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Religious Themes in the Shows We Love

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Riley's Christianity [Aug. 5th, 2006|08:34 am]
Religious Themes in the Shows We Love

churchofjoss

[shadowscast]
Okay, here's what I'd like to talk about today: Riley's Christianity.

I think someone at the WC panel mentioned that Riley's Christianity was played as a joke: haha, look, the corn-fed Iowa boy goes to church. Which, well, I guess it was (it was certainly delivered with the one-two punch of a joke):

FAITH (as Buffy): How did you respond so fast?
RILEY: I didn't. I was just late for church.

But to me, that was a fascinating revelation about his character. Okay, I admit, up to that point there was really nothing about him that interested me (sorry!) so I may've glommed onto this new aspect extra hard. But still! He had hidden depths! I was intrigued.

In a show where everyone regularly uses crosses and holy water to fend off vampires, I believe he's the only main character who's an actual practising Christian. What does that mean? How deep did Riley's Christianity go—were his beliefs important to him, or was going to church more of a social ritual? Assuming traditional Christian beliefs were important to him, how did he reconcile them with his experiences in Sunnydale?

And of course, Riley's Christianity (or church-going) is only ever mentioned the once, as far as I can recall. This doesn't mean it wasn't an ongoing thing for him (lots of important facets of secondary characters' lives happen entirely or almost entirely offscreen—for instance Willow and Xander's interactions with their own families in high school), but it means that we don't know.

I once tried to work out some of these thoughts in a drabble. Since it's topical and, um, short! I'll stick it in here:

***


On Being a Christian in Sunnydale


The blue-haired ladies smile at him. The organist keeps trying to convince him to join the choir. The Nigerian couple with the new baby have invited him to dinner three times, but he keeps making excuses.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow...

The horned, fanged, scaly things he hunts at night look like a medieval monk's conception of the devil, but they jar with his quiet, pragmatic Protestant theology. His girlfriend has superpowers and mystical visions, and she doesn't believe in God.

Some Sunday soon he'll fail to come. Today, the organ stops and Riley bows his head.

***


So, yeah. The idea I was trying to get at there was that in the beginning of his Sunnydale experience, when he worked with the Initiative and thought of demons as HSTs, there was no conflict with his faith. But as he became involved with Buffy and the Scoobies, and encountered their (increasingly undeniable) magical interpretation of Sunnydale wildlife and events, he hit a crisis of faith. And then he quietly stopped going to church, and never said anything about it. I figure that this contributed to his descent into personal darkness in S5—it was one more source of stability that he'd lost.

So, um, that's all I've got for now! Thoughts?

(Btw, if you're wondering where I'm coming from: I'm an atheist Buddhist, but I was raised Presbyterian.)
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: sp23
2006-08-05 01:10 pm (UTC)
I think that's a pretty sound view. I could see how if he suffered a loss in faith as well as a loss of his superpower (the removal of his chip) and the death of his mentor who really wasn't who he thought she was, plus his belief that the girl he loved didn't love him, it would add to his slide into his personal darkness.

I think that if you really look under the surface of the big, not-too-bright Iowa farm boy, he's a lot more complicated than what we see at face value. I liked Riley in Seasons 4 & 5 (which like Doug Petrie managed to morph into seething hatred in As You Were), but like you, I never really gave him much thought. You see, there was this blond vampire running around and well.... *g*

Btw, I was raised Presbyterian, too. Now I'm a lapsed Lutheran. :)

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[User Picture]From: shadowscast
2006-08-05 06:49 pm (UTC)
Former Presbyterians, represent! *g*

Yeah, I was pretty distracted by Spike, too. (As is clear from my body of work!)

It was really fanfic that got me thinking hard about Riley; I really liked Another Peaceful War by Marina Frants, which is about Riley's experience of going home to Iowa post-Restless. After that I starting really wondering about his experience of the whole Initiative arc and its fallout.
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[User Picture]From: totallypinkrock
2006-08-05 02:56 pm (UTC)

"You will never know, will you?"

I too am an atheist Buddhist.
I just started watching Buffy, actually, but now my eyes are peeled for this Riley person.
I've been thinking about what lj-user aadler said regarding the existence of God in a place where crosses have literal power, and I've come to this conclusion: the crisis of faith Riley (and like-minded folks) experience(s) derives from a cosmology that does not include God.
In a lot of pulp science fiction, demons are real but God is not, or, alternately, demons are real but it's a toss-up whether God exists or not. Religion seems to be portrayed as separate from the world of the supernatural (see Conan the Barbarian short stories); this is also a big horror movie theme, as it forces the protagonists to confront the baddies themselves.
In that sense, the vampires might as well be... not vampires. The (apparent) lack of angels and YHWH and such could be part of a universe in which humans must make their own way. The comic series Hellboy is like that, too, and it's summed up in a great exchange between a conjured demon and his master (sadly, I forget their names):

Master: Is there a Heaven? Really?
Demon: [Master], you of all people will never know, now will you?

