Joss Whedon and Religion: Essays on an Angry Atheist’s Explorations of the Sacred

JossWhedonandReligionMost people know me as a reader, but I believe that a good TV show or movie can be every bit as rewarding as a good book. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of those TV shows that I return to again and again to be entertained, moved, and provoked to think. I’ve also enjoyed, to varying degrees, Buffy creator Joss Whedon’s other shows and movies. So as a former theology student and Whedon fan, when I saw this essay collection offered up as part of the LibraryThing Early Review program, I had to request it.

As multiple authors in this collection note, Whedon has identified himself as an atheist—and an angry one. Yet his work frequently posits the existence of supernatural worlds beyond our own and takes on issues of interest to theologians, such as the nature of free will, the soul, and good and evil. This should come as no surprise, really, because these issues are human issues, not just religious issues, and works of fantasy can be effective vehicles to explore big questions. One need not believe in a spiritual realm to use it effectively in fiction or to be interested in stories about it. But one’s beliefs will no doubt color how these ideas are addressed, and that’s one of the things the authors in this collection consider.

The essays in this collection look at just about all of Whedon’s work: Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel, Firefly/Serenity, Dollhouse, The Avengers, and The Cabin in the Woods are all subjects of multiple essays. I’ve seen all the these shows and movies, multiple times in most cases (Dollhouse and parts of Angel being the only things I’ve watched just once), so I’m familiar with the material. Although the authors do provide background and summaries of pertinent scenes, I don’t think many of these essays would be of much interest to those who don’t know the works in question. Most of the authors are academics in the fields of theology, philosophy, and film.

One of the things I liked about this collection is that it makes no attempt to “baptize” Whedon’s work by claiming that Christian themes are there when they aren’t, thus giving Christians “permission” to watch and enjoy Whedon’s work. The authors are interested in Whedon’s approach to religion, but their purpose is academic, not apologetic. In fact, some of the essays aren’t concerned with Christianity at all; one essay focuses on Wicca, and several look at religious philosophy in general, citing Aristotle or William James along the way.

Some authors do note interesting parallels between Christian theology and the ideas in Whedon’s work—one of my favorite essays, “The Harrowing of Hell” by Hope K. Bartel and Timothy E. G. Bartel, looks at how the third season Buffy episode “Anne” echoes the Christian story of Christ’s journey to hell to release those imprisoned there. They do not claim that this was intentional, but the parallels are there and worthy of consideration. The collection’s editor, Anthony R. Mills, notes in the preface:

The authors in this book take seriously what Whedon says about his own work, but they recognize that there is often more to be said about this, and so should we. For these reasons we are confident that a book on Whedon and religion does not in and of itself suggest undue impositions on his oeuvre.

Another essay that suggests the presence of something more is J. Ryan Parker’s “As It Ever Was… So Shall It Never Be Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory and Violence in The Cabin in the Woods.” This piece shows how Cabin functions as a critique of the Christian belief in penal substitutionary atonement and discusses why that belief is unpalatable to many inside and outside the faith. (It’s the belief I was raised with, although in recent years, I’ve come to focus more on Incarnation as a means of atonement.) Parker’s essay then turns a critical eye on Cabin itself showing how in trying to demonstrate the abhorrent violence of this kind of atonement, the film celebrates violence. It’s not a new argument about this kind of violent anti-violence film, but it pegged my own reservations about the movie, which I generally enjoyed. I would have liked it better, however, if the audience had been made even more overtly complicit in the acts of violence—if, as I believed for most of the film when I first saw it, the audience members themselves had been the gods who needed appeasing.

That brings me to another thing I liked about this collection. The authors are themselves fans of Whedon’s work, but they do not consider his work flawless. They call out problems when they see them—and the problems they see aren’t necessarily problems with depictions of religion. Desirée de Jesus, for example, points out some of the problems with the depictions of black men in Firefly/Serenity, focusing specifically on the characters of Jubal Early and the Operative, with some attention given to Shepherd Book.

I also particularly liked J. Leavett Pearl’s piece on Dollhouse, partly because it did so well at explaining positivism and theories of consciousness. It occurred to me in reading this essay that the value of books like these may partly be in using popular culture that people understand to explain complex philosophical ideas that are hard to wrap your brain around.

