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What Would Buffy Do?

Just when mum and dad thought they could safely stop worrying about my little sister leading me astray, said rebellious sibling gets me into Buffy -- a program most decidedly not featured in the authorised version of the Radio Times when we were growing up.

I guess I've long-since graduated from the target demographic. Still, I can easily see why it got so successful. It has everything a high-school horror comedy romance drama series should: the jocks, the geeks, the cheerleaders, the teachers who are out to get you (slash eat you) ... undead overlords, seductive arthropods ... friendship, unrequited love, parental run-ins, the older (but only by a couple-a hundred years, though) guy ... peer pressure, bullying, internet demons (not the 'background process' type) ... the general, over-arching challenges of trying to balance a social life around schoolwork around slaying ...

Sure is a tough gig being the Chosen One:
[Buffy defeats vampire/demon/human-animal hybrid/other, thus saving her friends/her school/the town/humanity.] 
Buffy: "Phew! That was a close one..." 
[Returns triumphant, dishevelled and exhausted.] 
Principle Snyder: "Buffy Summers, I knew you were trouble the moment I laid eyes on you. You're a menace to this school; I smell expulsion, and just the faintest aroma of jail." 
Cordelia: "Buffy -- love the hair. It just screams street urchin." 
Buffy's mum: "Buffy, don't think I didn't hear you sneaking out last night. You're absolutely grounded. When are you going to start behaving responsibly?"
Her many remarkable feats pass uncannily under-acknowledged, whilst they're queuing up to find fault on a prosaic level. Kinda reminds me how the Jewish authorities often responded to Jesus ...
Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked. Now that day was the Sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.” But he answered them, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” (John 5:8-12)
Not an awed "he healed you?! who is this man!" but, straightaway, "he told you to do what now?!" To their minds, all the wonder of the miracle was eclipsed, even beyond the point of passing curiosity, by Jesus' apparent disregard for the Sabbath rules they so meticulously kept -- the religious codes and practices that distinguished the people of YHWH from their gentile neighbours and occupiers. Like Buffy's onlookers, they "miss the wood for the trees" -- there's something huge astir, but they're fixated on the narrow slice of day-to-day they understand.

Of course, analogies and references to Jesus are hardly lacking in Buffy. Nor (in general) are they a coincidence: Whedon is all about resonant stories, and what more natural source for good-versus-evil plots than the Bible? ... what more natural model for a 'Chosen One' character development than the biblical Messiah? Nor are those references particularly subtle, and, to be honest, they too-frequently descend into the crass and trivialising: believing, as I do, that Jesus is real and living and that it is possible to actually know and follow Him, and trying, as I am, to gratefully do so, vampiric quips about how "fun" the crucifixion was (and similar) fall harsh on the ears and heavy on the heart. Likewise, watching the symbol of world-transforming, sacrificial love being wielded like a lucky charm gets tiresome pretty sharpish, too. (So yeah, mum and dad, there's bits in there I'd be none to glad at my own (hypothetical) teenager seeing).

It has its poignant parallels too, though, and the Season 1 finale (spoiler alert!) nicely fits my (self-appointed) brief to 'say something vaguely topical for Maundy Thursday':

Even weirder, more violent things are afoot than normal in Sunnydale -- restroom taps running blood, cats giving birth to snakes -- when Buffy overhears a distraught Giles tell Angel of a prophecy that says that the Master is about to rise, and that Buffy will die facing him. Overwhelmed, she just wants out:  “I quit; find someone else to defeat the Master” ... “It’s not as simple as that" (says Giles) "I'm not sure that anyone else even can.” ... “Giles, I’m 16 years old ... I don’t wanna die.” She tries to persuade her mum to take them both away someplace, any place ... and gets, for her efforts, some standard love-life oriented maternal reassurances and a fancy new frock (which works to convenient visual advantage in the scenes to follow).

But then ... Willow. Willow witnesses the aftermath of an especially gory blood-guzzling spree, and is all shook up. And something clicks, for Buffy ...
Willow: I’ve seen so much; I thought I could take anything. But Buffy, this was different.  
Buffy: It’ll be alright. 
Willow: I’m trying to think how to say it, to explain it so that you understand
Buffy: It doesn’t matter as long as you’re OK.  
Willow: I’m not ok; I knew those guys. I go to that room every day. And when I walked in there it … it wasn’t our world anymore. They made it theirs, and they had fun. What are we going to do? 
Buffy: What we have to. Promise me you’ll stay in tonight, OK?
And so, determined to at least take the Master down with her, she sets herself to the ultimate task, prepared to face certain death for the friends that she loves ... and for the world, which will be plunged into 'apocalyptic chaos' if she fails to act. 

As foretold, she does indeed die at the Master's hands. But ... is promptly rescued and resuscitated, by those very same friends. [Insert brief interesting digression to the effect that resuscitation is not the same as resurrection, with link to pertinent N.T. Wright essay]. Yay! The Master, by now self-congratulatorily roaming the earth, hardly knows what's hit him when she re-confronts him. Ancient villain defeated, it's a happy season ending on all fronts. (Except ... is it me, or did that zoom-out on the Master's skeleton seem to linger a tad ominously?)

The "laying down one's life" routine, unlike many of the other "Messiah-figure" tropes wheeled out in Buffy, tends to leave a profound impression against even the most frivolous of backdrops. Because those famous words -- "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13) -- they ring pretty universally true, no matter what else you believe about the man who said them. One's life is ... or, at least, it encompasses ... or at least it seems too, even if one's theology says otherwise ... all one has. Everything. To give it up by choice, for someone else ... we need neither imagination nor argument to recognise that as a pretty massive deal.

It is in Buffy's willingness to do just that that she becomes most truly "Christ-like" [1] ...
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.” 
While he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; seize him.” And he came up to Jesus at once and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” And he kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you came to do.” Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples left him and fled. (Matthew 26:36-56)


[1] “Christ-like”, that is, in the sense of 1 John 2:6, or 1 Corinthians 11:1, or 1 Peter 2:21, or Ephesians 5:12 (I could go on!) -- not in the sense of achieving some sort of Messiah ‘status’ or fulfilling some sort of Messiah 'mission'. Just felt that needed clarification ...

[Thumbnail cc from Bret Jordan on Flickr.]

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