“Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s consent. But even the hairs of your head have all been counted. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
The horror genre has been popular on the big screen, the small screen, in video games, and even in person for a very long time. There’s just something about being scared that attracts an audience. People are drawn to the adrenaline rush that comes from being put into situations that leave us feeling just a little bit out of control without actually giving up control. The major currency of the horror genre is the startling moment. It’s that moment just as the door opens and the villain jumps out from his hiding place. The best entries in the genre, though, don’t rely only on those moments. They go beyond that to build a whole story world in which everything we think we can count on for safety and security has been stripped away and we are left on our own to battle some great nemesis. A recent horror/suspense series from HBO that is itself an adaptation of a horror-themed video game has so far proven to be great new addition to the genre. Let’s talk today about The Last of Us and how it intersects with the Gospel.
Zombie movies are about a dime a dozen these days. This horror sub-genre has been done almost endlessly. Not only is the concept itself a terrifying one, but more than that, the idea of a zombie plague spreading across the globe allows filmmakers to explore the question of how humans would react to a total collapse of our society. How would we regroup ourselves? What kinds of things would we keep? What would we discard? What new tribes would form and how would those interact with one another? The general conclusion from most writers seems to be that while we would survive and form new societies, the now-pressing need for security would override our inherent desire for freedom resulting in a host of warring, totalitarian tribes. We would spend as much time fighting each other as we would the zombies trying to eat us. The ongoing presence of a common enemy seems like it would have no real uniting effect on us. It’s all more than a bit depressing.
In zombie stories, though, the cause of all the trouble is nearly always a virus of some kind. There are also magical zombies, raised by some sort of necromancy, but those can’t generally reproduce themselves the way virus-caused zombies do. Instead, some government researchers always discover a new virus that renders its host a mindless killing machine, using the blood lust to spread from one victim to another. And, thanks to some bit of lab negligence, it always escapes and quickly spreads across the globe.
The story behind the series, The Last of Us, flips this script in a way that is both creative and even more terrifying. The series opens in 1968 on the set of a news talk show. The host is interviewing two different scientists about end-of-the-world scenarios. One of them expresses his fears about some killer virus or bacteria sweeping the globe and killing millions upon millions of people. Certainly that’s something that feels a bit to on the nose of late. That’s a fear that has been present in humanity for a very long time.
The other scientist, played by Hugh Laurie, says that he doesn’t worry about viruses or bacteria at all. His concern is fungus. The host laughs a bit at this suggestion until Laurie starts to explain what he means. While right now fungi can’t survive in humans because our body temperature is too high for them, what if a particular fungus evolved and adapted to a higher temperature tolerance because of climate change (because how could we not slip that in there?)? Then, he argues, we could have a real problem on our hands. He points to a certain type of fungus called a cordyceps that doesn’t kill its host. Instead, it keeps the host alive, but takes over its neural functions, directing it where it wants it to go so that it can spread itself more effectively. The host loses all sense of itself and instead becomes entirely focused on spreading the reach of its new master.
Right now this is known to happen in the nature with ants. The fungus grows and takes over most of the body of the ant, but leaves its brain intact. It then takes control of the ant’s brain in order to direct it to a new place where the fungus completes its takeover and uses it as a launching pad for new spores in a new area. Ants don’t pose much of a threat to humans, but what if the cordyceps were to evolve and move on to humans? Then we could have a real problem on our hands. By the end of the segment, the talk show host and the audience are clearly unnerved.
Fast forward twenty-five years and lots of uncontrolled climate change later and military and science leaders in Indonesia discover this very thing has happened. From there, the evolved fungus quickly spreads across the globe, stymying all efforts to stop it (including carpet bombing campaigns on cities full of people, many of whom haven’t even been infected yet). Twenty more years later, society has collapsed and the post-apocalyptic wasteland in which the rest of the series will take place has been created.
