Things are winding down here. Monday we move to the farm.
So last night Heather and I watched some episodes of an old TV favorite of mine, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A good introduction:
Another great scene is when Buffy learns there is a prophecy of her death, in "Prophecy Girl"
She was also chosen "Theologian of the Year" in 2002 by The Door magazine! The article is no longer available on their site, so here it is:
The Door Theologian of the Year
by Skippy R.
Issue #183, Sept./Oct. 2002
Perilous times call for bold theology.
Let's face it. Evil is running rampant. Terrorists strike without warning. Corporate executives defraud the public and their own employees. Politicians tear apart the fabric of national unity for their own agendas. Popular culture has become a banal river of unadulterated trash, a "hellmouth" slowly dumbing down our sense of reality. The people are paralyzed by indecision, ennui or terminal cynicism.
Meanwhile, the ozone layer is perforated, glaciers are melting, and crazies set wildfires that denude the landscape. While Generation X passes the baton to Generation Y, adolescence is still hell, AND THERE'S ONLY ONE LETTER LEFT!
We need someone who can not only deconstruct the problem of evil, but kick it's hiney; someone with a preternatural sense of comic timing and an eye for fashion.
We need Buffy.
Hidden among the stupid sitcoms, copycat dramas and reality shows of broadcast TV, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has been acting out a modern-day morality play for seven seasons, delivering what a growing number of critics say is the edgiest show on television, dealing with topics like evil, redemption, resurrection, sex, guilt, existential angst, selflessness and sacrifice, religion and the occult, often all before the first commercial break.
Joss Whedon, the screenwriter of Toy Story and Speed, created Buffy in the 1992 movie of the same name. When the TV series began in 1997, he was free to expand of the basic story: An ancient prophecy foretells, "In every generation there is a chosen one. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness. She is the slayer."
Buffy, a high school student (now in college) in Sunnydale, Calif., discovers that she's the vampire slayer, and that her town sits on a "hellmouth" where demons are constantly trying to make an opening to escape from perdition. They take over human bodies, turning them into vampires. The cast of characters includes Giles, Buffy's Watcher, a walking encyclopedia of the occult who works for the Council, the shadowy group that oversees the slayers; her friends, the Scooby Gang, a reference to Scooby Doo, Where Are You?, Hanna Barbera's mystery cartoon that originally aired from 1969-1972 whose characters chased monsters every week; and a shifting gang of human and undead friends and enemies who alternately help and hinder her mission.
A Hellmouth Hermeneutic
OK, sure. Buffy has been criticized by some religious reviewers for its emphasis on the occult, violence and sex. But consider these points:
— Star Sarah Michelle Geller did homework for her role by reading the whole Bible through in 1999.
— Two actors in the series have become Christians on the set.
— A spinoff show, Angel, about a vampire who receives a soul and struggles with guilt and redemption, was hailed by Chuck Colson's Breakpoint review as a "flower" in TV's wasteland.
— Ms. Geller (no relation to spoon-bender Uri Geller.... we hope) told Entertainment Weekly, in response to questions about the show's controversial content: "We're like the most religious show out there! We're more religious than 7th Heaven!"
Of course, her personal religion isn't exactly orthodox. "I believe in an idea of God," she told a Scottish newspaper. "although it's my own personal ideal. I find most religions interesting ...I've taken bits from everything and customized it."
But Geller's spiritual walk doesn't reflect the theology of Buffy, the TV show. That seems to be generated by Whedon's vision, and perhaps the supernatural "powers that be" that stand-in for God in Buffy's fictional universe.
Don't get me wrong. This show is not Touched by an Angel. But neither is it From Dusk Till Dawn, the gruesome vampire-wasting bloodfest film produced by Quenton Tarantino a few years back. When vampires in Buffy are dispatched with a wooden stake or crossbow, they disappear in a puff of dust. The complicated folklore of traditional vampire tales has been reduced to a caricature, or more to the point (so to speak) ... a parable.
