Dante

Some serious shopping tips for Catholic parents (and others) seeking traditional schools

Some serious shopping tips for Catholic parents (and others) seeking traditional schools

Buried inside the websites of colleges and universities are the calendars covering the nitty-gritty details of academic and student life.

That's a great place for research by parents considering places for their children to spend some of the most formative years of their lives, according to a Catholic scholar involved in fierce debates about postmodern trends in education.

Anthony Esolen thinks parents should pay special attention to student-life offerings on Friday and Saturday nights.

"You aren't just looking to see what kinds of things they're doing, you're looking for what is missing," said Esolen, best known for his translation of Dante's "The Divine Comedy." He has also written "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization," "Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child" and other books on hot-button subjects.

For example, Esolen once noticed that calendars at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., contained lots of dancing -- swing dancing, to be precise. That sounded fun, but it didn't sound like business as usual in this day and age.

"What you're trying to find out," he explained, "is whether campus leaders are making serious attempts to build some wholesome community life. You're looking for chances for young men and women to get together in settings that tend to reinforce what a Catholic college is all about. … Otherwise, the weekend is just the weekend and we know what that means."

This topic may not sound controversial, said Esolen, but it is because of cultural issues looming in the background -- the defense of ancient doctrines on sexuality, gender and marriage. What happens in classrooms is important, but so are the expectations campus leaders establish for campus life, especially in their dormitories.

"Like it or not, parents have to learn whether a school is or is not on board with the whole Sexual Revolution," he said. If a school "has capitulated on that front" then traditional Catholic parents, or serious religious believers in other flocks, "have to run away and not look back. You can't compromise on that, right now."

The irony is that these kinds of doctrinal issues are critically important to both liberal and conservative Catholics. The bottom line: They are seeking different answers to the same questions.

Zombies are US, 2013 edition

It seems to happen whenever Steve Beard hangs out with friends -- especially folks who don't go to church -- talking about movies, television and whatever else is on their minds. "It may take five minutes or it may take as long as 10, but sooner or later you're going to run into some kind zombie comment," said Beard, editor of Good News, a magazine for United Methodist evangelicals. He is also known for writing about faith and popular culture.

"Someone will say something like, 'When the zombie apocalypse occurs, we need to make sure we're all at so-and-so's house so we can stick together.' It's all a wink and a nod kind of deal, but the point is that this whole zombie thing has become a part of the language of our time."

Tales of the living dead began in Western Africa and Haiti and these movies have been around as long as Hollywood has been making B-grade flicks. However, the modern zombie era began with filmmaker George A. Romero's classic "Night of the Living Dead" in 1968, which led to his "Dawn of the Dead" and "Day of the Dead." Other directors followed suit, with hits such as "28 Days Later," "Zombieland," "The Evil Dead" and "Shaun of the Dead." Next up, Brad Pitt in the $170 million-dollar epic "World War Z," due June 21, which could turn into a multi-movie franchise.

In bookstores, classic literature lovers will encounter a series of postmodern volumes clustered under the title "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies." Also, videogame fans have purchased more than 50 million copies of the Resident Evil series and these games have inspired countless others.

But anyone who is interested in the worldview -- if not the theology -- of zombie life must come to grips with the cable-television parables offered in the AMC series "The Walking Dead." This phenomenon, said Beard, has become so influential that it cannot be ignored by clergy, especially those interested in the kinds of spiritual questions that haunt people who avoid church pews.

Truth is, "The Walking Dead" is not "about zombies. It's a show about people who are trying to figure out the difference between mere survival and truly living," he stressed, in a telephone interview. "How do you decide what is right and what is wrong? How do you stay sane, in a world that has gone crazy? ...

"Where is God in all of this? That's the unspoken question."

In his classic book "Gospel of the Living Dead," religious studies scholar Kim Paffenroth of Iona College argued that Romero's zombie movies borrowed from one of the key insights found in Dante's "Inferno" -- that hell's worst torments are those humanity creates on its own, such as boredom, loneliness, materialism and, ultimately, separation from God.

As a final touch of primal spirituality, Romero -- who was raised Catholic -- added cannibalism to the zombie myth.

"Zombies partially eat the living. But they actually only eat a small amount, thereby leaving the rest of the person intact to become a zombie, get up, and attack and kill more people, who then likewise become zombies," argued Paffenroth. Thus, the "whole theme of cannibalism seems added for its symbolism, showing what humans would degenerate into in their more primitive, zombie state."

