If the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, then it must be the fear of death that is the beginning of folly. These two fears mutually exclude each other, so they present a choice. We can have only one primal fear. One guiding allegiance that shapes and directs our desires and decisions at their deepest foundations. The vital occupation of wisdom is to see which fear is most true and go on from there, building the structure of our beliefs, habits, and choices.
This lends our living something of the rhythm of masonry.
In the art of masonry, two stones play roles such that, if these fail, the whole endeavor comes crashing down. The first is the cornerstone. As the beginning, the cornerstone must be exactly square, perfectly true. The slightest flaw will compound throughout the length of the foundation and knock the entire structure crooked. If the stone is true, though, the walls can rise on sound footing.
Here’s a tidbit to file away for later: In older times, to invite divine blessing and stability, the laying of the cornerstone would often be accompanied by blood sacrifice, even human. A person would be crushed by the stone and interred underneath (digging it out would be a bit messy anyway). Even after ritual public murder became a bit gauche, builders would lure unwitting peasants to the job site and drop the cornerstone on their shadow, symbolizing their sacrifice (and supposedly consigning them to die within weeks). How telling our superstitions.Although it’s fiction, The Walking Dead reaches into our nonfiction hearts and draws to the surface survivolatry we excuse in ourselves.
The other stone that a skillful mason needs is the capstone. The capstone makes possible the vaunted arches that fill our Gothic cathedrals with so much air and light that a person could walk in and feel in their tingling spine that the presence of God could indeed fill such a place. Whereas the cornerstone is square, the capstone is carefully tapered so that its weight can push not just down but also out through the curvature of the arch. This tension holds the pieces in place so that stone can defy gravity and reach to heaven.
And so we now circle back to the life of Christian faith, which begins with the fear of the Lord. Its cornerstone is Jesus Christ himself who, by the way, brings divine blessing and stability to the foundation with his own blood sacrifice, perfecting the ritual all that weird shadow-crushing imitated. On this firm foundation, the Spirit builds the arches of Christian virtue—sacrifice and service, contentment and joy, generosity and self-forgetfulness—otherworldly as they reach to heaven and defy the gravity of our Fall. It’s this cathedralic shape that makes the life of faith so distinctive and compelling, unsettling even. And it needs a capstone. Only a certain fearlessness in the face of death can rightly complement the fear of the Lord. It’s a weighty call, but our assurance of eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven should settle into place and keep the entire life of faith and virtue from falling apart, even in those risky times when death gnashes its teeth (or smiles a placid smile while teasing and calculating our end with its barbed-wire bat).
In our world, such confidence about life certainly stands out because we were each born into saturating gloom: the fear of death. We began in rejection of the transcendent, trying (and failing) to replace it and, lately, just trying to do away with it altogether. Its absence haunts us. When all you believe is the tangible fact, when data is your holy book, then death is certainly a terrific black hole; the dead display to us the terror of our own self-imposed blindness because death is immeasurable.
Is it any wonder that we seal away our sick and aging in hospitals, hearses, and nursing homes? We are on the run from even the reminder of mortality. Our generally religious adherence to the fear of death leads us to what we think is a worthy capstone: survival. That survival is a foregone impossibility doesn’t diminish our zeal in pursuing it. All this, of course, bleeds out in our art.
Pop culture is engorged with the apocalypse right now. No wonder that a world horrified by death and bent on self-preservation would be captivated by stories of people fighting to survive hellish governments, bombed-out nuclear wastes, and flesh-eating hordes of the walking dead. Our immanent fear makes of dystopia a bankable utopia for the studio czars.
A behemoth of the moment is AMC’s The Walking Dead, and just as well because its world of people scraping out life amidst chaos embodied and unleashed provides a visceral analogue to our own. Emphasis on the viscera. It’s the human stories that drive the show though. These stories give an imaginative lens through which to consider what it means to be alive.
For the uninitiated, here’s a summation. Zombies: bad. People: actually, also pretty bad (the collapse of governing constraints, not to mention such creature comforts as antibiotics and food, has not been kind to the average psyche of someone who might get eaten around any blind corner).