Then there's all that teen angst. Between patrolling for demons and taking down outlandish monsters, Buffy worries about her math test and what she'll wear to the prom. Verbal put-downs always accompany an altercation with a vampire. There is a whole lexicon of coolness that permeates the show, much of it made up by Whedon. The surface attitude-somewhere between ironic and naive- is summed up by Buffy in the first season: "If the apocalypse comes, beep me."
In another episode, she faces off with a vampire, who asks: "Uh, are we gonna fight, or is there just gonna be a monster sarcasm rally?"
But it's the show's handling of moral and religious themes that keeps viewers thinking long after the credits roll each week. Dozens of websites carry essays and papers on the philosophical, religious and moral questions raised on Buffy. Two books have been published this year analyzing the show: Reading The Vampire Slayer, edited by Roz Kaveney, and Fighting the Forces: What's at stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, edited by Rhonda Wilcox and David Lavery.
And there's some heated debate concerning the role Christianity plays in the series. Religious references permeate the scripts.
The program is filled with references to the cross. The symbol is prominent in the show's opening, and Buffy wears a cross as a symbol of her role as a slayer. Vampires recoil when it is displayed, for the most part, although in one episode, a vampire says "Oh, whatever" and just walks away.
The crucifixion is treated as a real event. When Spike, a leading-role vampire, first arrives, we hear a vampire saying, "This weekend, the night of St. Vigeous, our power will be at its peak. When I kill her, it'll be the greatest event since the crucifixion. And I should know. I was there." Spike answers, "You were there? Oh, please! If every vampire who said he was at the crucifixion was actually there, it would have been like Woodstock. I was actually at Woodstock. That was a weird gig. I fed off a flower person, and I spent the next six hours watching my hand move."
The Buffy cosmology includes what sounds like a very literal hell. In season two's finale The Becoming, the universe is threatened by an ancient demon who has been turned into stone. If he revives, the world will end.
Willow: "Okay, somebody explain the whole 'he will suck the world into hell' thing, because that's the part I'm not loving."
Giles: "Well, the, uh, (puts on his glasses) the demon universe exists in a dimension separate from our own. (sits on the table) With one breath, Acathla will create a vortex, a-a kind of, um... whirlpool that will pull everything on Earth into that dimension, where any non-demon life will suffer horrible and... eternal torment."
Buffy: "So that would be the literal kind of 'sucked into hell'. (smiles nervously) Neat."
Later Willow says to Buffy: "This means I can't help you study for tomorrow's final."
Buffy: "Ah, I'll wing it. Of course, if we go to hell by then, I won't have to take 'em. (worried) Or maybe I'll be taking them forever."
The show pokes fun at religious institutions of every stripe. In season two's What's My Line episode, Giles and Buffy sneak into a cemetery at night and enter a mausoleum...
Giles: "It's a reliquary. Used to house items of religious significance. Most commonly a finger or some other body part from a saint."
Buffy: "Note to self: religion freaky."
She leans against the wall as Giles scans around the rest of the room with the flashlight. He spots a name engraved on a stone high above.
Giles: "Du Lac. Oh dear, oh dear."
Buffy: "I hate when you say that."
Giles: "Josephus du Lac was buried here. He belonged to a religious sect that was excommunicated by the Vatican at the turn of the century."
Buffy: "Excommunicated and sent to Sunnydale. There's a guy big with the sinning."
Giles: "You remember the book that was stolen from the library by a vampire a few weeks ago?"
Giles: "It was written by Du Lac. Damn it! I let it slip my mind with all the excitement."
Buffy: "I'm guessing it wasn't a Taste of the Vatican cookbook."
Many episodes are concerned about the consequences of breaking or overstepping moral codes. In the second season's Reptile Boy episode, Buffy-getting burned out by her role as slayer- and her friend Cordelia sneak off to a party at the Delta Zeta Kappa fraternity house, whose "pledges" happen to pledge allegiance to a giant snake-shaped demon. After a battle, when everyone is safe again, Giles isn't happy with Buffy.
