It should be no surprise to those who have been on my flist for a while that I love talking religion. For the record, I am not a believer in a higher power. At all. I also do not denigrate those that find comfort and peace in their belief of a higher power, so please know that you can be candid with your thoughts on religion with no fear of retaliation, snickering, or attempts to convert from my end. And I'll hope for the same. (OMG, no Watchtowers of BoMs, please!)
I'll state first what (imo) are Joss' thoughts on religion, and try and support that with moments/themes from the show. It's my opinion (and was glad to hear someone else say this at WC) that God and religion failed Joss Whedon in his life, and he has a rather sour outlook on them both, but maybe a part of him wants to believe. I also think that he's sensitive enough (and intelligent enough) to see the value in not preaching atheism (i think he approaches from an agnostic viewpoint) to the viewer, and while he tends to revere the dark more than the light, he still lets the viewer make the final decision as to how they see the god of their choice, or the lack thereof.
"Gosh. I love a story with scope." ~Skip, Inside Out
Here's a shout out for the Trinity, which is a holy number in Christianity (esp. early Christianity). With the dynamic of Holtz, Connor(Stephen), and Angel(us), you have a bastardization of the Trinity, with each of them becoming at some point both the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit - with the exception of Holtz.
Even though the time frame is wrong (Holtz is from 18th Century England) he represents a Dante's version of the Church, or the beginning Middle Ages time period (12th Century to 15th, say), in which vengeance and justice were the common themes taught. The Church ruled with fear; this is the time of the Spanish Inquisition. "Hell" is clearly defined in the Inferno, and obviously the writers of ME know their Dante, and made a point of reminding the viewer with Lilah giving Wesley a copy of the first book in the Divine Comedy. We first meet Holtz in "Offspring" where he finally gets his hands on the beast that killed his family with the help of an excommunicated Monsignor, and lets Angelus know their methods are "the old ways." For the record, they're in Rome, as Darla wanted to get a good look at the frescoes on the Sistine Chapel. (She probably enjoyed all the bloody imagery of torture and suffering.)
Holtz's entire mindset with regards to Angel is to see if a completely evil being (as he believes Angel to be Angelus still) can be made "to pay" for their sins. The Church at the time of the Inquisition was not concerned with ethics. Morals were defined in far different terms than they are today. While I would see Holtz as an instrument of evil - he uses an innocent baby to hurt his enemy, just like Jesus did! Wait... - according to the church in the middle ages, he was exacting the Lord's justice on the wicked. He is the Holy Father exacting justice/vengeance on those who would seek to destroy him.
He is the Old Testament: a wife turning to look at her home and becoming a pillar of salt. A son telling his brothers that their dad was drunk and naked in his tent and then being marked as a servant for all to recognize him as a sinner. A recently freed people being forced to wander in the desert for 40 years because they wanted a nosh. A man who must sacrifice his beloved son, a miracle child given late in life, to prove his love and complete adoration to his god. This is the god and teachings that Holtz follows.
He also plays the part of the Holy Spirit, who makes way in man's heart for the Son. But boy, does he put his own spin on that. He makes way in the Son's heart for Angel. He lies with the truth, never flinching, and raises up a child to hate his father, to honor HIM. What's interesting to me, is how strictly Holtz adhered to his Malachi (the very last scripture of the Old Testament): "and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse." He was obeying god by turning Connor(Stephen). And then, when the unthinkable happened, CONNOR LIKED HIS FATHER, even a little bit, Holtz SAW that, and was STILL able to use this passage to his advantage. Stephen would obey his father (Holtz) and destroy the monster.
I've gone on and on in my LJ about the duality of Stephen/Connor, and it's important to the themes of Christianity: Jesus, who is the obvious first instinct when comparing characters to religious themes, had DUAL natures. He was both the divine and the mundane. Connor, both demon and human. The Son is the Word of God: the potential for both good and evil. And how.
So let's get the Jesus themes out first.
Quick run down of the Jesus story: for generations spanning back to King David, some would argue to Adam, a holy blood line was maintained. (Order of Aurelius) Now, while it's easy to say that Connor's miracle birth = Jesus', I'm going to say it's that, and also Elizabeth's birth of John the Baptist (the one who prepares the way for Christ), and JASMINE = Jesus' birth. But we're talking Connor, so I need to focus. Heh. Connor is at various times in his story arc the Son (duh), the Father (Jasmine - and boy does that story arc better represent the Jesus story than Connor's does), and the Holy Spirit, who is also known as The Comforter. (The Destroyer)
For me, as a person who once fervently believed in the Christian mythos, the most important aspect of that was Christ a) being tempted with all of world's pleasures by Satan (he will show you many things, bright things, Connor) and b) the Garden of Gethsemane where - again, arguably - the price for mankind was paid. (It didn't matter the METHOD in which Jesus died, only that he did. He made his choice in the garden.) This is PERFECTLY mirrored in the episode "Inside Out," but with Joss obviously going for the darker aspect, the inverse of "goodness" in the Bible's tale. Who is the devil showing Connor the "many bright things?" It's easy to say Cordelia, but is that true? Broken down, it looks terrible, what she's asking Connor to do:
Kill a virgin/innocent person so their baby will live. (sacrificial lamb clean and unmarked - unblemished - because that is pleasing in mine eyes.)
