The Soul, Non-Reductive Physicalism and Buffy The Vampire Slayer

I’m on my way to a silent retreat (aka: an introvert’s dream). So the next couple of days I’m posting some re-worked posts on Christianity and the Buffyverse. Enjoy!

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Halfway through the fifth season of Angel, Whedon kills off one of the main characters (surprise, surprise). Fred is killed so that an ‘old one’ or ancient god can assume her body and conquer the world. Angel and his team are devastated and vow to find a way to bring Fred back. Angel says, “it’s the soul that matters.” If they can find where Fred’s soul has gone, they can re-soul her and then live happily ever after. Unfortunately, they learn that Fred’s soul was destroyed when the god Illyria assumed her body.

Watching the episode made me think about the understanding of body and soul in the Buffy-verse. Overall, it presents a platonic understanding of the soul: soul is good, body is meh.

Take Angel, for example. In season 2 of Buffy, Buffy sleeps with Angel and quickly learns the moral lesson that if you sleep with your boyfriend he’ll turn into a monster. In this case, Angel loses his soul and becomes ‘Angelus’ the most vicious vampire ever. Buffy and her friends try to find ways to re-soul Angel, which eventually happens, just at the same moment that Buffy must kill him to save the world from total destruction.

In Angel season 4, the team is trying to find out information about a big bad meanie, and figure that if they can bring back ‘Angelus’ they will find out the info they need to defeat the big bad. Angel’s soul is mystically removed and put into a special jar, safe and sound (for a little while anyway). Plot twist, plot twist, plot twist, and the jar that houses Angel’s soul disappears. Not to worry though, Willow saves the day and magically breaks the jar, thereby releasing the soul, which allows her to re-soul Angel.

Over and over again, it is demonstrated that the soul is what matters. It is the soul that makes someone human rather than demon.

15 years ago, had you asked me what I thought about body and soul, I would have agreed with this basic understanding of the soul: it is the soul that matters; the body is just ‘meh’ or even unnecessary. In fact, part of my testimony of how I became a Christian includes being confronted with the question, “where will your soul go when you die?”

Of course, I’ve had lots of time to learn and think and reflect and have my assumptions challenged. Thanks, in large part, to N.T. Wright I have come to see the value and importance of the body. We will be resurrected, body and soul. The body is not unnecessary, nor is it inherently evil. It will be redeemed and recreated and we will dwell in the temple of God as embodied persons not just wispy non-corporeal souls.

What I’m not sure what to do with is the non-reductive physicalism of scholars like Nancey Murphy, Malcolm Jeeves etc. Basically, they argue that there is no dichtomy. Humans are entirely physical beings and that biblical references to soul or spirit refer to the qualities of being alive and in relation to God. Is this position an over-correction against platonic understandings of the soul?

What would the Buffy-verse look like if we adopted a non-reductive physicalist position? From what I’ve seen, non-reductive physicalists interpret demons as oppressive social structures, and allow only God to be Spirit. So a person could not become a vampire due to a demon setting up shop in their body. Indeed, using a non-reductive physicalist position requires that Angel, Spike and all the other vampires in the Buffy-verse be re-written as zombies!

Wahoo! Zombies! Of course they’re not nearly as sexy and broody and mysterious as vampires. But, maybe it would mean the “Master” might have ended up looking a little prettier if he had been a zombie.

  • http://www.briercrest.ca/faculty/profile.aspx?id=49 Charles

    Zombies!

    Interestingly, in the original zombie stories, zombies were not mindless half-decayed flesh-eaters. Zombies retained their former intelligence and personality, but no willpower. They were the slaves of the sorcerer who had resurrected them.

  • http://gravatar.com/eortlund Eric

    I really like this Buffy-theology mashups! (Is that the right way to describe them?) Of course, we can add to the NT concept of bodily resurrection the OT’s . . . I was going to say “emphasis,” but I don’t even think it’s conscious: the physical/earthly/created can be the realm of the holy. It never occurs to the OT that physicality/createdness is ever a barrier to the spiritual.