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Preacher's Daughter: Willow, Xander, and the Prayer of St. Francis

Season six is my favorite season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I like the dark themes, and I like seeing Willow grow up and mature as a result of her grief. (I also like the musical episode.) Recently, I was talking over Buffy when my friend, Bitch contributor Emily Manuel, reminded me about the surprising musical accompaniment to that season's final moments. This is the moment when Xander Harris forgives Willow Rosenberg, and Sarah McLachlan's "Prayer of St. Francis" plays in the background (lyrics):

Listen to the entire song here (with my apologies for the stupid graphics in the video):

The Christian imagery in this moment is almost over the top. Willow, if you remember, is bent on destroying the world in her anger over Tara's murder. She has become addicted to the dark arts, and she is determined to take everyone to hell with her.

Xander begins by telling her how much he loves her. At first, she willfully resists, asking, "Is that the master plan? You're going to stop me by telling me you love me?" But Xander is steadfast in his commitment, offering compassion above all else. She is beloved; she is free to return to the fold just as she is:

I know you're in pain. I can't imagine the pain you're in. And I know you're about to do something apocalyptically (glancing back at the statue) evil and stupid, and hey, I still want to hang. You're Willow.

Not only this, but he reminds her of his presence in the beginning of her life and proceeds to offer his own:

First day of kindergarten. You cried because you broke the yellow crayon, and you were too afraid to tell anyone. You've come pretty far, ending the world, not a terrific notion. But the thing is? Yeah. I love you. I loved crayon-breaky Willow and I love ... scary veiny Willow. So if I'm going out, it's here. If you wanna kill the world? Well, then start with me. I've earned that.

In this moment, Xander is a savior figure. He repeats, "I love you," over and over until she breaks down crying. More specifically, Willow Rosenberg, the Jewish character on the show, breaks down crying in the arms of Xander, the carpenter.

She has been weighed down by sin. She is one of the lost sheep of the Gospel parable. Xander literally goes to the ends of the earth to recover her salvation, and she finally breaks down in tears, ready to repent of her misdeeds and surrender to his grace.

This is not only Christian imagery, but evangelical Christian conversion imagery. As Willow collapses in defeat, "The Prayer of St. Francis" softly begins to play: "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.../Where there is hatred, let me show love/Where there is injury, pardon/...where there is despair, hope..." So, Xander restores hope, grace and love to Willow, the lost sheep.

This might be the most explicitly Christian moment in the show, and it's surprising in a secular series with a humanist impulse that dabbles primarily in other spiritual mythologies. There are other moments in the show that cast a very negative light on Christianity.

See, for example, the witch burnings that nearly take place in the episode "Gingerbread," in which overzealous religious fervor (and a spell cast by the evil spirits of Hansel and Gretel) nearly destroy Sunnydale. Then, of course, there is the fundamentalist preacher, Caleb, who emerges in Season seven as the "big bad."

I'm not entirely sure what to make of this moment between Xander and Willow, except that it is strange and unusual in the context of Buffy.

Lately, I have noticed Christian songs playing in the background of various secular shows. The Bravermans of NBC's Parenthood, are very straightforward about the fact that they are not religious. But in this week's episode, the hymn, "It Is Well with My Soul" plays in the background as Christina contentedly surveys the bustling, happy family.

Any examples that you have noticed recently?

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Comments

36 comments have been made. Post a comment.

I think you are wrong

Christianity is full of universal truths regarding goodness, compassion and forgiveness. So are many other religions. Throughout the Buffy saga, Josh Whedon showed examples of religious hypocrisy, religious indifference, religious intolerance, and, yes, the religious goodness that is often found -- whether it's in Christianity, Wicca, Buddhism, Islam or any other religion.

There have also been some religious music used in the background of some other tv shows...and why not? It's no more a sin to play Christian music and show Christian (or other religious) people on tv shows than it is to show atheist, gay or ethnic individuals. Everyone has a viewpoint, after all and none should be censored from society at large.

Thanks for your comments, but

Thanks for your comments, but I don't see where I suggest that "it's a sin" to do this or imply any judgment whatsoever. I won't quibble with your convictions about universal truths except to say that I don't share them.

This might interest you: "I’m

This might interest you: "I’m a very hard-line, angry atheist. . . . Yet I am fascinated by the concept of devotion." --Joss Whedon

Yes, I've read that sentiment

Yes, I've read that sentiment before as I'm a huge Joss Whedon fan.

religion in media

Whether or not you were openly suggesting that such practices in "secular" tv shows were to be avoided, I felt the tone of the article certainly implied it. Of course, that's entirely a matter of opinion.