Giles puts his fists on his hips and gives Buffy a stern look. She looks down in shame.
Buffy: " I told one lie, I had one drink. "
Giles: " Yes, and you were very nearly devoured by a giant demon snake. The words 'let that be a lesson' are a tad redundant at this juncture."
The story of the origin of Buffy's world has been seen as a denial of the traditional biblical narrative in Genesis.
In one program, Giles explains: "This world is older than any of you know, and contrary to popular mythology, it did not begin in a paradise. For untold eons, demons walked the earth, made it their home, their hell. In time, they lost their purchase on this reality, and the way was made for mortal animals. For man. What remains of the Old Ones are vestiges: certain magicks, certain creatures..."
In fact, this tale is pretty close to the Fundamentalist Scofield Reference Bible exegesis explaining, from passages in Ezekial 28 and Isaiah 13, that Lucifer walked on earth as his rightful domain before Adam and Eve were created. Yikes! Is Whedon actually a Fundamentalist?
Gregory Erikson, in his essay in Fighting the Forces called Sometimes you Need a Story: American Christianity, Vampires and Buffy, maintains that Buffy and the Scooby Gang reflect the postmodern American attitude toward religion that falls between faith and disbelief. Breakpoint columnist Roberto Rivera agrees, saying Whedon's characters acknowledge that there are "consequences" to their actions, but never draw a clear-cut moral line to say why.
As an example of this postmodern view, Erikson points to a scene in the fourth season called Who Are You?, in which vampires take over a church and hold the congregation hostage.
Vampire: "It's hard to believe. I've been avoiding this place for so many years, and it's nothing. It's nice! It's got the pretty windows, The pillars... lots of folks to eat. Where's the thing I was so afraid of? You know, the Lord?"
But the rest of the scene, which Erikson leaves out, answers the vampire's question.
The vampire says, "He (the Lord) was supposed to be here. He gave us this address. Well, we'll just have to start killing off His people, see if He shows up."
Buffy arrives, enters the church and closes the door.
Vampire: "I told the cops, they send any one in, I start the whole massacre thing."
Buffy: "Well, I'm not the cops. I just come to pray."
Vampire: "Now's a good time to start."
Buffy: "You're not gonna kill these people."
Vampire: "Why not?"
Buffy: "Because it's wrong"
(Multiple vampire-dusting ensues).
So in effect, the Lord does show up in the form of the Chosen One, the Vampire Slayer.
The questioning and searching for identity that drives many of the characters doesn't mean they've given up on finding a meaning to life. It means they're open to finding one. The transformation of Angel illustrates this best.
Angel is a studly vampire who early in his 240-year long career was affected by a Gypsy curse that gave him a soul and a conscience. Now his irresistible vampire desires for blood are countered by the anguish of guilt for his crimes. He is constantly being faced with how to atone for his deeds, a quest for redemption.
In short, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a parable, a postmodern morality play in which Buffy is a Christ figure, her Scooby Gang is the church and the vampires and demons represent the variety of temptation and moral hazards we all encounter in life. (In the throes of their blood lust, the special effects make the vampires develop features to emphasize they are "brute beasts"). How the characters respond in these trials determines their destiny. And in the Buffyverse, self-sacrifice is the only act that can bring salvation.
So, despite the characters' put-downs, wisecracks, sexual innuendos and apparent detachment, the long-term character development on the show tells a remarkable story of the power of giving.
The show severely critiques the cliches and assumptions of modern American Christianity:
Conservative Girl: "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?"
Buffy: "Uh, you know I meant to, and then I just got really busy."
But week after week it illustrates humanity's attempt to be whole, our struggle with alienation, our longing to belong, our need for a sense of destiny and real redemption.
As Jerome, an early church father and biblical scholar, remarked: "The marrow of a parable is different from the promise of its surface." Thus Buffy is not what she appears.
The finale of season six, The Gift, concerns Buffy and her sister, Dawn. Only we know that Dawn isn't her real sister. "She was created by some mysterious monks," Buffy says. "She's me. The monks made her out of me. I hold her ... and I feel closer to her than ... (looks down, sighs) It's not just the memories they built. It's physical. Dawn ... is a part of me. The only part that I- (stops)..."
