Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Gospel according to Buffy (synchroblog)

This is part of a SynchroBlog on Christianity and film, follow the links below for others taking part, and enter the debate on this and other sites!

the Vampire genre as classically represented by the Dracula character, has within it Christendom assumptions. vampires are undead, without souls and damned by God. they are warded off by Crosses and Holy Water. communion wafers placed in their coffins render them homeless. the average vampire slayer is some sort of a priest. so what happens to vampire slaying in a post-Christendom world?

Enter Buffy the Vampire Slayer, an American teen who only enters churches in the dead of night to fight vampires rising from coffins. She uses crosses and Holy water but these seem no longer to connect to any faith, they have become magic charms. here superhuman strength and kung fu fighting skills, given her by ancient shamanic priests who created the slayers to fight demons and vampires, are far more important than the remnants of Christianity. over seven series she gathers round her other US teens who with her go through high school and enter young adult life. none of these either seems to have a faith, save one who starts the series Jewish and part way through becomes a practicing Wiccan.

at the start of the second series our heroine encounters a group of evangelists working with down an outs in a city centre district. but they are in fact demons in disguise, enslaving and ultimately destroying the people they claim to help. the final series sees the gang battling the 'ultimate evil', whose sidekick is a misogynist priest in black with collar, who brutal murders people. apart from this churches are sometimes settings for weddings or funerals. The Buffyverse is clearly not a place where God, and certainly not the church, is involved in the fight against evil. this instead must fall to Buffy. so how does she defeat the 'ultimate evil', and what are the messages that make up the 'gospel according to Buffy'?

Buffy needs to be seen operating on two levels. at one level the various monsters faced are less important then the background situations. At this level Buffy is about the difficulties of school, friendship, romance, finding ones identity etc etc. this is handled with a mixture of humour and some depth. the key messages are about the importance of friendship, sacrifice for others, the shallowness of popularity, the importance of goals in life, the embracing of those of different cultures and sexualities, and above all the empowerment of women in a man's world and the taking of responsibility for ones own life and facing it's challenges head on.

on another level Buffy and her friends fight demons and vampires and every now and then have to save the world. Evil is overcome week by week through Buffy's powers, Willow the Wiccan's magic and the study of ancient texts followed by resourceful action of those who are part of 'Buffy's gang'. the values seen in the plot lines become the key to these victories too.

But there are other themes too. In the 7th and final series redemption becomes a major theme. a number of key characters manage to accumulate or come with some very dodgy pasts. At the top of the list is Spike the vampire, he has spent a good century plus murdering and draining life. He first appears as a major opponent of Buffy but as the series progress he falls 'in love with her' in inverted commas, vampires have no soul and love is rather challenging for them. Buffy sort of falls for him, but there's a subtext of her own self doubt which becomes sometimes self loathing, coupled with her appalling track record of relationships, and an attraction to those she becomes locked in combat with, that makes this not quite 'healthy'. always likely to end in tears, that include obsession, rage and at one stage attempted rape of Buffy by Spike. at the end of series 6 Spike has gone to see if he can be given back his soul and return to Buffy a changed vampire. then there's the Wiccan Willow, a key member of the gang, but in series 5 suffering magic addiction, the episodes are i think intended to explore drug addiction but i can assure magic addiction is very similar in real life. like any addict she messes up her life and those around her. in series 6 her girlfriend (she has by this stage 'come out' as lesbian, and i think this is handled like many other issues well) is shot and killed, by accident Buffy is the intended victim. Willow enters grief that turns to rage that fuels an apocalyptic magic spree that makes her 'mad, bad and dangerous to know'. she also flays alive the murder of her girlfriend, possibly the most brutal crime committed by anyone in the entire run of series. at the end of series 6 she is destroying the world, literally. then there's Faith, a slayer called on one of the occasions Buffy dies and is later bought back...it becomes an occupational hazard for her... Faith has 'issues' and they mean she finds it hard to trust and work with others. this leads her to abuse her powers, kill humans and ultimately help the evil mayor become a giant demonic serpent (yes this is the regular buffyverse in operation...but i must say i was hooked and loved almost every minute, its ability to not take itself too seriously making up for the plot lines! ). but we haven't finished! then there's Anya, a vengeance demon used to helping wronged women deliver gruesome ends to their male abusers. And finally there's Andrew, part occultist part nerd. it was the leader of his group that killed Willow's girlfriend and gets flayed alive as a result. this character comes back, but it's really the 'ultimate evil' that can be 'ant dead person it wants to be', and persuades Andrew to ritually kill his best friend to open a satanic seal in the school basement. and so as we enter series 7 a motley crew who need to be redeemed are part of the plot.

