Zombie guy Clay Morgan on why we’re drawn to death

CLAY MORGAN posing with the famous University of Pittsburgh Panther, a bronze statue installed in 2001 near the university’s William Pitt Union. In the background is a National Historic Landmark—the 535-foot-tall, 42-story Cathedral of Learning—the second tallest university building in the world.Ever since we published our review of Clay Morgan’s timely new book for small groups, Undead, and followed that with a 3,000-year tour of milestones about zombies, vampires and other ghouls—readers have been asking us: Who is this guy!?! Undead is Clay Morgan’s first book. We think that we’re all going to be hearing a lot more from this talented young historian, writer and Christian educator. So, today, we are publishing ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm’s interview with Clay in …

November 2012 Update: As the latest Twilight movie debut nears, Twilight expert Jane Wells publishes a column that includes Clay Morgan’s Undead preview video. Enjoy.


DAVID: People hearing about your book will think of you as the “Zombie Guy,” so let me start by asking about your day job.

CLAY: My day job is as a college teacher at three different institutions in Pittsburgh, including the University of Pittsburgh. I mostly teach history and political science. I work in areas of sociology, too, and I spend a lot of time looking at what popular culture can tell us.

DAVID: You’re also respected as an expert in leading groups in congregations. Are you ordained?

CLAY: No, I’m a lay person who has done a lot of work in youth ministry.

DAVID: Your publisher is associated with the United Methodist church. How do you describe yourself religiously?

CLAY: I’m a follower of Jesus and I try not to misrepresent Jesus. I’m a writer and teacher so I respect someone like N.T. Wright, who is a brilliant teacher of Christian apologetics, but he is an academic. That’s a different style of writing than what I do. I’m not writing as an academic Bible scholar like Wright. I’m not writing as a theologian teaching high-minded scriptural lessons.

In writing Undead, I wanted a book that can be used in churches that will draw the kind of 20- and 21-year-old young people who walk into my office and say: “We hear you’re a Christian.” And I’ll tell them: “Yes, I’m a Christian.” As we talk, they’ll say, “I thought Christians were …” and they’ll complete the blank with some derogatory comment. I was thinking of that kind of student I see every week when I wrote this book. I think that anyone of any age who enjoys reading the Bible will have a good time with Undead, because I do look at the six individual accounts in the New Testament where people came back to life. I look at this book as enough material for a six- or eight-week series in a small group.


Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.DAVID: Early in your book, you describe your own fascination with death as stemming from an incident early in your life. You write: “My family accidentally left me at a funeral home when I was 4 years old. I was lost, surrounded by strangers in dark rooms.”

CLAY: It’s a family legend now, but it’s a true story. I have two older sisters and back in the ‘80s when this happened, we had a station wagon with an acre of space in the back. I don’t even remember who had died, but my family went for a viewing. When my parents were done, the family got in the car and my sisters led my parents to believe I was in the back of the car. It was just a funeral home with people there for a viewing. I can say that now as an adult, but at the time it was the trifecta of childhood terror. My attention was focused on that body in the middle of the room and I’d been left there alone with these strangers.

I remember that I started crying and a teen-aged cousin helped to calm me down. By the time my parents realized what had happened and they returned, I was sitting on the front steps of the funeral home and not crying any more.


DAVID: Death has a deep, deep impact on the living. We just wrote about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s interest in spiritualism. He had lost family members around World War I. When someone we love dies too young—crosses over into whatever else is out there after death—that really changes the way we think about both life and death. It certainly transformed Doyle’s life.

CLAY: The historian in me thinks back to the period when spiritualism spiked in America after the Civil War. So many people were dying. Even Mary Lincoln, the president’s wife, had terrifying events in her life and she turned to trying to communicate with one of her children who died. Then, World War I reignited the whole interest in spiritualism for a while. Doyle was in the headlines in that era.

But throughout the 20th century, we’ve managed through technology and improved medicine to increase our life spans. Now, we have this desire to live forever, which is built into us, and we actually think we can do it.

DAVID: That’s a longstanding desire, isn’t it?

CLAY: Solomon said that “eternity is set into the hearts of men.” That hasn’t changed throughout history. What’s changed is that we’re in denial, thinking that we could live forever. We hope that through surgery and supplements and gyms—and all the other things we can do these days—that we can deny death. But the truth is: Nobody gets out of this alive. Thoughts of death produce haunting feelings in all of us.


DAVID: I was impressed, when I first saw your book, that you clearly love comics. You’ve got some specially commissioned 1-page comics sprinkled through the book. ReadTheSpirit has published quite a few stories about the popularity of comics and graphic novels. You talk about the popularity of “Walking Dead” in your book, which now is in its third season on TV. And “Walking Dead” started as a series of comic books. So, what draws you to comics in this case?

CLAY: Too often, the Bible is presented in a stagnant way. We miss out on so much of the good stuff in the Bible by sanitizing what’s happening in the Bible stories. I wanted people to experience these stories in a modern way. So, I thought: What would some of these stories look like if we showed them in the style of a graphic novel? The artist is Gary Morgan—no relation although we share a last name. He started to play around with these stories in the book and came up with these panels to represent some of them as comics.

Comics appeal to people who might not normally be interested in what goes on in church. Comics can be a way that more people can connect with these stories that are so familiar to us.

DAVID: You even appear in one comic, right?

CLAY: Yeah! I got to step into the action a little bit. Gary did this one incredible page as an introduction that’s Pittsburgh as a zombie apocalypse begins. The skyline of Pittsburgh is there, so I like that. And I’m in there, too.


DAVID: Help me sum up the book. At this point in our interview, readers clearly will understand that you’re exploring some eerie material, that you’ve got a good sense of humor and that this is—well, very different than anything else they might have chosen for a small-group study. But there’s a very important message here.

I would describe it this way: If you’re active in a church and you’re seeing all this bizarre stuff out there in popular movies, TV, comic books and popular novels about vampires and zombies and all the rest—you should realize that this is your turf. Don’t look at all the fascination with these eerie tales as something that’s irrelevant, or worse, as something you should reject. This is your turf. Exploring issues of life and death—and what comes after death—is the home turf of the church.

How am I doing? Am I close to a pretty good summary here?

CLAY: That’s definitely a huge part of the take away in this book. The one thing I would add is: This book also looks at the struggles we all face between spiritual life and spiritual death on a daily basis. We all know what it means to feel empty inside. We all crave life. That’s our daily struggle.

People will say: I don’t get the zombie thing. I don’t want to read about all this stuff. That’s not for me. And I do understand that a lot of these movies and TV shows are full of horrific things that some people won’t want to see. I’m not saying, in this book, that we all have to enjoy everything in popular culture. But we do need to understand what’s so popular out there—and we need to ask why it’s so popular, why people are so drawn to it.

A lot of people have forgotten today that when C.S. Lewis first wrote The Screwtape Letters that it really was a pretty shocking story of demons conversing about humans. Christians have read the Screwtape Letters for so many years that we now recognize it as a classic, a masterpiece of spiritual writing. I’m not saying that I’m C.S. Lewis, but I am saying: C.S. Lewis made this connection, too.

Our popular culture isn’t an enemy. It’s a mission field. We can be appalled by what we see out there. We can turn away. Or, we can realize that we all are trying to chase down avenues of rebirth and redemption every day of our lives. And, we can gather together and have some great conversations by looking at all of these stories that are right there everywhere we turn.

BUY THE BOOK: You’ll find UNDEAD: Revived, Resuscitated, and Reborn for sale at Amazon.

FOLLOW CLAY MORGAN: He’s reachable on Twitter @UndeadClay.

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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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