I do not understand Zombies. When I was a child, Zombie movies were virtually non-existent. The word referred to something like a Golem in Jewish thought – a creature without a soul. It is properly a frightening thing – for that which we think of as the soul, is also the seat of compassion and kindness. A creature without a soul would be driven by something other – which can only be dangerous for everything and everyone around them. A Golem cannot be reasoned with or appealed to. Like a Zombie, it can only be killed.
So what is this soul, this something that makes us not a Zombie or a Golem?
A man is walking down the hallway in his home. A spider suddenly darts out from under some furniture. Without a thought the man instinctively steps on it. For the man, the action is nothing more than a reflex, like scratching an itch. For the spider, it is the end of the world. Of course, we think of other human beings with greater regard than a spider. Killing another human being is murder. But sometimes, the unthinkable occurs, and a mass-murderer goes on a killing rampage, randomly shooting children or adults, until, exhausted, he ends his own life, or his life is ended for him. We use phrases such as “killing rampage” that sound like a fit of anger. Such rages have been described as far back as Homer, and somehow make tragic sense for us. But we are also realizing that there is a new phenomenon – not a rampage – but an exercise in existential meaninglessness. The killing takes place without anger or words, but mindlessly, like stepping on a spider. Soul-less actions?
Modernity holds that we do not have a soul. And, in other terms, it holds that we do not have a nature. Human beings are a collection of choices and decisions. We can be whatever we want to be, or whatever makes us happy. Of course, such decisions may involve other human beings so that we engage in contractual relationships, negotiating our mutual happiness. If I don’t kill you, you agree not to kill me. I want what you make, so I agree to pay you what you ask. You want someone to make your widgets, so I agree to work for you in the widget factory. We call this negotiated world the “market.” There we buy and sell our happiness, hoping that the market remains in an upward mood.
But is there such a thing as the soul? Where do we find it?
The soul is not observed like the liver or the heart. It is a quality that makes the brain more than a biological calculator. In the Scriptures, it is pretty much synonymous with “life.” But this is rooted in a world-view that understands a person’s life to be more than mere biology and instinct. Modern people may have difficulty agreeing that there is such a thing as the soul, but they would not want to be locked in a room with someone who does not have what the tradition calls “the soul.” And those who deny the soul’s existence may very well discover that they have locked themselves in just such a room.
A primary care for the soul in human history is the telling of stories – not just any stories – but soul stories. I have coined this phrase to help us think about myths. Many modern people think that ancient myths are stories that were told in an attempt to explain a universe that was not understood. And so we think that now that we understand everything, we have no more need for such stories. But myths are not stories of “how?” They are stories of “Why?” and “What does it mean?” and “How should I live?” The answer to such questions are found in the formative stories of every culture.
When Plato described his ideal society in The Republic, he required children to learn to play musical instruments, and described it as a requirement of the soul. The soul requires beauty. It requires poetry, and song. It requires the capacity to live and not merely consume.
A deep failure of modernity is its jettisoning of soul stories. Contemporary music is simply insufficient for the soul. The result can be a struggle for the life of the soul – to exist without being swallowed whole by the consumption that surrounds us. “Man shall not live by bread alone.”
The stories of the Christian faith are soul stories. CS Lewis described the gospel as a myth, with the distinction of actually having happened. It is incumbent on Christians in the modern world to be sure that what they offer is the full meat of the Christian tradition and not merely another form of fast food.
Of course, there are other stories. The fathers of the Church did not dismiss the myths of the non-Christians around them. The simple fact is that every shred of knowledge that we possess today about the pre-Christian stories of Greece and Rome exist because Christians preserved them. There are currents within our culture that would largely jettison the study of classical literature, including what was once known as the “canon of literature.” The drive to elevate current political and social understanding over every previous understanding has made it common to neglect important stories for adolescent fiction and the like.
The contemporary landscape argues that we have been making disastrous decisions for several generations. Some are making a case that we have entered a cultural dark age. This judgment is perhaps too pessimistic, but it is not without merit. But it also makes the strong case that Christians need to sing. They need to paint and tell stories. They need to build beautiful temples and adorn them with lives of sacrifice and kindness. They need to nurture the life of the soul, both within themselves and within their children. And make no mistake, they need to sing rather than just listen to songs. They need to speak careful words with great intention rather than just hear them.
My soul, my soul arise!
Here is a contemporary treat, a Kyrie written by Patriarch Ilia of Georgia, a great soul. The Lord’s song is still being sung. Sing along.