Fangirl Theology Series: Stranger Things

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Stranger Things has become one of my all-time favorite shows.

It’s a delightful and frightening coming of age tale in which the weird kids, the preppy teens, and the messed-up adults save the day.

It’s a tale of parallel planes and nostalgia trips that allows us to ask the “What if” questions of life:

What if an evil force invaded, and the little ones and the broken ones, saved the world?

What if there is a world within a world, a place that is here and not here, and it’s threatening to break through?

How do we deal with the repercussions of confronting the darkness in the world?

After looking at the evil in this story, what do we learn about the evils that plague our own reality, and how do we confront it?

There are evil forces at play in the land of Hawkins, Indiana, in the form Demagorgons and warring governments who care more about beating each other than the lives of their citizens. There are the loveable “losers,” the girl with no name but fantastic powers, the single mother barely hanging on, the cop still grieving his daughter’s death, and the dysfunctional step-siblings.

And beneath it all lies the Upside Down, an alternate dimension of death, decay, and darkness, with a creature (and, in the second season, creatures), who seek to infiltrate our realm and destroy us.

In short, it’s a biblical story.

The Bible contains stories of the looming threats of the otherworldly powers of darkness and the present power of Empire, not to mention actual monsters (Job 40:15-24 and 41). Its list of heroes includes infertile nomads, foreigners who glean the fields, a shepherd boy overloooked by his own father, and a refugee born in a manger.

And beneath is all is the Kin-dom of God, God’s Dream for the world, the New Heaven and New Earth, the here but elsewhere, the now but not yet, a space of interdimensional, thin-planed existence.

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Storytelling is a formative experience. Sci-fi and fantasy are some of my favorite storytelling mediums, because they remind us of the world’s enchantment. We remember that magic is real, we are not alone, and there are things more beautiful and great than we can comprehend, yet are within our reach.

It’s been a while since I’ve dug into the theology of a good story, and I want to begin again with the dark enchantment of Stranger Things. 

On the blog, I will be spending the next two weeks digging into the theology in Stranger Things through a few themes. I hope you will join me on this and other journeys through the lens of Fangirl Theology!

Weekly Themes

Hello, friends!

Starting this week, I will be posting more regularly on the blog, and with themes for certain days:

Mental Health Monday – in which I give an update about my mental health and offer tips and anecdotes for those with similar struggles

Throwback Tuesday – in which I share a past post to showcase more of my journey and common themes explored on this blog

Theological Thursday – in which I share theological questions, thoughts, and reflections

Fangirl Friday – in which I continue my Fangirl Theology series and geek out over my latest fangirl crazes

I hope you’ll continue to check in throughout the week and share the posts with anyone you think would be interested in your topics. Also, if you want to see anything specific covered within the range of these themes, please let me know in the comments section on the blog or here! I appreciate all of your support and want your voices to be heard!

Blessings,
Linds

Fangirl Theology: 7 Theological Lessons from Buffy the Vampire Slayer

This is a continuation of my Fangirl Theology series and is my third post on the topic, following Doctor Who, the Church, and My Messiah Complex and When All Saint’s Day Meets Election Day (and Fandom). This was originally conceived as a three-part series, but I’m planning to extend it a bit longer. So, if you have any favorite fangirl/fanboy topics you wish to see theologically deconstructed, please comment at the bottom! Thanks for reading!

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Maybe you’re devastated by all this division in our country. Maybe you need some good ol’ female empowerment. Or maybe you’re really curious as to why this post even makes the connections between Buffy and Christian theology.

Regardless of why you’re here, I hope this gives you hope and reminds you that you can slay with the best of them!

Here are 7 theological lessons from Buffy the Vampire Slayer!

FOR THOSE WHO HAVE NOT FINISHED THE SERIES, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS!

