Book Review: Joss Whedon and Religion: Essays on an Angry Atheist’s Explorations of the Sacred, Anthony R. Mills, ed. (2013)March 12th, 2014 8:44 am by Kelly Garbato
“Oh…my…Goddess!” (In which an “angry atheist” is pleasantly surprised by a religious journey through the Whedonverse.)
(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)
As a Joss Whedon fan and a fellow self-described “angry atheist,” I approached Joss Whedon and Religion: Essays on an Angry Atheist’s Explorations of the Sacred with some trepidation. Specifically, I was worried that the authors who contributed to this anthology – many of them theologians – might be dismissive of or downright hostile to Whedon’s beliefs. Happily, this isn’t the case. After all, many (if not all) of them are fellow Whedon fans, even if they don’t share in his atheism. While some authors are critical of certain aspects of Whedon’s work, I suspect that this primarily comes from a place of love: it’s those you respect most who have the greatest potential to let you down.
As with any anthology, Joss Whedon and Religion is a bit of a mixed bag, with all of the pieces trending toward “adequate” to “excellent.” Some authors are heavier on the academic jargon than others; overall, I found most of the contributions to be fairly readable. (Some of the heavier stuff is tempered by more enjoyable, in-depth discussions of, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Dollhouse. Warning: you will want to revisit your favorite shows by book’s end!) Occasionally, I had to take a breather to further research a specific topic, usually religious in nature; those who have a better background in religion (specifically Judeo-Christian) will no doubt have an easier time of it.
Due to the religious iconography prominently displayed on the cover (which is consistent with the Catholic imagery common to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel), I anticipated a largely Christian perspective. While I can’t comment on the authors’ personal religious convictions, I’m happy to report that they address a variety of religions and ethical systems, both mainstream and not: Wicca and witchcraft; ancient Greek and Roman gods and goddesses; the philosophies of Aristotle and Kant; even Ayn Rand gets a chapter (alongside Stan Lee, natch). A few essays don’t really seem to pay much mind to religion at all.
(In an especially amusing aside, Dean Kowalski gently pokes fun at K. Dale Koontz – who penned the forward – for reading too much religion into Whedon’s work, a criticism one could perhaps level at many of the contributors to this volume. See page 105.)
Of course, Christianity does receive the lion’s share of attention.
Though some authors choose to pull examples from across Whedon’s ouvre, many focus on one piece of work exclusively. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel receive the most mentions, with Firefly/Serenity, Dollhouse, The Avengers, and The Cabin in the Woods scoring two essays apiece. Dr. Horrible is mentioned briefly, while Seasons Eight and Nine of Buffy don’t make the cut at all.
Some reviewers have taken issue with the continued references to Whedon the “angry atheist” – but each time this phrase is employed, it’s in direct reference to Whedon’s own remarks; the authors aren’t accusing him of being angry or hostile, but are directly quoting him, and often to challenge this possibly tongue-in-cheek remark.
On the downside, many of the contributors wonder aloud whether it’s unusual or even contradictory for an atheist to ruminate on issues of morality and ethics, as though these themes – community, compassion, identity – belong to religion alone. (They don’t!) Whedon’s incorporation of supernatural elements into his work is also called into question on several occasions. Speaking as a nonbeliever, there’s nothing weird about atheists who are entertained by vampires, demons, gods, and other fictional entities. I don’t really believe that the Zombie Apocalypse will come to pass, and yet I’ve read more than my fair share of zombie stories. Escapism, yo!
(To be fair, it seems like many of the authors raise these all-too-common misconceptions solely to debunk them, but still. It was more than a little grating.)
Overall, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the variety and depth of the essays. What follows is a summary of each for prospective readers.
“Varieties of Conversion: Spiritual Transformation in the Buffyverse,” Jeremy R. Ricketts – Ricketts posits that human-to-vampire conversion is “symbolically representative of issues involving religious conversion” (page 13). The majority of vampires – those without souls – are analogous to William James’s idea of the “healthy-minded” or “once-born” (i.e., firm and content in their religious beliefs), while the rare ensouled vampires are “twice-born” or “soul-sick” (souls bring with them moral ambiguity and heartache). He utilizes Angel, Spike, Darla, and Harmony in some rather fascinating case studies of vampires with and without souls (and everything in between).
