The gospel of Buffy

Author examines the spiritual side of the television vampire slayer

It started out as a joke.

Two academic women were laughing over the absurdity of writing a book about the spirituality of the teen TV show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” in May 2002. But by fall of that year, Jana Riess, religion book review editor at Publishers Weekly, was writing a book proposal.

It was the last thing the Winchester, Ky., resident thought she would do. When the popular show — which followed a movie and aired on WB and UPN from 1997 to 2003 — first came out, Riess was anything but interested.

“I thought it was ridiculous based on the name,” she said, sitting in a chair in her study with a life-size cardboard Buffy standup behind her.

Then, a year later, while suffering from morning sickness, she was flipping channels and by ‘fluke’ ended up watching the show about a teenage girl, Buffy, who slays vampires. Riess has been hooked ever since. The top shelf of an office bookcase is devoted to Buffy books. A Buffy action figure in a black leather jacket stands nearby.

“I should get myself a leather jacket,” joked Riess.

It is hard to imagine the 34-year-old mother, who is dressed in a long, loose, flowered dress, her face absent of makeup, clad in black leather. Almost as hard as picturing a Columbia University and Princeton Theological Seminary graduate writing a book about spirituality based on a TV character who looks like Barbie, slays vampires and calls religion “freaky.”

But Riess did. And “What Would Buffy Do? The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide” (Jossey-Bass, $14.95) is the result. Now Buffy cardboard standups, Buffy books and Buffy lollipops intrude upon the Oriental rugs, tasteful wooden furniture and simple white walls in the house Riess shares with her husband, Phil, her 5-year-old daughter, Jerusha, and her father- and mother-in-law.

Buffy, Spike and Shakespeare

Riess feels there are many things people can learn from television’s beautiful vanquisher of vampires. Each of the 11 chapters in her book outlines a different theme, such as self-sacrifice, which appears in the first chapter: “Be a Hero, Even When You’d Rather Go to the Mall.”

Riess illustrates how Buffy and her friends and enemies in the fictional town of Sunnydale teach us about forgiveness, redemption, consequences and the role of humor.

For those who missed the show, which has become something of a cult classic, Kerry Ose, who helped Riess come up with the original idea for the book, has written character and season guides that appear in the back of the book. It is here that characters such as Anya, “a 1,120-year-old vengeance demon,” and Adam, “a hybrid of demon, human and robot parts,” are outlined.

But the book isn’t just about the supernatural.

In every chapter, squeezed between the recounting of vampires rampaging in churches, slayers killing demons and invisible teenagers wreaking havoc are quotes from Confucius, Martin Luther and Mark Twain. Opposite a celebrity shot of Buffy actress Sarah Michelle Gellar is a Japanese proverb. On the same page as a discussion about Buffy’s friendship with Spike the vampire is a quote from Shakespeare.

Riess finds many religious symbols and meanings in the show. In the book’s introduction she explains there are 144 episodes, the biblical number of fullness and completeness. Later, she outlines how Buffy, Xander and Angel are “bodhisattvas,” beings who, according to Buddhist teaching, are more concerned with others’ welfare than their own.

But Buffy creator Joss Whedon is a self-declared atheist. Buffy at one point calls religion “freaky,” and other characters say, “What would Buffy do?” playing on the “What would Jesus do?” Christian movement. The creators and producers of the TV series and film did not endorse or support the book and could not be reached for comment on their intentions.

Restaurant host Montrell Bingham called the Buffy spirituality issue “kind of crazy.” But a couple of Louisvillians expressed some skepticism about spiritual advice arising from the Buffy show.

Said Montrell Bingham, an 18-year-old restaurant host: “It is kind of crazy, someone who kills anything giving you advice about anything spiritual.”

And Tiffany Meaux, a 21-year-old restaurant hostess, said, “As long as it doesn’t confuse spirituality with that show — because bats and vampires don’t exist.”

But evil does. And for Riess the show’s acknowledgement of evil is one of its strong points.

“Vampires are not a reality,” explained Riess. “But what they represent in terms of evil in the world, that is a reality.”

Then there are the good guys.

‘What would Buffy do?’

“Heroes come in all shapes and sizes,” said Riess. “And most of the time Buffy chooses to do the right thing.”

The same can’t be said for the characters of other popular TV shows.

“I don’t see myself spending a year talking about the spirituality of ‘Survivor’ or ‘American Idol,'” said the author.

But Buffy is another matter.

The blond vampire-slayer is a teacher’s pet. Last month, there was even a scholarly meeting conference in Nashville devoted solely to Buffy. The organizer, David Lavery, an English professor at Middle Tennessee State University, said Buffy is part of the curriculum in Australian secondary schools.

This summer, he devoted an entire course to her. He is also co-editor of Slayage, the Online International Journal of Buffy Studies (http://www.slayage.tv).

“Buffy deals constantly with issues of morality, choice and religion. And she does it in a way that is a lot more accessible to a college student than the plays of Ben Johnson.”

Regina Phillips, 36, a Louisville communications director and die-hard Buffy fan, agreed.

“I think there are some life lessons, especially in terms of finding oneself.”

But a spiritual guide?

“I think that’s a bit extreme.”

Still, Phillips, who named her dog Buffy, admits that people find spirituality in different places and said they could do a lot worse than Buffy.

“She represented a good person and tried to do good things for society,” she said. “And I think if someone connects with her as a character, and gets strength from that, I think that’s great.”

Phillips would be happy to hear that in addition to students and professors, Greek scholars, physicists, ecologists, folklorists, feminists and military strategists are just some of the academics who have written papers on Buffy.

But few have written about her in quite as approachable a way as Riess has, said Lavery, who has made her book required reading for his course “Special Topics in Film Studies: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

“If you could only read one book on Buffy,” he said, “this is it.”

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