7. We are stronger together. 

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David had Jonathan, Naomi had Ruth, the disciples had Jesus and each other, Paul had the apostles and leaders of the churches (although he was still pretty abrasive with them). The Scriptures rarely have anyone going it alone, because the writers of these stories knew the truth of these ancient words: “It is not good for [people] to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18) In the same way, Buffy has the love and support of her friends and family. Even when she feels isolated because of her Slayer duties, she never has to live out her calling entirely alone. In fact, there are times when having her support group saves her life, as is the case in Season Four when she and her friends merge their psyches together to bring down an otherwise unbeatable enemy.

6. Humans are both badass and flawed.

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I’m specifically focusing on female characters because of the emphasis on female empowerment throughout the course of the show. Buffy can defeat an armada of vampires single-handed, but sometimes she lets that get to her head and doesn’t listen to others when it comes to dealing with life. Willow is kind and gentle but is willing to wipe peoples’ memories so she doesn’t have to deal with the consequences of her actions towards them. Faith is strong and fierce but doesn’t always have the best moral compass. Cordelia is prissy and sassy with the heart of a fighter. These women are as human and flawed as any male, and women need to be reminded that they too are made in God’s divine image and are still desperately human. In the Bible, Sarah manipulated a patriarchal system to get a son out of her maidservant, then proceeded to treat her like garbage. Still, she is considered the matriarch of the Hebrew line. Mary Magdalene had actual demons which required exorcism, and she was the first person to witness Jesus’ resurrection. Just like the women in Buffy, women in the Bible are complex and simple, holy and human.

5. Darkness will not overcome the light, although it can make the light harder to notice at times.

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The Israelites lived through generations of exile and homecoming, which caused significant trauma and pain, along with great perseverance and hope. The Romans crucified Jesus, who embodied hope and restoration, but the grave could not contain him. Buffy and her gang encounter powerful forces of darkness in their adventures together, in the form of Big Bads, unexpected and senseless deaths, and broken relationships. But even though the monsters threaten to overtake them, the power to keep them at bay abounds in equal, if not greater, measure within them.

4. Repentance and forgiveness are difficult and possible, even in the worst of people and the worst of situations. 

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Once More with Extreme Prejudice

Joseph’s brothers threw him in a well and sold him into slavery out of jealousy. After enduring significant hardships, rising to power in Egypt, and meeting with his brothers again (while also tormenting them), Joseph forgives and finds restored relationship with his family. Before he was Paul, Saul of Tarsus persecuted and killed Christians with joy. After his conversion, Paul became Christianity’s greatest champion. Buffy and her friends exhibit this similar struggles with repentance and forgiveness. Buffy’s friends and lovers hurt her in deep ways, and it takes significant time and personal healing for her to forgive them. After Willow, in her “Dark” form, kills someone and threatens to destroy the world, she does the hard work of both accepting and mastering her darkness, and her friends do this work with her. In these stories, repentance is not easy, and forgiveness is not cheap, but they are both possible.

3. Power should be shared, not hoarded. 

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Buffy is a unique Slayer in that she insists on surrounding herself with friends and allies who assist her in her duties. While past Slayers lived out their callings in isolation, Buffy shares her journey and calling with others. This idea of fully sharing power comes to its fulfillment at the conclusion of the series. In the series finale, Willow unleashes the power from a magical scythe to empower all potential Slayers so that Buffy is no longer alone in her mission. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit touched all those gathered at the Temple in order to imbue them with the power to share the Gospel by giving them the ability to speak different languages. Power is not something to be held by one but to be shared by many. Only in sharing power can God’s love and kingdom be made manifest in a diverse world.

2. Death affects every single one of us, but it is not the final word. 

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The Jewish culture of Israel dies, is exiled, and returns, only for this cycle to resume a few hundred years later. Jesus dies and walks out of the grave. Giles loses Jenny, Buffy loses her mother, and Willow loses Tara. Death comes for every single one of us and all of the ones we love. It unites us in our humanity, but it is never the last word. Resurrection occurs in biblical tales and in Buffy’s stories. New loves come, lives continue in new and altered ways, and the world keeps turning. These characters remind us to deal with death in its enormity, grieve well, and learn somehow to move on into a new life.