That pretty much sums it up. When demons come to Earth to fight the Hellspawn (or when witches and werewolves come to do it ^_^) we don't exactly have the Holy Host in our corner, do we? At least, not necessarily. The absence of God makes faith and courage a lot more meaningful to the Slayer and the gang, and it makes their moral questions a lot more pressing.
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[User Picture]From: harmonyfb
2006-08-05 03:09 pm (UTC)

Re: "You will never know, will you?"

Master: Is there a Heaven? Really?
Demon: [Master], you of all people will never know, now will you?


You know, I'm not a comic book reader, but I think I'm going to have to take a look at this.
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From: (Anonymous)
2006-08-05 07:23 pm (UTC)

Re: "You will never know, will you?"

Eeee! Yay Hellboy! That story, by the way, is in trade paperback Vol. 4. The sorcerer's name is Igor Bromhead.
The comic is sooo much better than the movie, FYI.
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[User Picture]From: totallypinkrock
2006-08-05 07:27 pm (UTC)

Re: "You will never know, will you?"

Just so it's crystal clear, that anonymous post is me.
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[User Picture]From: shadowscast
2006-08-05 06:53 pm (UTC)

Re: "You will never know, will you?"

Riley shows up in S4, so if you just started you've got a ways to go!

Of Hellboy, I only know the movie, but your thoughts about pulp-sci fi theology are interesting. I think the distinction of religion vs supernatural makes sense. In Buffy, there's lots of supernatural stuff but nothing that directly contradicts or affirms to existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing god ala YHWH or Allah.

I don't think it's ridiculous for Riley to fight demons with tasers and to believe in the Christian God. But I do think he might've had some trouble reconciling the two, especially since he presumably didn't have anyone to talk to about it.
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[User Picture]From: trepkos
2006-08-05 02:57 pm (UTC)
I like your thinking.
At least we know he wasn't a right-wing, no-sex-before-marriage type.
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[User Picture]From: shadowscast
2006-08-05 05:56 pm (UTC)
Very true! *snerk*
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From: (Anonymous)
2006-08-06 02:24 am (UTC)
not that there's anything wrong with that. . .
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[User Picture]From: agilebrit
2006-08-05 04:03 pm (UTC)
Well. *snerk* As a right-wing, no-sex-before-marriage type myownself (who is possibly notorious in the fandom for being the only author who's dared to convert Spike, of all people, to Christianity), I have to say that I've thought about this quite a bit, and I reconcile it this way:

Nothing in the Bible precludes other dimensions. Hell is a literal place; demons are literal beings. However, the demons that inhabit Buffy's world aren't Biblical demons; they're extradimensional physical creatures that can be killed--whereas the Biblical demons are creatures of the spirit only.

It's really only a small step from there to go to a place where magic works and the supernatural is a facet of everyday life.

I never thought about Riley losing his faith before, but your scenario makes all sorts of sense. It's also possible that he didn't lose it completely, but wandered in the desert for a bit before coming back to it. A crisis in faith sometimes results in coming back to it believing in it even more strongly.
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[User Picture]From: agilebrit
2006-08-05 05:02 pm (UTC)
Well, I think a lot of people have knee-jerk reactions to things without actually sitting down and thinking them through. As a fundie, I had to take a really hard look at the show and decide if the storytelling and the characters were enough of a justification to watch it, considering the demon factor, so I made an honest attempt to reconcile that part of the show with my faith. And that's what I came up with.
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[User Picture]From: revdorothyl
2006-08-06 12:38 am (UTC)

metaphor demons vs. theological demons

One of the interesting quotes on this question which I've come across is in See Christopher Golden (et al), editors, Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Monster Book (New York: Pocket Books, 2000), 6: Former BtVS writer Dean Batali is quoted as saying, “‘I subscribe to a more biblical view of what demons are. In Buffy lingo, demons and monsters seem interchangeable’” and “‘My viewpoint is that demons have to be invited [into a person’s life]. That’s where I differ a lot from Joss’ theology, if we can call it that. . . . That’s probably why I don’t fear them, because they have to be invited in.’”

