Christianity, zombies and an apocalypse may seem like an unusual combination, but for Briercrest professor Eric Ortlund they are the plot of his newly published book.
“I took the risk of trying to hijack an unconventional genre for theological and evangelistic reasons. I am conscious of the fact that it sounds really bizarre that a seminary professor wrote a book in a horror genre and I wrestled a lot with that,” Ortlund, associate professor of Old Testament, explained.
“This is my attempt to talk about really important stuff with people who might not otherwise listen.”
Four years in the making, Dead Petals – An Apocalypse centres on an airborne virus that is released and begins turning humans into zombies. As the characters find their world turned upside down they must now wrestle with their lives and find a greater purpose.
“There is a lot of emotional agony. All the characters are running from something, all of whom are confronted, all of whom sin and all of whom find grace,” he explained.
“It is not a gory, violent, grotesque book, but it is a book in which the reality of death comes through. I wanted the coldness and the hard finality of death to be evident. I wanted the reader to be faced with, and gripped by, the reality of death, so the book is grim and spooky and eerie.”
Released this past March, Ortlund hopes the book will encourage people who enjoy the sub-genre of zombies to consider that it might be saying something more than they realize.
“The kind of preying on each other, the kind of feeding off of each other in a way that kills each other in zombie movies, that is the world we live in,” he explained. “It is being shown metaphorically and physically in a literal way in a horror movie, but I think that horror is real.”
Ortlund said he has always been fascinated with the horror genre and finds it oddly revelatory that characters like zombies, Frankenstein and vampires continue to be present today.
“They seem to keep popping up so they must mean something in our culture or we would have forgotten about them. Surely a lot of it is just to make money, but I think at some level people realize they are seeing something important about themselves in our world,” he said.
“Beneath the nice appearance I think the real world we live in is much closer to the horrors and the beauties of the book of Revelation and to the kind of portrayal of the world we get in a zombie movie. A lot of dead, endlessly empty people feeding on each other.”
He pointed to George Romero’s movies (Night of the Living Dead, etc.) and said even though he would not recommend them he finds them quite theologically acute and perspective.
“I think there is a very uncanny perceptiveness to them. Those movies will deliberately blur the line between humans and zombies. They will get the humans acting in rapacious, thoughtless, mindless kinds of ways, while the zombies will take on oddly human characteristics,” he explained.
“I think it is trying to convey, without being able to say it directly, that we are dead in our sins and trespasses. I feel like it is almost like a non-Christian friend sitting down with me and saying ‘Eric, you know, I am dead inside. I am walking away, but I am dead inside.’”
Inspiration for the book came during Ortlund’s time as a seminary student.
“I read a book when I was in seminary by a Catholic scholar that was a history of the horror genre and I have always sort of liked spooky stories. It was a theological interpretation of the horror genre as an attempt to deal with sin.”
The book got Ortlund thinking and years later Dead Petals – An Apocalypse came to life. Ortlund hopes that non-Christians will read the book and be inspired to begin thinking in new ways and asking better questions.
“I hope it will lay the ground work for understanding their sin and for repentance, which is the main reason I wrote it,” he said.
“This is my attempt to be honest and real and straight with myself and other people.”
All of which comes through in the book according to Bradley Baurain, Briercrest’s assistant professor of applied linguistics and English, and reviewer of the book.
“I think Eric is doing something very different here. He is not just trying to entertain people. He is trying to tell a serious spiritual story in a really grand, almost – I really don’t have words for it,” he laughed.
“I actually don’t think there has been a Christian novel like this before. It starts as this science fiction story where this airborne virus is set loose on the world and almost everybody turns into zombies, but then where he goes with that is much more serious.”
Baurain said reading the book was like peeling back an onion, leaving the reader with a lot to think about in understanding the spiritual world.
“Just when you think the story is settling down and it is heading in a certain direction he doubles down or ramps it up and you are like ‘whoa’ and once that settles down he starts to do that again,” he said.
Ortlund said he is flattered with the publishing of his book and the great reviews it has received, but said the whole experience is so far outside of himself that it is often hard to understand how it all feels.
“The final worth of that book I just don’t know and I don’t need to. God does not require me to know that, He just requires me to work and hope and trust Him with it,” he said.
“I wrote it knowing that when I stand before God I will stand before Him with that book in my hand and I am answerable to Him for everything I say. The only thing that counts at the end of all time when I stand before Him is how the Holy Spirit used that book and that is His prerogative not mine.”