Buffy takes on religion

Book looks at ‘most moral show’ on TV

Jana Riess liked watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer — a lot.

She liked the television show’s witty dialogue and demon butt-kickings.

But there were other reasons she was drawn to the one-hour comedy-drama, which had a seven-season run.

Riess, the religion book review editor for Publishers Weekly magazine, said she was having conversations — serious, deep conversations — with friends and colleagues, stemming from the spiritual and ethical aspects of Buffy and its characters.

The show, which still runs in syndication, featured Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy) as “The Chosen One,” a young woman on a mission to rid the world of vampires.

“They were always pushing the envelope,” she said of the show’s writers. “It’s funny, it’s smart. It’s also very creepy.”

Riess wanted to look past the show’s violence, scantily clad characters and other controversial portrayals that drew criticism. So she wrote a book combining her key interests, calling it What Would Buffy Do?

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What Would Buffy Do? : The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide

What Would Buffy Do? : The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide
Playing off the Christian youth mantra “What would Jesus do?” (which the show also pokes fun at in an episode where Xander tells Buffy, “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?’ “), Riess dissects the show’s moral message according to three themes: personal spirituality, companions (friends and family) and saving the world.

By Jana Riess

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Religion, meet Buffy.

In the book’s 183 pages, Riess explores spirituality and underlying religious messages found in the show’s 144 episodes.

“It’s the most moral show on television,” said Riess, who lives in Winchester.

The book bears chapters with titles such as “Be a Hero, Even When You’d Rather Go to the Mall” and “Redemption Is Hard.”

The book ponders friendship, forgiveness, self-sacrifice and several other tidbits of deep-thinking and spirituality that Riess says she found in Buffy.

She notes that the show made reference to or drew inspiration from Christianity, Buddhism and other faiths. But Buffy, created by a self-professed atheist, often dismisses organized religion.

Buffy and her friends are similar to characters in religious texts, Riess said.

“Buffy is a Messiah figure,” Riess said. “She is the one individual in her generation who is charged with saving the world.”

Riess did her research. She watched every Buffy episode, most of them multiple times. She read critical reviews of the show and books on vampires.

The show’s last episode aired in 2003. Yet Buffy has reached cult status, said David Lavery, an English professor at Middle Tennessee State University.

By the end of this year, 12 books will be available exploring the nuances of Buffy, said Lavery, co-editor of Slayage, an online academic journal devoted to “Buffy studies” (www.slayage.tv (http://www.slayage.tv)).

And What Would Buffy Do? is on the forefront of that academic pursuit, Lavery said.

“It’s really, really smart, but it’s also very readable,” he said.

Riess’ book was released in May to coincide with the Slayage conference in Nashville, where 180 presentations on Buffy were made by college professors and other academics. Riess blended well into that crowd. She has advanced degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary and Columbia University.

The book’s publisher has shipped 20,000 copies since the May release, publicist Kelly Hughes said.

And Reiss has already received e-mails from Buffy buffs who have found omissions in the book’s text.

Said Reiss: “It shows how passionate people are about Buffy.”

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