so redemption in a world in which the church is pretty unlikely to play a part. well for each character it works out, and not 'lightly', indeed often very movingly. so interesting that the theme of can the bad people be redeemed, is so positively handled. so what happens? we'll save Spike till last, because his role becomes so important! but at this point let us say he does indeed go to hell and get his soul back...itself interesting, after 'testing' by a demon he gets his soul, though this gets strangely related to the ghost of Christendom as he tells this to Buffy in a darkened church and then embraces a cross, which burns his vampire flesh, soul or no soul. BTW the experience of getting his soul has driven him half mad. Faith returns and through experiences when her self willed bravado lead to bad ends, learns to trust and work with others. Andrew has lived in a fantasy world in which he turns life into comic strip stories to avoid facing the truth. eventually Buffy forces him to confront his actions and his tears of repentance close the demonic seal he opened. Anya having gone back to her vengeance ways is going to be killed by Buffy, but she gets a another chance, which involves her getting her soul back to in a rather 'interesting' take on penal substitution. OK i have no idea if that is how the producer saw it but hear me out! she has to ask for it again from a demon, who says that he will grant it but he must take a demons life in forfeit, we all assume it will be Anya's but she is willing for the price to be paid believing she will she will have to pay it. But the demon has other ideas, and kills an other demon who has been Anya's friend, so an other's life pays the necessary price! this neatly gets Anya to the end of the series but is not viewed in a 'positive light'. Willow is stopped by a friend's love, in the face of her initially wounding him with her destructive magic, and 'the true source of magic' that is working for good in her. clearly magic is a source of good even if the church isn't.

so to the battle against the ultimate evil, and the part of the redeemed and especially Spike in that. you see at this point there's a problem. Buffy has fought off various evils and potential apocalypses, but this is 'the ultimate evil' working with an army of 'ultimate vampires'. in a universe devoid of ultimate good it seems, and reliant on human endeavour, how can Buffy defeat the ultimate evil? well she'll clearly need some help, so Faith the renegade slayer returns, then there is an army of young women who are potential slayers who come ti join in, then there's a magic scythe forged by ancient pagan priestesses for just such a day. armed so they enter the final battle with one further twist, Willow uses the power of the scythe to enable all women to become powerful slayers, empowering not only the potentials but other women abused and oppressed around the globe. as she performs the spell she glows with white light and, in the words of her new girlfriend, becomes a goddess. but even all this is not enough! enter Spike, soul returned madness subdued and a number of painful past issues faced, wearing some jewel intended for a champion. as the battle commences the jewel 'comes to life' a great shaft of light descends from the ceiling to the Jewel which then starts to scatter the light out destroying the super vampires. ' i can feel it' he declares, 'i can feel my soul, it's really there'. and so after an emotional reconciliation between Spike and Buffy she flees after the others, as Spike stays to die in the destruction of the forces of the ultimate evil. the end.

but what kind of end? it is perhaps not surprising if Churches are simply scary places full of demons, evangelists are demonic forces praying on the vulnerably and priests are misogynist devil worshipers bent on brutality that it is to Pagan priestesses, Wiccan magic, mystic weapons, empowered women and good honest human spirit that we must turn to face the ultimate evil. it is easy to dismiss this is be angry with it, but this is how many see the church and Christianity, and we have bought some of this on ourselves. what kind of church might be a force for good in the Buffyverse where evil must be fought and redemption is so important and sensitively handled? on the other hand if we are to leave the modern world in which the demonic and the 'ultimate evil' are as much a fairytale as the Christan God. if we are to enter a world in which supernatural evil is real, how can we fight it? in the end some strange mystic light needs to come and finish off the job, indeed we need God by the back door. but which God in what form? unless the church can become something other than the caricature of the Buffyverse, then what God will come to fill this place?

follow the links to the other blogs in this series

Steve Hayes ponders The Image of Christianity in Films
Sally Coleman is Making Connections- films as a part of a mythological tradition
Adam Gonnerman pokes at The Spider's Pardon

David Fisher thinks that Jesus Loves Sci-Fi
John Morehead considers Christians and Horror Redux: From Knee- Jerk Revulsion to Critical Engagement
Marieke Schwartz lights it up with Counter-hegemony: Jesus loves Borat
Mike Bursell muses about Christianity at the Movies
Jenelle D'Alessandro tells us Why Bjork Will Never Act Again
Cobus van Wyngaard contemplates Theology and Film (as art)
Tim Abbott tells us to Bring your own meaning...?
Sonja Andrews visits The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: Christ in Spaghetti Westerns
Steve Hollinghurst takes a stab at The Gospel According to Buffy
Les Chatwin insists We Don't Need Another Hero
Lance Cummings says The Wooden Wheel Keeps Turning
John Smulo weaves a tale about Spiderman 3 and the Shadow
Josh Rivera spells well with Christian Witchcraft

Phil Wyman throws out the Frisbee: Time to Toss it Back
Dr. Kim Paffenroth investigates Nihilism Lite

11 comments:

Sally said...

lol " demons, evangelists and demonic forces.... hmm pulls us up short!
Great expose of Buffy....
Seriously though great post- welcome to the syncro team :-)

Pastor Phil said...

