God the Father or Buffy the Vampire Slayer? by Linn Marie Tonstad

Linn Marie TonstadIn the second season of the television show Buffy, the Vampire Slayer [spoiler alert!], Buffy is faced with an agonizing dilemma. She is condemned to save the world “again.” Buffy’s former lover is the evil Angelus. Angelus – once the good Angel – has awoken a demon that will swallow up the whole world into an eternity of suffering.  In what follows, I read Buffy as God the Father. Angelus represents sinful humanity, Angel is Jesus, and the Spirit is the sword in Buffy’s hand. Buffy attempts to destroy Angelus. But at the moment that she is about to kill Angelus, his soul is returned to him. Unfortunately, only Angel’s blood will close the gaping mouth of the demon. The shift from Angelus to Angel gives a vivid representation of the shifting positions of the first and second Adam in the Christian narrative of redemption. Angelus is evil. Angel carries the weight of Angelus’s guilt without any of the responsibility belonging, strictly speaking, to him. Yet finally, the innocent Angel must bear the consequences of Angelus’s evil for the salvation of the world.

The gender dynamics of this scene complicate and illuminate traditional readings of the involvement of the Father in the crucifixion. Gender subordination and the subordination of the Son to the Father go together, and are ultimately justified by the same theological logic. Reading the Father as an 18-year old girl helps to mark the inadequacy of language to capture God. The evident implausibility, even absurdity, of the image, makes visible the theological truth that God is not a father among other fathers.  

In classical representations of the trinity, the Spirit is the love between the Father and the Son that both binds them together and allows them to go far from one another on the cross. So the Spirit is present in this scene as the bond between Buffy/Father and Angel/Son. Throughout his ministry, the Spirit reveals Jesus and identifies him. Yet here, the sign-character of Jesus is connected to a piercing sword. This is also a form of the presence of the Spirit in Buffy’s sacrifice of Angel. At the moment she pierces his heart with a sword, “these three are one,” tied together in a moment of loss and horror that yet follows from Buffy’s love for the world, and from Angel’s decision to trust Buffy’s love for him. What binds Buffy and Angel together is also what separates them in that moment.

The scenario between Buffy and Angel removes the potentially distorting Father-Son relation from the picture. No matter how well the Christian imaginary is disciplined, we cannot seem to remove the Father from fathers, and the Son from sons – God from man. But Buffy and Angel are clearly equals, and her willingness to act out of love, given the gender norms of our contemporary context, is so much more convincing than any paternal sacrifice, for that is what we expect fathers to do. We expect fathers to sacrifice the particular for the universal, but we do not expect the same of eighteen-year old girls. Buffy’s stern devotion to duty, her commitment to her love and care for the world, are also surprising given those norms.  And in showing a teenage girl acting in this way, we see that such an action might have a cost. Further, romantic love has taken on an increasingly important cultural role as the space in which passion finds its place. We are often unable to see the father-son relationship as passionate, especially emotionally. Here, it is easier to see the extent to which she is indeed passionately involved in the event. Her love for Angel allows us imaginatively to inhabit the place of the Father’s action.

But there are two other aspects of this scene that make it peculiarly appropriate as a representation of the crucifixion. While Buffy’s pain is evident to us, her pain and Angel’s suffering are not the same, and her knowledge of that contributes to her suffering. She knows that he will go to hell knowing that she killed him, and that will only add to her torment and his. The logic of both Jesus’ dying cries, “Into your hands I commit my spirit” and “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” is evident. The ‘Father’ shares the anguish of both those moments, rather than hovering untouched at a distance as we usually imagine.

The second reason for the particular appropriateness of this scene as a trinitarian representation is perhaps more difficult to see, but no less important. Arguing that theological claims about the Trinity and the crucifixion may well be understood in relation to a popular show about a teenage girl who slays vampires has its own disadvantages. But one disadvantage it is not likely to have is an easy slippage between what is seen in the imaginative fantasy offered in the show and what and who God is thought to be. The absurdity of the comparison may for some serve to make it implausible, but it contributes to the theological point of making the comparison. Jesus is not a good vampire with a soul, but the vampire with a soul may help us to understand something about how Jesus could represent the first Adam as the second Adam. The ‘Father’ is not an eighteen-year old female vampire slayer who goes to high school, but one way of reminding ourselves that equally, the ‘Father’ is not a father, might be to make precisely that comparison.

