Jana Riess – What Would Buffy Do?: The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide – TheoFantastique Podcast 2.5
There has been a lot of discussion about various aspects of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but surprisingly, very little about the spiritual aspects of the television series and pop culture phenomenon. Thankfully this topic has been explored capably by Jana Riess in her book What Would Buffy Do?: The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide (Jossey-Bass, 2004). Below is an interview with Jana from a press kit accompanying the book, but you can also listen as she also explores additional topics, including Buffy’s postmodern religious pastiche, various treatments of the soul, and how to deal with the monstrous other as well as our own inner mosnter in TheoFantastique Podcast 2.5.
Q: You were once embarrassed to admit that you enjoyed BTVS. How does a once-closeted Buffy watcher make the leap to writing a book about the show?
A: Now I’m just embarrassed that I was ever embarrassed. I proudly proclaim that Buffy is the best show that’s ever appeared on television. The first time I saw it, I was surprised by its depth and taken in by its clever, rapid-fire dialogue. I thought, “I’m supposed to be a scholar! How can I love something as unlikely as Buffy the Vampire Slayer?” Then, I realized that some of the best conversations that my friends and I had about ethics, spirituality, and religion were sparked by scenes from Buffy. I read some of the tremendous interpretive work that’s been done on the show, and realized that I had something to contribute.
Q: What are some of the spiritual themes you’ve identified in the show?
A: Buffy is a complex and nuanced series, full of ambiguity. It offers no clear-cut answers, but it takes moral and spiritual issues very seriously. I’m particularly interested in the theme of self-sacrifice in the series. Buffy is a superhero who continually subjugates her own desires to serve the greater good and save the world. And she’s not the only one: Xander, Angel and even Spike teach us how such sacrificial love is the core of morality.
Forgiveness, redemption, consequences, and the role of humor, are a few other themes. My favorite chapter is about how death is our gift. It draws on the show and on Buddhist and Christian spirituality to demonstrate that the unavoidable reality of death should add joy and meaning to our lives and relationships.
Q: Which episodes impressed you the most with their handling of spiritual or moral issues?
A: Some of the season finales—“Prophecy Girl” (1.12), “The Gift” (5.22) and “Chosen” (7.22)—explore what it means to lay down our lives for others. The season six finale “Grave” (6.22) is the most gorgeous expression of the Christian Passion that I’ve ever seen on TV: Xander saves the world through stubborn unconditional love and a willingness to endure ritual wounding to express that love. I also appreciate the episodes that address redemption, which on Buffy and Angel is something that we create for ourselves through the selfless deeds we do for others. Willow’s quest for redemption in season seven, and Faith’s earlier struggle, are unforgettable story arcs. It’s no accident that the one who helps Faith on the road to atonement is Angel, whose whole life is defined by his struggle to make amends.
Q: How prominent are Buddhist themes in the show?
A: Although Buffy creator Joss Whedon is a self-professed atheist, I think he might also be a Buddhist, and those two things are not incompatible. I see strong Buddhist themes in Buffy and in Angel—the shifting nature of reality as perceived by the self, the tension between attachment and non-attachment, the privileging of direct experience over received tradition. Both Buffy and Angel are bodhisattvas, individuals who forsake their own chance at nirvana in order to save others. They’re all about mindful compassion and service.
Q: How is organized religion portrayed on the show?
A: The show takes an eclectic and cheeky approach to religion, mixing Christian symbols, Buddhist themes, Wiccan ethics, and sprinkled references to Judaism. While not religious per se, Buffy is deeply spiritual, and understands the real purpose of religion. More than creeds, dogmas and institutions, religion is about community— something Joss Whedon understands remarkably well.
Organized religion is not always portrayed positively—as Buffy says, “Note to self: religion freaky.” The show mirrors the approach of Generations X and Y, standing aloof from institutional religion, but maintaining a fascination with personal spirituality. In season four, for example, Buffy is asked whether she’s accepted Jesus Christ as her personal savior. She answers that she meant to, but got too busy. Well, she’s been busy saving us from demons night after night! She never stops acting as salt and light, though she rejects the outer trappings of religion.
Q: Is Buffy a moral exemplar?
A: Buffy is usually an outstanding role model. At times she descends into her own selfishness or pain, as we all do, and makes poor choices. What makes the show so real is that Buffy makes mistakes, learns from them, moves on . . . and then may make the same mistakes again. The flaws in her character speak to me just as much as her nobility does. But when the chips are down – and are they ever up in Sunnydale? – Buffy comes through every time. She dies twice to save humanity, and sacrifices her time and talents 24/7 to fight our monsters. I’m glad she’s on our side.
Q: Would Buffy read your book?
A: Nah. She’s far too busy with the slayage. But this book can help the rest of us to understand our own mission and calling. We are “chosen ones” too—chosen to live meaningfully and to contribute something to this world.