As a (mostly-unlapsed) Presbyterian minister who's been spending way too much time reading theology and psychology (when not lusting after a bleached-blond walking paradox vampire) in recent years, I find this proposed distinction between Jossian demons ("demons happen!", one might say) and the demons associated with much popular Christian theology ("if demons happen, you must've opened the door for them somehow") really fascinating.

On the one hand, you've got the book of Job in the Hebrew Bible, suggesting that sometimes really horrible, monstrous things (demons in a real sense) happen to good people who've done absolutely nothing wrong. On the other hand, you've got most people with religious beliefs, who'd prefer to be able to think that being clean-cut and fighting the good fight provides some protection against the inroads of evil, no matter how much evidence accumulates to the contrary.

And in the middle of all this, perhaps we have Riley Finn? (I admit, after seeing "As You Were" I began to hate him quite a bit retroactively, and probably unjustly. But now you've all got me thinking of him as more of a Job-like figure, perhaps.) Like Job, he tries to make all the right choices, be one of the good guys par excellence, but then he finds himself somehow identified with and even identifying with "demons" and chaos-creatures of all sorts (since I'd argue that the Slayer herself seems reminiscent at times of the Leviathan-loving side of the biblical god). In the end, he comes back to his faith, one could argue, but it's to a faith forever changed and deepened by his discovery of just how much there is "outside the margins" and "beyond the edges" of the orderly creation he was taught about in his Iowa Sunday school.

Maybe?
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[User Picture]From: texanfan
2006-08-06 03:05 pm (UTC)

Re: metaphor demons vs. theological demons

I've never really equated demons with bad things that happen. It's a new perspective for me. I'm currently reading Daniel and part of what you said reminded me of Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego. Most point to this story as an example of God's amazing ability to save, which it is, but I've always been struck by what they say just before their thrown into the fire. Essentially they say that they know their God has the ability to save them but, EVEN IF HE DOESN'T SAVE THEM they still will not bow down to the idol. The fact of the matter is that many stories in the Bible end in martyrdom that protection from evil things is not a guarantee. I think Christians that believe it is often fall awayafter God has "disappointed" them.
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[User Picture]From: revdorothyl
2006-08-06 11:37 pm (UTC)

Re: metaphor demons vs. theological demons

Yes! Exactly! That's my fear whenever I meet students (particularly) with an overly narrow view of "how evil happens to us in this world", which leaves no room for a good guy like Job getting his teeth kicked in for no reason discernible to the human mind whatsoever, or for kids like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (or for Jephthah's daughter in Judges, who was NOT saved from her father's knife, in spite of what I'm sure were many prayers for intervention in her father's foolish vow
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[User Picture]From: shadowscast
2006-08-05 06:29 pm (UTC)
Believe it or not, I've written a Christian Spike too! Hee. I did wonder if I was the only one. I'm curious enough now that I'm probably going to go read yours and see what you've done with him. (Warning, if you're curious about mine: my Christian Spike is in a big slash WIP, and the issue of his Christianity hasn't come up all that much yet.)

I could easily be convinced that by "As You Were," Riley has returned to the fold. He seems stable and happy again, for one thing! Also, he's back among people who have a scientific rather than mystical bias when thinking about demons (HSTs), and I still think that would make it easier for him.

I totally buy your reconciling of the Bible and the Buffyverse. The demons and gods that Buffy fights are not in the same category, really, as the demons of the Bible or the monotheistic God.
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From: (Anonymous)
2006-08-06 02:52 am (UTC)
I think your reasoning about demons in BtVS is sound here. Personally, I was shocked that whedon even had a character going to church in his show. I also read aadler's comments about how writers at WriterCon were trying so hard to explain how holy water and a cross could provide protection against demons. This is typical of the anti-God or anti-Christian attitude of the media. And, by the way, kudos to you for admitting to being a fundie Christian. LJ discussions usually discourage Christians from participating because we are so often ridiculed and denied the same respect, consideration and tolerance that we are accused of withholding from others.
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From: (Anonymous)
2006-08-06 02:55 am (UTC)
sorry for the goof up. i was replying to agilebrit.
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[User Picture]From: agilebrit
2006-08-06 03:12 am (UTC)
Well, I've never hidden the fact that I'm a conservative Christian from LJ-land at large (it's right in my userinfo if anyone cares to look), and the fact that I've written Spike-conversion-fic ought to be a clue. LOL I'm also assuming that the "no bashing" rule on this comm applies equally to my faith as it does to others.

