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Note to Self, Religion Freaky: When 'Buffy' Met Biblical Studies

Ronald Helfrich

Taking aim against critics of Buffy who see pervasive evidence of sexism, racism, ageism, and class bias, Ronald Helfrich looks at some of the lessons concerning interpretation that Biblical studies can better inform our readings of Buffy.

“While the wide arc of the globe is turning

We feel it moving through the dark”

-- B-52s, "Revolution Earth"

No doubt some of you are scratching your head at the subtitle of my paper and saying to yourself “When Buffy Met Biblical Studies, when did Buffy meet Biblical Studies”? Some of you might be thinking to yourselves “I recall a few instances where the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer wove religious issues into the program. There was the religious tyrant Genevieve Holt who ran that brutish children’s home in “Where the Wild Things Are” (4.18). There were Willow’s occasional references to her Jewishness (“Bad Eggs” 2.12, “Passion” 2.17, “Amends” 3.10, “The Body” 5.16, “Hell’s Bells” 6.16, “Help” 7.4). There was the time when Riley was on his way to church (“Who Are You,” 4.16). There were the several references to Wicca (“Hush” 4.10). And there was that line that Buffy famously uttered in response to something Giles said to the Buffster as he and she were on their way into a crypt to see what Spike’s minions were looking for and which, of course, serves as the title of my paper: “Note to self, religion freaky” (“What’s My Line, Part 1” 2.9). But Buffy meeting Biblical Studies? Come on!”

Let’s see if I can explain why I chose this title. As with any “intellectual” or “academic” fan boy or fan girl paper this paper will, if you scratch hard enough below the surface, tell you something about me and about the social, cultural, and ideological contexts I came of age in. When I first matriculated at college I was a Biblical Studies major. I even had romantic visions of a once upon some time in the near future when I would be teaching Biblical Studies at a major college or university somewhere in the English-speaking world.

Though my academic fairy tale has not come true—it took me a long time to recognize that I didn’t want to spend a significant proportion of my academic life studying languages, that my interests in religion were broader and more cultural and theoretical than Biblical Studies allowed, and that trying to find a job in academia with a very specialized degree in a smallish field would be difficult. So I ended up in cultural anthropology and later history. Talk about job opportunities! I did, nevertheless, learn a lot during my intellectual journey through the labyrinth of Biblical Studies. One of the things I learned was that the Torah/Pentateuch/Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) could not have been written by the man tradition claimed had written them, Moses.

It is Baruch Spinoza, a Jew living in 17th-century Holland, who is arguably the father of modern “scientific” Torah Studies. In his Theological-Political Treatise Spinoza brought Renaissance methods to bear on the Pentateuch, questioning whether Moses actually wrote the five books of the Torah. Spinoza instead attributed their authorship to a historian writing hundreds of years after the event.

Spinoza’s assertion about the authorship of the Torah would really take hold in intellectual culture and eventually the academy beginning in the late eighteenth-century and continuing through the nineteenth. Under the impact of the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment (a holy trinity I view as three-in-one) a number of scholars, many of them German (something American evangelist Billy Sunday would make hay of when he argued during the first World War that the Allies were God’s instrument to punish heretical Germany for its higher biblical criticism), came to the same conclusion Spinoza had years earlier. Arguing that the Torah could not have been written until urbanism, the monarchy, and a priestly caste had arisen in Ancient Israel they argued that the five books of the Torah could not have been written by Moses.

Instead, they maintained that the Torah was the product of several sources, the J or Y source, the document which used the term Yahweh for god, the E source, the document which used the term Elohim for god, the P source, the priestly document which contained regulatory and ritual sources relating to the priesthood in Ancient Israel, and the D source, the book II Kings 22 says King Josiah “discovered” in the temple in Jerusalem in 622 BCE. The Deuteronomist would also, claim “scientific” biblical critics, play an important role in the editing of the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings...

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