Nope.

Nope.

Is this a secular vs. sacred thing?

I was under the impression that the author was pointing out that secular shows like Buffy have more of these moments--moments that clearly show the core of what Christianity is about--than your average "Christian"-branded "entertainment."

I was raised Catholic in an Evangelical community, and the only Christian-branded stuff I've EVER seen that was remotely entertaining or did a decent job of showing Christian values was McGee and Me (which, surprisingly, is from known hate-producers Focus on the Family). That's it. "Adventures In Odyssey" was too heavy-handed and had hate episodes (anti-atheist, anti-Pagan). The 700 Club is...the 700 Club. Your average Christian movie has a person whose life is falling apart, a token altar-call scene, and then suddenly everything is going the main character's way again. And don't get me started on the annoying, mass-produced travesty that is Christian rock.

I got much more spiritual fulfillment from secular entertainment than I ever did from "Christian" entertainment. To me, that's a sign that something is severely wrong with Christian "entertainment."

We still have to see where

We still have to see where the trends go, but I think one of the issues in play is that just because something is not religious, it doesn't mean it has to ban religion from the conversation it wishes to hold. If you want to enter a specific idea to the dialogue, or evoke a certain emotional response, and it just so happens that the music or the theme already exists, why reinvent the wheel? With reference to the Buffyverse, Josh Whedon seems to express egalitarian values, and you can't claim to both value basic human respect while stereotyping and excluding groups from the conversation. And in his willingness to explore, he does a good job representing both the positive and negative sides of things, creating a more honest conversation.

The Real Savior

Interesting read! I always enjoy hearing/reading feminist-based takes from fellow Buffy fans. Fundamentalism as the default sentiment has seemed to me to be rampant on television in recent years. That's one of the reasons I long for the days of BTVS and "My So-Called Life". They showed us characters who built belief systems from their prevalent life experiences instead of the other way around. "Buffy" is particularly attractive to me for its narrative of Humanism, and because I feel so giddy about the anti-Purtianism in the show, I was surprised that this parallel was drawn. I had always thought of the scene referenced with Willow and Xander as one which exemplified the recurring ideology of the show: Only friends can save us. But I also hadn't considered the lyrics of the song playing, or that Willow, as the show's only Jewish character, was throwing herself at the mercy of a white male - which is of course the face of Christianity. Taking the show as a whole, it's hard to imagine this may have been Joss's intention. But whether it was or wasn't, this is some compelling imagery, and an itriguing perspective. I must watch it again! :)

Interesting, but probably not a deliberate writing choice

I really don't believe the writers at Buffy intended for the scene to be read this way, although your interpretation is interesting. Universal love, compassion and self-sacrifice are not the exclusive domain of Christianity.

Also, just to clear this up, Willow was raised Jewish but became a Wiccan, was one at the time of this episode, and remained so through the end of the series.

Well, to clear that up, her

Well, to clear that up, her identity as a non-practicing Jewish woman remains throughout the show.

And obviously friendship is

And obviously friendship is not the singular domain of Christianity. Of course not. But salvation at the hands of a carpenter is.

I don't know if they intended this or not, but it's hard for me to imagine how they missed it. It does make me wonder who was in charge of music, and whether or not the writers and directors were briefed ahead of these episodes.

True, but it still changes

True, but it still changes the religious context of your interpretation of the scene. Not much, though, since it's not like Christians don't want to convert the Wiccan heathens just as badly, if not worse.

That's what I was thinking.

That's what I was thinking.

Actually, Willow never became

Actually, Willow never became a Wiccan in its religious context. She even made fun of the faith in certain episodes, mocking those who were members as "wanna-blessed-bes." Willow practiced magic, but maintained her identity as a cultural Jew. After Tara's death, Willow made a pillar of stones on her grave, a Jewish custom.

Yeah, I found this really

Yeah, I found this really interesting too. I'd never read that much into this sequence but the carpenter and the jew does produce quite strong conversion imagery. I had always though of Buffy as a very secular and humanist show, but, although Joss Whedon is an atheist, he has not been afraid to use Christian imagery in his shows. Angel is built entirely on Christian concepts of redemption and sacrifice, so it seems this is just evidence of Joss showing his interest in Christian mythology and theology in Buffy as well

The Prayer of St. Francis is

The Prayer of St. Francis is decidedly Catholic, not Evangelical - it would be highly unlikely to ever hear it sang or read at a Pentecostal or Baptist Church, for instance. But, interesting observation.

