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"Belonging: Zombies, Vampires, and Werewolves vs. the Shepherd," Sermon by Andrew Warner, April 15, 2018

posted Apr 17, 2018, 2:35 PM by Andrew Warner



Last Friday, Friday the 13th, I found myself thinking of all the scary characters of our imagination: zombies, vampires, and werewolves.  These creatures, which populate our screens, disclose something of our fears. And yet zombies, vampires, and werewolves speak to different kinds of fears.


I first encountered zombies in high school.  We’d stay up late watching one or another of the Living Dead movies, in which the zombies come after the living, hungry for their brains, and the haplass humans retreat behind barricades, safe until they realize one among them got bitten and now transforms before their eyes into a living dead person.


Only much later did I start to wonder about the meaning of these movies and how the fright factor of the zombie spoke to real social anxieties.  While vampires and werewolves haunted us for centuries, zombies rose only very recently, in the 1960’s.


The 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead defined the genre.  In that film an unlikely assortment of people hide out in a farmhouse.  The people in the house hear that posses of night riding vigilantes have organized to kill the zombies but they face a more immediate danger: the zombies outside the house.  Throughout the night everyone succumbs except for Ben, an African-American. As dawn breaks, the posse of rural whites arrive. Ben steps out, saved. But the men see Ben, mistake him for a zombie, shoot and kill him.  “That’s another one for the fire,” a man in the posse says as the film ends. That scene echoes with the shootings of innocent African-Americans - most recently an African-American teenager shot at for asking directions outside of Detroit.


Beyond that intense scene comes a more general notion of the threat posed by “others.”  The horde of ravenous zombies most want to take our brains, the thing we can’t give without losing ourselves.  They threaten our very essence. Walls must be built to keep them out!


The zombie speaks to our fears of those who don’t belong: they ought not be here, they might take what’s mine, only a wall will protect me.  These fears can quickly become racialized; after all, the 1968 classic came as a sci-fi expression of white fears after the late 1960’s inner-city riots.  And it does not take much of a leap to see a connection between the fantasy of zombie hordes and the description some give of caravans of immigrants.

But zombies don’t just speak to racist fears.  Remember the news of Charlottesville; a horde stumbling through a city at night, men shouting “blood and soil,” seemed like a group of zombies, people who’d lost their souls and seemed mindless in their hatred, an alt-contagion that might infect us all; Night of the Living Fascists.


And it’s this ability of zombies to represent our fears of the “other” that makes them so compelling: zombies represent whatever we think doesn’t belong in our community, a horde threatening our identity.


Zombies might be the most popular monster on our screens, but I find I resonate more with the older fright creatures: vampires and werewolves.  Vampires, who first appeared in the sixteenth century, represented European fears about Jews. Why else would vampires fear the cross? Or, echoing some of the ugliest old stories, why else would they want to drink blood.  But more recently vampires took on our worries about sexuality, coming across as both dangerously and provocatively bisexual. After all, as Naomi Alderman said, “They’ll bite anyone.”


Contemporary lore pictures vampires and werewolves as enemies.  But I’m more struck by what these creatures share: both can pass.  Werewolves, at least in the recent tellings of their stories, particularly struggle with what it means to pass.  They seem so human, except on full moons, almost like us, but not. And so they suffer with what it means to pass: Will someone find out my secret?  Will some discover the beast hiding inside of me? Would they accept me if they knew?


These questions make vampires and werewolves much more complex characters than zombies.  Brad Pitt as Louis in Interview with a Vampire struggles with his identity and the burden of his desire, becoming a sort of self-hating vampire who kills other vampires and tries to live on animal blood, vampire chastity.  In a similar way, the series Teen Wolf explored the coming-of-age struggles of erstwhile werewolf Scott McCall in high school.


I know what it’s like to be in high school and feel terror: what happens if people find out?  And I know many people feel this way long after High School. Undocumented people. Those carrying trauma.  Anyone with a shame too heavy, a hurt too deep, or a hope too tender yet to share, who find themselves acting like a fraud because they worry, “If you knew, then I wouldn’t belong.”


While zombies speak to our fears of the dangerous other, vampires and werewolves speak to our fears about ourselves: our own secrets, our own fearful identities.  Zombies represent all those we don’t think belong; vampires and werewolves our fears that we don’t belong.


The popularity of zombies, vampires, and werewolves in our imagination speaks to our continual anxieties about belonging.  Do they belong? Do I belong?


These questions do more than keep us up at night.  Because these are fundamentally spiritual questions.  Many of us think of the differences among churches as differences on social questions: this church welcomes gays, that one doesn’t; this church believes in reproductive choice, that one doesn’t; this church advocates undocumented people, that one doesn’t.  But the real debate in Christianity concerns belonging: how we answer the question of who belongs and who doesn’t. The struggle to define who belongs runs through the history of the earliest church in Jerusalem and through every church today. Belonging is the theological question we continue to debate.  And that’s because, as the great preacher Howard Thurman said, “In the great huddle we are desolate, lonely, and afraid. Our shoulders touch but our hearts cry out.”


If zombies, vampires, and werewolves express our fears about belonging, then a hope comes to us in our morning Psalm, “the Lord is my shepherd.”  Because this psalm fundamentally speaks of belonging.


