Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Hunt or be hunted

So I've been watching The Walking Dead.

This may not be worth reading for most people. But if anyone is interested:

Spoilers from here on out.

  1. First, a brief synopsis of the relevant plot points for this post.

    At the end of the last season, and in the most recent season, there's a storyline involving a group of people who have become utterly morally depraved. They pretend to welcome - that is, lure - people into a safe haven (Terminus) only to kill them and then cannibalize their "guests" for food. This included women and children.

    In the latest episode, the cannibals get killed by the main protagonist of the show named Rick Grimes and his band of survivors. After abducting one of Rick's group's members, cutting off his leg, and eating his leg in front of him, the cannibals hatch a plot to trick Rick and the stronger members of his group away from their hideout in a church. It seemed to work as Rick and these members of his group head out to find the cannibals while the weaker or injured members of his group stayed behind in the church. After Rick and company left, the cannibals head into the church to kill the weaker members including Rick's son and daughter.

    However, Rick was one step ahead of the cannibals the entire time. He knew the cannibals would come back to the church, and only pretended to leave. Then he double-backed, and caught the cannibals inside the church. The cannibals were about to gun down all the weaker members of Rick's group, but Rick turned the tables on them, killed a couple of the cannibals, and told the rest to lay down their weapons and kneel, which they did.

    The cannibals begged Rick for mercy. They promised Rick that if he let them go, then they'd go their separate ways and never cross paths again.

    But Rick decided not to grant them mercy. Instead he cut them down as they plead for their lives. Several others in Rick's group followed suit, though not all in Rick's group agreed with his decision to kill the cannibals. These group members looked on in shock as Grimes and their friends violently slaughter the cannibals with knives and swords.

  2. The show seems to be setting up a moral dilemma about whether by refusing to spare the cannibals it means Grimes and some members of his group have devolved to become as evil as the cannibals.

    Not to mention the show has been foreshadowing this moral dilemma when it often flashes back and forth between humans and zombies in such a way as to suggest humans may have devolved to become no different than zombies. Nothing more than brute beasts that live to eat. Like a shark or crocodile or lion. It's either kill or be killed. Or as the show puts it, "you're either the butcher or the cattle."

  3. Of course, this assumes there's "something more" for the human survivors of an apocalypse to strive for. That humans need not be brute beasts. That there's something more noble for them to achieve, that there are more sublime moral heights to climb, even in a post-apocalyptic world.

  4. But this depends in no small part on the worldview of the show.

    a. If the world is meant to be an atheistic and materialistic world in which modern evolutionary theory reigns, then fundamentally speaking Rick and all other humans are indeed nothing more than animals. Perhaps more sophisticated and highly evolved animals, but at the end of the day, animals nonetheless.

    If all is reducible to subatomic particles and their interactions with physical forces (e.g. gravitation, electromagnetic, strong and weak nuclear), then it's quite possible they are nothing more than selfish gene-reproducing meat machines. As such, given the circumstances in which they find themselves, why wouldn't they want above all and at any cost to survive? To hunt or be hunted?

    Why should Rick have let the cannibals live in this case? They were a threat to his own survival, and his family's (and hence the continuation of their genetic lineage), and so it's perfectly reasonable to eliminate the threat. Rick did what he needed to do to live another day.

    There'd have been nothing moral or immoral about his actions. That's just how it works in the animal kingdom. These are the stark naked facts. After all, is it possible to derive ought from is given this worldview? Is it possible to derive moral oughts or ought nots from physical facts?

    b. But everything changes given an orthodox Christian worldview. If there is a God, and it is the God of the Bible, then this world is his world, and it matters how we live and what we do in his world. God is holy, God is good, God is the source of all that is holy and good. He has created this world to be good. He has created us in his own image, and as image-bearers, we do have significance, a purpose and meaning for our lives. To live against his will would be (among other things) to live in rebellion against that which is good and right and noble.

    Yet that's what these cannibals have done. They have become so morally corrupt that they're no longer humans. They've lost what it means to be human. Which is perhaps what the "tainted meat" scene (wherein the cannibals eat the leg of a man who, at the time unbeknownst to them, had been bitten by a zombie and would thus turn into a zombie) was attempting to get across - these cannibals had not only become physically "tainted" but morally "tainted" as well. The "tainted meat" reflects their moral depravity. They're no different than the beastly zombies which can no longer think in terms of right or wrong but only about feeding on humans to survive. Worse, they've infected others in the local community with their way of life. They were a real and present danger to infect others to adopt their cannibalistic and other practices.

    Given all this, not only would it have been arguably morally justifiable to have killed the cannibals, but it would've arguably been immoral to let the cannibals live. They had already done so much evil, and worse there's no guarantee they wouldn't cannibalize others in the future, or influence others to adopt their ways. As the cannibals' leader Gareth said, others could either join them or be fresh meat for them. Just those two choices. Plus, the cannibals were literally seconds away from killing the weaker members of Rick's group, and so it would've been quite difficult to tell if they were simply begging for mercy because they had no other choice or because they truly had a change of heart.

    (A related issue is the debate between a punitive theory of justice and rehabilitative penology.)

  5. The show evidently wants viewers to have a conscience about whether it was right for Rick to have killed all these cannibals. To feel a tension between right and wrong in slaughtering the cannibals. But what beliefs and values does the show want their viewers to most consider? The show has on offer various beliefs and values - broadly or vaguely Christian, secular liberal, and outright atheism and physicalism seem most evident to me.

