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More Slayage fallout, or, I lied - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
More Slayage fallout, or, I lied
Okay, okay. Still reading Slayage 13/14, and that means Buffy posts. This one is inspired (if not particularly) related to Greg Erikson's The (A)theology of Buffy. It deals with the use of religious objects, the general attitude toward religion, etc. It's interesting.

I think that in an important sense, Buffy (like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter) asks profoundly religious questions about the meaning of life and so on. Yet, as in two of the other three (Star Wars does include a practiced religion, centered in the Jedi Temple, though it's vague), its relationship to actual religions and rituals in their religious context is all but absent. Tolkien (a deeply religious man) says that this is necessary, because fantasy already asks for a secondary belief, and imposing yet another "myth" within the myth weakens it. (Grr, I can't find the quote. I'm fairly certain it's in "On Fairy Stories.")

I don't have long to write a really long essay on this, but my question is, does the lack of a specific religious practic among the good characters actually allow for a more rigorous religious questioning in the text?

I have no interest in making psychological guesses about Joss Whedon. Just getting that out front. I don't know whether he really is an "angry atheist" or if he's a cleverly disguised evangelical preacher. And I don't care.

That the show deals with the largest religious issues--what do I need to do to be a good person? what's the nature of the universe? etc--isn't really what I want to talk about, either, though I have precisely six minutes to get into the complex subject that I do want to talk about, which is the specificity of certain questions raised.

For lack of time, I'll start with what was, for me, the most striking moment of Season 7, when the ensouled (and insane) Spike embraces a cross as it burns him, asking if he is worthy now. (Picture at the bottom of this page. This is an audacious scene--some very frank sexual talk in a church, just before the embrace of the cross--and I'm not sure that a more religiously oriented show would have dared do it. And yet it was, in its way, a very sincere religious image--the penitent, taking on the searing pain of a real act of contrition, and asking for forgiveness. Buffy is the supposed target of his speech, but he isn't facing her.

Aargh. I'm out of time.

The question I'd like to raise for discussion is, does the lack of specific religious committment in the production value actually leave the show freer to sincerely explore not just moral/ethical questions, but actual questions of religion and ritual?

Talk amongst youselves.[/Linda Richman] Gotta go for a couple of hours.
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sixth_light From: sixth_light Date: November 10th, 2004 06:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
So, I have seen about half an hour of Buffy, ever, but...

I would say yes, given that the exploration of possibly controversial topics by setting them in a non-standard background is one of the staple elements of fantasy. The questions that religion asks are important, but when they are asked in fictional works in the context of religion then they bring all the baggage of that religion's history with them, and the readers/watchers bring their preconceptions. This obscures, in my view, the ability to actually deal with the questions.

A good example from fantasy writing is Guy Gavriel Kay's The Lions of Al-Rassan. The novel is basically about the Christian conquest of Spain, set in an alternate universe where religions that worship the sun, moon and stars are stand-ins for Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. He makes no attempt to disguise the fact that it parallels the historical changes in the Iberian peninsula, but the translation into an alternate universe means that he can concentrate on the facts of how people treat and relate to each other, and what the "right thing to do" is in such an environment when patriotism and religion are set against friendship and humanity. Leaving out organised religion (although it is mentioned) and taking away the prejudices invoked by naming the three real-world religions focuses attention on the characters and the larger questions.

So I don't know about Buffy in particular, but I find that fantasy/sci-fi's ability to place real-world issues in fantastical contexts is its greatest strength in the exploration of those issues. (Especially as, where religion is concerned, it gives the ability to ask; this behaviour was/is acceptable/not-acceptable in the context of a real-world religion, but placed into another, made-up, religious context, does it still seem acceptable/un-acceptable? Is it a universal truth, and if it isn't, why should it be true in one context alone?)
From: arclevel Date: November 10th, 2004 09:44 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'd have to say yes. Thinking about it, Willow is mentioned several times in the first few seasons as being Jewish, but otherwise, every example I can think of where there's a moment where religion is explicitly mentioned or used is in early to mid Season 7 (all three of them). I think the scene you bring up is interesting as to what it says about Spike/William as well as for the various questions he/the scene raises.

Back to your question, though. I think that using any particular religion is too confining. If the Scoobies were Methodists (for instance) appointed by God to fight Satan, the Methodist church and similar religions would claim the show as their own, even if the producers explicitly indicated otherwise. The same would happen with nearly any real religion. I think this would have two results. First is that all sorts of theology, doctrines, and other positions (in addition to history and prejudices) would be assumed to go with the series and read into it by most people, whether or not it was intended. The other is that any time the series or any characters contradicted those assumptions, people would criticize it from that angle. They wouldn't look at it as a way to ask a question, they look at it as getting the answer wrong. The actual question gets lost in the mix. By having Buffy chosen by the Powers That Be (more or less) and fighting a tangible evil that most people don't believe exists, the questions aren't assumed to have answers already, which lets them be asked in peace.