The point, he added, is that "we, humans, not just zombies, prey on each other, depend on each other for our pathetic and parasitic existence, and thrive on each others' misery."

This is why, said Beard, far too many women and men seem to be staggering through life today like listless shoppers wandering in shopping malls, their eyes locked on their smartphones instead of the faces of loved ones. Far too often their lives are packed with stuff, but empty of meaning.

Romero and his artistic disciples keep asking a brutal question: This is living?

"One of the big questions in zombie stories is the whole 'Do zombies have souls?' thing," said Beard. "But that kind of question only leads to more and more questions, which is what we keep seeing in 'The Walking Dead' and other zombie stories. ...

"If zombies no longer have souls, what does it mean for a human being to be soul-less? If you have a soul, how do you hang on to it? Why does it seem that so many people today seem to have lost their souls?"

Zombies meet Dante at the mall

Kim Paffenroth was 13 years old when filmmaker George A. Romero released "Dawn of the Dead," so he knew he would need parental guidance to see the gory classic about flesh-eating, undead zombies and the shopping mall from hell.

"I wasn't really a horror movie fan," he said, flashing back to 1979. "But for some reason I bugged my dad until he bought two tickets. He said, 'OK, but I'm not sitting through that thing. Meet me outside when it's over.' "

The movie was sickening, disturbing, funny and haunting -- all at the same time. Paffenroth was hooked, especially by Romero's bleak, biting view of humanity's future. This wasn't just another commercial horror movie, the kind that cable-television channels play around the clock at Halloween.

Then a strange thing happened in college, when Paffenroth's work in the classics led him to St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and, especially, the medieval poet Dante Alighieri. To his shock, he found that his doctoral work at Notre Dame University was starting to overlap with his fascination with zombie movies.

Suddenly, the word "Inferno" had new meaning. He decided that Romero's zombies -- the living dead who had lost all self-control and reason -- were a modernized, bumbling, cannibalistic vision of what Dante called the "suffering race of souls who lost the good of intellect."

It was also clear that, as in Dante, there were higher and lower levels in this hell.

"The zombies live in the first five circles of hell and they stand for gluttony, rage, laziness and the most basic, crude sins," said Paffenroth, a religious studies professor at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y. "A zombie is a human being who cannot control his appetites, who simply cannot stop eating and it really doesn't matter what kind of eating or consuming we're talking about."

But what makes Romero's movies truly disturbing -- at least for viewers willing to do more than revel in gory special effects -- is that the zombies are not the worst sinners on the screen. While the undead cannot control their passions, it is the living who sink to the lower circles of damnation, choosing to wallow in hate, pride, deceit, viciousness, greed, cruelty and other complex, twisted forms of sin.

In these bloody morality tales, it is the living who pervert reason to attack others, argues Paffenroth, in his book, "Gospel of the Living Dead." This may be a painful message for modern Americans to hear, including those who sit in church sanctuaries more often than movie theaters.

"Anyone who says that racism, sexism, materialism, consumerism and a misguided kind of individualism do not afflict our current American society to a large extent is not being totally honest and accurate," writes Paffenroth. Moreover, Romero's movies offer a "critique that could be characterized as broadly Christian, but which many modern American Christians may now find uncomfortable or unfamiliar."

Romero was raised Roman Catholic, but his scandalous movies never move past their images of damnation to provide a real sense of hope and salvation.

Still, Paffenroth finds it significant that his films attack secular institutions as much, or even more, than they attack religious institutions. It's obvious, for example, that scientists and politicians have done a poor job creating an earthly paradise. Also, the fact that zombies are human beings who have lost their souls implies that human beings have souls that can be lost, that they are more than materialistic animals made of flesh, blood and bones.

Human beings are free to make moral choices and, like the bored zombies and selfish survivors who fight for control of a shopping mall in "Dawn of the Dead," they ultimately become what they consume and have to live with their vices for eternity.

These zombie movies contain lots of bad news, including the rather un-Hollywood message that the wages of sin is death, death and more death, said Paffenroth. And the good news?

"I guess the good news in these movies is that sin is real," he said. "That's a hard message, but it can be good news if that helps us realize that our sins are real and that we can -- believers would say through God's grace -- turn away from sin. ... These movies certainly show that there will be hell to pay if we don't change our ways."