This deliciously campy, character-driven, ensemble-cast show from producer Joss Whedon (Firefly, The Avengers) explored a huge number of themes of social importance at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries. As with any really good science-fiction/fantasy/horror story, Buffy (and its spin-off series, Angel) struggle with the nature of good and evil, anxiety around technology and the prevalence of cruelty and violence in the world, and the frailties and difficulties of human relationships. I’ve mentioned a few of my particular topics in other places, but in my growing series of Cleric Enjoys Media notes, this is just a few things I found remarkable in Buffy.
1. Where are all the priests?
If it were my story of people confronting the occult and the mysterious, you can bet your bottom dollar that I would include at least one deeply religious character. I’ll admit my bias – I’d want to be that character. But when Buffy talks directly about “God” as such (and she’s the only one who does, show-wide), it’s basically in a sort of apathetic agnosticism. God’s existence or not has no bearing on her responsibility or her destiny.
This is all especially odd because the show is replete with religious symbolism and imagery. Much of the early show hinges on the possession and movement of souls, which are clearly existent and important for human life. Vampires are damaged by crosses and will recoil in their presence, a courtesy granted to no other religious symbols. And a reference is made to a vampire being present at the Crucifiction…which indicates that A) it happened, and B) even to vampires, it was an important moment for some reason.
In the show as a whole, there are two clergy-persons – the officiant at a funeral, and the officiant at a wedding, neither of whom speak directly to any of the main characters. For a producer and writer so aware of the power of clergy as characters (cf. Shepherd Book in Firefly), the absence of the servants of the church or even of a dedicatedly Christian character seems an odd choice.
2. What is heaven?
SPOILER ALERT – you might want to stop reading here if you ever plan to watch the show.
Probably the most heartbreaking and beautiful event in the whole of the show for me came at the beginning of the sixth season. Buffy, having died, has been resurrected by her friends using ancient and dangerous magicks. Her little crew has been convinced that she is suffering in some sort of diabolical dimension. Surely, when she returns to earth, she is dazed and clearly out-of-it, much as Angel (also banished to a hell dimension earlier in the show) when he first came back.
She reveals to Spike, later, though, that while she was very much spiritually in another dimension, it is not a hell at all. As she says to Spike,
Wherever I was, I was happy. At peace. 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? 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.
I have to admit that this episode stopped me in my tracks in the show. I felt so much for her – so deeply for her plight that it was very difficult for me to re-start the show. Much of the sixth season is grounded in Buffy’s effort to snap out of the resulting depression, a depression she can only escape when she re-commits herself to enjoying and drinking in the joys of life on earth. I have to admit that I resonated. It was not an easy season to watch, and not an easy concept to contemplate, but I think that, aside the mis-clarity about the presence of God in such a place, I have never read nor seen a better description in fiction of what I think heaven will be like.
3. A Note on the Soul
Angel is introduced at the very beginning of the show as a vampire with a soul – a character who struggles with doing the right thing constantly. This character is one of my favorite tropes – Edward in the Twilight series is another instance of the set, but pretty much anytime you’ve got a guy who’s having a hard time deciding how to be good or do the right thing, I’m interested.
The history behind Angel’s soul is relatively unimportant, except for this – the soul is presented in the show as the producer of remorse – a creature with a soul is capable of (and, indeed, in Angel’s case, forced into) a reckoning of past wrongs.
I have a theological problem – a number of them, really – but I have to admit that they were all overborne by the charm of the idea as a soul as a thing that can, under certain mystical circumstances, be given…or taken. As a maguffin and a plot point, Angel’s soul is a fantastic tool. It gives to the character motivation and meaning – it gives to the show tension and drama.
As with all good media of this type, I submit – the purpose in our myths and stories is to help us reflect on what we believe. I believe in a soul – I also believe that while a soul can be damaged or driven into hiding, it can never be taken, and it can never be destroyed. Even when Angel’s soul is missing, it is still existent – “floating in the aether,” the characters say. Where is your soul? Where does it live? How do you care for it? These are questions I confront sometimes with my brothers and sisters in faith, and questions that I am glad Buffy gave me some time to sit with.