Seeking Faith among the (Walking) Dead

Faith and The Walking Dead may not seem like a natural fit but wherever people are they bring their faith with them…even in a zombie apocalypse! Join me in an exploration of faith and what it means to be a flawed but, ultimately, a good man.

When season seven of The Walking Dead came to a close fans heard Negan joyfully proclaim, “We are going to war!” We are now ell into season eight begins and the promised conflict, confusion, and casualties have ensued. The casualties have been and will continue to be listed during the “In Memorium” segment of The Talking Dead.

Not all casualties, however, are created equally. Some are more horrific than others, as in the bludgeoning of Glenn. Some, like the Governor, are more satisfying. None, however, were as upsetting as that of Hershel Greene. The moral anchor of “the group” was murdered by the Governor back in season four and his death sent shockwaves through the fan base. It was Hershel’s faith and his faith journey during the zombie apocalypse that made him captivating and beloved.

Defining Faith

Paul Tillich wrote, “There is hardly a word in the religious language, both theological and popular, which is subject to more misunderstandings, distortions, and questionable definitions than the word ‘faith’. It belongs to those terms which need healing before they can be used for the healing of men” (1).  Psychologist James Fowler accepted the challenge of healing the word ‘faith’ in his seminal study released in 1981. Fowler’s derived his understanding of faith by researching the work of scholars including Tillich, H. Richard Niebur, Judith Guest, Ernest Becker, and Wilfred Smith as well as interviews with 359 people. Fowler’s elaborate conclusions can be highlighted by the following points.

  1. Faith is an innate human drive to find meaning and purpose in life.
  2. Faith existed in human beings prior to organized religion. People also possessed intellectual curiosity prior to the existence of schools and artistic impulses prior to museums. Institutions reflect human drives  
  3. Faith is placed in an ultimate concern, i.e. something that the individual expects to give them ultimate fulfillment (2). This ultimate concern need not be religious. Faith can be placed in a political party, a team, money, fame, or a nation. There is an almost endless list of targets for our faith.
  4. The United States is, in essence, a henotheistic culture. This means people ultimately choose one ultimate concern (one god) among many options. A person can be a Christian but that need not be where they put their faith. Their faith is on more authentic display on Sunday afternoon when they paint their face various colors in support of their favorite NFL team. The wins and loses resonate deeply, arguments and conversations about the game continue during the week, and next Sunday’s game is longed for deeply.
  5. Faith “involves how we make our life wagers. It shapes the ways we invest our deepest loves and our costly loyalties” (3).  One of the great tensions of life is caused by seeking ultimate fulfillment in finite places. Pop culture plays with this time and again. In A Christmas Carol Scrooge wagered on wealth as an ultimate concern. The often brooding Oliver Queen in Arrow seeks meaning in the ultimate concern of saving his city. Gatsby’s purpose never strayed too far from Daisy Buchanan. Scar coveted power in The Lion King.

Hershel’s Farm: The Start of his Journey

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When we meet Hershel, he is an older man who has, for the most part, successfully kept his family safe on his farm during the early stages of the zombie apocalypse. He is introduced as a man of faith. He is a Christian, but remembers one can be a Christian and place their faith (their quest for meaning and purpose) elsewhere. Fowler promulgates a six-stage theory of faith development. Hershel’s faith reached a state of arrest in stage three: Synthetic-Conventional Faith.

Commitment to one’s beliefs is very important at stage three. This commitment is often tacit, and attempts to discuss beliefs or deeply held convictions can feel threatening. As stated, Hershel is presented as a religious man but his faith is placed in his family, both those living and dead. His commitment to protecting his family is noble, but the depth of their importance allows Hershel to live in a state of deep denial. Hershel wholeheartedly believes that walkers are living people infected with a disease not deceased people transformed into flesh-eating creatures. Hershel captures walkers that wander onto his farm and stores them in a barn in the hopes that a cure for their condition can be found. His deceased second wife and stepson also reside in a barn.

