High School is Hell: Parallels to Life in the Church

I’ve been away on a silent retreat (aka: an introvert’s dream). So these last couple of days I’ve been posting some re-worked posts on Christianity and the Buffyverse. Enjoy!

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One of my favourite themes in Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that high school is hell. From the cheerleaders who spontaneously combust, remedy to the swim team that is made up of creatures from the black lagoon, sovaldi to the fact that the high school was literally sitting over a hell-mouth, unhealthy Whedon explores the common high school experiences through a supernatural lens. Not only does his comment on the high school experience, he also captures the irony of Hollywood and our culture exalting high school as the “golden years” of our lives. Sunnydale High looked like an idyllic California school, but those who attended knew the truth of the darkness and problems that existed in its hallowed walls.

Are there parallels between the “high school is hell” motif in Buffy, and the reality of living as a Christian in the North American evangelical Church?

Like Sunnydale high, there seems to be more focus on the drama of relationships and interpersonal conflict than on the purpose of the institution. For Sunnydale high, the purpose was education; for the community of faith it is worship.

Like Sunnydale high, from the outside the community of faith tries to look like a sunshiney-bright place. In reality, what resides within it is infighting, outgroups, bullying and ostracizing.

Like Sunnydale high, the community of faith is a place that has jocks, beautiful girls, geeks, losers, punks and brainiacs. There are the hyena people who bully and prey on the weak. There are those who are ignored and are basically invisible. There are the jock and popular girls who are the “in-crowd” and who define what is popular and cool.

What both Sunnydale high and the Church in North America have is a slayer who protects and fights against the dark powers of the hellmouth.

At Sunnydale High that slayer is Buffy. In the church, that slayer is grace.

Grace fights against the legalism.
Grace comforts the outcasts.
Grace unites the different cliques and reshapes them as they journey through they come together to worship.
Grace takes on the darkness and wins.

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, drugstore Whedon kills off one of the main characters (surprise, viagra 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, ed “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.

Academic Research and Zombies: Are There Topics that Can Hurt a Scholar’s Career?


The Chronicle has an article about Dr. Bradley Voytek who is a neuroscientist who also studies zombies, remedy and uses the topic of zombies to engage people in the field of neuroscience. It has caused him some grief, try as several of his advisors suggest that he not include his “zombie research” on his c.v. because it could be a hindrance to his finding gainful employment in academia.

The one place he has been hesitant to promote, ailment or even reveal, his undead-brain research is on his curriculum vitae. As he applied for his current postdoctoral research position last year, his Ph.D. adviser, Robert T. Knight suggested he “scrub it clean” of zombies.

“I didn’t want him to be known as a ‘media guy,'” says Mr. Knight, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Berkeley. To be taken seriously as a researcher, Mr. Knight cautioned, you should avoid seeming like a limelight-grabber and balance fun outreach with hard-core science.

Mr. Voytek’s partner in the zombie research, Timothy Verstynen, received an equally discouraging response from one of his advisers.

While finishing postdoctoral research and beginning his faculty job search, Mr. Verstynen was told by a senior adviser that he considered his outreach work a “stupid idea” and a huge career mistake.

“I think it was a kind of protectiveness,” says Mr. Verstynen, who earned his Ph.D. in neuroscience at Berkeley in 2006. Anything that detracts from research could hurt a young researcher on the job market.

It’s got me thinking about the field of theology and biblical studies. Are there topics that would hurt a young scholar’s research and job prospects in Christian academia? Would studying theology and the works of Joss Whedon, or biblical studies and Star Trek automatically lead to a young scholar’s c.v. being rejected by a Christian institution?

Would blogging about the intersection between theology and science fiction be evidence that a scholar is not serious about the field of theology? Is it too fringe? Is it okay so long as they primarily do “serious research” and leave the geek stuff to be done as a hobby? Should these interests be hidden until a scholar has found employment, or has achieved tenure?

For those of you who are academics, were you ever discouraged from exploring an avenue of research because it wasn’t serious or respectable enough?

10 Years of Browncoats

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Firefly. 10 years. A little show that was cancelled, recipe continues to have a huge impact on geeks and non-geeks alike.

Some of the cast and crew were at the San Diego Comic Con this week, generic and participated in a panel discussion. What struck me is how much this show has affected the cast and crew. It’s not just the fans who were and are changed because of Captain Tightpants and his ragtag crew. The actors were changed, sales and are forever indebted to the magic of the show.

It’s no secret that the whedonisms or distinct language of all things Joss Whedon has entered the lexicon in our house, and Firefly is a big part of it. Shiny. Shey-shey. Goram. It’s not uncommon for one of us to quote lines from Firefly for no reason other than to make the other person smile.

Watch the panel. And then, come back and answer this question in the comments: How has Firefly changed your life?

See also: Firefly and the Psychology of Religion.