The humans in TWD have all made the choice to survive. As the civil norms of even the main cast erode, this choice deepens into the guiding principle, which leads to some serious darkness. This comes through quite clearly in the character arc of Carol, broken domestic abuse suffer turned unbreakable warrior of the zombie apocalypse. [Spoilers ahead. Mostly for seasons 3 and 4.]
Let’s just say circumstance conspired to harden Carol, conforming her to life in her world. Her survival decisions, though, beg the question is any act too much to consider just to keep breathing? Can you die yet keep ticking along?
For Carol, these questions emerge as she confronts the vulnerable who, in their vulnerability, make her vulnerable. First, there are two people who come down with some kind of flu in the compound where Carol also lives. She kills them both in secret and burns their bodies. Once that compound is overrun and abandoned, she finds herself in the woods with a man, two young sisters, and a baby. The older sister, Lizzie, suffers from some serious delusions and eventually kills her sister, Mika, so she’ll turn into a zombie, a change which Lizzie sees as an escape (which is just a really sad coping mechanism when you think about it). Discovering this tragedy, Carol takes Lizzie out to a grove and shoots her, a child, in the back of the head. Carol shows us the full extent to which the fear of death can drive us.
The overarching narrative of TWD frames Carol’s choices in Darwinian terms. Possible plague carriers were threats to Carol and her friends. As it turned out, there was a plague and so maybe Carol just made the hard, right choice. As for Lizzie, if Carol continued caring for such a fractured mind, she would never escape the burden of danger. Lizzie would either kill Carol like she did her sister or else attract an unmanageable number of the dead as she fed her delusions. Absent an institution in which to board Lizzie and too compassionate to just abandon her, Carol could be seen as performing a mercy killing. Again, the hard, right choice. By the fear of death alone, this logic may hold, but would a fuller accounting render if folly? Even if the body does continue, what of the soul when you preserve your own life with the murder of the vulnerable? By that measure, perhaps the fear of death is too bloodthirsty a lord and survival a terribly flawed capstone.
Though Christians won’t likely face a zombie apocalypse anytime soon, we can’t dismiss Carol’s travails as mere dark fantasy. The fiction reaches into our nonfiction hearts and draws to the surface survivolatry we excuse in ourselves. Divorced from the implications of the transcendent, which is to say lacking the fear of the Lord, the attentive dread of death makes our culture intensely Darwinian in its own right. And the specter of terrorism has given a whole new life and intensity to our fear.
When you boil it down, the law of the jungle is about single-minded self interest. That’s what drives animals to compete and eke out their own existence by devouring and displacing others. Our human condition has kept this self-interested ferocity wholly intact, though we have gussied it up in manners and politics. If anything, our fanatical absorption with this present life has only intensified as it echoes back from the idea of blank nothingness at the end of life. On top of fearing for our lives, we now also fear—perhaps even more so—for our way of life. We drag our failing bodies to the very limits of medical intervention (which is often well past bearability), and while we’re fit, we pursue self-actualization alongside scrupulous evasion of any suffering or even mere delay. Anything less would waste moments that aren’t coming back and won’t pay out at the end. Our brand of self focus is part and parcel with Darwinism and it has a serious effect on how we treat the vulnerable. Orbiting life around a self that can never be satisfied increasingly makes of the vulnerable something to fear.
As Carol illustrated in TWD, it takes vulnerability on our part to receive the vulnerable. Weakness conjures the very haunt of death and loss. The weak put demands on our feelings of financial and emotional safety and threaten to wreck our autonomy. The dread of this kind of living death is the post-modern American affliction and it lashes out against all manner of vulnerabilities. Down Syndrome pregnancies. Hungry kids. Paroled convicts. But, since we’re holding to the lens of TWD, let’s consider the refugee.
