Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Les Revenants and the Christian Imagination

by Charity Erickson 

The French show Les Revenants (translated as “The Returned”) appeared on the Sundance Channel at the end of 2013 to much acclaim. It was billed as a more distinguished kind of zombie show, The Walking Dead for the discerning television viewer. Though, as many critics have since pointed out, this is a mischaracterization. A revenant is something wholly different from a zombie. A revenant is a reanimated corpse; one who retains the appearance, memory, and mind of a fully-human being who once was dead, and now is not. Revenant—it’s a beautiful word. (Just say it aloud: “revenant.” There is almost a sacred sound to it, don’t you think? Now say “zombie.” Doesn’t it sound terribly un-Christian?)

There is a quiet and awe-full beauty to The Returned that is perfectly expressed in the word “revenant,” and since my spell-check is recognizing the word, I shall keep using it. The eight-episode series follows the return of several long-deceased individuals to a village in the French countryside and the disturbing supernatural manifestations that begin to haunt the town following their appearance. What fascinates me about the show is how it borrows from Christian tradition, taking inspiration from the more strange details of the resurrection narrative. 

The revenants in The Returned recall Matthew 27:52-3’s nonchalant aside about dead folks appearing in Jerusalem; further, they display characteristics of Christ’s resurrected body, his appearance in some kind of alternative visage, unrecognizable to those who knew him best (John 20:15, Luke 24:16); they also (quite unlike zombies) manifest Christ’s ability to instantly transport himself through space (multiple examples in John 20, Luke 24). The show also makes explicit reference to apocalypse lore, which posits that at the “End Times” revenants will rise (as some Christians infer from Isaiah 26:19).

The bizarre details offered in scripture are tantalizing to the imagination: What is the nature of a resurrected body? On The Returned, the revenants are bound by their physicality in some ways, while in other ways, they transcend (or lack?) normal human functioning. They possess ravenous hunger, and yet, they are unsatisfied by food and unaffected by hard drink; they rarely sleep; some can teleport, yet they cannot manage to escape the general geographical location where they died; they display miraculous healing capabilities, yet their flesh begins to decompose. They all hope to return to the lives they were living before they died, yet they are told they must have some kind of supernatural mission—from God, even; why else and by what other power would they have been called out from their graves?

The Returned creates its own theology of the revenant, using the return of the dead as an opportunity to explore themes of grief and coping, how faith can provide solace in the midst of devastating loss, and how faith can make loss all the more wrenching; it considers memory and the body; and it looks at the nature of love, how it can be pure and beautiful while simultaneously being a kind of sickness, both magical connection and destructive codependence. Typically, such “prophetic imagination” is lacking in the Christian’s approach to the texts about revenants in scripture, and there is often a dearth of the deep meditation we find here on the themes at which they hint. We do not feel free to let our imaginations run wild, even when considering the bizarre, inexplicable passages of the Bible. We are so obsessed with figuring out what “really” happened that we miss the opportunity to seek out truth and beauty.

And I’m not talking about those who create stories about how the dinosaurs got on the ark or who try to explain the physics behind the sun standing still—to my mind, these are Christian science fictions if there ever were any—rather, I am referring to those of us who already reject staunch biblical literalism, who (as a friend recently mentioned to me) can get so caught up in parsing genres and contexts and syntax that we cease to regard scripture as a wild, living Word. If our search for the truth in scripture turns into merely an alternate form of artless literalism, we will miss out on the richness it has to offer. No matter what your view of how scripture is inspired, it can still be an inspiration, a means for unbinding the imagination. And I think that is a holy thing.

Not that we need to relinquish thoughtful study, or seek out ‘secret knowledge’ in the text. But viewing The Returned has reminded me of how intensely edifying it can be to take even our careful study of scripture and let our imaginations go feral with it, unfettered in the moment by the strictures of correct theologies, moralities or spiritual analogies. We might be surprised what comes out of the exercise.

The Returned is uninterested in being “Christian” (as my husband described it to someone at church, it is “stereotypically French” and could perhaps offend, shall we say, one’s more puritanical sensibilities) but as a meditation on resurrection, it still has much to offer the Christian mind. For those looking for renewal in their pursuit of the “prophetic imagination,” this show will give you much to think about, and is definitely worth seeking out.

Charity Erickson and her husband live and work together in the north woods of Minnesota. Check out her blog for more of her writing and follow her on Twitter @CharityJill.

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