Linn Marie Tonstad is assistant professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School. She is currently completing her first book, tentatively titled “God and Difference: Experimental Trinitarian Theology.”

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Categories: Christianity, Christology, Church Doctrine, Feminism, Feminist Theology, Fiction, Gender, General, God, God-talk, Loss, Love

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5 replies

  1. Gee, if, as you say, Buffy is God, then we’ve got a Goddess. Hooray!

    I made her a Found Goddess when I was writing Finding New Goddesses. Here she is. (I’m not nearly as scholarly as you are.)

    Buffy, Goddess of the Gym

    Although witches are said to be “large women in colorful clothing,” the true Inner Witch is a Buffed-up Enchantress, a Woman Of Mighty Power who can step and stretch and pump and jiggle with the best of them.

    All honor, therefore, to Buffy, Girl of the Golden Gym, vigorous goddess of toned muscles, spectacular abs, firm body. Our divine personal trainer, Buffy keeps our cardiovascular system revved up and ensures that the makers of leotards and athletic shoes will always have customers. Younger sister to Nike, Goddess of Victory Over Flab, Buffy too exhorts us to “just do it.” Buffy is known for her enthusiasm. “Go for the burn,” she cries from the front of the room. “No pain, no gain!” she reminds us as we stare into the mirror and wonder who that flushed and trembling woman facing us can possibly be.

    All honor and glory to Buffy, whose highest priestess is Jane and whose highest priest is Richard. “Step, kick, bend. Stretch, stretch, stretch. Squeeze those buttocks, tuck that tummy in. Reach for the stars. Step, step, step. Faster, faster, faster!”

    For pure vibrant energy and shining utilitarian luxury, Buffy’s Golden Gym rivals the healing temples of old. Let us follow our personal coach, Sadistica, as she gives us a mini-tour.

    “You start here,” Sadistica tells us as she leads us into the locker room. “Just go ahead and put your clothes in this locker, OK?” She pretends not to notice that our leotard is a bit stretched out and shabby. “The showers are over there, and … oh, yeah, the air conditioning works nearly all the time. Now walk this way.”

    She leads us into a silent room filled with elaborate machines of devious torture. “This is the Weight Room,” Sadistica continues. “This is the place where the, you know, the Serious Bodybuilders hang? Let me introduce you to two of our most popular personal coaches, Testostero and Pheroman. These guys’ll pump you up so much! All you have to do is, you know, put yourself in their hands.

    Shuddering at the thought, we move on. “This is the Aerobics Room!” Sadistica has to shout over the disco music that makes the room and everything in it ripple with vigor. “Classes every hour on the hour! Stair training? Body parts specials! Endurance and discipline!”

    Just as we’re succumbing to total deafness, she leads us into the sauna, where we see beautiful people sweating, then into the massage room, where we see beautiful people being rubbed and poked and kneaded. “That’s Chirapsia,” our guide whispers. “She’s got the best hands in the world. And she knows how to find every chi and nerve in your body.” The beautiful person on the massage table groans. “You won’t believe how much better you’ll feel after she’s done with you.”

    We can’t help but agree. With a tiny sigh, Sadistica backs us out, closes the door, and leads us to the lounge-snackshop-giftshop. “I just love it here,” she confesses. “I love the cute little tables and chairs, you know? The velvet paintings and license plate frames we have, you know, for sale? The smoothies and shakes and granola. But mostly I love the, you know, the people you can meet here. They’re all so fit! They’re so rad. So gorgeous. You can meet everyone you’ll ever want to, you know, know in here.”

    Yes, indeed, it must be time to shape up. It must be time to meet new people. All honor and all that jazz to Buffy, Goddess of the Golden Gym, Goddess of the Buffed-Up Body, Goddess of Glorious Health. Buffy rules.

  2. I was watching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” at the same time I was working on my BA in Religion & Society. I would go so far as to way that all seven seasons have theological underpinnings, dealing with issues of good and evil, sacrifice and redemption. The fact that it is a kind of a “silly” show dealing the the drama of a teenage girl is misleading, as is the assumption that, if it has to do with a teenaged girl, there is no way that there could be anything deep or important in the stories. Thank you for post this!

  3. I admit I have not seen the program.

    I suppose it can be seen as good that Buffy is a female “hero.”

    However, from what you say, it seems to me that this is “the same old story”–the hero must kill (the dragon, the demon) in order to restore order in the world and is celebrated for the act of killing whatever is called evil.