I think this is a little like reading LotR from a general, as written point of view versus reading it while keeping in mind that its author was a devout Catholic and deliberately wrote religious themes into it. When you take the latter into effect, even though it's true, you may find yourself trying to force characters into little boxes where they don't belong most of the time (Aragorn as Messiah, for instance). If you just read it, you may miss some things, but you can more broadly explore issues like temptation and mercy.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: November 11th, 2004 01:15 am (UTC) (Link)
And Willow's Judaism seems to be used less in a religious way than in a strictly cultural one (which holidays she's celebrating in the winter, for instance, or problems with her father having a crucifix in her house, rather than with her own beliefs vis-a-vis the crucifix). I've thought about doing a fanfic about the High Holidays in the season 7 year, when she's a penitent--it seems like she might have wanted to go to services and there's nothing that suggests it doesn't--but it would have been very jarring to see it in the context of the aired episodes.
From: arclevel Date: November 11th, 2004 01:44 am (UTC) (Link)
I like that idea (write! err, after nanowrimo. and Shifts. You know, eventually).

One of the three moments I was thinking of was when she places stones on Tara's grave. My understanding is that that's a Jewish tradition, yes? If so, even if it's purely cultural, then it does seem to be the only time that she does seem to take her Judaism as something that she does, rather than what her parents do or as a general identity.
sreya From: sreya Date: November 11th, 2004 06:05 am (UTC) (Link)
I've been reading the Left Behind series since this past March. While I've immensely enjoyed the books, there have been some jarring moments because of the use of real religions. For example, in the first book the Pope is listed as one of the people who was taken in the Rapture, including him among the millions of holy people who disappeared. But later, in the second or third books, there was a throwaway line about how the Pope who disappeared had only been in that position for a short time and there'd been a big controversy because he was being "heretical".

Now, the point, I believe, had been that he was encouraging a more literal interpretation of the Bible, particularly Revelations, than the Catholic church endorses, and you really can't read Left Behind without assuming an extremely literal reading of the Bible. But as a Catholic, I was jarred out of the story, and my instinctive reaction was indignation. "What, are they saying the only way a Catholic could have been raptured is if he wasn't really a Catholic?"

As someone said, using real religions brings in a lot of baggage. And if the point is to be questioning faith and belief, the closer it gets to home, the harder it is to open up those questions. People naturally like to think they know everything already. Reading something that makes us question a basic part of our life is uncomfortable.

But by moving that questioning process into a fantasy, it's not so close to home that barriers are automatically thrown up anymore. It's a closed environment that allows a little more flexibility. It's easier to question whether Darth Vader can be redeemed and saved from the Dark Side than it is to question whether you can (or even should try to) bring your atheist cousin back into the church. It's easier to look at good vs evil when "good" isn't pre-defined by our own experiences.

And class is about to start, so I can't wrap this up properly. But I think Left Behind does present an example of how using specific religions can introduce different obstacles to overcome in writing a story that raises the same sort of questions.
From: arclevel Date: November 11th, 2004 06:31 am (UTC) (Link)
"What, are they saying the only way a Catholic could have been raptured is if he wasn't really a Catholic?"

Straying rather OT, but there are a lot of Protestant groups, largely Evangelicals, who believe something like this. Basically the idea is that you must do X and Y and Z to be saved, and while Catholic beliefs are not mutually exclusive from X, Y, and Z, they do not encourage them (or at least Z), and may discourage them to some extent. Thus, Catholics may be Christians (defined as "people who've been saved"), but most of them are not. (FTR, I disagree, but I've seen this in several places, worded in different ways.) Also, Left Behind is written from such a directly Evangelical Christian place that writing it outside of that specific religion would make it a completely different series. Probably a better one.
sreya From: sreya Date: November 11th, 2004 07:47 am (UTC) (Link)
Straying rather OT, but there are a lot of Protestant groups, largely Evangelicals, who believe something like this.

Which is why I was predisposed to suspect it in the first place. Although I think the books have not used that direction, at least not singling out Catholicism any more than any other sect. Like I said, I think the throwaway line was more to address the literalism problem than anything else. It was setting out the foundation on which the story rests.

Though there is a pretty clear message that just "belonging to a church" is insufficient, but that's definitely starting to get a little OT!

Also, Left Behind is written from such a directly Evangelical Christian place that writing it outside of that specific religion would make it a completely different series.

Yes, but the same can be said for the opposite, as well -- Harry Potter would be a completely different series if it was written as evangelical Christian fiction. But that's exactly the sort of thing I was trying to point out. By giving the books the world view that the authors chose, it limits the way various questions about religion can be addressed. But it also addresses questions in ways that are specific to Christianity, and would be difficult to go into with a fantasy religion. It wouldn't make sense in a fantasy to use falsh messiahs running around performing miracles and use them as a part of the wrong side -- in a typical fantasy, the people performing miracles are more likely to be the pool from which the heroes are drawn (eg Jedi).
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