God in the Whedonverse: Faith, Hope, and Truth
Let’s take a moment to talk about God. Don’t worry – no pamphlets or early morning doorstep visits. Let’s discuss God in the context of vampire slayers, mind-wiping technology, and space cowboys. Joss Whedon, creator of cult television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, has had a complicated relationship with religion. When asked “Is there a God?” in a 2002 A.V. Club interview, he replied, “No.” Alright, so maybe not entirely complicated. However, the portrayals of faith (no, not the Eliza Dushku kind) on his shows have been incredibly multifaceted for such a staunch atheist. This makes sense – many atheists spend a great deal of time exploring God and religion in search of a conclusion. For Whedon, this exploration comes in the form of the stories he tells. So how does the big guy upstairs factor into some of Whedon’s hit shows?
In describing the premise of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, English Watcher and librarian Rupert Giles explains it best: “Into every generation, there is a chosen one. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer.” Throughout her battles against these evil forces, Buffy Summers serves as the ultimate agent of good. But is she an agent of God? Sure, the action heroine comes equipped with a cross necklace and a few vials of holy water to ward off vampires, but the existence of God in the Buffyverse remains ambiguous. The lore of the series retains the classical use of these apotropaics without ever mentioning the Judeo-Christian God.
Buffy does spend a summer-long stint in heaven after sacrificing herself for her sister, Dawn, as well as the rest of the world. In describing this sacred place, she says, “Wherever I was, I was happy. At peace. I knew that everyone I cared about was all right. I knew it. Time didn’t mean anything, nothing had form…but I was still me, you know? And I was warm and I was loved… and I was finished. Complete. I don’t understand about dimensions or theology or any of…but I think I was in heaven.” Here, Buffy speaks of an idea of eternal bliss and fulfillment similar to that of the Bible. Entrance into the Christian heaven is determined by full-fledged acceptance of the Lord into one’s heart. Meanwhile, Buffy’s beliefs on God before she enters heaven are unknown. She also never mentions meeting God when she enters heaven. What seems to grant this slayer access into the Buffyverse heaven is the selfless, almost Christ-like sacrifice she makes to save the world.
The Buffyverse contains its fair share of gods, lowercase. The series draws from various forms of mythology, showcasing Egyptian gods, a troll god named Olaf, and a goddess from a hell dimension named Glory. The show’s spin-off Angel also features gods in the form of Illyria and the Powers That Be. These gods, while extremely powerful, are able to be injured and even killed. Whedon seems content to draw on the Bible as another form of mythology. The Big Bad of Season Four, Adam, is a direct reference to the Garden of Eden story. Like the Biblical figure, Adam is a creation who seeks knowledge and understanding. (The murderous rampage he later engages on finds closer roots to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which also draws from the Bible.) The consensus on capital “G” God in the Buffyverse, however, remains as ambiguous as it is in our world. such uncertainty is summarized in this conversation the titular character has with a vampire:
HOLDEN: Oh my god.
BUFFY: Oh your god what?
HOLDEN: Well, not MY god, ’cause I defy him and all his works – does he exist, by the way? Is there word on that?
BUFFY: Nothing solid.
From this exchange, it’s clear that Buffy isn’t a soapbox for Whedon’s own definitive thoughts on God. (Although the fact that Caleb, the misogynistic servant of the First Evil, is a preacher might not sit particularly well with Christian viewers.)
The character whose belief system actually aligns with Whedon’s is Angel, the ensouled vampire seeking redemption. In an Angel episode appropriately entitled “Epiphany,” the supernatural investigator comes to the following revelation: “If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters … then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today. I fought for so long, for redemption, for a reward, and finally just to beat the other guy. Because, if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.” This existential speech removes the idea of a higher purpose and leaves people in charge of their own actions. The statement radiates with humanistic ideals, placing emphasis not on a grand cosmic scheme, but on actions themselves. We are the ones responsible for creating meaning through the positive things we do. Can morals still exist without divinity guiding us? Both Angel and Whedon seem to think so.
Even after Angel’s revelation, the struggle to find meaning persists throughout the series. Constantly, characters on Angel contend with the purpose of life. Consider the exchange dethroned god Illyria has with Wesley Wyndham-Pryce in the Season 5 episode, “Shells”:
ILLYRIA: We cling to what is lost. Is there anything in this life but grief?
WESLEY: There’s love. There’s hope… for some. There’s hope that you’ll find something worthy… that your life will lead you to some joy… that after everything… you can still be surprised.
ILLYRIA: Is that enough? Is that enough to live on?
