“Jesus was a Zombie.”

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“…Jesus was a zombie.”

Do you ever wonder how conversations end up where they do? How they wind around, weaving and twirling until someone says, “But you know, Jesus was a zombie”? That’s where my conversation stood at this particular moment. We had been waxing eloquently about the beauty of ancient architecture and whisky, the exquisite splendor of nature and the best floral notes of gin, when all of a sudden something triggered a long, drawn-out rabbit trail that ended with, “Jesus was a zombie. How anyone could believe in Jesus, a man who rose from the dead and only wants to steal your brain. Well, that’s just beyond me.”

How do you respond to that?

I sat there and stammered, “u-ummm, w-well… uh… so… u-uhh… you see it… uhhhhhh…” I sighed in confusion and fell silent, looking down at the whisky I began swirling in my glass.

I’ve had my share of interesting conversations, but never before have I heard this: “Jesus was a zombie…. who only wants to steal your brain.” The inference of such a statement is pretty clear: in order to believe in the resurrection (and Jesus) you have to check your brain at the door.

My silence felt like a speed bump but our conversation drifted smoothly back into its original lane.

Hindsight can be an important teacher.

If I had this to do all over again, I would have responded differently… I would have replaced my stammering–a sign of my own internal struggle and need to defend and attack with sharp and cunning statements of certitude and conviction (my brain is fully engaged thank you very much!)–with questions that pursued understanding, sensitivity, and kindness. I would have thoughtfully engaged in his thinking and his ideas with a posture of learning and inquisitiveness to get my head around his conclusions. It is only when we seek to understand that we can have a fuller, more rich conversation.

While I may have failed in the moment, I wanted to prepare myself for another potential “Zombie Jesus” conversation. In pursuit of understanding, I did a little digging. (There’s a treasure trove of interesting images on Google). I found that “Zombie Jesus” has actually been around for a while. Its origins are attributed to a throwaway laugh line (“Sweet Zombie Jesus!”) in an episode of Futurama from 1999. The more I looked into the depths of the inter-webs, I found that Zombie Jesus is actually a symptom of a much larger conversation at work in our culture. Zombie Jesus has become a rallying cry of critique against the anti-intellectualism of the Church. Hence the statement: “check your brain at the door.”

Check your brains at the door.

The sentiment is that the church, and Christians in general are an unthinking sort who have dismissed art, literature, philosophy, education, and science. And if you’re thinking that’s an unfair critique, the critics will quickly point to the Christian subculture that we have created. We have distanced ourselves from engaging with art and literature and replaced it with Thomas Kinkades, Precious Moments, and The Left Behind Series. They are also quick to point out our penchant for deriding public education and science. (People I meet in bars are always surprised to find out that as a Christian we don’t homeschool our daughter or have her in a Christian parochial school, but have her in the public schools system.)

In the many different conversations with people at bars and coffee shops around Seattle, I have found a growing sentiment of anti-intellectualism as a unifying critique of the church. We are a zombie church following after a Zombie Jesus intent on devouring the brains of the people.

Now, this critique isn’t without warrant. In my own history within the church I have experienced much of the same. I’ll never forget the time a man from the congregation stood up in the middle of a sermon to say the Pharisees greatest sin was that they were “too educated!” His statement received with applause and nods of agreement. Or the time I was told I would be respected more if I dropped out of graduate school and stopped pursuing greater education in favor of greater experience.

What I am finding along this journey of understanding the anti-intellectual bias within the church is, Jesus doesn’t actually need me to push back and fight against “Zombie Jesus” as a statement. He needs me to understand it and its cultural significance. He needs me to be curious. To be a learner, a pursuer. To press into the conversations and the ideas that are present in this place instead of pressing against them. Jesus needs me, and the Church to show differently.

I have found some encouragement in this pursuit through the words of Father Richard Rohr, “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better. Oppositional energy only creates more of the same.” I don’t want to speak out in opposition to “Zombie Jesus” and the anti-intellectualism it represents. I want to practice something better. I want to explore all of the ways in which I can better love God with all of my mind (Matthew 22.37). Or as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message, my intelligence. This is, after all a part of the greatest commandment.

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