You don't think there are

You don't think there are evangelical Catholics? Have you heard of the charismatic Catholic movement? Not to mention people like Richard Rohr. And Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater (yep, there are even Catholic dominionists.).

As a show "Buffy..." explores

As a show "Buffy..." explores a particularly tongue-in-cheek relationship to the forms of right-wing and fundamentalist Christianity whose followers might rally against its depictions of witchcraft, demons, sex and violence (especially through the episode "Gingerbread" and the character Caleb, already mentioned by the author).

In relation to the subject of this article, I think the Christian allusions ending season 6 are pretty fitting given Whedon's conscious references to the war on terror.

The final episodes of season 6 were first broadcast in spring, 2002. After Warren kills Willow's girlfriend Tara, Willow is devastated and decides to kill Warren. In (I think?) the penultimate episode to the season, Buffy, Xander and Dawn sit in Buffy's living room, discussing whether it is just for Willow to kill Warren. Dawn and Xander assert that maybe it is just for Warren to die, given the suffering and grief he has caused, yet Buffy reminds them -- and the show's post-9/11 American audience-- that despite the pain *we* have experienced, it is still not morally right to kill another human being.

Thus, in the finale's religious allegory, Whedon complicates his show's ironic stance in relation to right-wing Christianity. Rather than satirically mock those who promote un-Christian values in the name of Christianity -- or castigate the religious groups who advocated vengeance, war and anti-islamic sentiment in the wake of 9/11-- Whedon shows his primarily American audience that Christian narratives (even evangelical ones) ultimately advocate love and forgiveness over cruel revenge.

Whilst this moment might be unexpected, I don't think it deviates from the show's customary interest in a human morality, and it attachment to the sanctity of human life. If viewer's choose to read further religious allegory into Willow's Jewishness and Xander's Carpenterness (and presumed anglo-american christian identity), they must also acknowledge that the reconciliation takes place across not only religion, but gender, sexuality (Xander's hetrosexuality to Willow's queerness) and class (Xander's family is working class and he is not college educated, whilst Willow is upper middle class). In the end (of the episode, and season) the only part that matters is their mutual humanity.

I really agree with this! And

I really agree with this! And of course the willingness to sacrifice yourself for somebody you love is strongly reminiscent of Christianity but also a wider version of human morality informed by many other belief systems as well as the simple strength of a relationship between two people.

Yes, obviously, once again, I

Yes, obviously, once again, I did not claim that these things were singular to Christianity. So could we put that point to rest? Thank you.

I didn't mean to criticise

I didn't mean to criticise your post at all, I thought it was great and that this comment (and others were great)! But I'll try to avoid making such boring/superfluous (or actually maybe any) points in future, because it doesn't feel good to get such a hostile response.

Ah, no, sorry. Didn't mean it

Ah, no, sorry. Didn't mean it to be hostile. I just meant that I had already tried to clarify that point that you made.

Grey's Anatomy

Does anyone know what was playing during the scene where Christina was having the abortion? I'm pretty sure I heard the word "God" said at least once in the song, but I was focused on the watching the scene play out.

Ooh, interesting. I don't

Ooh, interesting. I don't watch that show. Hm...

Christian privilege

I will try to only speak for myself here: I am an identified atheist who was raised non-denominational Christian in a predominantly Christian community/city/state/country. Because this religion permeated so many parts of my life and is such an integral part (in my eyes) of USian culture, I find myself, even though I'm an atheist, sometimes making implicit assumptions that other people are Christian, understand Christian cultures, and even using Christian phrases. I find it interesting because a part of my process of maturing and developing my own identity included a lot of anger and resentment toward my experience of Christianity. However, it was still so big for me that it's not like that history is gone, it's not like those words are permanently excluded from my vocabulary, or even from my subconscious (if you believe in that concept). Part of how privilege maintains itself is through invisibility. And in my experience, Christianity is a hugely privileged and dominant group in this country, and part of how that maintains itself is in this unstated, implicit reach of the religious doctrine into domains where it wouldn't logically belong (e.g. BtVS).

