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by Todd Hertz

What Would Buffy Do?

Is it possible to call for help ironically—and really mean it?

When writer director M. Night Shyamalan released his alien-invasion movie Signs in 2002, he explained that he used such a populist, blockbuster plotline (as he also did with Sixth Sense's ghost story and Unbreakable's superhero tale) to open heady themes to audiences who normally wouldn't watch introspective movies. The Matrix also used this tactic: lure audiences with slick special effects and explosions and then ask deep philosophical questions.

Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, went in another direction. His cult favorite TV show certainly explored the Big Questions, but he didn't want just anyone to watch it. He says he gave the show a ridiculous name because if people couldn't get past it, he didn't want them watching. If viewers could accept the ironic name and the incongruous plot (about a California girl hunting vampires), Whedon figured, they must have the ironic sensibilities and openness needed to get what he was doing. He wanted viewers to have to work to get the show: to dedicate themselves to consistent watching and to get past the outward appearance that this was Dawson's Creek with demons.

Apparently, he found the right audience. During its seven-season run (ending in May 2003), Buffy never had big ratings. But it did win critics' raves and an aggressively loyal following that made it a cultural phenomenon. In perhaps exactly the reaction Whedon wanted from his viewers, fans didn't just watch episodes—they devoured and digested them. (For example, check out Slayage: The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies.)

Whedon's baby began as a flippant 1992 movie of the same name, in which an L.A. cheerleader is told that she is her generation's chosen one, a slayer born with supernatural abilities to fight the very real demons that walk our earth. Serving as only the film's writer, Whedon was unhappy with the cheesiness of its execution and took the story back into his own hands for the 1997 launch of the TV series.

The show started with Buffy Summers as a high school sophomore on her first day at a new high school. There, she found a mentor, librarian Rupert Giles, and two new best friends, Willow and Xander. The four of them, along with various on-and-off companions, made up a slaying tag-team nicknamed the Scooby Gang (in reference to the sleuthing teens of the cartoon).

In What Would Buffy Do?, Jana Riess calls the show a "classic medieval morality play…[that] was easily one of the most moralistic programs on tv. Although the series often expressed ambivalence about organized religion, and was created by a self-professed atheist, it offered powerful depictions of core spiritual values at work in the lives of its major characters."

Riess, the religion book editor for Publishers Weekly, has a doctorate in the history of American religion, but she doesn't write like the typical academic. Nor does she make the common mistake of theologically minded pop-culture analysts, who explain how this or that movie or series or graphic novel or hip-hop group is really Christian, despite appearances to the contrary. She readily and often acknowledges the show's mish-mash of Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, and Wiccan influences. She writes as a fan, first and foremost, although an uncommonly knowledgable and perceptive fan, and she reads Buffy the Vampire Slayer on its own terms as a show about growing and searching, loving and supporting, making mistakes and finding redemption.

Riess focuses her book on the premise that Buffy and the Scoobies' seven seasons together were a spiritual journey. It's important to note that Buffy's characters had little need for a deity of any shape. And it is clear that any atonement for sins or search for redemption (which there were a lot of) started and ended with the good works of the individual. Therefore, the spiritual journeys of the characters were primarily struggles to better understand life, to do right and not wrong, and to control the inner demons that plagued them.

On this shared journey, the Scoobies supported one another, held each other accountable, and occasionally backslid as they learned what it meant to be human, to be alive, and to stand against evil. But what they believed in passionately was the presence of good, the need to live ethically, and the ability to make the world a better place by caring. Because of that, many spiritual values worth Christian exploration are core to the Scoobies' walk. Riess' book reads like a primer to these key spiritual values—self-sacrifice, mentoring, sinfulness, forgiveness, redemption, etc.—using the common language of Buffy to explain and probe. And since all the teaching analogies come from a show that's aired its final episode, the book is a comprehensive reflection on what Buffy had to say about spiritual matters.

One example of Riess' insight comes in the chapter on negative emotions and the spiritual journey. She lines up the show's three slayers, Buffy, Kendra, and Faith, to show how differing degrees of passion affect an individual's walk. (No, Buffy wasn't the only slayer in her generation—long story.) Kendra shows no emotion. She doesn't let anger or happiness enter into her job. Faith is the anti-Kendra. She is 100 percent emotion, both venting and reveling in her slayage. Buffy, Riess asserts, is the balance. Her checked emotions aid her on her path, but they don't control her.

Many of Riess' lessons stem from the show's very nature. Buffy's world is very ambiguous—there are definite blacks and whites, but there's also a whole lot of gray. Characters are not merely good or evil. A human who is bitten by a werewolf has to learn to control his inner beast, but in a way so does every character on the show.

Buffy's ambiguity extends to how events unfold. Situations are not tied up when the music swells each week. Instead, consequences unfold for several seasons at a time. Choices matter. Decisions in season two return to haunt characters in season six. The guiding principles for these decisions are the characters' intense love for others and their dedication to do good. But everyone messes up—often in the same way again and again—and when they do, Buffy's thesis rings true: We might be strong alone, but we're stronger together.

Before Buffy, the role of slayer was a lone duty. There were no Scoobies. Vampires facing Buffy are often surprised to see her little vampire-killing club. "The slayer doesn't have friends!" But this is what makes Buffy stronger than all other slayers. She isn't alone on her journey. In true biblical fellowship, she walks with accountability, a mentor, and fellow travelers.

Not that Whedon set out to promote a biblical view of life—hardly. In the fourth season, Scooby-member Xander explains why Buffy is a hero to him. "When it's dark and I'm all alone and I'm scared or freaked out or whatever, I always think, 'What would Buffy do?' "

Like much in the show, this works at multiple levels. It's a satiric jab at those tragically unhip kids who wear WWJD bracelets. It's another litmus test (are you among the chosen who are cool enough to watch this show?). And yet it's not simply a joke—far from it. It's an acknowledgment that in a world of ambiguity, a world where good is in mortal combat with evil, we desperately need a reliable guide.

Is it possible to cry for help ironically—and really mean it? If so, maybe this is what it sounds like. "What would Buffy do?"

Todd Hertz is associate editor for Campus Life magazine.

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