We so often read the Psalm in the midst of memorial services that we might forget that it speaks primarily of the living, constructing in everyday ways the care and protection of God, who feeds and shelters and leads us.  The very structure of the Psalm suggests the way God surrounds us. We translate the Hebrew word for Yahweh as God in our text, but this more personal name for the divine begins and ends the Psalm, so that even as we wonder if we belong, Yahweh enfolds us, behind and before.  And in-between, the Psalm turns to speak even more personally to God: you, you anoint my head.


But instead of speaking of this Psalm generally, I want to look in a very close way at one particular verse that speaks to me about belonging.  “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”


While I’ve often puzzled over this verse, my recitation of the Psalm often rushed from one familiar line - “the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want” - to familiar line - “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”  But, when I think of belonging, I can imagine this verse with all its visceral tension. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of all those who think I don’t belong.”


I can’t help but hear this as a gay man.  Everyone knows the phrase “to come out.” LGBT people have long used it to describe that moment of sharing your secret, revealing one’s identity. Many LGBT people can tell dramatic coming out stories.  But the real drama isn’t in coming out, it’s in the coming home. For often it’s easier to come out than to come home. My grandmother’s greatest fear when I came out is that I would be like her brother Greg: who came out in the 1960’s, moved to San Francisco, and never came back.  She worried I’d come out but not come home. And that fear of not belonging - that if we were really known we wouldn’t belong - is really the fear that if we came out we couldn’t come home.


Which makes this verse a healing balm: you prepare a table for me.  When we wonder if we belong, God prepares the table; God who knows who we are prepares for us to come home.


Recently I heard Brene Brown speak of the connection between belonging and being at home with ourselves.  Dr. Brown, a social scientist, pointed to the way in which our lack of authenticity drives our loneliness.  Brene Brown made her point as a series of questions, saying:

“What if loneliness is driven, often, by changing who we are, being “perfect,” saying what we’re supposed to say, doing what we’re supposed to do? What if loneliness is driven in part by our lack of authenticity — that I can go to a party, and I can be the belle of the ball and come home completely disconnected, lonely, anxious, because never once during that experience was I myself? I was who I thought they wanted me to be.”  

In asking these questions, Brene Brown came to the realization that “your level of true belonging can never be greater than your willingness to be brave and [authentic].”


God prepares a table; even if no one will sit with us, God prepares a table where our deepest self belongs.  God calls us to come out and come home; to be authentic and know that our true brave self is welcome at God’s table.


This invitation comes in the presence of enemies.  It certainly makes the act of showing up into an act of bravery.  But I think it also challenges our attempts to create barriers and walls, to divide the world of insider and outsider, friend and foe.  God prepares the table with the zombies in the room; and even greater horror, wants us to dine with zombies beside us.


In doing this, God challenges our standard attempt to deal with our need for belonging.  Because I think we try to create divisions of insider and outsider out of an attempt to create a sense of belonging, to define a community where we belong, to base our belonging on a communal act of exclusion.


Again, Brene Brown names this pattern, saying, “we’ve sorted ourselves into ideological bunkers. And what’s so crazy is how that social demographic changing — of sorting into those ideological bunkers — tracks exactly with increasing rates of loneliness. And so I would argue that nine times out of ten, the only thing I have in common with the people behind those bunkers is that we all hate the same people. I call it ‘common enemy intimacy.’”


And yet, like people hiding in a farmhouse from zombies, common enemy intimacy does not engender a real sense of belonging.  As scary as the zombies may be, hatred doesn’t make us feel like we belong. Fear may push our shoulders together but our hearts still cry out.


Which makes God’s action revolutionary, seating us in the presence of our enemies, pulling us out of our bunkers and beyond our walls.  God wants us to see our connection to all other humans, to know ourselves not just as God’s child but as part of a huge family of God’s children.  To realize this sense of belonging is to find that our cup overflows.


Horror movies and fright shows use zombies, vampires, and werewolves to name our existential fears: Do they belong?  Do I belong? But God, our good shepherd, moves through the story of our lives; or, as Martin Luther King, said, “The Holy Spirit is the continuing community creating reality that moves through history.”  He’s right; God our good shepherd makes clear, “No matter what, you belong.” And God challenges us, “No matter what, they belong too.”


For when we feel the fear of the zombies - they don’t belong - or feel the anxiety of the werewolf - do I belong - know this: God, our shepherd, prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies.  God says you belong. God says they belong. And for the promise and challenge of that invitation, I say, “alleluia and amen.”




Sources:

  • Alderman, Naomi, “The Meaning of Zombies,” Granta Magazine.

  • Clapp, Rodney, “Attack of the Zombies,” Christian Century, Feb. 8, 2012.

  • Denysenko, Nicholas, “Retrieving a Theology of Belonging,” (note, article comes in two parts), Worship, 2015.

  • Friend-Jones, Russell, “In the Presence of My Enemies: The Phenomenon of Prejudice,” The Journal of Religious Thought.

  • Graham, Renee, “What ‘Night of the Living Dead’ Taught me About Race,” Boston Globe, July 21, 2017.

  • Tippett, Krista, “Brene Brown Interview,” On Being, NPR: Feb. 2018.  Available Online.

  • Thurman, Howard, A Strange Freedom, p. 21-22.

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