“The Harrowing of Hell: ‘Anne’ and the Greek Paschal Tradition in Conversation,” Hope K. Bartel and Timothy E. G. Bartel – Focusing on the 3×01 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (“Anne”), the authors see Buffy as a Christ figure whose crossing into a hell dimension in order to free the humans enslaved there parallels Christ’s harrowing of hell in the Greek Paschal tradition. They conclude that, while the Buffyverse resembles a Christian universe, it ultimately is not one; rather, Whedon has created an “agnostic, feminist version of the Christian narrative of the harrowing of hell” (page 37).
“Mary and Buffy Walk into a Bar: The Virgin Deity and Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Valerie Mayhew – In one of my favorite pieces, Mayhew relates the evolution of Buffy Summers to that of female deities throughout time – from goddesses whose power and sexuality were severed during the Classical Greek period, right on up to the Virgin Mary, who Mayhew seems to regard as a positive, feminist icon for women. She concludes: “Women have wrestled with their place in God’s story for thousands of years. Buffy Summers reminds us that sometimes that place is front and center, fighting the good fight, acting fearless in the face of fear, and kicking some demon ass.
“Amen, sister.” (page 48)
“‘Oh … My … Goddess’: Witchcraft, Magick and Thealogy in Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Jason Lawton Winslade – Another favorite, this essay delves into depictions of paganism, witchcraft, and the Occult in BTVS. The author also traces the relationship of goddess spirituality to feminism that developed during Whedon’s youth, surmising that it may have influenced Whedon’s mother (a feminist and activist) and, by extension, Whedon himself. Finally, the series climax can be read as a rejection of the patriarchal Judeo-Christian tradition – and thus, the first step towards a truly feminist ideology (possibly thanks to the influence of witchcraft).
“Oh … My … Goddess” opens with a rather charming anecdote about a Pagan ritual attended by the author. In passing power from one couple to another (the final time this annual rite was to be performed, due to the disbanding of the group), the priestess quoted an especially memorable speech from Buffy: “What if you could have that power? Now. All of you. I say we change the rules. I say my power should be our power.”
“Apocalypse Now and Again: The Apocalyptic Paradigm and the Meaning of Life and (Un)Death in Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Roslyn Weaver – As the title suggests, Weaver examines patterns of apocalypse in BTVS (often employed to structure season story arcs) and how they correspond to the Apocalypse in a Christian Biblical context. While differences exist, both share common elements: a disaster, a messianic figure, a sense of imminence, and final restoration. Furthermore, BTVS’s humorous, irreverent take on the apocalypse reflects a “postmodern sense of cynicism” over religious apocalypses that are continuously predicted – but never come. In Buffy, the apocalypse is used to convey serious points about life: the importance of individual choice, not taking life for granted, and navigating the tumultuous journey into adulthood.
“Who’s Afraid of the Big Black Wolf? Racial Identity and the Irrationality of Religious Belief in Fireﬂy and Serenity,” Desiree de Jesus – In what’s likely to be the most controversial essay in the collection (and unfairly so), de Jesus takes issue with the casting of Firefly and Serenity villains Jubal Early and the Operative (as the most visible faces of the Alliance, they are the big Big Bads) with black male actors. Played by Richard Brooks and Chiwetel Ejiofor respectively, both characters are irrational, “True Believer” types who violently pursue that which the Alliance wants: namely, a helpless (mostly), young white woman in the form of River Tam. de Jesus argues that such images harken back to Birth of a Nation and fears about miscegenation. (Indeed, Jubal threatens Kaylee with a violent rape in order to secure her cooperation.) Both men conform to the image of the “brutal black buck,” while Mal functions as the compassionate – yet pragmatic – protector of moral goodness.
At least one other reviewer has objected to de Jesus’s failure to take the other prominent characters of color – namely Shepherd Book and Zoe Washburne – into account, yet the author does briefly discuss Book. (She dismisses him as a feminized older black man, an assessment you may or may not agree with – but Book does merit a mention.) Meanwhile, Zoe’s absence shouldn’t come as a surprise; after all, this is an essay about black male masculinity.
While I agree that the characters of Jubal Early and the Operative (or their casting, rather) are problematic, I have a little more trouble making the leap with de Jesus to infer that their irrationality is inherently tied to their religion.
I also take issue with her conclusion that, like the Alliance, Mal “imposes his way of thinking on his crew” (and Whedon, his audience; page 97). If you don’t like the way the Captain runs his ship, he’ll let you off at the next stop; the Alliance, not so much. And Whedon? Well, just change the channel.
