Christian imagery has been used in BtVS almost since its inception - it's a story about vampires, so you get crosses, duh. Thematically, however, Christian metaphor only became a major influence on the story in S5. In "The Gift," Buffy is called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice of her own life to save the world. That we're supposed to read this as Christlike is confirmed in a Whedon interview I've read, in which he specifically highlights the messianic imagery of "The Gift" ("flings her arms wide, and...").
Now I've talked about some of this before in regards to Chosen, which I saw as being yet another entry in a sort of messiah cycle, each season ending with another facet of Christian theory. In "The Gift," we saw Buffy selflessly offer up her life rather than sacrifice her sister. In "Grave," Xander calls himself a "carpenter" (just like Jesus!) and insists to Willow that his love for her is such that even her killing him can't change it. Then, in "Chosen," Spike, who used to be exactly the kind of villain Buffy and the Scoobies fought against, gives up his life to save the world.
What's so interesting about this sacrifice cycle is that it's additive - With Buffy, we get the relatively simple equation of "die for those you love"; Xander's example adds the requirement of love given without expectation of return or reward, willingly accepting even rejection, pain, or death (although Xander doesn't actually die, the offer is there); Spike's sacrifice combines all of these into a much more pointed portrait of a Jesus figure. His death is a trade of his life to save that which he loves, like Buffy's, and an expression of selfless, unconditional love that embraces even pain and death, like Xander's. Unlike Buffy, though, he's not surrounded with friends who love him back. Nor is he spared from actually having to make the sacrifice, like Xander was. Spike gets no last-minute reprieve. He's left to die alone and in pain for people who don't love him and won't miss him.
(RE: the above. Before anyone jumps in to insist that Buffy did love Spike in her own way, I'd argue that it's really not important to this discussion - the key thing is, he didn't believe that she did, and therefore his sacrifice was undertaken with that in mind. That's all that really matters here, although I could point out that Buffy's demeanor in the closing moments of "Chosen" hardly suggests that someone she truly loved had just died, but I'd really rather not get into a huge conversation about the contradiction that is Buffy. Let's just stick with the interpretation that Spike read the sincerity of her last words right.)
Of course, Spike is a martyr in S7 BtVS, and it's clear from the visual imagery throughout the season that we're meant to see him that way. There's the obvious crucifixion imagery: "Beneath You," in which Spike drapes himself over a cross; "Never Leave Me," in which he's lashed, cruciform-style, to a wheel of torture (in the original shooting script, he was actually nailed to it). There is scourging ("Bring on the Night") and temptation ("Bring the Night" again, with Drusilla's coaxing to "choose our side"; The First-as-Buffy in "Sleeper"). Even the chip could be said to operate metaphorically as a sort of high-tech crown of thorns.
But the Jesus references are more than just visual - self-sacrifice is a continual theme through Spike's entire arc for the season. It's made absolutely clear that although he deeply wants "forgiveness and love" ("Beneath You"), he doesn't believe he has the right to ask for this. "William's a bad man," he tells her in "Help." He doesn't expect to "atone" - he tells Buffy this specifically. He drags himself out of insanity in both "Beneath You" and "Help" to offer assistance to the Slayer in her great and important battle ("make use of me if you want"). For the bulk of S7, he's a frustratingly passive presence, allowing himself to be housed wherever Buffy decides to put him - in Xander's apartment, then in her own basement - tied up, chained up, used as a teacher's aide to train the Potentials, then once again as her leather-jacketed warrior of death because that's what she insists she wants ("Get It Done"). These are challenges just as much as the physical torture, or the trials he had to endure to gain his soul back... ones of humility. Spike is passive in S7 to emphasize that his devotion to Buffy's cause ("the mission") outweighs any interest in his own salvation. Even insane, Spike is aware that his suffering is for the benefit of others, not himself - "William's a good boy, carries the water, carries the sin," he mutters to himself in "Same Time, Same Place" while acting as pointer dog for Buffy and her gang. Alone, he's just a "bad man," cutting into his own flesh in pointless self-punishment; as Buffy's soldier, he's "a good boy."
But of course, it's "Chosen," with its firey sacrifice, that really drives the martyrdom message home. In "Chosen," Spike undergoes a literal transfiguration - for those unfamiliar with the term, this is the event in which after a "sudden emanation of radiance," the resurrected Jesus was taken up bodily into heaven ("his face did shine as the sun," as my Saint-a-Day Guide recounts the Biblical description). Or, by the dictionary definition, "a marked change in form or appearance; a metamorphosis," or "a change that glorifies or exalts." Not so surprisingly, this imagery is being repeated in the current season of Angel, this time to signal the fulfillment of the Shanshu prophecy, which is supposed to make the recipient human ("Destiny," "Soul Purpose"). Again, metamorphosis, change.
So yes, there's definitely some Christian allegory going on here. That said, however, I have to point out that it's nothing too elaborate - this is iconography you could pick up by dozing through Sunday School, or half-memories of reading C.S. Lewis. What Whedon has been putting us through are pale echoes of Bible stories writ "modern," like unto the present-day versions of Shakespeare starring teen idols. (I remember wondering, in a vague sort of way, post-"Chosen," whether we were meant to view Buffy's "cookie dough" speech as the equivalent of the Agony in the Garden and whether she had denied that she loved Spike three times.)