1. Life is hard, painful, and beautiful.

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Buffy and the gang endure immense hardships in their work together, but they still find reasons to keep fighting the good fight. Buffy encourages her sister to “be brave [and] live” in this hard life. Then, she must live into the reality of her own words after her friends resurrect her, and she must endure the hells of human life after respite in heaven. It is only after a long, intense, and difficult season that she finds something worth living for again. Job struggles through his losses and wonders what the point of life and living is, and even after God appears to him in a whirlwind, his questions are not all answered. However, he gains a new perspective and begins a new life in light of these revelations. There is no guarantee that life will be easy, and sometimes, it barely feels worth the trouble, but deep within the crevices, there is beauty, and it is worth pursuing.

What theological insights resonated most with you? Which ones did I miss? As a part of my Fangirl Theology series, please comment with your own theological insights into your favorite fandoms, or any fandoms you might want to discuss further!

Fangirl Theology: Doctor Who, the Church, and my Messiah Complex

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Today, I am beginning a three-part series called Fangirl Theology. I will be presenting theological interpretations on three of my favorite “fangirl-worthy” works: Doctor Who, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Harry Potter.

I would like to dedicate this particular post to the memory of my stepdad, Robert Barnette, who passed away on October 28th. He was a big fan of Doctor Who, but I never got into it while he and my mom were together. As a result, we never got to talk about it in person when I did start enjoying it. This is for you, Rob. Rest in peace and rise in glory.

Also, an obvious spoiler warning for those who have not seen Doctor Who or those not caught up with the current season (Season Nine in the rebooted series).

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I love Doctor Who.

For those who have read some of my past posts, this is not a surprise.

Granted, the show took some getting used to. This was my first serious foray into the sci-fi territory, and when the reboot’s pilot involves killer mannequins, there’s an inevitable adjustment period for the not-yet-initiated.

But when I did get acclimated, I fell in love. I fell for the adventures, the timey-wimey explanations, certain companions, and the Doctor himself.

I will not digress by getting into debates about who my favorite incarnation of the Doctor is. That may be for another post at another time. I do, however, want to talk about a trait of the Doctor in each of his incarnations which I both love and fear: his Messiah-(and sometimes God-) complex.

Anytime the Doctor is on an adventure, on Earth or elsewhere in the universe, he tries to solve their problems. A famous tagline he uses in the most recent season is, “I’m the Doctor, and I save people!” And for the most part, the Doctor really does stay true to this statement. In one adventure, to save the life of a child who is “destined” to be the yearly sacrifice to an angry god, the Doctor offers up his own lifetime of memories to appease the being and save the girl. He makes himself show mercy to Davros, the creator of the murderous race of beings called the Daleks, because in doing so, he ensures that their creator instills the smallest piece of mercy in these killing machines. He saves many planets, including the Earth, from evil beings and averts many catastrophes. He bears a significant amount of the suffering of others and even takes things into his own hands when they are not his to take.

But he is a very dark Messiah. After losing a beloved companion, he almost lets an entire race of creatures go extinct for threatening humanity. He only stops when his new companion begs him to have mercy. He forces another companion to make a decision over whether or not to destroy the moon, which is in fact an egg protecting a creature and about to hatch, instead of helping her with the decision. When she realizes how close she was to making the “wrong” choice, she cuts the Doctor out of her life in rage. He is most dangerous when he is alone, because in these instances, he refuses to be ruled by any higher authority or different voice of reason, because he believes he is the highest authority and the law of the land.

Attributes like this led showrunner Steven Moffat to describe the Doctor as “an angel trying to be human.” And in the most recent season, he was someone who wondered whether or not he is a “good man.”

I relate so well to this character, because I am a human trying to be God, someone wondering not if the world is “good” but if it’s OK.

I wake up some mornings with great hope in humanity and the world around me. On those days, nothing gives me greater joy than to relish in humanity’s achievements and wonder how I can participate in making a beautiful world with them.

Other mornings, I wake up wishing the world would just burn already, and I ask if I can have the match to get the fire going.