    I've discussed atheism and physicalism a bit.

    Let's turn to the other two, which sometimes seem to be presented as a hybrid in tension with atheism-physicalism. For example, the show floats pacifism in the persona of the Episcopalian priest, Father Gabriel. But at the same time this is tension in light of the show's violent nature. But it's possible the show will end up portraying Gabriel's pacifism more as a reflection of his own cowardice than a laudable virtue.

    Similarly for Rick killing the cannibals despite their pleas for mercy. The show seems to assume secular liberal values here. As if the moment someone begs for mercy, then no matter how heinous they were in the past or what evils they had done, the slate should be wiped clean, and mercy immediately extended. This is what one of the characters on the show Tyreese urges his sister Sasha who wants revenge against the cannibals to do - i.e. to forgive them.

    In this vein the show makes it seem like the only viable choices are either forgiveness or revenge. But if Sasha doesn't grant forgiveness, then she'll be consumed by her anger and insatiable thirst for vengeance. But what about a third way - justice?

    And what would be wrong with feelings of anger and revenge if someone or their loved ones had actually suffered at the hands of the cannibals?

  6. In addition, I think we can consider this more from the existential perspective of the characters. They have asked, is there a God? If there is a God, how could he have allowed a zombie apocalypse, how could he have allowed so much suffering and evil, so many of my loved ones to die? How is it that evil doers prosper while the good are cut down? And so on and so forth.

    A poignant moment in this regard came right after Rick slaughtered the cannibals in the church. The priest Father Gabriel who would've been against the slaughter exclaims, "But this is the house of the Lord!" To which another character named Maggie replies, "No, these are just four walls and a roof."

    It's significant Maggie was the one to reply because she was a former pastor's kid, but now seems to have lost her faith, or at least is in the process of losing it. It seems she's apostatizing. Probably mainly due to all her sufferings. First, she saw her father murdered in front of her, and later lost her sister to a kidnapper. That said, it's likewise important to note Maggie was earlier seen to have picked up a Bible while sitting in a pew in the church, considered turning to its pages for a moment, only to then put it back down without opening it. It seems to me Maggie is on the verge of losing her faith, but isn't necessarily gone.

    So perhaps Maggie's dilemma is the existential crux of the show. Most people here have grown up believing in God, but can people still have faith in God in a world which has so much suffering and evil? That is, the show assumes a (broadly speaking) Christian world, but one which many if not most of the main characters are struggling to hang onto rather than confidently affirm.

    However, if she does disbelieve in God, if she does assume there is no God, and the world is as she sees it laid bare before her, then what's left for her?

    For starters, what's left is the zombies, and other humans. But other humans are arguably worse than zombies. And that's what this season seems most concerned to address: whether it's possible for humans to go too far (like the cannibals), and never come back once they've fallen into the moral abyss. In this respect, it aims to be like Breaking Bad.

    If most humans are too far gone, then what will happen to the few who are still "good"? Will there be a place of solace for them to be found in this living hell?

Just some of my ill-formed thoughts and musings on the show.


  1. A question has been bubbling up in my mind lately.
    The shows like "The Walking Dead", "Breaking Bad" and that "Game of Thrones"... Are they okay for Christians to watch? Can a Christian watch them in good conscience? Could you watch it before or after church? Would God be pleased/honoured in His followers watching these shows?
    It seems that everyone is watching these shows, but that doesn't necessarily make it right.
    Thoughts? Answers?

    1. Without being specific, I sometimes watch a few episodes of a series, then drop out because I don't think it's edifying to immerse myself in it.

    2. I'm waiting for vampires to go out of style, but I think that'll be a long wait.

  2. Regarding zombie movies/TV dramas, there are different kinds. The basic point of a serious zombie story is how humans behave when civil authority collapses. How do humans behave when there's no fear of legal reprisal? How do humans behave when there's not enough food, water, or shelter to go around? It brings out the best in some and the worst in others. Hidden vice and hidden virtue. That's a useful theme to explore–up to a point.

  3. Hi Alex,

    Thanks. That's a good question. I agree with Steve's comments.

    Also, you might be interested in checking out the first few chapters of John Frame's Theology at the Movies.

    As for the three shows you've mentioned, I'm probably not the best person to answer, but for what it's worth, if anything, here's my quick personal opinion:

    * From what I've seen, I'd say Game of Thrones has too much unedifying material for many if not most Christians (e.g. gratuitous nudity which for many could be a stumbling block).

    * I personally wouldn't object to Breaking Bad. I regard it more like a character study than anything else. The central themes revolve around the lead character and his downward spiral into the depths of sin, how his sin destroys everything and everyone he cares about, etc. At the same time, some Christians might find the bad language and violence problematic.

    * I think The Walking Dead straddles the fence somewhere in between these two in terms of what Christians may find objectionable. In my view, it's probably closer to Breaking Bad. At least from what I've seen.

    Apart from R-rated movies and MA-rated television, it's likewise possible for an otherwise G-rated film or Y-rated show to have a storyline or plot, themes, symbols, and so on which are incongruous if not hostile to Biblical Christianity.

    Of course, if anyone's conscience is at all pricked or otherwise unsure about any of this, then perhaps it'd be best to give all these shows a miss. It's not as if anyone would be missing out on anything important in life by missing out on these shows.