both necessitates and justifies actions that are rarely redemptive.

The unredeemed world of The Walking Dead excuses any action necessary to insure the survival of its characters.

In Season 3 of the Walking Dead the primary cast seek refuge in a state prison where only a few convicts survive.

Lori, the unfaithful wife of the hero Rick, tells her husband:

“Look, I know that I’m a shitty wife and I’m not winning any Mother of the Year awards, but I you to know that not for one second do I think there is malice in your heart. You’re not a killer, and I know that. I know that, so – so do whatever you have to do to keep this group safe. And do it with a quick conscience.”

Pep talk finished, Rick goes into the bowels of the prison and offs not just zombies but the members of the ‘other’ group, the ‘unredeemed’ world driving him to do what he never would’ve done before.

There’s an unmistakable sense in which the title of the graphic novel and the show refer not to the zombies but to the survivors of the zombie apocalypse.

Rick, for one, is walking dead in the sense that with each action justified and taken by the world’s unredemption he becomes less and less human.

The impractical challenge of the Barthian insistence that we live as though the cross has initiated the New Creation in which Christ is King is further demonstrated in how the WD’s characters refuse to see the zombie ‘other’ as people. Or former people, which is to say victims.

The a-Barthian way Rich Grimes et al treat the ‘walkers’ is an unmistakable echo of the a-Christ-like way we treat those so neatly categorized as ‘collateral damage.’

How the danger posed to us determines and declares just what we do to others.

Indeed, for someone who enjoyed irony and paradox, I suspect Barth would revel in how the only character in The Walking Dead who persists in seeing zombies as people is “The Governor,” the villain of the storyline, who surreptitiously locks his ‘biter’ daughter in his apartment because he can’t bring himself to dispose of her.

No matter how ‘other’ she appears, he can’t treat her as though she were anything but human. Anything but redeemed.

Read in isolation, sometimes Barth can seem abstract. Irrelevant even.

Read in tandem with Rick Grimes, however, it becomes obvious how the world of The Walking Dead is but a raggedy approximation of our own- a world where abandoning the way of Jesus for necessity’s sake makes a hero like Rich less and less human and where clinging to the way of Jesus makes the Governor a barbarian.

 

 

Jason Micheli

Posts

2 responses to §1.14: Karl Barth and The Walking Dead

  1. That may be my all-time favorite Barth quote. Thanks!

  2. Putting the “Walking Dead” and Barth together brings Ephesians 2:1-5 to mind.

Leave a Reply

Text formatting is available via select HTML. <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

*