am 30. Juni 2005
"The Gospel According to Peanuts" by Robert L. Short is the book that I remember beginning the long string of books look at popular culture artifacts for their spiritual value. You can find similar volumes on everything from Harry Potter and the Simpson to Tony Soprano and ESPN, so it is not surprising that a volume has come out looking at "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Jana Reiss has a masters of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary to go with a Ph.D. in religion from Columbia University and is the religion book review editor at "Publisher's Weekly." She is also a fan of Buffy, although she also likes Giles and Spike, so it is not surprising that she would decide to pursue the spiritual, religious, and mythological ideas of the television series.
For me the pivotal episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" in terms of the religious implications was "Amends," the third season episode written and directed by series creator Joss Whedon in which Angel is tormented by apparitions of three of his victims, including Jenny Calendar, which are really manifestations of the First. Just before dawn Buffy finds Angel on a bluff overlooking Sunnydale, waiting for sunrise so that he can die and have peace. Buffy pleads and then lashes out in anger at Angel, but before the sun can rise it starts to snow. The sun will not shine in Sunnydale that day because of the freak snowstorm. Before this episode was over I was pointing out that Whedon had just worked God into the Buffyverse. After all, who else could make it snow besides God?
Well, now we know the answer would be the Powers That Be, which are certainly god-like beings, but not the Judeo-Christian creator. Yet given that Buffy usually wears a cross that burns vampires when it comes into contact with them (e.g., "Angel") and that holy water burns vampires too (e.g., "Helpless"), it seems strange to ignore the implications of Christianity for "BtVS." After all, Willow Rosenberg often talks about the fact that she is Jewish, which at least gets you in the theological ballpark.
But where Riess wants to make the connection between Buffy and Christianity are the show's elements of apocalypse and sacrifice as well as those of redemption and resurrection. After all, Buffy, the "Savior in a Micro-Mini," has been resurrected twice, in "Prophecy Girl" and "Bargaining, Part I," and that is a hard parallel to ignore. Besides, Riess is also interested in exploring the need for humor in fighting spiritual battles, so this is not a book that is focused on scriptural analysis. Yes, there are Bible verses in this book, but Giles the Watcher is quoted a lot more than the apostle Paul, and you will also get great thoughts from the Buddha, Sophocles, William Shakespeare, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson as well.
"What Would Buffy Do?" has three main sections. The first deals with issues of Personal Spirituality and the reader's own spiritual journey: (1) Be a Hero Even When You'd Rather Go to the Mall: The Power of Self-Sacrifice; (2) Changes Make Us Human: Embracing the River of Change; (3) Death is Our Gift: What Death Can Teach Us About Living; (4) "The Anger Gives You Fire": Can Negative Emotions Be Constructive?; and (5) The "Monster Sarcasm Rally": Humor as Power. The lessons here have to do with embracing change as a spiritual teacher and balancing emotions.
The second section, Companions on the Journey, expands to look at relationships with families, friends, and mentors: (6) "What Can't We Face If We're Together?": The Power of Friendship; (7) Obey Your Teacher, Except When He's Wrong: Spiritual Mentors on the Path to Maturity"; and (8) The Higher Way: Choosing Forgiveness over Revenge." The final section, Saving the World, looks at the biggest issue of a social engaged spirituality: (9) What Goes Around Comes Around: Consequences; (10) The Monster Inside: Taming the Darkness Within Ourselves; and (11) "Redemption Is Hard": Personal Deliverance in the Buffyverse," which focuses on the fates of Angel, Faith, and Spike.
What I like about this book is that it is grounded in analysis of the episodes of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and "Angel" to a lesser extent. When Whedon created Buffy the idea was to flip the stereotype of the blonde girl falling victim to the monster when she walks down the ally, but the subtext of the television version of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was the simple reality that "high school is hell." That idea was expanded to include college in particular and life in general, but that fundamental idea becomes the best foundation Riess has for making the case for Buffy's spirituality. In the end her point is that the message of "BtVS" is that although it is great for us to have our own quests and spiritual journeys such things are meaningless unless they are in the service of others.
I am not troubled by how Riess tries to speak to the Buffy faithful as well as the neophytes who come late to the party. The back of this volume includes A Guide to Buffy's Seven Seasons, which looks at each season thematically as well as chronologically, and a Buffy Character Guide arranged season by season, which explains the characters rather than just describing them. There is also an interview with Eliza Dushku (Riess interviewed the actresses' mother, Judy Dushku, for her undergraduate thesis many years ago).
There have been several academic looks at "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" in the last couple of years, from a look at "Slayer Slang" to approaching the series from a philosophical perspective. "What Would Buffy Do?" has the virtue of being one of the more accessible books attempting to find great meaning in the series. The appeal here will be for fans who always knew that Buffy mattered to their lives and can now understanding how its ethics and morality come into play even if you are not out there saving the world (a lot).