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'Buffy' Book Shines a Light on the TV Drama's Spirituality

'What Would Buffy Do?' joins the trend of exploring religion through pop culture. It's become a hit among the show's devotees.

June 05, 2004|William Lobdell | Times Staff Writer

When Buffy the Vampire Slayer died (the second time), the epitaph on her tombstone read "She Saved the World a Lot."

The willingness of Buffy, high school cheerleader and demon killer, to lay down her young life so humankind could live echoes the central theme of the New Testament.

And for many Buffyologists, that's no coincidence. They see it as part of the eclectic mix of spirituality that appeared throughout the seven-year span of the critically acclaimed television series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

"[The show] constantly deals with the great spiritual problems: life, death, morality, friendship, love," said David Lavery, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University who runs what he calls an "online international journal for Buffy studies."

The show's spiritual underpinnings -- already the subject of scholarly research at major universities -- have been compiled in a new book, "What Would Buffy Do? The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide," by Jana Riess.

Her work has been an instant hit among Buffyphiles, causing Riess' publisher (Jossey-Bass) last weekend to deliver overnight 70 additional copies to academics at a "Buffy" conference in Nashville after the first batch quickly sold out.

"I suspect [Riess' book] will quickly be considered part of the Buffy studies canon -- if it isn't already," said Tanya Cochran, who uses "Buffy" to teach freshman writing at Georgia State University.

"What Would Buffy Do?," published in April, joins a growing library of popular literature that deconstructs popular movies and television shows to expose their religiosity. In the last few years, books have been written about the spiritual lives of Harry Potter, the Simpsons and the Star Trek voyagers. And pastors often borrow from movies, television shows and catchy commercials to illustrate spiritual points or frame sermon series. At the Pastors.com website, the titles of available messages include "God's Extreme Makeover" and "Survivor: Surviving Life's Challenges."

The current trend of exploring religion through pop culture icons actually started 35 years ago when a small Louisville, Ky., publisher released "The Gospel According to Peanuts," by Robert L. Short, a Presbyterian pastor. The book has sold more than 10 million copies.

"That paved the way for all the rest of us," said Riess, who holds a doctorate in religious history and is the religion book review editor at Publishers Weekly.

With her book, Riess has mined a surprisingly rich vein for scholarly research based on a television show (1997-2003) that never cracked the top 50 in ratings, though TV Guide this week ranked it the No. 3 cult hit of all time.

At first glance, "Buffy" is a high-concept teen series about a California teenager (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) whose hometown, Sunnydale, was built on a gateway to hell. Luckily for residents, Buffy is the latest in an ancient line of vampire slayers.

But scholars say they are attracted to the profound themes -- about life, death and the difficult issues in between -- explored in the show.

"The series and the characters -- together and individually -- touch viewers, touch me, on such a deeply human level that the experience is almost transcendent," Cochran said.

The recent academic conference on "Buffy" drew more than 350 participants from around the world. It included three sessions devoted to "Buffy" and religion with such insights as "Self Becoming or Becoming Self? A Comparative Study of Buffy and the Hindu Saint Antal on Identity and Self-Realization"; "This Is How Many Apocalypses for Us Now? The Buffyverse Apocalyptic and Premillennialist Christianity"; and "Marian Symbols in 'Buffy.' "

By the time the series ended, scholars say "Buffy" had deftly placed many of religion's most complex issues -- the nature of evil, the need for forgiveness, how death shapes spirituality -- in front of unsuspecting viewers drawn in by the show's witty dialogue ("I'm just gonna go home, lie down and listen to country music. The music of pain"), vampire fights or Buffy's micro-miniskirts.

"But the minis went out after the first season," Riess notes. "They weren't very practical for fighting vampires."

The spiritual genius of "Buffy," academics say, is that it didn't offer any neatly packaged, movie-of-the-week conclusions, and showed the struggles and failures of teens and others during their quests for the divine.

"Sometimes the characters screw up royally, but then they got a chance to learn about repentance, forgiveness and the love of their friends," Riess said.

She says those committed to religion should take "Buffy" seriously, especially leaders looking to reach younger generations.

"Some people of faith have tried to close their eyes to popular culture and imagine it's not relevant to their lives," Riess said. "Here's an example of how to introduce spiritual themes and then point people toward more traditional sources."

Riess says she got the idea for "What Would Buffy Do?" while talking with a friend about the show.

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