Not all the essays were equally successful or equally interesting to me, but that almost goes without saying (almost, because here I am saying it). A few essays were a little too academic, relying too heavily on terminology that I’m simply not fluent enough in to want to deal with in a book I’m reading for pleasure. Others seemed more like summaries and less like analysis. I tend to prefer those that made me see something in a new way, even if I didn’t agree with the author’s take. I’m still chewing over the suggestion by a couple of authors that, in the Whedonverse, religious ritual is generally portrayed negatively, as something villains engage in. There are exceptions, plenty of them, but are there enough to offset the general image of religion as destructive or dangerous? Those kinds of questions are interesting to chew on, and I’m sure that I’ll have them in mind as I revisit Whedon’s work in the future.

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15 Responses to Joss Whedon and Religion: Essays on an Angry Atheist’s Explorations of the Sacred

  1. Alex says:

    The Bears and I are great Joss Whedon fans. They tend to get a new box set every Christmas as a present from me. This year they might just get this collection instead. Thanks for bringing it to my attention because I hadn’t noticed it around.

    • Teresa says:

      I wouldn’t have known about it if not for LibraryThing. I’ve seen lots of other academic books on Whedon’s work around (I used to read the Slayage journal pretty regularly), but this is the first book of this type that I’ve read. It was fun!

  2. Jeanne says:

    As a person who sometimes feels pretty hostile towards organized religion, I love the attitudes I see in Firefly towards organized anything, but especially matters of morality or religion–the way Mal and Inara tear at each other about what “whoring” is, or Mal’s attitude towards the primitive-sounding religion of the people Saffron was with when he first met her.

    • Teresa says:

      Interesting that you mention that because the idea of organized anything being suspect in the Whedon-verse came up several times in these essays. The Watchers Council, Wolfram and Hart, the Alliance, etc., aren’t to be trusted in the way a band of individuals coming together can be. But that raises the question of what happens when a band of individuals becomes organized.

  3. Thanks for calling attention to a book and a subject that can easily bear a lot of discussion. I’ve only seen “Firefly/Serenity” and “The Cabin in the Woods,” but I saw all of the first in its entirety, and thus was much impressed with Whedon. I didn’t realize that he was also responsible for all the other things as well, including “The Cabin in the Woods,” but now that I do, I can see some of the links between the works. Whatever else he is or isn’t, he’s certainly a creative genius.

    • Teresa says:

      I agree that he’s something of a creative genius. I’ve liked just about everything he’s done because he creates such fascinating characters and situations. And I love that his work has become the subject of so much academic study.

  4. aw yay thanks for reviewing this! I saw it offered on LT but didn’t win, lol. Glad to hear it’s worth reading, though, I definitely was excited to see it as the subject of a book.

  5. Marcia Lengnick says:

    when this came in this morning I wondered if it would be a book for Mark.. but it really sounds a bit esoteric.. so I just wondered if you had watched Buffy… or any of Whedon’s other programs..I think we used to like the Avengers.. Mrs Peel..long time ago. Maybe it’s not the same program. Off to the beauty parlor. Mom

    Sent from my iPad

  6. Stefanie says:

    What an interesting collection of essays. I do like Whedon even though I haven’t loved everything he’s done. I never really got into Dollhouse. I am currently following Agents of SHIELD which is turning out to be rather spotty and all over the map but it has just enough to hold my interest. Anyway, I didn’t know Whedon considers himself an “angry atheist” so that sort of creates a whole new frame of reference for me.

    • Teresa says:

      I liked Dollhouse more than a lot of people seemed to, and I’m not quite as over the moon about Firefly as a lot people seem to be. I liked it a lot, but it’s not an all-time favorite. I haven’t gotten around to Agents of SHIELD, but once it’s on Netflix, I’ll almost certainly watch it–although my TV list is just about as daunting as my book list!

  7. Thank you for this blog post! I love reading about Whedon second only to watching Whedon, and now it turns out that I love reading about reading about Whedon too!

  8. Oh, interesting! I’ll have to check this out. One of many reasons that I’d have liked Firefly to go on longer is that I’d have liked to see whether the idea was for Book’s faith to continue being important to him, or if it would have been set up only to be knocked down later. (I have no expectations of one or the other; I’m just curious because it’s rare to see a character of faith on TV.)

    One thing that I found perfectly maddening in the seventh series of Buffy was the Nathan Fillion character. I am so terribly bored of the menacingly evil character who hides his evil behind a cloak of extremist faith. It’s lazy writing and Joss Whedon can do better.

    • Teresa says:

      I wondered the same thing about Book. I liked the way his character was written and could imagine several satisfying ways for his story to go.

      And I am so with you about Caleb. The seventh season was weak in a lot of ways, but that part was outright annoying.

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