The storyline itself is going to be focused on Joel, a man who lost his daughter to a tragic accident just after the fungal plague arrived in his hometown of Austin, TX, and has survived thus far with his wits, his military training, and by becoming a black-market smuggler of various goods that are hard to access in the government-controlled area of Boston where he is now living. Through a series of circumstances, Joel winds up responsible for getting a young girl named Ellie, who miraculously happens to be immune to the fungal infection, to a lab on the other side of the country where they hope to finally craft a cure for the plague.
Honestly, the concept here is a terrifying one. While the vast majority of scientists who study fungi will quickly argue that something like this could never happen, there are a handful who are willing to say, “Sure, it’s something that is at least within the realm of possibility.” Zombifying viruses are truly a far-fetched idea, but this type of fungus is real. We can observe its doing what it does in the series in nature. The only difference is that it is limited to ants.
Now, from a production and storytelling standpoint, the series is so far really well done. So far only two of the nine total episodes have been released, but they promise a season of compelling stories, great characters, superb acting, many horrifying moments, and lots and lots of the “F” word. The production values are high and the settings are a visual treat. If you are a fan of the horror/suspense genre and can get past the language and violence, this is one I would recommend (although not for kids at all).
But while these initial thoughts may evolve as the series continues, what has captured my attention so far from a Gospel standpoint, is the fear the series plays on. I was having a conversation with someone the other day about the state of the world and how there are any one of a number of things that could go wrong on a global scale that would make life much, much worse than it is. There are major threats to our health and safety, to the stability of life as we know it everywhere we look. It would seem that we have ample reason to live in fear all the time. The world is going to Hell in a handbasket and the best we can do is hang on for the ride, hoping it doesn’t take us down before we’re ready to go. And this doesn’t even begin to take into account the more natural things over which we don’t have even the slightest bit of control.
At least, that’s how the thinking can often go. It’s a potent temptation too. After all, we can see all of those things. We can think through how they could be a threat to our lives and livelihoods. We don’t much like the idea of being inconvenienced, let alone rendered uncomfortable. We like even less the idea that our lives could be put in a state of constant jeopardy. Yet if you spend too much time in the wrong places on the internet, these totally understandable fears can become magnified by an echo chamber of like-minded people who serve to reinforce these ideas rather than relieve them. Even committed followers of Jesus can be sucked into these rabbit holes and have their joy and effectiveness strangled.
As followers of Jesus who want to live with the abundance He came to bring us, what kind of antidote is there to this kind of fear mongering? To put it far too simply, the Gospel is the antidote. It is all the antidote we need. The message of the Gospel is that God loved the world so much that He wasn’t willing to leave us forever at the mercy of sin and its terrible effects (including horrifying fungi that could take over the world and reduce human society to rubble). He did this by sending His only Son, Jesus, to show us how to live, die in our place to pay sin’s terrible price, and to be raised to new life, forever defeating the power of sin and death. When we are willing to put our trust in Him, life is our reward. Life is our reward and nothing in this world poses any kind of a meaningful threat to it. Not even scary fungi.
There’s even more than this, though. As followers of Jesus, we believe that God is sovereign over His creation. As Jesus told a group of His followers, God’s sovereignty doesn’t operate only from the 30,000 level either. He gets down into the nitty-gritty details and cares passionately about those. Even creatures the world generally considers utterly disposable, like sparrows, He is fully aware of in all their tiny glory. Not a one of them falls to the ground without His consent. Yet as much as He values creation as a whole, He values you and me infinitely more. Nothing will befall us except what He has ordained or determined to allow for reasons that will ultimately be to His glory and the good of those who are committed to Him.
Because of all of this and more, we don’t have to fear. Anything. At all. Ever. If we are in His hands, we are secure. Yes, things may still threaten our bodies in this life, but there’s another life beyond this one that is eternal. As the apostle Paul noted, the things we experience here and now, no matter how big and bad and scary they might be, don’t even warrant a comparison with the glory that is coming when the King returns. So, enjoy fun, scary series like The Last of Us that make you think and ask big questions, but answer those questions in the context of the Gospel, and rejoice with gladness and thanksgiving that we serve a God who is bigger than the things that scare us.
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