Theologians Need to Watch the Avengers

As you could tell from a quick glance at my ‘Writings‘ page, or from reading my previous blog post, a particular interest of mine at the moment is the study of apocalyptic literature. This includes Daniel, 1 Enoch, and, of course, the Book of Revelation. As some of you may also know, I am a particular fan of the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Its ability to combine campy violence with incredibly well crafted dialogue and superb acting make it compelling watching. Were there enough adjectives in that last sentence? Regardless, I strongly encourage my readers, few though they may be, to add this show to their viewing list.

I was delighted, therefore, to find out that my university library had acquired a copy of Kim Paffenroth and John W. Morehead’s edited volume The Undead and Theology, which includes, among other things, an essay by Jarrod Longbons entitled ‘Vampires are People, Too: Personalism in the Buffyverse’. Basically, this article contrasts Christian personalism, especially as found in the Roman Catholic tradition, with the character arc of Spike over the course of BtVS’ seven seasons.

The reason I had picked up this particular volume, however, was to read another article: Beth M. Stovell’s essay ‘”Eat of My Body and Drink of My Blood”: Johannine Metaphor, Gothic Subculture, and the Undead’. In this paper, Stovell focuses on how the metaphoric language of Revelation has been appropriated and reinterpreted, often in disturbingly literal terms, within the Goth subculture. Among the many observations she makes in this paper, Stovell notes, for instance, that ‘Goth Christianity’s dramatic uses of conventions of horror, combined with its penetrating gaze into the reality of suffering in the Passion of the Christ and the Eucharist, provides modern Christianity with a helpful reminder of why ancient Romans believed Christians to be scandalous cannibals’ (217; citing Jon Stovell). Adopting a similar perspective as I did in my previous post, Stovell is here observing that the interpretation of biblical language by a particular subculture has the possibility to draw out in distinct ways some of the possible implications of Christian terms; implications that are often missed by those who have become accustomed to the use of such language.

Especially interesting, in my opinion, is Stovell’s treatment of the insider/outsider distinction that is found in apocalyptic literature (see Portier-Young, Apocalypse Against Empire, for an excellent discussion of the use of apocalyptic literature as a tool of resistance) and its parallels in the horror genre embraced by certain members of the Goth community. Stovell draws attention to what she sees as the adoption of such contrasts in Tim Burton’s films Alice in Wonderland and the Corpse Bride; particularly, Stovell points to the ‘spatial dualism’ and  ‘ethical dualism’ in the latter work, which are consonant with similar dichotomies in the language of Revelation (220-221).

In her conclusion Stovell draws out what she sees as the primary implication of her comparative study, arguing that: ‘The value of Goth readings of Revelation is the new configuration of this symbolism as culturally relevant to today’s world’ (223). From reading her paper, it certainly seems that Stovell’s study does draw attention to the continuing ability of biblical texts in general and apocalyptic literature in particular to have an impact on contemporary readers.

For theologians, this essay has the additional effect of calling attention to the theological possibilities of working outside of traditional Christian contexts. Indeed, I would suggest that implicit in Stovell’s approach is the call for theologians to address subjects that are removed from their immediate field of inquiry. In Stovell’s case that involved analyzing Goth subculture and the horror genre, which in turn allowed her to draw out some of the easily ignored elements of the apocalyptic worldview – including the inside/outside dichotomy in Revelation that is brought into focus by examining Goth language and practice.

It seems that one of the advantages of Stovell’s methodological model is that, by examining a particular subculture, she is able to approach her subject from a distinctly atypical perspective. By adopting an outsider perspective herself through her focus on Goth subculture, she is able to better appreciate the nuances of Johannine metaphor that may be missed by those who are desensitized to its implications. For other theologians, it may be possible to generalize this technique; I would suggest that they might benefit by analyzing works that appropriate biblical and theological language in distinctly non-orthodox manners. In so doing, theologians can step outside of their particular tradition and see it with fresh eyes, which, in turn, allows for a more critical appraisal of its basic tenets.

This, of course, brings me back to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which includes Christian imagery and symbolism but, as Longbows suggests, treats them as props rather than as essential elements (36-37). Longbows notes, additionally, that the inclusion of the soul in the development of Spike’s character over the series ‘can be nothing more than a secular caricature of Christian personalism’ (38). However, by comparing this caricature with Roman Catholic tradition, Longbows is able to draw out some of the essential features of the Christian understanding of the person.

I would encourage any of my more theologically inclined readers to, therefore, consider engaging with works that are either outside of the ‘Christian-sphere’ (e.g. some of the Goth works identified by Stovell) or those that are ‘anti-Christian’ in the sense that they are deliberately iconoclastic with regards to Christian symbolism (e.g. BtVS). Such engagement will no doubt clarify some of the basic assumptions and presuppositions that shape our reading of particular texts, especially the Bible itself.

Consider one of Joss Whedon’s (creator of BtVS) other works, namely the Avengers. In many ways this film has little deliberate interest in Christianity proper, apart from a few instances of dialogue. But perhaps theologians would benefit from looking for the way the underlying themes in this movie, which include the idea of authority and power, find parallels in Christian thought. No doubt such an endeavour may result in reading a great deal into the movie that isn’t there, but I am suggesting in this post that this may be precisely what theologians need to do. By contrasting one’s beliefs with those expressed in untraditional mediums, one may see by means of contrast how s/he perceives his/her world generally and his/her faith in particular.

I’m not sure that the Avengers will prove to be the most effective area of research, but the essays included in The Undead and Theology show that profitable theological research may be conducted in offbeat areas.

Just some thoughts…

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