Joss Whedon, How Do I Love Thee?
As in all Whedon stories, these are great individual characters. But as in all Whedon stories, Buffy is at heart a story about community—about building community, about how we are better together than we are alone, about how we need each other to be the best people we are capable of being. Union College English professor Tanya Cochran, one of the founders of the Whedon Studies Association (!), says that "One of the themes that runs through his work is that the loner hero, at some point, can't go it alone . . . There is always some tension between being the sole savior and having to work with others to accomplish a goal." Meghan Winchell, a professor of history at Nebraska Wesleyan University who has taught a course on Whedon, agrees that "'Created family' is one of the most prominent themes in Whedon's work . . . Whedon writes for the hero, but the hero cannot prevail without support from friends. He also makes sure that the hero learns this lesson, sometimes the hard way."
As the Whedon experts suggest, the power of community, of diverse individuals who discover they need each other, is familiar material to fans of the Buffy story, for while Buffy was once The Slayer, alone and solo, she was even then joined and uplifted by Xander and Willow, by the librarian (and her personal Slayer mentor) Giles, and even at various times by monsters and cheerleaders. While Buffy was the point of the spear, it was the research of Giles and Willow, the emotional support of Xander and love interests Angel and Spike, even the drive provided by frenemies Cordelia and Hope that gave her the info and the strength she needed to save the world time and again.
While Whedon identifies himself as an atheist, this favorite story is nonetheless a familiar story to those of us in faith communities; the apostle Paul told it metaphorically by referring to the Body of Christ, in which every member, even those less visible or less dramatically beautiful, play an important part. We can't all be Buffy, Paul said, we don't all have those gifts. But that doesn't mean that Andrew or Willow isn't somehow essential.
You can't have Scoobies without the plural.
I was telling a creative writing student the other day that one of the archetypal stories we write is Save the World.
Think of that great first season of Heroes: Save the cheerleader. Save the world.
Think of The Guardians of the Galaxy, a supergroup made up of a talking raccoon, a giant tree, and various other misfits most of you haven't even met yet, but on its way to becoming a cool major motion picture about a group of people coming together to, well, guard the galaxy.
Joss Whedon is consistently writing that story, whether the world is, well, the world, or the world made up of a community gathered together out of love and common purpose.
We need each other to survive and thrive. We need to come together, put our gifts in service of something larger than ourselves.
We need to be a part of saving the world, whatever that means.
And someone has to tell us stories that remind us of that—which is a primary reason I love Joss Whedon.
Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post, Salon.com, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.