Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
Postmodern Theologian Extraordinaire or Pop-Cultural Parenthesis?

by Andrew Mellas

What does Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the 'Chosen one', the one who does battle against the forces of evil, have to do with Eastern Orthodoxy? Perhaps it is the acme of skylarking tomfoolery to even attempt such a comparative reading but in, this age of terminal cynicism and endless boredom, it takes a heroine of natural blondness, packing a preternatural sense of epigrammatical humour and a unique taste in fashion to guide us away from the path leading to perdition.

It is the instinctive response of many 'mature' people to be dismissive of the concept of a girl who is chosen to slay vampires and keep watch over the hellmouth as puerile, and yet it is common practice to tell children fairy tales, stories of fantasy that we never tire of hearing even when we have 'grown up'. According to G. K. Chesterton, "Fairy tales are more than true. Not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be defeated". And Pablo Picasso argues, "art is a lie that makes us realise the truth". Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of the most popular television programs of the last decade and although it may owe a great deal of its success to star Sarah Michelle Gellar or the emotional resonance it generates, the element of the show that ultimately secures its importance is its subtext.

Subtext? What subtext? Try postmodern morality play, or Kantian ethics, or Platonic eudaimonism. Or, more to the point of this article, let us take a glance at Religion in the Buffyverse.

Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy, may be a self proclaimed atheist but ever since Roland Barthes announced the death of the author, who among us can resist the temptation to read a text and to do so without fear of Shakespeare or Dickens or Eliot shaking his authorial staff at us in contempt?

Perhaps the most characteristic aspect of the Buffyverse is its ability to draw on the power of myth to provide us with an oblique representation of reality. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the champion of all that is good is in love with a vampire: Angel. Angel is a vampire that has been cursed by gypsies and is thereby in possession of a soul. Mayor Wilkins, despite planning an apocalypse of doom is obsessed with hygiene and Middle American virtues. Glory, the ruler of a hell dimension who has been locked out is an über-consumer who goes on shopping sprees. Why does this all sound strangely familiar? Why have so many viewers been able to identify with such zany plots? The answer not unlike fairy tales is because we like hearing tales told to us and, more importantly, we like having tales told to us that open windows into our own reality we had, hitherto, never thought of looking through.

But I am digressing. Religion! That's where we were... What role does religion play in Buffy? Are there aspects of Eastern theology discernible amidst the paradoxical mayhem of the show? Let us take that glance. In the episode "Triangle" when Buffy visits a convent looking to escape from her bad run of men, she asks a nun, "Do you have to be, like, super religious?"

And then there's Buffy's ability to laugh in the face of impending doom: "If the apocalypse comes, beep me" or in her utter confusion in the face of Evangelism:

Evangelical at University asks, "Have you accepted Christ as your saviour?"
Buffy answers, "Uh, you know… I meant to and... then I just got really busy..."

It does not take the most astute student of theology to realise that Buffy does not freely espouse the precepts of Christianity and yet its entire bedrock is riddled with Eastern Orthodoxy. Why is this not apparent? Because it's a subtext and, like all great subtexts, it is only perceptible in a latent form. Myth is employed to disguise it.

Evil, for example, is not presented as embodied in some great and powerful being that stands as the adversary of God. When Buffy confronts the First Evil she literally scoffs at its non existent face:

First Evil: "I am the First...
Beyond sin, beyond death..."
Buffy [sarcastically]: "Alright, I get it, you're 'evil', enough already!"

This rings true with the Orthodox conception of the Devil. Satan has never been the lofty figure of Mephistopheles that the West has propagated. The Devil is not majestic he is a dissembling parasite characterised by mediocrity. As St Macrina has so eloquently stated, "Evil only has its existence in its non existence".

In the Buffyverse, the First Evil cannot take material form; it only appears to the characters in the guise of someone already dead and does so with the intention of conversing with them. And it is in this insidious way that evil operates in Buffy: "From beneath you it devours" (Spike to Buffy in the first episode of Season seven). Are we not told in the gospel that when the Devil lies "he speaks from his very nature" (John 8:44)? The "very nature" of the evil one, from where he draws his deception, is then nothingness since a lie points to that which is false. Thus St Gregory of Nyssa could define evil as having a phantom like substance.

"Prince of this world" though he was properly called by Christ himself, Satan remains a creature of God. Did this mean, a Manichean would ask, that the being of the Devil was good? St John of Damascus would reply in the affirmative. Buffy would agree, acknowledging that even the demons were good inasmuch as God created them, but the loss of their appointed purpose had made them evil. An event occurring as a result of the exercise of one's free will. A choice not easily unmade; yet nonetheless a possible one as evidenced by Spike's cultivation of a soul.

At the end of the fifth Season of Buffy, our heroine chooses to sacrifice her own life to save her sister Dawn. Before this cataclysmic event, she has visited an oracle appearing in the form of the slayer a quest that in Christ like fashion - is undertaken in the desert.

Buffy is told by the oracle that, contrary to her fears that the calling of slayerhood is destroying her ability to love, she is full of love and that love will lead her to her gift: death.

The Buffyverse equates humanity with compassion, love and love's ultimate sacrifice: death. In concordance with Orthodoxy, the destiny of man or women is not viewed in terms of justification from sin and guilt - salvation is not bounded by parameters but rather an outpouring of love that compels God to leave the summit of His silence, moved by divine love (Nicholas Cabasilas uses the term manikon eros) and suffer in the flesh in order to restore the ancient dignity and divine beauty to the human person.

In the sixth season when Buffy is resurrected from the dead through Willow's magical efforts, she confides in Spike that she was not taken out of some hell dimension of suffering as her friends believed but in fact torn out of paradise by people who couldn't bear her absence:

"Time didn't mean anything… but I was still me… 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. They can never know…".

Could anyone ever better enunciate Orthodox doctrine of the afterlife? The Church never sought exact doctrinal statements on the "beyond": "You have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God" (Colossians 5: 3).

Perhaps the ultimate image of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that exemplifies the essence of Christianity and yet does not fanatically espouse it is at the end of the sixth Season when Xander confronts Willow just before yet another apocalypse.

Willow's lover Tara has been murdered and the rage that ensues in her heart causes her to adopt a magic that comes from the darkest chasms of her being, a magic that is completely wayward in its focus. Willow becomes unimaginably powerful and threatens to bring about the end of the world. And contrary to the natural predicability of some programs, the episode does not end with Buffy doing battle in an epic melee with her long time friend.

It is Xander, the simple carpenter, with his unbending faith in Willow who has the courage to face her and confess his love for her. A love that was born in kindergarten when Willow broke the yellow crayon and cried uncontrollably; a love that grew in high school when they became best friends; a love that did not waver when Willow became all black eyed and world destroying out of grief and malice; a love that will always differentiate the sinner from the sin: "A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another" not as you love yourselves, but "as I have loved you" (Christ to his Apostles, John 13:34).

from The Greek Australian Vema, June 2003, p. 20.

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