I’m going to make a case the problem with church is a pandemic, not a localized infection. To do this I have to focus in and separate by discussing the role of Jesus as it has been forgotten, the undeath of church, and the real death of the broken. While I do this, I’m using Fig Tree to give the dead voice. I am going to let the ghosts of former congregants speak to you.
I’m writing these things not because I enjoy watching it burn. Conversely, I’ve made multiple efforts to seek restoration and healing. Those efforts were never met with hostility, but ambivalence. If that ambivalence was intentional I would be calling to burn it down. Burn it to the ground, leave nothing but char marks. I, however, believe the church’s ambivalence is a symptom of the pandemic.
Back in 1999 an episode of Futurama aired titled, “When Aliens Attack.” In the said episode the aliens of Omicron Persei 8 were watching episodes of a show mocking Ally McBeal: Single Female Lawyer. If all of this is going over your head, it’s okay. I’ve linked the synopsis to the post, and the synopsis isn’t terribly important to this story.
Near the beginning of the episode the Omicrons discover their favorite show was cancelled during a cliffhanger episode. Enraged, they go to Earth and threaten destruction if they don’t produce more programming. In a throwaway line, they learned all cassettes were destroyed during the second coming of Jesus. One of the title characters, Farnsworth says, “Sweet Zombie Jesus.”
The throwaway joke sorta died it’s own forgettable death. Probably getting a general chuckle as viewers watched Futurama in syndication, until around 2005 when it picked up a new life as a jab. It became a way for atheists to make fun of Christians. I would call this one low hanging fruit, but typically low hanging fruit is the staple of making fun of groups on the internet. Quick jabs for upvotes.
It’s easy to call Jesus a zombie because He rose from the dead, and asked His followers to partake of the Body and Blood. Predating Zombie Jesus by about, oh 2,000 years take away about 40 of those years, Romans made fun of Christians and Communion calling them cannibals. Today, the term “Zombie Jesus” seems to have died out, as it’s height was a decade ago back in 2010.
What we need to know this week is our understanding of Jesus Christ necessarily means Jesus is not a zombie.
The definition of “zombie” has evolved over the years. We’ve had slow moving zombies that attack anyone and anything that has a pulse. We’ve had brain eaters, and flesh gnawers. Our culture has explored the infection being everything from a virus, a drug, and our lack of relationship. That last one is from Warm Bodies. It’s a fun read, and if you are a minister like me, a great story. There’s almost universally one truth to zombies. They die and become undead.
Undead means they are not truly alive, but they are definitely not dead. For the most part there is no way to communicate and reason with a zombie. (I’m looking at you iZombie. You were fun to watch, but not exactly zombie canon.) Zombies are to be feared. They’re infectious. They’re deadly. Almost universally, it’s better to die than be turned.
We do not explore death as a church anymore, and that’s because we’ve turned the cross into a footnote. That’s fine for me. I live in the footnotes now. In fact, what I dislike about Walter Brueggemann’s Prophetic Imagination are his endnotes. That’s where the coolest info lies, and he moved it to the back of the book instead of putting them at the foot of each page. Most are not like me. They ignore the tiny text at the bottom of the page. Going to the celebration at Easter without exploring the death on the cross turns Easter into a meaningless act.
I blame the Greatest Generation for this exclusion of death in our Christian voice. What? Are you shocked I’m not blaming Boomers? That seems to be the hip thing to do right now. What? I’m not allowed to say “hip” anymore. Fine, I’ll say it for myself, “Okay, Boomer.” Good? No? I don’t care.
Here’s the deal. Before World War II, Americans lived a life very similar to the life we’re living now, in that people didn’t know one another. They were disconnected. We drew in instead of creating community. It was during World War II Americans learned about the worst parts of death. They were forced to explore its nature, and it terrified them. When they came home they did two things. First, they connected with their neighbor. The 1950s was a boom for church because every communal group boomed. The Greatest Generation didn’t want what they left, they wanted something better. So, they created it, and nurtured it. Second, they protected their children. This is why so many Boomers were Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. Those were the kid versions of the adult communal activity. Also, the Greatest Generation began cutting out death from the lexicon. They were going to protect their kids from the horror of war, and it led to a generation afraid of death.
Naturally, that fear entered into the communal areas, and the cross was taken down, and open tomb was put up. When Boomers had kids many didn’t have a language to talk to their kids about death. Many Gen X have tried to figure it out on their own. It has been Millennials and Gen Z that have pushed into death. They’re speaking to ends and conclusions in ways America hasn’t since before the War.
Yes, fault can lie in trying to do the best you think you can do for your kids. The Greatest Generation cut out those two words, “Jesus died,” as an ill-conceived act of love. We need to put it back.
God did not take away death, and for good reason. Creative force does not live in an undying world. It took me 38 years to realize this. Jesus died. We die. Pieces of the world die every moment. We should bitterly weep over that death. We’re allowed. To mourn is Christian. Now I know where some will go. “Well, in the Easter scripture Mary is asked why she is crying.” Basically, in some interpretations we are told not to weep.
Wrong! We are to mourn death. We are to sit in it and realize what can never be again. Even in Jesus’ death, something permanently died. There was a relationship between Jesus and the Disciples, and Jesus wasn’t coming back to relive the glory days. Jesus died. The way those relationships existed died. The disciple’s mourned. We mourn. For Jesus to come back to be the same would have been an undeath, not a new life.
That’s why Jesus Christ is not a zombie. You cannot avoid death, but to ignore or numb yourself to it’s inevitably is to neither live nor die. Jesus gave us the example by embracing death, and letting us mourn. Christ returned as something new. If we cannot mourn what can no longer be, we will never see that new life.
This reflection is part of a three-part series by Rev. Melissa Fain, senior minister of the all online congregation of Fig Tree Christian Church. The series began Jan. 23 and subsequent articles will be on Fig Tree’s website. Fain was ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) with duel partnership between First Christian Church of Atlanta (GA) and First Christian Church of Marietta (GA). She has a BA in Music from Kennesaw State University and a Masters of Divinity from Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Melissa is the mother of two wonderful children, and wife to a great and supportive husband. In her spare time she loves arts and crafts which includes making costumes from scratch, and knotted bracelets. She has used her continuing education to study new church plants and church redevelopment. Fig Tree Christian is online at Facebook, visit its Subreddit account, or send a tweet!
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER: I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do. — Leonardo daVinci