“‘You’re welcome on my boat, God ain’t’: Ethical Foundations in the Whedonverse,” Dean A. Kowalski – In one of the more secular contributions, Kowalski suggests that Whedon the “angry atheist” introduces religious themes into his work in order to prompt the audience to reconsider the popular linking of religion with morality. Instead of turning to religious themes in the Whedonverse, then, Kowalski looks at Mal and Angel’s speechifying in light of the Kantian view that people (vs. things) are uniquely due respect. Additionally, numerous examples from throughout the ‘verse reflect Artistotle’s view of the good life: people are social beings who require community and friendship to thrive. To this end, self-sacrifice for the good of others is both common and noble.
“Actives, Affectivity and the Soul: Interpreting Dollhouse through the Phenomenology of Michel Henry,” J. Leavitt Pearl – Repeated failed memory wipes and imprints throughout the (too-short) series run of Dollhouse suggest a “core of human being or experience” that transcends the human body: a soul, if you will. That which remains in the dolls – love, instinct, emotions – corresponds to Michel Henry’s idea of intentional vs. affective consciousness, of which Topher Brink and Paul Ballard are the respective champions.
“Just to Love and Be Loved in Return: Identity and Love in the Dollhouse,” Julie Clawson – One of the more estoteric contributions, “this essay explores how the journey of the dolls from a life a subjugation to discovering their underlying identities parallels the recent theological developments in relational conceptions of what it means for humans to be created in the image of God” (page 141). Specifically, when one member of the Holy Trinity is placed above the others, hierarchies are created and countless forms of oppression justified. Similar to the South Africa philosophy of ubuntu, humans aren’t Lockian blank slates, but rather develop in relation to one another; so too must the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit exist equally and in relation to one another.
“‘There’s no place I can be’: Whedon, Augustine and the Earthly City,” Susanne E. Foster and James B. South – The authors argue that, like St. Augustine, Whedon sees humans as imperfect and “desirous of a happiness that cannot be fulfilled in an earthly life” (page 152); this often leads us to acts of violence in pursuit of our goals. Whereas St. Augustine believed that our acknowledgement of the ephemeral nature of life could lead us to give up creature comforts and set us on the path to God, Whedon’s characters must find other ways to impart value on their suffering: “If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters…then all that matters is what we do.”
“To Assemble or to Shrug? Power, Responsibility and Sacriﬁce in Marvel’s The Avengers,” Russell W. Dalton – Dalton compares Whedon’s oeuvre to that of two of his predecessors, Stan Lee and Ayn Rand. While Rand was an atheist like Whedon, her Objectivism eschews self-sacrifice and working for the common good. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his work is more in line with that of Lee’s, particularly when it comes to conflicting ideas about the value of redemptive violence, the importance of community, and the inherent value of all people, superpowers or no.
“National Treasures: Joss Whedon’s Assembling of Exceptional Avengers,” John C. McDowell – Unpopular opinion time! McDowell is not what you’d call a fan of The Avengers – an attitude I find rather refreshing, since it’s hardly my favorite either. (I expected a more subversive take on the superhero genre, in the vein of The Cabin in the Woods.) In “National Treasures,” he examines the ways in which The Avengers ultimately reinforces American patriotism and nationalism, rather than challenging them: “the potential for globalized politics is circumvented” by a primarily American setting and ruling body, not to mention the deployment of an alien Other as the villain of the week.
“As It Ever Was … So Shall It Never Be: Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory and Violence in The Cabin in the Woods,” J. Ryan Parker – Maybe it’s because I so loved the film, but I found these last two essays on The Cabin in the Woods especially enjoyable. Through their choice to die “with the world instead of for it” (page 205), Marty and Dana promote the destruction of the penal substitutionary theory of atonement, a popular version of Christian soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) whose chief tenant is commonly boiled down to “Jesus died for our sins.” The Cabin in the Woods also demonstrates the “problems inherent in deconstructing a violent religious practice with a violent work of film making” (page 197); it “still gives us everything we want [violence and gore] even as it tells us we are wrong for wanting it” (page 209).
“‘I’m sorry I … ended the world’: Eschatology, Nihilism and Hope in The Cabin in the Woods,” W. Scott Poole – Poole reads the climax of The Cabin in the Woods as a mix of Whedon’s atheism and the nihilism of H.P. Lovecraft. Popularly derided by Christian critics, the author defends Whedon’s begrudging acceptance of the apocalypse: “Community does not mean the salvation of the world but rather an expression of human empathy that takes place on the brink of destruction.” (page 222)