They’re Coming to Get You, Barbara
Now, up front, let’s be clear that the zombies in TWD are not the stand-in for our refugees. In essence, the corpses represent our fear of death by offering up a sort of secular model of damnation wherein you don’t go anywhere when you die, you just rot in mindless chaos, joined by your death to the great Death incarnate that stalks and threatens to devour us all. They are the physical manifestation of the shadow of malice and finality that just exists in our world. No, the refugee in TWD is in each band of other survivors that the main cast contends with as they all evade walkers. The central problem in the show, the one that cuts to the quick of our own condition, is the invisible depths in another person that are ultimately as immeasurable as death.
In the fiction, this problem of knowability means that every new face might be deadly, which fuels distrust and violence. Around here, refugees—especially those coming from places we mentally associate with terrorism, which is basically everywhere a refugee could come from—confront us with people likewise bearing invisible, risky depths, and we have our own sets of Darwinian violence to keep them at bay.
Wait just a second, you may say. Violence? Surely that’s not actually the case. Consider though, uneasily, Jesus on murder. Seeing the world in totem, the visible that’s so obvious, but also the hidden things, Jesus taught thus: It’s not the ultimate act that marks a murderer. When you take the full material and spiritual accounting, it’s your heart makes a killer out of you.
What can we make, then, of draconian and fear-pandering travel bans on people from lands we fear, even if those people are fleeing horrific and indifferent warfare? Nauseously, what of the religious platform-holders who, in their vocal support of such, behave as though someone who might have been a terrorist’s physical neighbor is disqualified from being anyone’s spiritual neighbor? Such and like measures, admittedly, are politically sensible but demand such exegetical gymnastics as to claim that God’s command to care for the stranger surely can’t include any compromise on border security. And—here the shoe drops on me—what can we make of the people who might protest the travel bans in order to signal their “above all that xenophobia” virtue, but who won’t make the hard, righteous choice to give of their time, emotions, and money—of their self-actualization—to care for an in-the-flesh refugee? One way or another, the American Darwinism indicts us all.
Into the Boundless Dark
Christianity, and therefore Christian people, must be staunchly anti-Darwinian, not in endless origins-of-life quibbling, but in purpose-of-life speaking and doing. We are soul people! We proclaim that people have inside them something precious that can be crushed even if we don’t spill a drop of blood. Surely consigning fellow humans either to apocalypted war zones afar or impoverished ghettos nearby (but, you know, not too near) is at best careless if not callous toward their souls, politics be damned. We are not enthralled by survival and the power that props it up. We are citizens of a Kingdom in which our survival is assured and permanent. So our guiding principle is not how to extend our biological tickings to their furthest limit, reveling in luxury all the while. Rather, we live to use this present biological time to manifest that Kingdom here, in outposts of love and courage. Jacques Ellul explains:
“What the church ought to do is to try to place all people in an economic, intellectual—yes, and also in a psychological and physical—situation, which is such that they can actually hear the gospel…that they can be sufficiently alive for these words to have some meaning for them.” (The Presence of the Kingdom, p. 118)
What our world so readily offers in its spasms of violence and chaos that drive harried people from their homes is the opportunity to love first and count costs later. Cultivating a place where people are economically, intellectually, psychologically, and physically alive: that embodies the great, commissioned love of soul people bearing the image of Jesus in the world. And if some people are not trustworthy? So be it:
For we are fallen like the trees, our peace
Broken, and so we must
Love where we cannot trust,
Trust where we cannot know,
And must await the wayward-coming grace
That joins the living and the dead,
Taking us where we would not go—
Into the boundless dark.
—Wendell Berry, Sabbath Poems: 1985, II
Faith in the Lamb of God offers the courage to live this way. The fear of death has in its folly its own guarantee, but this is wisdom because it is hope. We will be betrayed, but wasn’t the Christ? We will pass by end after end, of pleasure and of comfort and finally, inevitably, of life. So will everyone else. Our choice is not whether to suffer and die, but whether to spend our lives fleeing the inescapable or to run our race in spite of it with one hand reaching for heaven and the other reaching out for anyone around us who needs the same rescue we’ve had.
May we be known for our fearlessness. May we be known for our love.