So Whedon's take on Christianity actually has nothing much to do with the real philosophy - an avowed atheist, he's not a student of scripture. One could glean, too, from the Patriarchy-is-the-root-of-all-evil stance of S7 and the unambiguous symbology of Caleb, the holy man devoted to oppressing and killing women, that he has some issues with organized religion (namely, that it's bad, bad, bad). But that doesn't stop Christian idealogy from informing his work, filtered through his own ideas on what constitutes heroism, of course. If some of those ideas overlap with traditional messianic images... well, that's terribly convenient for someone trying to communicate through a visual medium, isn't it?
So I won't so much get into addressing how the Whedonverse deviates from the Christian canon, although it could be pretty much boiled down to one word - guilt, or more properly, lack of guilt in the people who are meant to be feeling it by Christian standards. Whedon's view of a hero has a lot to do with selflessnes and self-sacrifice, but this is completely missing the main lesson of the Jesus story, which is not the sacrifice itself, but the necessity for it. Essentially, the martyrdom of Christ is a new-generation retool of the saga of Noah and the Biblical Flood. The Old Testament deluge was an older, angrier god's way of doing things - vengeance against a humanity that had offended Him, wiping the Earth clean of their polluting presence to start anew from a fresh slate, motivating the survivors to remain devoted to God through fear. Jesus, the "Son of God" brought down to Earth as a sacrifice, was meant to clear humanity's slate in a different, New Testament way, taking the world's sins onto himself, and with his death, destroying them in effigy, like a Brazilian curse doll. The death of Christ produced a different lever to encourage its followers to venerate God, and that lever was shame that such pain and suffering needed to be undertaken in their stead. The story is Christ is not supposed to put you in awe of Jesus for going through it - it's supposed to make you feel bad about yourself, and think about how badly you need redemption.
Here's a personal example from my Catholic upbringing: during Easter season, there's this church ritual called the reading of "The Passion," a sort of enacted play in which the priest takes the role of Jesus, and the congregation performs the part of the angry mobs of Jerusalem. Words cannot adequately describe the cringe-inducing feeling of having to shout out, as directed by the script in the missional, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" along with the rest of the politely dressed Sunday crowd. (In Medieval times, the Passion was a sort of street festival - the entire round acted out complete with sets and props, including a paper mache "hellmouth" for the later, popular acts involving the harrowing of hell.) As a child, when one's best understanding of the Bible is limited to the likes of Davey and Goliath and a cute children's prayer book filled with pictures of a mild-mannered Jesus preaching to an adoring crowd of children and Disney-esque animals, this kind of experience is unforgettable. Which is, of course, the point.
And this is exactly where the Whedonverse falls whenever it pulls Christian metaphor into its mix - there's no way to present this kind of iconography without acknowledging that intense wash of guilt. It's deeply programmed into anyone with the vaguest church background. (Weirdly enough, early episodes of BtVS seemed far more aware of this - witness the human Drusilla we see in "Becoming, Part One," who wants to be "good... pure" and is consumed with terror at the idea that she is, as Angelus tells her, "a devil child." Her subsequent turning - from a novitiate nun into a kinky vampire particularly fond of killing children - plays as the classic virgin/whore Catholic girl gone bad.) It's impossible to watch S7 and be aware of the Jesus symbolism as applied to Spike and not wince at the careless attitude of the Scoobies, their overt lack of any kind of self-reflection in the wake of all this. (The moment in "Chosen" where Spike calls Buffy "lamb," a new endearment introduced just in that episode obviously for the express purpose of playing on the childhood prayerbook images I just mentioned - the whole "the lion shall lay down with the lamb" picture of Jesus the shepherd - burns the most in this light.) The lesson of Buffy's character arc seemed to be that power is something you take control of and make your own; the lesson of Spike's arc was one of complete surrender, of erasure of self in the service of a higher cause. These two philosophies do not in any way meet or match up: if Buffy was right, then people like Spike who love fully and completely are simply useful to exploit; if Spike was right, then Buffy and her ilk who insist that "it's all about power" are on a highway to hell with no offramps. Given that Whedon and Co. do not seem to have decided between these two philosophies - and in fact, are playing them off each other in Season 5 Angel - it's pretty hard to know what to think, or how to take this universe's views on "morality."
There's one hopeful note to all this: as I previously mentioned, in Angel right now, the Shanshu prophecy is the new reason of all the messianic imagery we're currently seeing. Angel talks of fulfilling the prophecy as taking on "...a burden, a cross. One you're gonna have to bear till it burns you to ashes." We've seen golden light coming down from heaven, and a Holy Grail-style cup. But if what we've been told is accurate, then what all this is supposed to be leading to is the final reward of a Champion, not another noble sacrifice, no matter what Angel, with his own overwrought ideas about redemption, might think. I'm hoping that the next round of imagery will not be so much Christ the saviour - because frankly, had enough of the whole suffering round - but Christ the king. And that's a profile I think this crowd of writers may be a little more equipped to handle.
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