As a god, Illyria has trouble understanding the human experience. Wesley’s lack of response to Illyria’s last question demonstrates that he has just as much trouble articulating it. Some place their actions on the larger cosmic scale, hoping they will find joy with God once they transcend this earth. Others place meaning in love and others. Is faith enough to carry us through this life? Are people enough?
In spite of the Christian imagery evoked by Buffy’s cross necklace and Angel’s moniker, it’s actually Whedon’s later space western that directly tackles the notion of faith as a major theme. The dearly beloved (quickly cancelled) series Firefly begins its exploration of religion in the very first scene. During the Battle of Serenity Valley, protagonist Captain Malcolm Reynolds finds his comrades, the Browncoats, massacred by the opposing Alliance. With this, he loses his faith in God, averting the aphorism “There are no atheists in foxholes” in a literal sense. Malcolm (“Mal” for short) instead becomes a common Hollywood atheist archetype – the nonbeliever who’s angry at God. This becomes evident when he clashes with a new passenger on his ship, Shepherd Derrial Book. In one of their earlier interactions, Mal tells Book, “If I’m your mission, Shepherd, best give it up. You’re welcome on my boat. God ain’t.”
Although Firefly is set some 500 years into the future, Shepherd Book’s religion comes quite close to modern Christianity. With the Bible in hand, Book strictly abides to his faith, much to the chagrin and confusion of other crew members. Mal forbids him from saying grace aloud at the dinner table. The very blunt Jayne Cobb showcases a strong curiosity in the Shepherd’s sexual habits, or lack thereof. Finally, in the series’ most religiously-charged episode, “Jaynestown,” young psychic River Tam attempts to physically edit the fallacies in his Bible, leading to the following exchange:
RIVER: Bible’s broken. Contradictions, false logistics – doesn’t make sense.
BOOK: No, no. You- you- you can’t…
RIVER: So we’ll integrate non-progressional evolution theory with God’s creation of Eden. Eleven inherent metaphoric parallels already there. Eleven. Important number. Prime number. One goes into the house of eleven eleven times, but always comes out one. Noah’s ark is a problem.
RIVER: We’ll have to call it early quantum state phenomenon. Only way to fit 5,000 species of mammal on the same boat.
BOOK: River, you don’t fix the Bible.
RIVER: It’s broken. It doesn’t make sense.
BOOK: It’s not about making sense. It’s about believing in something, and letting that belief be real enough to change your life. It’s about faith. You don’t fix faith, River. It fixes you.
Interestingly, this definition of faith seems to fall away from a belief in the existence of God. Faith in this instance serves as a system propagated by humanity to cope. It’s not necessarily faith in God that heals and fixes but the concept of faith itself. This is supported by the A-plot of the same episode in which Jayne serves as the beloved “Hero of Canton” for a town. The townspeople celebrate Jayne for bestowing them with wealth, despite the true reasons for this act of kindness being a botched robbery. When Jayne’s former partner confronts him at gunpoint, ready to reveal the truth to the town, a young boy takes the bullet for his hero. The aftermath of this tragedy leaves Jayne disgusted with his deceptive actions, especially when the community continues to praise him. Mal reassures him, saying, “Ain’t about you, Jayne; it’s about what they need.” While the real Jayne may be a thief motivated by self-interest, the figure they celebrate persists as a beacon of hope. Jayne’s positive influence on these people overrides his desire to assuage his guilt by telling them the truth.
Book’s notion of faith itself as a source of power is cemented in the film, Serenity. In the face of impending danger, Book tells Mal about the importance of belief. Mal, still unable to reconcile with God, says, “Ah, hell, Shepherd, I ain’t looking for help from on high. That’s a long wait for a train don’t come.” Here, Book replies with a poignant line: “When I talk about belief, why do you always assume I’m talking about God?” Whedon’s humanistic viewpoint again comes through in this statement. Belief does not necessitate a higher power – it may simply refer to a belief in one’s fellow man. If we look back to Whedon’s Angel, it’s the simple fact that the protagonist believes in the rogue slayer Faith which drives her towards redemption.
Although Book represents the positive aspects of religion in his kindness, calmness of demeanor, and reasonable nature, Whedon makes sure to demonstrate the ill effects of faith as well. The episode “Safe” mirrors the Salem witch trials and showcases the cyclical nature of history. When a group of fundamentalist Christians attempts to burn River at the stake for her abilities, they quote Exodus 22:18 and shout, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” This community, deemed “The Hill Folk,” aims for a literal interpretation of the Bible rather than a symbolic one, as Book does. In their rigid adherence to religious law, they become short-term villains in the series.