Here we have a new metaphor taking shape. The identification between Buffy and Dawn is similar to that of Christ and his Bride/Body on earth. There is an overwhelming love there. And Buffy's response will be the same as Christ's. She will give her life to save Dawn.
Bear with me here as we set the stage.
The villain this time is named Glory, a demon so powerful she is referred to as a "god." She is trapped outside her own dimension. The threat (as usual) is the total annihilation of the world. She has captured Dawn, and Dawn's blood will be used in a ritual to open a portal briefly that will allow Glory to return to her own world. When Dawn dies, the portal will close. But the universe as we know it will be destroyed.
In a previous season, Buffy had to sacrifice Angel, the man she loves, to save the universe. But since then she's been experiencing a Garden of Gethsemane of doubt.
BUFFY: "I loved him so much. But I knew ... what was right. I don't have that any more. I don't understand. I don't know how to live in this world if these are the choices."
Buffy and her friends battle Glory and think they've won, but Dawn has been cut, blood flows and the portal begins to open. Dawn says she understands she has to die for the portal to close. But Buffy remembers that her blood and Dawn's are the same. She remembers the Spirit Guide once told her "death is your gift." She has always thought that meant she was to be a killer, a slayer of vampires. Now she sees a greater fulfillment before her.
She has a conversation with Dawn reminiscent of Christ's parting words to his disciples on the cross. "I love you. I will always love you. But this is the work that I have to do. You have to take care of them now. You have to take care of each other. The hardest thing in this world... is to live in it. Be brave. Live... for me." The camera catches Buffy leaping from the tower where the ritual was taking place, her outstretched arms forming a cross. The last scene is at the cemetery where the tombstone reads, "Buffy Anne Summers, 1981-2001, Beloved Sister, Devoted Friend, She Saved the World... A Lot."
Now, all that would be enough to rank Buffy as our Theologian of the Year. But the second episode of the next season finds Buffy-you guessed it- resurrected.
Her friend Willow concocts a spell to bring her back and that's when things really start getting weird. Buffy seems uncomfortable in the world again. Her friends are happy they brought her back, thinking she had been in a "hell dimension." Buffy's hands are bloodied from clawing her way out of her coffin after she woke up. They wonder if she's a zombie now, if she's really OK, and they make jokes about "jet-lag from hell."
But she confides to Spike what really happened.
BUFFY: "I was happy."
Spike looks at her in confusion.
BUFFY: "Wherever I ... was ... I was happy. At peace."
Spike stares, shocked.
BUFFY: "I knew that everyone I cared about was all right. I knew it. Time ... didn't mean anything ... nothing had form ... but I was still me, you know? (glances at him, then away) And I was warm ... and I was loved ... and I was finished. Complete. I don't understand about theology or dimensions, or ... any of it, really ... but I think I was in heaven."
Spike continues to stare at her in dismay.
BUFFY: "And now I'm not. (almost tearful) I was torn out of there. Pulled out ... by my friends. (Spike continues staring, listening) Everything here is ... hard, and bright, and violent. Everything I feel, everything I touch ... this is hell. Just getting through the next moment, and the one after that ... (softly) knowing what I've lost..."
She looks up, realizes Spike is still there. She looks uncomfortable, gets up.
BUFFY: "They can never know. Never."
To quote theologian Paul Tillich in The Shaking of the Foundations, "The new life could not really be new life if it did not come from the complete end of the old life."
Buffy has had many more adventures since that episode, and the sixth season ended with, of all things, a musical rendition of the Prayer of St. Francis playing in the background:
"Lord make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
And where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master grant that I may
Not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.
And it's in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Uh... I'd like to see 'em try that on The Sopranos.
"I realize every slayer comes with an expiration date on the package," Buffy once confided. "But I want mine to be a long time from now, like a Cheeto."
We hope so too, Buffy.