    In relation too your reading Buffy as a Trinitarian story, the only explanation of the Trinity that ever made moral sense to me is the one in which the death of Jesus is not chosen or predetermined by God but rather is caused by human beings. I do not believe “God” would ever choose to cause further suffering in a world that is already filled with it–though “God knows” She has to “respond” to a world filled with suffering.

    I hope women and girl readers and tv watchers will look beyond the gender of female “hero” and keep seeking images of women we can admire who act to change the world and understand that violence is not the answer. New kinds of female role models do exist. Today’s post on Dorothy Day by Angela Yarber is a good place to start.

    • I get what you are saying, Carol, but I do want to speak in defense of Buffy. What was wonderful about her character is that it seemed to illustrate the tensions between being a teenager and being forced to be an adult before she was ready. She balanced them, she didn’t balance them, she was utterly human. The later seasons become psychologically complex. Appropriately dark given what she’s gone through. There are other young women who have been destroyed by the violence. Who have lost themselves in it. But Buffy was always driven first and foremost by her commitment to humanity….even when she resented the burdens it put on her. But the fact of the show is that it is part of the comic book superhero genre, so there is going to be sword play and a modicum of butt kicking (in great style of course). She stood as a great model for young women who only had Disney Princesses to go on. It’s not a perfect show, there is lots to critique (on feminist issues and most certainly on race issues). I’m sure if you gave it a try sometime, you’d see why it is so loved by so many.

      Anyway…loved this blog entry. As a Buffy fan, I thank you!

  4. Some elements in the series (like in the episode ‘Triangle’ where the heroine is considering joining a convent) clearly indicate to me that she’s supposed to be a sort-of ‘lapsed Catholic’,,, that’s the biggest sign of loyalty and allegance.
    She is by no means perfect (her impurity is a clear example), but if we, as agents of what I’d call ‘the Lord’s political forces’ condemn someone and deprive them of the chance to make amends… then we’re deliberately betraying them to the Devil!- in essence, that’s an act of hate and murder.
    What I am saying is that she’s a deeply flawed heroine, but she’s NO diety!
    In what I’d call ‘my personal social connections of the next life’ (what some call ‘spirituality’) I regard a certain Jeanette La Pucelle (Joan of Arc) to be sort of an elder sister (though she was a teenager when she died), and the heroine of the series in question could be considered something of a modern-day St. Joan (she does seem to make that anology in Tabula Rasa) after her foolish best friend (and magic addict) Willow gives everyone amniesia!
    Myself, I started watching the series just a few years ago, and I thought one night: “Well what the? We’ve got Vampires, Werewolves, and beautiful girls freaking out… who could ask for anything more?” I think the episode was ‘Phases’, and another night I saw (I think it was) ‘Welcome to the Hellmouth”, and being the Trekkie that I am, I saw the Master and his minions and I thought “What the hey, We’ve got Romulans, Remans, and Martians, who could ask for anything more?” (The ‘Martians’ comment was based on the novel ‘War of the Worlds’ where the Martians are a type of vampiric cephalopod, the other 2 races were drawn from Star Trek Nemesis and Star Trek Enterprise- you actually see Remans in some of those episodes and the movie Star Trek Nemesis.), it was FUNNY to me- especially where Willow took off running from her boyfriend when she found out that he wasn’t into perversion but trying to avoid hurting her as a monster!
    That series has done me immesureable help attitude-wise, (while I will never (and never have) abandoned the Catholic Church) in my young adult years- and into my full adult years, I became a rather brutal tyrant- willing to happily wage a genocidal war against the spirits (angels, fallen or not), regardless of the Lord’s views- in the end, it’s fear of self-destruction that stopped me, and this series was a venue.
    All in all, my entry into the fandom was that of the ‘Centauri Republic’s use of the Narn race’ (a labor and militia force to bolster internal production), or ‘Palpatine’s Empire’s use of the Noghri’ in Star Wars (a primitive society that may be loyal- but in no way equal)… sounds brutal, doesn’t it?
    What I refused to do was copy the Pharoh in Exodus and kill the workers (that was pure paranoia on his part)… that’s the puzzle for me: to paraphrase the Klingons “Mercy or Power”- sometimes they’re the same thing!- that’s what they don’t get.
    I really do think the character would think of herself as a deciple, I really do.

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