From the futuristic setting of Firefly, Whedon moves into the futuristic technology of Dollhouse. The most obvious and direct reference to religion in the series occurs in the episode, “True Believer,” in which the protagonist Echo infiltrates a religious cult. The twist comes from the fact that Echo is unaware that she is doing undercover work for a federal agency – she is imprinted with the personality of a true believer and fully committed to the goals of the cult. The word “cult” already contains a stigma and the portrayal of the cult itself is played straight – they are fanatical and delusional, albeit to a lesser extent than the “Hill Folk” of Firefly. Such plotlines may hint at Whedon having an anti-religion bias. However, one may easily argue that such groups do exist and most religious people attempt to any association with them.
On a wider level, the whole premise of the series rests on humans gaining the Godlike power to erase identities and bestow a person with a new personality. Like God, lead programmer of the Dollhouse Topher Brink creates new people in his lab, deciding on their skills, quirks, flaws, interests, and dislikes. When Whiskey, a self-aware Doll that he programmed, confronts him, she sardonically says, “Aren’t you Big Brother? Aren’t you the Lord my God? Why should I fight your divine plan?” In her existential crisis, Whiskey gains the unique opportunity to actually approach her creator, who is simply a human. Topher tells her, “I made you a question. I made you fight for your beliefs. I didn’t make you hate me. You chose to.” Topher’s statement calls forth the notion of God granting humans free will. Whiskey, however, is unable to reconcile with this idea, questioning how much free will she truly has when she has been pre-programmed.
The steps leading to the ultimate downfall of a world with the Dollhouse’s technology are carefully placed. In the episode “Haunted,” head of the Dollhouse, Adelle DeWitt, transfers the complete identity of her deceased friend onto a living Doll. The sheer capacity of this technology is fully realized in the episode, showcasing its ability to grant life after death. Head of security Boyd Langton questions Adelle’s decision, saying, “You realize…that’s the beginning of the end. Life everlasting. It’s…it’s the ultimate quest. Christianity, most religion, morality doesn’t exist, without the fear of death.” Despite Whedon’s belief in humanity rather than God, Dollhouse clearly demonstrates the danger of human hubris. Are there limits to the power human beings should possess? As with any story about people playing God, the answer is yes.
The apocalyptic results of humanity holding such undeniable power become evident in the show’s Epitaph episodes, which jump forward years into the future. Members of the populace fight against the technology and struggle to retain their identities. Returning to the notion of faith as a healing fixture, Epitaph One features religious groups formed in the face of this utter chaos. They hide indoors in fear of the mind-wiping technology which looms outside. Surrounded by candles and followers, a man from this group says, “I’m humble in prayer. I am grateful for my memories.” Scenes like this demonstrate that Whedon understands the necessity of faith, even if he doesn’t belong to a particular denomination. Humanism also continues to reign true in the scene. The people in this group form a network of support for one another, much like the Scoobies of Buffy or the crew of Serenity.
In a more recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, Joss Whedon expresses that he has no hope in the world as he sees it. However, he does make the following point:
My stories do have hope because that is one of the things that is part of the solution – if there can be one. We use stories to connect, to care about people, to care about a situation. To turn the mundane heroic, to make people really think about who they are. They’re useful. And they’re also useful to me. Because if I wrote what I really think, I would be so sad all the time. We create to fill a gap – not just to avoid the idea of dying, it’s to fill some particular gap in ourselves. So yeah, I write things where people will lay down their lives for each other. And on a personal level, I know many wonderful people who are spending their lives trying to help others, or who are just decent and kind. I have friends who are extraordinary, I love my family. But on a macro level, I don’t see that in the world. So I have a need to create it. Hopefully that need gets translated into somebody relating to it and feeling hope. Because if we take that away, then I’m definitely right. I want to be wrong more than anything.
In spite of Whedon’s lack of hope, he creates stories filled with it. Like Jayne to the people of Canton, the writer’s stories serve as symbols of hope for some. Could the same be said for God in his body of work? Although Whedon doesn’t believe in God, we can find faith permeating his shows, which lean towards agnosticism and humanism rather than atheism. Perhaps his need to write about God helps fill the gap he speaks of. Perhaps he simply returns to the subject because it’s worthy of discourse. “I think faith is an extraordinary thing,” the showrunner says. “I’d like to have some, but I don’t and that’s just how that works.” The stories Whedon tells demonstrate the first half of his statement rather than the latter half. Faith is shown in all its multitudes through his shows as well as the power of belief, for good and for worse. Whedon may be good without God but the Whedonverse, as an exploratory medium, is less quick to dismiss the notion of faith.
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