In defense of the panel in question, the presentation was supposed to be scientific, not philosophical. She got into the what without really trying to explore the why, which was out of the scope of what she was trying to do.
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From: (Anonymous)
2006-08-06 06:50 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the info on the panelist's explanation of the effectiveness of crosses/holy water. I didn't know she was attempting a scientific explanation of these symbols of faith. It reminds me of that scene in the campy movie Fright Night when the vampire told the vampire hunter holding up a cross that he had to have faith for that to work. Also, it reminds me of Xander holding up a cross and, when it seemed to not work, shaking it like it was an appliance or something.
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[User Picture]From: texanfan
2006-08-05 04:29 pm (UTC)
The crisis of faith is a very interesting idea. One I hadn't thought of before. It's lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness.

As a Christian I was merely annoyed that Riley was shown to be a church-going Christian but Heaven forbid it should ever have any effect on his day to day living, enter his conversation or even be mentioned ever again.

The Wiccans among us expressed a similar frustration with Willow and Tara.

But imagining the inner workings of Riley's crisis of faith happening off screen leaves possibilities for depth of character I hadn't seen there before. It also brings into interesting perspective the fact that, to the best of my recollection, Riley never used a cross or holy water.
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[User Picture]From: shadowscast
2006-08-06 05:34 am (UTC)
Aargh! I wrote a long reply to this comment and then my browser crashed and I lost it!

Okay. Trying again:

I suspect that Riley not using crosses or holy water had more to do with the science vs. mysticism tension than his Christianity. He was an Initiative guy, therefore he used tasers, infrared and pheromone trackers, and the occasional grenade.

Of course, later on he did catch on to the usefulness of stakes! Crosses and holy water weren't the most effective weapons; although they did harm and repel vampires, they rarely actually killed (er, dusted) them.

Maybe an interesting question is: if he ever had used crosses or holy water onscreen, would he have commented on it at all? Made any explicit connection with Christianity?

Actually, all this has me wondering how much the writers kept his Christianity in mind. Was it something in the background of his character all along? Or did they really just throw it in for that one episode and then forget it? I'd rather assume the former, because it's much more fun for character analysis.
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[User Picture]From: texanfan
2006-08-06 03:16 pm (UTC)
I fear they did more of the latter with all the characters, not just Riley.

I agree entirely that he used the techno weapons because he came from the science guy side of the tracks, but, for our purposes, I wonder if one more layer down if he had used crosses or holy water if that would have blurred the line between those two seperate worlds for him. If maybe it's a line he didn't want to see crossed. I'm now thinking it's almost a shame he left before Glory was deemed a god.
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[User Picture]From: shadowscast
2006-08-06 05:12 pm (UTC)
I'm now thinking it's almost a shame he left before Glory was deemed a god.

Yeah. It would've been interesting to see if the terminology bothered him.

In an RPG I play, our characters have run into this embodied Hindu god in India. One of the characters in our group is a devout Jew. Whenever one of the other characters refers to this god as such, the Jewish character interrupts with "being of immense power!"

I wonder if Riley would've had a similar reaction to the description of Glory.
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[User Picture]From: tx_cronopio
2006-08-05 04:30 pm (UTC)
Lovely drabble! And interesting thoughts.

I'm a closet Riley lover. Heck, I named my dog after him (see icon). There's so much more there than meets the eye, IMHO.
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[User Picture]From: shadowscast
2006-08-06 05:37 am (UTC)
Thanks! And, cute dog. *g*

I, um, don't even have a Riley icon. Which is why I'm using Spike icons in this post. (For some strange reason, I have a lot of Spike icons!)

But I'm glad I could at least contribute something to the body of Riley analysis!
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[User Picture]From: a2zmom
2006-08-05 06:58 pm (UTC)
Very interesting thoughts and I could easily see a crisis of faith making Riley that much more vulnerable.

It's implied that Riley has a strong family network, that he gathers his strength from family, friends and the institutions that he has faith in. It seems that one by one he loses all of that.
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[User Picture]From: shadowscast
2006-08-06 05:38 am (UTC)
Yes, exactly!

...Um, that's all I've got. *g*
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[User Picture]From: willowgreen
2006-08-08 04:50 pm (UTC)
Lovely drabble.

I'm working on a whole long post on Riley (I'll link here when it's finished enough to post), but I too see Riley's going to church as just another aspect of his pro-institution orientation. I don't see that as in any way ridiculous, though, unless you think Riley himself is intrinsically ridiculous. It's just who he is.

Because he never mentions church again, we have no way of knowing whether he lost his religious faith along with his faith in the military. But it wouldn't be at all surprising if he did, although I don't think it's a necessary corollary. After all, people manage to hold onto their religious faith every day despite all the everyday evil in the world. I don't necessarily see Sunnydale-style evil as qualitatively different from that. I think it depends more on whether you see God as a powerful source of good or God as the Fixer of Bad Stuff.
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