Dude! You are the Buffy-man. I will never play Buffy Trivia against you. Great post.

Stephen G said...

Good article, especially the question about how might the church "might be a force for good in the Buffyverse where evil must be fought and redemption is so important and sensitively handled?"

At some point I'd like to get some students to review "What would Buffy do? The Slayer's Guide to Spiritual Life" by Jana Riess and see what sort of things are raised there that could generate theological and pastoral discussion.

Also, on the "Serenity" DVD set that was released last year there was a feature where Joss Whedon was asked by someone in an audience why he always 'has it in' for Christians in his work. I can't remember the answer, but how the question was asked (and the tone of the question) wouldn't have built any bridges for later discussion.

BTW - Buffy itself has had a 'resurrection' of sorts recently, with Joss Whedon penning a canonical Season 8 being published by Dark Horse Comics currently.

Adam Gonnerman said...

I've never watched an entire episode of this show all the way through, and now I'm pretty sure I haven't missed much. Given the way faith and Christianity are finding their way into some mainstream movies, at least as themes, encourages me to believe that the perspective of Buffy represents the vision of what may be a dwindling group in the industry. I can only hope.

Your description of the role of the church in vampire slaying (at the beginning of your post) almost made me want to write a story with that theme. Maybe I will.

Jenelle said...

Thanks for your post...and welcome! It is amazing that so many in the West are unwilling to reckon with the realities of the supernatural, and so we let the media tell the story. I like how you relate Buffy as telling the story of youth culture and their impressions of the Church.

I've found that young people in Europe are more interested in talking about the supernatural than kids in the states. I need to do more learning about Wicca, for sure...

Steve said...

thanks for the comments guys (i use this in its US genderless sense)

i clealry haevn't made you rush out for the Buffy boxed set have i adam? great we all have different tastes. OK this programme is certianly not freindly to the church, but how should we engage with that? my feeling is by listening and asking if the opinion is at least half true and not by assuming we must defend the church to defend God, so i'll keep on exploring such portrayals of 'us'

Janelle, i find that the church in the UK at least and i susoect western Europe and the States has one of two approaches to the supernatural. one is to laugh at it as 'obvious nonsense' the other is to over blow it so that we become obseesed with the demonic and seek to bind, it exorcise it and expose it at everyturn, whilst paradoxically conceeded loads of territory to it as somehow 'off limits'. i find both apporaches theologically lacking. i think we do need ot take the supernatural seriously. i don't think we have anything to fear from it if we really do beleive Jesus has overcome eveil on the cross. niether shoudl we trivialise it and play wth it. there were no 'no go areas' for Jesus there should not be for us. neither is it true in scrioture as it life that all things supernatural are either perfomed through christians or are demonic, God is at work way beyond the confines of the church.

Stephen i have the book and have never got round to reading it...i guess i ought to!

Scog Blog said...

Hi Steve,

Glad to see you back blogging - there's only so many times I can read the old stuff! Mind you most of your posts take more than one reading!!

Keep on keeping on - give my love to Anne.

Steve Hayes said...

A belated thanks for that (I was short of bandwidth last month, and so am only catching up on the synchroblogs now).

I've seen bits of odd episodes of Buffy, but have usually watched for a minute or two and then switched channels, because if you have no idea who the characters are, and what they have been doing before, the whole thing looks meaningless, so thanks very much for the synopsis -- if there are ever reruns then I might be able to understand a bit more of the action.

Tony Myles said...

I love how our little stories reveal God's Big Picture

Maria D said...

Do you know the actors views on religion, the show isn't about faith but Buffy clearly states that she is confused, the show is about good and evil, God is clearly on the good side and thats who they fight for its about souls and helping the innocent so they can believe. in the episode "Anne" in witch you talk about the evangelists it's a disguise, that actually happens lost people get tricked into cults its a metaphor, if you follow the character that takes the name Anne at the end she goes on Angel and she helps lost teens and she looks like she is with God. Just because you look for the flaws you'll find them.

Steve said...

Maria
thanks for the comment
certinaly hope i didn't come over as negative towards Buffy, i though the opposite was the case, so sorry if there was any confusion. certianly it isn't written froma Christian perspective, but whay should it be? so i am big fan and also think there's a lot of intersting stuff there.
i agree the programe isn't about faith, but i think it touches on issues that are important to faith, so i tried to explore that a bit.
i agree that the 'anne' episode is an allegory as you say, but my point was that even if it is intended to expose lonley people getting recruited by cults i think many church people would see it as an attack on them. i may be committing an unpoardonable offensive int he buffyverse...but i really did not like the Angel character (whereas i thought Spike was great) so never watched the Angel series..so thanks for the story line on Anne, i didn't know and i agree a great follow on from that episode.