Friends, if you follow me on Instagram, you know that I've had a family emergency that has taken me offline for the past couple of weeks. I'm going to be spending the rest of 2016 with the ones I love the most, but you can expect to see me back in action with more commentary and reviews on bingeworthy classics and new winter shows in the New Year!
Finals week: the time of year when I wear headphones and spend a LOT of time in front of a laptop. From the moment I saw Lin-Manuel Miranda's performance of Alexander Hamilton at the White House in 2009, I knew Hamilton: an American Musical would be one of my favorite finals week obsessions. There are a thousand reasons why Hamilton is a joy for fans of history, musical theater and hip-hop (and for anyone with ears), but there is a lot for students of religion too.
For one thing, Hamilton is a mediation on Providence. In the opening number, we meet Alexander Hamilton - a brilliant but penniless orphan who immigrates to what would become (due in part to Hamilton's powerful writings and political maneuverings) the United States. Why was he born with so few resources and did his tragic, destitute beginnings make him into the tenacious, creative force of nature whose ideas helped create the world as we know it? Was it divine intervention or chance?
Later in life, Hamilton meets his nemesis (and [spoiler alert!] his killer), a privileged, wealthy young Aaron Burr. The two have a Mozart-Salieri type of relationship: Burr cannot understand what makes a man like Hamilton tick. And (in one of the most tightly-written songs you will ever hear), he questions his own more hesitant nature, his place in the grand scheme of life, and what questions Christianity can and can't answer in Wait for It.
In Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story, we get a poignant, understated musical finale that self-consciously critiques how we tell the story of our Founding Fathers (e.g. where are the Mothers?) and invites us to think about the afterlife in terms of legacy. Who makes sure that Hamilton lives on? Who gets to tell our stories? Do we live forever if they are told well?
SO while I'm finishing out the semester, chances are, I'll be listening to Hamilton... are you obsessed with Hamilton or some other record? Write me and let me know what I should be putting on my end-of-the-term playlist!
There are certain shows that you just have to watch more than once (more than ten times?). The more nuanced the show, the more you need to watch it. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is at the top of most religion scholars' lists. Here's why we (the entire religious studies guild... I speak for all of us) need another Buffy!!!
1. Elegant storytelling: There are tons of great shows that draw theologians' attention (The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, & Mad Men to name a few), but none of them beat Buffy for its simple premise and quality execution. A Big Bad wants to destroy the world. Only Buffy can save it. A simple story allows for a lot of nuance and creativity along the way (musical episode, anyone?).
2. Campy villains: We loved to hate the Big Bads, didn't we? They were always bad but still funny and they hammed up every scene. Villains today (even on shows I enjoy like Jessica Jones or Daredevil) can be scaaaaaary but they tend to be (mostly) humorless. We need another Caleb, the cheerful, creepy, misogynist, axe murdering priest (also: Nathan Fillion)!
3. Gender scholars need a muse: Feminists loved (LOVED) Buffy. She's strong! She's a woman! Bella Swan from Twilight and the (slightly less frustrating) Elena Gilbert from The Vampire Diaries are tired throw-backs to the damsel in distress. We can't leave all of the supernatural heroics to Sam and Dean Winchester!
4. It's time to revive some 90s fashion trends: Chokers are totally on point. As are overalls on grown women. And scrunchies! Let's bring those back. I think I've still got my awesome homemade scrunchy collection at my parents' house.
Yours Truly circa 1993 wearing ALL the 1990s trends you can fit on a 16 year old girl
5. And slang too: What's your damage? Don't go all Dawson's Creek on me. I can't even deal with Destructo Girl. (that was just a fraction of the awesome slang from the "D" entry in Slayer Slang: a Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon).
4. Academics need to justify their t.v. watching: There are philosophical, theological, linguistic, etc. treatments of Buffy. Just do a Google Scholar search and you'll see that the academic takes on the show are endless (as are the scholarly puns... we really need to put a stake in those, guys. Seriously).
Screenshots of just two of the many, many, many Buffy articles on Google Scholar
5. We need more accessible discussions of BIG ideas: Want to talk about the nature of good & evil? Of life? Of death? Of destiny? Stick with Buffy. You'll end up thinking about fate a lot, developing mixed feelings for Spike, and you'll tear up (if not all-out messy cry) when one sympathetic character dies in "The Body" (season 5, ep 16).
6. David Boreanaz: (What? Like you weren't thinking it?)
7. Cool librarians!!! Most of the nerds on t.v. these days are science-y. They are usually computer experts or crime scene investigators. Their main function is to provide blood spatter analysis or hacking. Giles the Watcher/Sunnydale librarian rescued the world with his knowledge of ancient pagan myths, and art, and literary themes; in other words the humanities. We need a show with a lead who saves us with Socrates!
"Each and every one of us is on a journey. And we feel that it's important to be on that journey with the people you love."
David in The Invitation
A few years ago I watched the haunting PBS documentary Jonestown: the Life and Death of Peoples Temple. Told with interviews, film, and audio records, viewers experience a beautiful utopian dream slowly twisting and turning into a (now infamous) death cult. What must it have been like to witness the descent of the Peoples Temple? What must have been like to be a member? Would you know that you were being groomed for death? Would you feel the dread immediately or would it slowly, subtly build in your subconscious?
In The Invitation, an eerie, suffocating thriller-horror film, the lead character Will (Logan Marshall Green) may or may not be about to find out. Will and his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) have been invited to a dinner party with old friends in a ritzy Hollywood home. Kira is eager to enjoy the evening, but Will is on edge. He's leery of the new peace that his fragile host (and ex-wife) Eden seems to have found with a group of devotees to spiritual guru "Dr. Joseph," (including the mesmerizing, menacing David (Michiel Huisman)). As the dinner progresses, Will's anxiety and paranoia increase. Is Will right to be this suspicious? The more we learn about the tragic history of this group of friends, the more we wonder whether or not Will's perspective can be trusted. And yet, something seems off about the house, its inhabitants, and the tranquility they seem to have found with Dr. Joseph....
The Invitation is a frightening psychological thriller. And its setting in Hollywood invites us to ask all sorts of good questions about new religious movements and class. Why is it that privileged folks in the American West, like those in this film, are drawn to religious innovations? The Invitation is fictional but there are many, many real-life examples of wealthy folks who join religious organizations like Scientology or Heaven's Gate. Why is it that having it all in California leaves people so soul-empty? Why doesn't 'old time religion' fill the void? And what is it about the region that allows for so much spiritual creativity?
In addition to academic questions about religious movements, the emotional and theological questions raised by The Invitation about the relationship between religion and tragedy are worth asking. Should religion always relieve grief? Should it explain sorrow away? Should religion reframe suffering in light of new spiritual understanding? Humans seem more open to spiritual answers during seasons of grief. What if those spiritual answers are dangerous? Like Will, you may find more questions than answers in The Invitation.