A common feminist criticism of BtVS was its use of Christian ideology (I mean, really, vampires couldn't touch a cross or go into a church, Angel got his "soul" back and had to repent). However, I don't think that all of that was carefully calculated or constructed. I suspect, and really, this is based on my own experience, that Christian ideals are so pervasive that it's easy to include them without really thinking, to forget that there are alternative ways to view right/wrong/good/evil.

jesus was a jew

jesus was a jew

I definitely think the

I definitely think the parallels were intentional. I mean, you could maybe call everything coincidental if not for the song, but the song makes it clear that a choice was made to lead us to this conclusion. But, does no one think that Joss was, as Joss does, turning the theme on its head? I mean, Xander as Christ-figure? Or in linking the group's one non-supernatural character to Jesus, the humanistic message was reconfirmed by showing us that you don't need divinity or special powers to be a force of salvation... Anyhow. My tuppence. Nice essay.

other things

A couple other things highlight to intentional christian allegory of this episode. The final action takes place on "Kingman's Bluff." The temple Willow raised is explicitly called "satanic," the only time in BtVS there is anything other than a joking reference to Satan. (As an aside, the shooting location is the same for the miraculous snow that saved Angel's life in Amends, but I don't think it was given a name in that episode.)
Whenever I re-watch that episode, I mute it as soon as the song starts. In the context of BtVS, it's just ludicrous.

I didn't find it out of place or surprising

Just because it's a song with Christian lyrics, doesn't mean that the message of Grave was meant to be seen as specifically Christian. Themes of love and forgiveness aren't the exclusive domain of Christianity or any religion. Sarah McLachlan's interpretation of the prayer of St. Francis was simply perfect for the episode*, both as the resolution of the conflict of season 6 (which was all about people being flawed and having to struggle with their demons and abusing each other as a result) and the introduction of season 7, where love, forgiveness and redemption were huge themes (Spike and the followup to the Buffy/Spike S6 relationship, Willow, Anya, Andrew).

It also wasn't the only time Christian imagery was used on the show - in fact, there is a much more explicit Chrisian imagery and Christian references in season 7 "Beneath You" in the church scene with Spike.

There are also Christian (Catholic) themes in "Angel", the show, including one explicit in the episode "Dear Boy" when Darla shows Angel that a cross still burns him and tells him that god still doesn't want him. But that doesn't mean that the existence of god is confirmed; there's never any mention of the Abrahamic god as someone that actually exists in the verse, Buffy in S7 says that it hasn't been confirmed if he exists or not, while there are, on the other hand, higher powers like The Powers That Be or hell-gods from another dimension like Glory, and all those are shown in less than flattering light (Glory is a villain, vain, selfish and ruthless, and the Powers That Be are mostly indifferent to humans).

*Just like another song by Sarah McLachlan was used to end season 2 finale, "Becoming II".

I am happy to find your distinguished way

I am happy to find your distinguished way of writing the post. Now you make it easy for me to understand and implement the concept. Thank you for the post.

Christian themes on Buffy

You know, until I read this article, I've never thought about that scene with Xander and Willow as him being a carpenter and her being Jewish. I was brought up Catholic so to me the most obvious display of Christianity was when Buffy jumped to her death to close the portal at the end of season 5 to save the world (again ;/). It was the ultimate sacrifice. Plus the imagery of her in the white shirt swan diving into it with her arms and body forming a cross was pretty powerful. Also, the way she stressed to Dawn that she, the Key, was made out of her, much like us, humans, are formed in God's image and likeness...

Very insightful article, thank you for sharing. :)

P.S. I absolutely love Sarah Mclachlan's rendition of Prayer to St. Francis. Whenever it's played in church, I always wish they'd use this instead.

Spike and the Cross

This is so interesting. Definitely gives me a new read on the Willow/Xander scene. I wanted to bring up the scene with Spike and the cross in season 7, which another commenter already mentioned. That scene was amazing and beautiful. And just to put in my 2 cents (I can't help it!), I think it's clear that the religious imagery of this scene was intentional. Also, some have pointed out that since Christian imagery is so pervasive in our culture, we sometimes read/see Christian messages when they're not actually there. I think this is a false conclusion. I'd say that since Christian imagery is so pervasive in our culture, even self-identified atheists like Joss Whedon will inevitably use Christian symbolism. In his case, all the time. And yes, intentionally.

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I don't really get the

I don't really get the problem with the song lyrics that I'm seeing in the thread. I mean, yes, obviously it's a prayer in the midst of a scene that is packed with Christian imagery. But aside from that, the lyrics are not only relevant to the scene but are pretty universally understood as good things. "Where there is hatred, let me show love; where there is injury, pardon." I just can't really see the problem with a message like that, theist or no.

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