Tuesday, September 04, 2018

peer-reviewed in an international journal in a discipline not my own

persusionsonline

“Religious piety and pigs’ brains”: the faith of zombies in Burr Steers’s Pride, Prejudice and Zombies,” Persuasions On-Line 38 (3), 2018.

So I’m celebrating having a journal article in an international, peer-reviewed journal (Persuasions Online) in a discipline not my own.  It’s quite an achievement to be published, let alone internationally, let alone in a different discipline.

I’m chuffed. 

It has been a strange and demanding journey.  Flinders University has a Flinders Institute for Research in the Humanities (FIRtH) which encourages collaborative and cross-disciplinary research across a wide range of fields in the Humanities and Creative Arts. In 2017, it was the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen. This is a big thing – her appearance on a new 10 pound note in England and Hampshire staging a year-long series of events across the county in 2017. And in Australia, FIRtH decided to make Austen a focus.  Given I still have connections with Flinders University, as I supervise four PhD’s to completion, I was invited to contribute a piece on religion, popular culture and Austen. My teenage kids at the time were enjoying Pride And Prejudice And Zombies the movie.  I was aware it included a communion scene and in response to the FIRtH invitation, began to watch, looking at how the Christian practice of communion was being portrayed.

I provided some thoughts in a cross-Tasman video, was offered an airfare to a symposium presentation, followed by an invitation to develop my work for a special edition of Persuasions Online, a digital, peer-reviewed publication of the Jane Austen Society of North America.   This was very new territory for me – English literature, Jane Austen, international. 

But it gave me a chance to reflect on sacraments and the Gospel of Luke.  It enabled me to think more deeply about post-colonialism. I have also published a range of pieces on U2 and so this was a chance to expand my thinking into zombies.  It also was a chance to test in practical reality a theoretical piece I wrote in 2009 (a chapter in The Spirit of Truth: Reading Scripture and Constructing Theology with the Holy Spirit) in which I argued for the presence of God in popular culture. It sounded good in theory, but would my theory stand when applied to zombies?

I researched and wrote with a constant voice: is this a good use of my time as Principal of a theological college. In the midst of a funding crisis, was this a good use of church resources? 

One way to respond was to do much of this in my own time. I took leave to attend the symposium in October 2017, used days in lieu in March 2018 to complete the first draft and drew down on holidays in June to respond to reviewer comments.

At the same time, I also believed this was public missiology.  Missiologists talk a lot about engaging culture, yet very few seem to work in popular culture, the songs and movies which are the soundtrack to the lives of so many. Missiologists also talk a lot about crossing cultures. So why not cross into another discipline and place my thinking before the critical eyes of Austen lovers (the society has 5,000 members!) and people who care deeply about the English language?

I did however, underestimate the demands involved in moving across disciplines. The last few months have become particularly pressured, as I navigated multiple peer reviews and the challenge to write for literary lovers rather than theologians. The result has been a string of “thanks for your patience” emails, to PhD students and in relation to other writing deadlines.

Anyhow, the piece has just been published – “Religious Piety and Pigs’ Brains”: The Faith of Zombies in Burr Steers’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies 38: 3, 2018.

Because I work in popular culture, the article has pictures:

pictures ppz

The article has headings: 
The meaning of zombies in academic discourse  
Applying zombie theory to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies  
Afterlives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke 
(Un)sacramental theologies
The present problems of piety 
 

And here are some words, that point to what I was trying to do:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that art has the potential to disturb contemporary pride and historical prejudice.  Realizing this truth, however, requires us to locate the literary worlds so artfully created by Jane Austen in relation to the economic realities and colonizing impact of the British Empire around the turn of the nineteenth century 

The British empire was powered not only by economic and military might but also by Britons’ understanding of Christianity, including the claiming and exploitation of overseas territories.  Desmond Tutu famously declared, “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land.  They said ‘Let us pray.’  We closed our eyes.  When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land” (The Stolen Bible: From Tool of Imperialism to African Icon (Biblical Interpretation Series) 326).  Tutu’s challenge invites us to consider the religious practices of Austen’s England.  How might the sacramental practices of communion and the prayers and sermons heard by Elizabeth and Darcy make them complicit in the economic injustices that accompanied colonial expansion?  

Rather than dismissing zombies as an example of popular culture hubris, the argument presented here suggests the zombies in Steers’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies provide viewers with an ethical trope, post-colonial in both sense and sensibility.  Analysis of the zombie trope as socio-cultural phenomenon is followed by an examination of Steers’s film—a hermeneutic “zombie-gesis,” if you will—with particular attention to a scene in which zombies partake of holy communion at the Church of St. Lazarus.  This scene brings into focus the portrayal of Lazarus in the Christian Gospels, particularly Jesus’s parable in Luke 16:19–31 and what it means to consume the body of Christ.  It also arguably exposes the entanglement of Anglican religion and the English colonial project in Austen’s world, pointing to the culturally constructed conjunction of Biblical texts, Western Christianity, and the social world of Regency England.  

In this reading, the role of zombies in the movie is neither parodic nor simply a money-making device.  Rather, the movie inserts an ethical trope, post-colonial in sense and sensibility, that questions the economic system on which the literary world of Austen is built, the ways in which religion can use piety to maintain the status quo, and the complexities involved in seeking to enact justice in the present.  

A careful reading of the Exodus story, however, suggests that a third option is possible.  Exodus And Revolution argues that the promised land holds the hope of equality:  “if no member of the holy nation is an oppressor, then no inhabitant of the promised land is oppressed” (109).  Such an understanding provides a way for the proto-zombies to enact a disciplined freedom that would also be a way of applying justice in their present.  As inhabitants of England, the proto-zombies are a physical reminder of the need for justice.  By holding themselves back from becoming full zombies, they seek partnership in a promised land in which none, whether genteel English or zombie, is oppressed or oppressing. Their deliberate formation provides a critique of the actions of Darcy and Wickham and also of the mobilization of religion only in the future tense.  It suggests that Luke 16:19–31 can be read as an apocalyptic text.  The dualisms of proto-zombie and human can be respected.  

The film, read in light of the Exodus text preached at the Church of St. Lazarus, thus offers a vision of a new beginning for England as a place of justice for all.  The servants at Pemberley need no longer be silent; those who grow the finest grapes, nectarines, and peaches will be justly rewarded, and the soldiers at Meryton need no longer be deployed to maintain the power of a colonial Britain.  This future vision begins now, in the sharing of a moral formation in which all—colonized and colonizer, zombie and human—share a common set of standards and take responsibility for their own agency.

The presence of the zombies points to significant fault-lines that threaten the privileged and complacent social world of Austen’s time.  In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies they remind readers and viewers of the unsolved problem of social inequality and the ways in which religion and literature can both support and disturb the status quo, including the apparent certainties of Jane Austen’s social and religious world.

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