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The theology of zombies

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Father Mark Gnutel (from left), Nadia Panas, Michelle Thiessen and Liz Artmyko and Andrew Konoplny (under sheet).

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Father Mark Gnutel (from left), Nadia Panas, Michelle Thiessen and Liz Artmyko and Andrew Konoplny (under sheet). Photo Store

Take a couple dozen survivors camped out with limited rations in a stark concrete bunker, add a newly alive dead man still wrapped in burial cloths lurching through the dark corridors in search of breathers, and you definitely have the makings of a zombie apocalypse.

Or just slightly more likely, a bunch of Ukrainian Catholic teenagers and young adults exploring themes of the upcoming Christian season of Lent in the dark basement of a city church.

Taking off on our current fascination with zombies, and mixed with healthy doses of Christian theology, the zombie event on Sunday is much more than just a gimmick to entice fans and foes of the undead to a church event, insists Rev. Michael Smolinksi, one of the retreat leaders.

As an avid fan of the TV series The Walking Dead, based on graphic novels of the same name, he says the characters play out real-life issues in the unreal post-apocalyptic universe.

"The community is made up of people they would never choose (to be with) and they learn to trust and forgive and to rely on each other," says Smolinksi, a Redemptorist brother who watches the TV show with other members of his Ukrainian Catholic religious order.

"We sure need to do that, too."

In the TV show, now in its fourth season, survivors, also known as breathers, try to maintain their humanity as they look for safety from the predatory zombies, called biters.

The retreat runs from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday at St. Anne Ukrainian Catholic Church, 35 Marcie St.

Designed for teenagers, young adults and parents of two Ukrainian Catholic parishes -- St. Anne's and St. Joseph's -- the four-hour event combines the current fascination with zombie culture with preparation for the upcoming Lenten season.

Lent is the 40 days leading up to Easter. For Ukrainian Catholics and other Christians in the Eastern rite, it begins on Monday.

Most Christian denominations, including Catholics in the Latin rite, count those 40 days differently and begin Lent on Ash Wednesday, which falls on March 5 this year.

Not to give away too much, the retreat takes place in dark underground corners of the West Kildonan church, with participants holing up in a bunker.

It also includes the re-enactment of raising a man from the dead, based upon the biblical story of Lazarus, says Rev. Mark Gnutel, priest of St. Anne's.

"These kids think it is about blood and disease, but it is about the resurrection when we will be healed," says Gnutel, priest at St. Anne's.

Those blood-and-death themes intrigue some teenagers, and that's why they suggested a zombie-style youth event, says Zach Rawluk, a Grade 10 student at St. Paul's High School.

"It kinds of brings life to the retreat and gets people excited about it," says Rawluk.

Zombies have long stumbled through popular consciousness, right back to the days of black-and-white horror flicks, says a communications and media professor at Providence University College.

"It is a public imaginary and then it seeps into the church and we use it," explains Nicholas Greco, who teaches at the Christian college in Otterburne, south of Winnipeg.

Gnutel makes no apology for riffing off zombie culture, but argues the current preoccupation with the undead is quite a different narrative than the Christian story of Jesus's life, death and resurrection.

"We can't just see death in the culture around us. There's got to be more than death," he says.

"There's got to be hope."

Rawluk agrees and looks forward to connecting his interest in zombies with something a bit more theological.

"Lent has a lot to do with reflection and suffering and remembering how Jesus suffered in the desert for 40 days," says the teenager, a leader of one of the participating youth groups.

"In a zombie apocalypse, people suffer too."

brenda@suderman.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 1, 2014 D12

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