I want to take the world in my hands and mold it gently, and I want to take it in my hands and smash it.

In other words, I have a strong Messiah-complex. I think I have the answers to all the world’s problems, and I think if people just did what I thought was right, our problems would disappear. When people don’t do what I want, I become angry and vengeful, wondering why we can’t start over with better people or a better world.

And I’m sure I’m not the only person in the world, especially during election season, who feels this way.

I am also a member of the Church, where I am taught we have a gracious, merciful Messiah who will one day usher in a new age of peace when he returns to us. Because this Messiah is the centerpiece of our theology, you would think the Church would be the place where we’re told our Messiah complexes are hilarious at best and damaging at worst. We are supposed to be taught we are not the be all and end all of this Creation, but Someone greater than us is in charge. We are called to do what we can, but we are not called to be Creation’s saviors. This mission, according to the stories in our Bibles, belongs to someone else.

Suffice it to say, I have often felt my Messiah complex encouraged, nurtured, and at times even exploited in Church. Church is the body of people I aim to please the most with my gifts, but not always in a good way. Church has often been where I strive to prove myself by signing up for as many things as possible, and it is a rare day when someone stops me. I sign up for leadership roles and mission events to prove I am worth belonging to these people. I have continued leading in places I should have left, for the sake of my health and even the congregation’s health, but I feared my loss of status in the community.

After all, if I was not a leader, I had no purpose. If I was not leading a mission project which actively “helped” or “saved” others, I was not doing enough work for God or my community, and they would disapprove of me. I also did not trust that anyone could do my job as well as I could, and I put myself at odds with people in my communities at times over how things should be done. If it wasn’t my way, it couldn’t possibly be right.

I have also felt this Messiah-complex encouraged in the labeling of enemies. Either explicitly or implicitly, groups of people, even (and sometimes especially) communities of faith, establish “insiders” and “outsiders,” those who are “us” and those who are “other.” When we do this, we allow ourselves to think we can determine the boundaries to God’s presence. This can enable us to think we, not God, are the keepers of the gates of heaven. It’s a difficult trait to combat, yet how often do we see our leaders calling this out in us?

When my Messiah-complex is left unchecked, I throw myself into ministry work the way the Doctor throws himself into cataclysmic predicaments, without regard to my own sanity or the capability of others to do this work well. I do things no one else will do the way the Doctor does things for humans they could never, and maybe should never, do for themselves. It’s like we both have a voice inside us screaming at all times, “Everything will be lost forever unless YOU, and YOU ALONE, do something.”

It’s always up to us. Not someone else. Not life, death, or resurrection. Not even God. It always has to be us, and we keep throwing ourselves into these situations until we are burned out and need a regeneration.

So, how do you heal a Messiah-complex?

I find healing the same way the Doctor has: I keep surrounding myself with people who drag me out of my own dreams of “how things should be”and plant me firmly back into the world of “how things are.”

Like the Doctor, I have companions who love me when I am at my most human and when I try to be better than God. I have companions who tell me when I’ve gone too far and when I need to let things go and be as they are. These people are my saving graces and help me realize that even if I am not always a “good person” and the world around me is not always “good,” I have the promise of love to keeping me going and learning through each new adventure. Together, the Doctor and I are learning, in a slow yet undeniable way, that we cannot be God to humanity or even to ourselves, and this is OK.

Like the Doctor, we find healing from our Messiah-complexes by finding and maintaining friends, communities, and even ministries and vocations which empower us to do all we can while reminding us we are not God. We need the Church to point us to Jesus, the Messiah full of grace and mercy, and remind us we are not called to be the world’s Saviors but imitators of the One who saved us and continues to save us.

Like the Doctor, we can help people. We can be kind and present even when all else is lost, and every now and then, we might save the day.

But like the Doctor, we are not God.

With the Doctor, we learn to accept our own limitations, our own humanity, and our divine spark. With the Doctor, we learn how to invite life, death, and resurrection into the world without controlling the final results.

We can do this without being God or Jesus, and like the Doctor, we can become all the better for it.