Thursday, December 15, 2011

Matt Mikalatos on New Life, Unlife, and God's Life

In 1678, long overland journeys were part of cultural consciousness, and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress touched English readers right where they lived. But culture has shifted. That’s why Matt Mikalatos’ Night of the Living Dead Christian seems so timely. We surround ourselves with images of monsters; Mikalatos turns these images into metaphors of the struggles Christians face to live transformed lives in the modern world.

Mikalatos makes himself the protagonist of his frenetic comic novel. Just after Mikalatos discovers a mad scientist (“that’s ‘eccentric genius’ to you!”) in his neighborhood, an onslaught of zombies reveals the presence of a werewolf and a vampire in Mikalatos’ previously quiet suburb. When the werewolf invites Mikalatos to church, and the zombies start plastering houses with religious handbills, Mikalatos discovers something deeper in play.

Unlike Bunyan, who wrote for a mixed Christian and secular audience, Mikalatos writes for Christians, calling them to question exactly how Christ has swayed their lives. Though he tells his story with spirited, Monty Python-like humor, his purpose is in deadly earnest. Too many Christians, called to a new life in Christ, instead submit to a strange unlife, often without acknowledging it to themselves.

In Mikalatos’ undisguised symbolism, zombies represent Christians who relinquish their thoughts to leaders and pursue a behavioral checklist rather than living for God. Werewolves tamp down their sinful inclinations, only to see them rear their ugly heads at the worst possible moment. Vampires set themselves apart, sucking the life out of others just to keep going. All of them think they’ve been transformed, but they’ve actually been diminished.

Jesus said: “I have come that [believers] may have life, and have it to the full.” Christ promised us a renewed life, blessed with purpose and mission. But too many religious demagogues claim we can make our profession of faith, be saved, and continue living like we did before. As if Christianity only means getting into heaven when we die, we live like we have already died, shuffling through the world, neither here nor there.

Mikalatos won’t have it. This life has to pass away when Christ gives us the new life. But to achieve that, we need to place our trust in Him, not in human leaders or displays of public piety. Such exhibitions are meant for this world. Remember, we are called not to be conformed to this world, but to transform it by the power of our faith. We are not reanimated; we are resurrected.

Two narrators drive Mikalatos’ novel. Most of the book comes from the mouth of Mikalatos’ alter ego, a frenzied character who knows he’s trapped in a monster movie, but doesn’t know what to do about it. He caroms through a world that parodies the creeping helplessness of George Romero or HP Lovecraft, gradually finding the strength to take control and redeem the monsters who need his help to find the real God.

The other voice belongs to the werewolf, Luther. Discouraged by the hypocrisy of Christians around him, especially his father, Luther is grimly fatalistic, struggling with fear of his own inadequacy and insignificance. He speaks the language of hip secularism, justifying himself in ways that show he can’t quite face the nihilistic implications of his beliefs. Though a parody of Mikalatos’ opponents, he’s also a carefully constructed, realistic voice.

Both voices challenge Christians to face our own pat answers. The Christian mainstream has a tendency to let questions go unasked and to not examine its own suppositions. Though many good pastors have tried to push these concerns back into our awareness, workaday Christians have slid into the comfy patterns Mikalatos caricatures as “undead.” Ironically, the traditions that consider themselves most vital and thriving are most vulnerable to this trap.

Mikalatos makes these questions palatable by couching them in humor, but that doesn’t mean he lets us off easily. His zombies believe themselves saved, his werewolves think themselves justified, his vampires think themselves exonerated. Though he emphasizes that all the monsters still have a chance, if they trust the One who gives new life, he doesn’t sand the rough edges off life’s constant struggles.

Susannah Clements says that how our society handles mythical monsters reflects our ethical compass. Matt Mikalatos uses humor, but he treats his monsters with great respect. To him, any of us could be these monsters; we might already be, and not know it. Mikalatos’ monsters make us laugh, even as they make us ask important questions about our lives, and what we do with them.

For those who followed the link from the author's Twitter feed, the free book has already been claimed. Thank you for reading and participating.

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