On Cultural Necrophilia: A Christian Response

On Cultural Necrophilia: A Christian Response July 19, 2012

Maybe it’s my age, but I take issue with the cultural necrophilia flooding the airwaves. I cringe to hear my son share his fascination with zombies. What is it about the dead, semi-dead or human predators that moves us so deeply? Whether it’s the vampire fetishes seen in Twilight or True Blood, the zombie apocalypse, realistic gaming carnageLittle vampire by Ceskino Wikimedia Commons GNU License, or the Christian apocalypticism that takes little care for creation, all of these and more point toward a cultural necrophilia — a love of death and decay.

My son’s reaction to zombies stirred me to reflect about a loving response to him. Rather than condemn and denying access to these inputs I began grappling with the proper reaction. He’s a bit young to understand this dialog but I hope you appreciate what I believe is a healthy Christian response.

The World Wars fostered a similar environment as ours in which death permeated human consciousness. Sigmund Freud’s later work focused upon the death instinct that his generation manifested, but he never had been able to reconcile this with his earlier work on human sexuality. Horrors of war traumatized generations of Freud’s patients who were first hand witnesses of death in the European trenches. Freud died before he could form a well-defined response. The years between the World Wars were marked by recklessness juxtaposed with deep despair. Despite the attempts to drown the death with dance and drink, with blatant disregard for countless Victorian taboos, a nagging sense of hopelessness lingered.

Enter Erich Fromm.  His post-WWII compilation The Crisis of Psychoanalysis delves deeper into Freud’s struggle and suggests a powerfully simple response:

Psychoanalysis can help people to spot the death lovers behind their mask of lofty ideologies, and to see them for what they are, and not what they say. On the other hand, to discover the life lovers, again not by their words, but by their being. Above all it can help to discover the necrophilious and biophilious elements in oneself; to see this struggle, and to will the victory of one’s own love of life against its enemy. Speaking in the name of man, of peace, or of God — these words remain ambiguous unless they are accompanied by a word with which to begin and to end: ‘In the name of Life!’ (p. 161)

Human beings need to live life as “life lovers.” Necrophiliacs need to encounter a vibrant display of love for the life they seek to destroy. Fromm identifies these biophiliacs as the antidote. I hear the Deuteronmic plea from God to Israel in Fromm’s words. As the children of Israel came to the conclusion of the covenant laid out so clearly, they were faced with an ultimate choice as recorded in Deuteronomy 30:19-20:

This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Rather than boycotting or restricting access, rather than succumb to death as a normative, we can merely affirm that gift that is human life and embrace the “Lord [who] is your life.”

Fromm’s work clarifies, to little surprise, how necrophiliacs exist in powerful institutions (politics, media and religion) that shape our laws, fetishes and ethics. It was the same in his generation as it is in ours. Movies, music, blogs, everyday conversations should to reflect this joy and passionate affirmation of life. I cannot imagine a more natural, Christian response. What can a necrophiliac say about someone who loves the life they rejoice in seeing taken away? At some point, the consumption of death will cease and the message of life will take root in the collective consciousness.

Moreover, necrophilia exists in many churches and Christian spheres of influence. I grew up in a tradition of “Christian necrophiliacs” who eagerly awaited the Rapture, the Tribulation and Final Judgment. A giddy sense of release warmed many a soul knowing that “we” will be spared and “they” will suffer God’s wrath. Not much different from a love of vampires and zombies, is it?

We Christians need to examine ourselves first — to consider how we love death, so that we can rid ourselves of necrophilia. And, then we will be ready to affirm the life-giving message of God’s grace to the world.  I pray my son knows such a world where lovers of life are the cultural norm.

Michael D. Bobo has lectured and taught in numerous African countries, England, Mexico, and South Korea. He is the author of Convergence: A Parable. He teaches Humanities in southern California where he lives with his beautiful wife and precocious son.

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  • This strikes me as such an important observation, I tweeted the link. Surprised (and disappointed) to see no conversation in comments.

  • Michael D. Bobo

    Thanks Nan. I appreciate your support. I hoped it would stir some reaction but the silence is deafening, isn’t it?

  • Jon Carl Lewis

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I know I’ll be pondering the question of necrophilia/biophilia fr years to come. I wonder, however, if creation doesn’t teach us that life as we know it isn’t forever, and there is some good in, say pruning a tree to get more fruit, or tearing down decrepit buildings to create a more vibrant, creative community. My thought is that – since there is a dance between Eros & Thanatos on every level of life – we need to learn how to honor death as a companion to life without allowing it predominance. And I also think that we need to honor the eros of growing and changing much more than we say we do.

  • kidtruth

    By definition, necrophilia is literally a sexual attraction to corpses. It does not mean a general fascination with death, or a romanticizing of it. American culture does romanticize death, like many cultures throughout time. However, American culture is not sexually excited by dead bodies. This distracted me while I read the article, and led me to chuckle heartily.

  • Dear Michael, I thought that this was a very interesting observation of the vampire culture. But I see it from another perspective and would be interested what you think. It seems to me that this obsession with the “undead” and the romanticisation of it is actually an escape from the reality that death is inevitable for all creatures who live on this planet and albeit in many eons from now the planet itself. Moderns run from death rather than are obsessed by it or become obsessed by undead! Contemplative practice and Jesus teach us to die before we die so we are freed from our illusions and live fully in reality, surely that is how we embrace life and death at the same time, as Jesus lived and died. Very best wishes and thanks for your comments. Kate

    • Kate,
      I appreciate your thoughts and see what you are saying. When I read Fromm’s interpretation of Freud it grabbed me that we as Christians have an opportunity to use the current trend for an affirmation of life in Christ. I didn’t mean to imply that all people are necrophiliacs in the Freudian sense. The cultural trend speaks to a phenomenon that is a subculture, which includes many youth who are searching for meaning. Maybe this didn’t come across clear enough.

      There is a dying process for sure in the Christian life, but, I hope you can agree, it is an entirely different kind than the vampire, zombie, etc. narrative. Our life in Christ gives us a healthy means to navigate life on Earth until death for sure.

      Maybe I’m just repeating what you’re saying but I’d welcome your retort. Best to you.