The nature of walkers aside, Hershel’s commitment is to his family’s well-being is on full display. To be clear, Hershel is a kind man. When Rick rushes onto his farm carrying his wounded son Carl in his arms, Hershel takes action. Utilizing his medical skills, Hershel removes bullets from Carl’s body and saves his life. He is, however, quite adamant that Rick and his group move on when Carl is healthier. The world is very dangerous and Hershel has no difficulty placing his family (the object of his faith) above the others. He is imbedded in an “us and them” mentality and the  “them’s” don’t belong on the farm. The sooner they leave the better!

Maggie’s Challenge

The transition from stage three to stage four of faith can be quite tumultuous. Encounters with perspectives that challenge the tacitly held belief systems and cause critical reflection often acts as the catalyst for the shift. Hershel’s conviction regarding the nature of the walkers is shattered by Shane’s barnyard massacre. This event, due to its dramatic nature, can be seen as the moment where Hershel’s perspective changes. Emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually shattered by being confronted with the depths of his denial, Hershel abandons any sense of leadership on his farm and willingly concedes control to Rick. There is, however, a powerful voice that challenges Hershel as well: his oldest daughter, Maggie Greene.

Prior to Shane’s actions, Maggie argues with Hershel on behalf of Rick’s group. Hershel attempts to brush her off by accusing her of merely being concerned about “the Asian boy” (Glenn). Maggie, as fans of the show know, is an unrelenting force unto herself. She utilizes Christianity (Hershel’s religion) and familial history (where he places his faith) to make her point. “’A new command I give to you: Love one another as I have loved you.’ That’s what you told me, right? I was mad about mom. Mad about you marrying Annette. I was 14 years old and I was awful, to you more than anybody. All I wanted to do was smoke and shoplift. ‘Love one another.’  That’s what you told me.” Hershel attempts to dismiss her by simply stating, “This isn’t that” (4).  Maggie is unmoved by his response.

To be clear, I am not saying Maggie has a deeper sense of faith or is more religious than Hershel. In fact, certain exchanges on the farm suggest she is unmoved by religion at all. She does know the words of her tradition (Christianity) and when to use them to make an emphatic point. She is quoting a stage six exemplar (Jesus) in an effort to have a specific impact. This brief exchange illuminates two important aspects of faith.

The first quality is the overriding power of faith. Hershel’s faith is placed in his family. Like all people there are many facets to his life. He is, as noted, a Christian. He even used his Christian ethics when counseling 14-year-old Maggie to accept her step-mother. His Christian beliefs were strongly adhered to when they supported the object of his faith, his family. Maggie’s challenge was to extend his Christian ethics to people outside the family. Faith is more fundamental to an individual than religion.

Maggie’s use of Jesus’ words opens the door to universalizing faith, the sixth and final stage of Fowler’s theory. Stage six people, dubbed ‘universalizers,’ confront us at a visceral level as they are dedicated to eradicating all vestiges of us/them thinking in their quest for a united human community. Universalizers are, in a very real way, threats to almost everything we hold dear for much human thinking (be it social, political, academic, or economic) involves, even encourages, us/them thinking. Few are ever as inclusive as they claim as exclusivism is a norm of humanity. The “enlarged visions of universal community” presented by universalizers reveals and threatens our parochial standards (5).  Maggie’s demands that her father embody his religious convictions have long-term ramifications.

Deepening Faith through Doubt

Hershel is dismayed after realizing his conception of reality was merely a form of deep denial. A recovering alcoholic, he seeks refuge in a local bar. He denounces some of his previous thinking to Rick, who has tracked him down and seeks to bring him back to the farm. In particular Hershel speaks with derision of hope and miracles, to concepts he held in high regard for quite some time. He claims that, despite saving Carl’s life, he ultimately fell for a “bait and switch.” The final, mournful conclusion is he is a fool and there is “no hope.” He agrees to return with Rick, but not because Rick has convinced him hope exists. Rather, it is an appeal to familial duty that sways Hershel. He returns to the barn, but he is not the same person he once was.

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The fourth stage of faith, individuative-reflective faith, is time of critical reflection. Symbols and concepts once held tacitly but dearly, become the target of critical reflection. It can be a disorienting time as a person finds themselves questioning, even interrogating, long held cognitive, psychological, and spiritual anchors. Reductionist thinking becomes pervasive as the conscious mind claims dominion of the kingdom and either/or thinking dominates most conclusions.

Hershel’s proclamation that there is “no hope” is a fine example of his doubt. The evidence of hope’s value is in the outcome so he concludes, because the hope he held was dashed that there is, therefore, “no hope.”  Hershel fades into the background of the group at this time. He concedes control of the farm to Rick and is not deeply involved in decision making. If Hershel had died at this point, his death would have been little more than a blip in the show’s history. I wonder sometimes if the character that emerged from this broken moment was even greater than the writers’ imagined.

A Little Shakespeare, Please

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (6). The transition from Fowler’s stage four to stage five is both difficult and rare. A majority of participants in his study (61.2%) were either at stage three, transitioning from stage three to stage four, or stage four of his theory. Only 15.4% of participants had their faith develop beyond stage four. In some regards this makes perfect sense. Most organizations (be they political, religious, schools, athletic teams, etc.) function best when members engage in either/or thinking (stage four) or in a state of tacit approval (stage three). 

There are times, however, when limits of the conscious mind are reached. Sometimes a person reaches a point where they must move beyond their own myopia and cease futile attempts to control reality. Either/or designations gives way to the quest for both/and synthesis. A dialectical relationship with reality replaces desires for dominion. When we realize that, despite his indecisiveness, Hamlet was correct about the limits of our own philosophies. Certainty often makes fools of the learned.  

Don’t mistake stage five (Conjunctive Faith) for some wishy-washy, Pollyannaish position. The use of one line does not mean the stage is Hamlet incarnate. It surely is not! Rather there is a radical openness to truth, even if the truth means one is wrong. We intellectually may agree with this idea (we understand full well there are millions of people who are wrong) but few live it (wait a minute? You mean I might be wrong? The millions of others can be wrong but not those in our group). Stage five people forcefully resist enculturation and seek a patient, wise, truth abiding, and open relationship with reality and others.  

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The transition to stage five is often brought about by encounters with paradox. In stage four an individual has the world contained neatly in numerous boxes, containers, and containers. Paradox rends asunder these organizational patterns. We find ourselves dared to find the truth hidden in apparent contradictions and to replace rigidity of thought with permeable lucidity.  

Back to Hershel

Hershel and the group were forced to flee the farm when a swarm of walkers disrupted their semi-tranquil existence. Life on the road was very difficult. First they found each other, having been dispersed in a chaotic scramble to save their lives. The group then survived on the road for months. Stumbling upon a prison they claimed it for themselves, clearing it of zombies and making it a home. Hershel lost a leg during this process. He counsels Rick through his psychotic break after the loss of his wife and was present when the group achieved victory in their first confrontation with the twisted governor. Hope existed without Hershel’s consent. More importantly he allowed it to permeate his life. As his notion of “family” expanded Hershel is an exemplar of the fifth stage of faith and becomes a sage of stage six.

Someone at stage five “suspects that things organically related to each other; {one} “attends to the pattern of interrelatedness in things, trying to avoid force-fitting {our} prior mind set” (7). Hershel, as the show progresses, personifies this concept. He offers quiet wisdom and guidance to the group as they make the prison a home. His impact on those around him, particularly Rick, is evident.

When the first battle with the Governor ends, Rick welcomes a bus load of people who had lived under the Governor’s rule into the prison. Rick sees them as victims of the Governor’s cruelty just as much as his group had been. Carl objects but Rick informs his son, “They’re gonna join us.” Carl walks off but Rick is content with his decision. The way of Hershel is taking root in the prison. The roots will run even deeper, in both figurative and literal applications.

After the battle with the Governor, it is evident that Carl has become calloused to the point of psychopathology. Hershel challenges Rick to find another way, for himself and Carl. The war with the Governor over, the prison secure and food now being produced rather than scavenged, Hershel contends Rick must learn to farm. Rick balks at the suggestion. Hershel persists, combining compassion with power. “He needs his father. He needs his father to show him the way. What way are you going to show him? He can shoot, we know that. What’s his life going to be? What’s yours? All this. I’m just saying everything because I owe you. We all owe you. We can make this better now” (8).

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This idea, that there is another way, does not dismiss the realities of life. Rick does argue that the walkers still exists and, in essence, dominate the world. Rather than argue Hershel acknowledges that fact. This does not weaken his resolve as he maintains they do have the power to dictate what transpires inside the prison walls and, by extension, within their minds. As a Christian, Hershel has moved beyond reciting the serenity prayer, he embodies it. The prison flourishes but peace never lasts long and a new threat emerges as an epidemic of swine flu threatens the residents of the prison.

It is in this period that we witness Hershel forcefully reveals his stage six (universalizing faith) disposition. Universalizers are often driven by a unifying, transformative vision that they feel compelled to bring to an untransformed and dualistic world. They will risk much, including their lives, for this vision.

One section of the prison is used to quarantine infected individuals. Members of the group have rushed off to find medicine. Hershel decides to bring an herbal tea to the sick, both to comfort them and to help them hold on. Maggie intercepts him and insists he does not enter the quarantined area, snapping, “I can’t let you do this.” Hershel, as is his way, calmly explains his position. In some ways his reasoning is simplicity in itself as he states, “Maggie dear, there are people in there suffering.”  Rick arrives and sides with Maggie leading Hershel, patience exhausted, to deliver a stirring soliloquy:

Listen dammit! You step outside, you risk your life. You take a drink of water, you risk your life. And nowadays you breathe, and you risk your life. Every moment now you don’t have a choice. The only thing you can choose is what you’re risking it for. Now I can make these people feel better and hang on a little bit longer. I can save lives. That’s reason enough to risk mine. And you know that (9).

Maggie tearfully opens the door to the quarantine for her father. She is heartbroken. I also think she is proud. She is proud of her father and proud to be his daughter. The symmetry with their argument on the barn is beautiful. She challenged him to live his Christian beliefs and be a better man to the group on the farm. He is, in ways she never imagined living those beliefs.

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He is entering a prison to visit the “inmates.” The Christian imagery is hard to dismiss as he helps the sick and the poor. His faith, which always rested in family, has now extended to the point where all around him are members of his family. He has fully embraced her challenge to expand his concept of community and, in doing so, breaks Maggie’s heart. Paradoxically, as he breaks her heart he is simultaneously filling it with love. She is hurt by his convictions even as she admires his unrelenting compassion. And, even though it wasn’t his goal, where he once dismissed the very existence of hope he has become hope itself.

A Final Goodbye

Unfortunately for Hershel the Governor returns. He captures Hershel and uses him in an attempt to strong arm Rick into relinquishing the prison. Rick, channeling his mentor, offers an alternative. The prison is large enough to be shared. The conflicting groups can unite into a new, larger ‘us.’ While Rick offers this vision Hershel, on his knees and with a sword to his throat, smiles. The smile does not last long as the Governor’s blade beheads him. This horrific scene was made all the more horrible because of the rough waters that viewers watched Hershel navigate with grace and dignity.

I do not know if the writers of The Walking Dead intended Hershel to become the embodiment of a faith journey but he was. Universalizers tend to become inspirational because of their commitment to justice and their expansive vision of community. As they are free of cultural restraints so shall we turn to an unexpected source.

In Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai we are told “nothing is felt quite so deeply as giri.” Giri is a word that encapsulates a person’s sense of duty, justice, obligations, and honor. People may cry upon hearing the life of someone who died in the distant past “because of a sense of giri” (10).

Now, as we approach The Walking Dead’s mid-season finale where death is imminent and suffering will abound let us remember the peaceful warrior Hershel Greene. Your comrades sure could use you. Come to think of it, so could the real world.  

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(1) Paul Tillich, The Dynamics of Faith (New York, Harper Torch Books, 1957), p. ix.

(2) Ibid., pp. 2-4.  Hey…does anyone else read “ibid” and think of Good Will Hunting or is it just me?

(3) James Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (New York, HarperOne, 1981), p 4.

(4) This drama unfolded was back in The Walking Dead, episode 2.7.

(5) James Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, p 200.

(6) Shakespeare, Hamlet (Act 1, Scene 5).

(7) James Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, p 185.

(8) The Walking Dead, episode 4.16. 

(9) The Walking Dead, episode 4.3.

(10) William Scott Wilson (translator), Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure (new York, Kodansha International, 1979), p. 95.