Cordy has also killed untold hundreds in her quest to bring about the birth of her child. Evil, right? Think about how much evil was done in the name of God. And I'm not talking the Crusades. I'm talking Noah. "Well, nothing good here, so let's flood it all and start again. Except for you, your kids, their wives, and a bunch of animals, and we'll not talk about the implausibility of the whole two-by-two thing, mm'kay? My will be done, yadda yadda." Not enough? Lot and Sodom and Gomorrah (and I'm not even going to GO to the place where Lot offers the crowd to rape his daughters so he can keep talking with the angel.) Joss hits us over the head again and again how "generals" have to make cold decisions. Buffy, Angel, and Connor both have to sacrifice the needs of one for the needs of many. (Spock shout out!) So if you believe in the Christian god, then you accept that some people have to die in His name.
And I love how Joss reminds us that the Bible isn't all sunshine and puppies. Because it isn't. He magnifies the old ways, the old beliefs that got us here with our current religious mindset, and takes away the comfort of pleasant hymns that soothe (I know that my redeemer lives) and the holding-hands nature of the modern protestant church, and shows us the darkness of an All-Powerful being (Cordy). The ego (Illyria). The need for worship and adoration (take your pick.)
"Thou shalt have no other god before me, for I am a jealous god." Look at Cordelia's reaction to Connor when he shows interest in Faith. But again, getting ahead of myself. Still with the Trinity and now it's Angel's turn.
The obvious parallel is with God the Father. He is the Source, the Way (the sex), the Beginning and the End. "God loved us, and so he gave His Only Son." But here's the twist: (brilliantly mentioned in the WC panel discussion) instead of sacrificing his son so that Man Might Live, Angel sacrifices The World so that the SON might live. For me, the most heartbreaking (and again: non-believer) sentence in the entire bible is the following passage when Christ hangs on the cross: Eloi, Eloi lama sabacthani? (Father, Father, why has thou forsaken me?) That is EVERY MOMENT of Connor's life. But which father is he crying for?
"If ye love me, keep my commandments." All of those that work for/with Angel learn very quickly that they have to obey. Oh, they question. They rail. They argue. But ultimately, it's Angel's will that will be done. Kingdom come. And woe unto those that stand in his way. A reoccurring theme on Angel is that ultimately, the Higher Power representation fails. They all make mistakes, they all have flaws, they're all... human. Esque. Immortal NEVER means untouchable, unbreakable, un-killable. And I think Joss shows us - through Angel and the others - that "god," or the modern Christian definition of god, made BIG mistakes. But how did it affect the grander picture? Angel has been working towards redemption for over a hundred years. Wolfram and Hart fostered evil for millions of years. Angel's time span is short in the grand scheme of things (and the reign of the Christians has been short, too.)
The difference between Angel and other rulers/supreme beings/immortals is that he doesn't think he's better than anyone he's working to help. Hell, even Buffy - who I love, no character hate here, people - felt she was better than the rest. Which made her inferior. Nice superiority/inferiority complex there. But not Angel. Angel is no different in his quest for redemption than any other poor sot schlepping on the pebble we call earth. And I think that's the god Joss WISHES existed. That's the kind of superior being that's worthy of our love - one who doesn't want it, but helps us regardless, because he SHOULD.
Angel is the moral of most bible stories, as well. He is the Good Samaritan. He is Lazarus. He is Job, my GOD is he Job! The PTB are constantly using him as a pawn to test his devotion to the task, to see how far they can push him and have him still remain faithful to "the mission." When he slits his son's throat so that Connor can be born again into a New and Pure life, he is Jesus giving up the ghost. He is god allowing his Son to suffer at the hands of man, which he is, as well. He is Jesus betrayed by Judas (Wesley). The difference with Angel, and the god of the Bible, is Angel doesn't believe in the pearly gates, the sunshine forevermore, the reign of peace.
So why does he fight? The Christian lives their life if not for the promise of Glory in the afterward (*cough* shanshu) but because they have been commanded to. And also because things are Better In The Next Life. That's never not a factor. Angel - and man, does that scene hurt - signs away his eternal glory, his chance at redemption (physical proof at any rate) and sacrifices HIMSELF. He continues to fight because he HAS TO. Because it's right. Because first and foremost, he believes in balance. For every evil that rises up, he'll strike back. Sure, he wants to tip the scales towards good, but he also recognizes that it will never happen. It will never be finished. This is a completely new concept in Christianity, and this is where the character moves beyond the mores of the Bible and becomes something else. Which - for me, at any rate - is what makes Joss so damn wonderful. Joss brings in the mindset of Buddhism, of yin and yang, and applies it to the "morals" of the Bible. And I totally, COMPLETELY believe that Joss would use finger quotes on the word "morals." (See: all the examples above)
Joss took the stories, the lessons of the Bible over and over again (as most Western culture does when telling a story, and let's not forget that it all came from the polytheistic religions that came BEFORE the time of Christ, hello Easter! Yeah. Not what it claims to be.) but pulls away the shiny veneer of "God loves you and harps! And gold streets!" and turns the rock over and shines a torch on all the little "throwaway" stories that riddle the Old and New Testaments, because they don't fit in with the current picture of god.
"For I am a Jealous God." If I may draw from ST:TNG, "Love me!" Sacrificing children. And for those that may not be aware, the general consensus among Old Testament scholars is that Isaac (Abraham's son) was a GROWN MAN when he was bound to an altar to be sacrificed. Whoa. And how about those Egyptians? Did those all of first born sons deserve to be killed by God? Or all the elderly that most likely died of dehydration when the water was all turned to blood? That's some kind god, ya got there. And that is ONE book of the bible. The god of the Old Testament is a COLD god. A god of vengeance and fury and justice and a hint of a promise to something better. And His will be done, boy howdy.
Angel puts a human face (yeah, yeah, you know what I mean) to these horrible decisions, let's us see the pain in the choice, and thereby becomes a more sympathetic god than one who just sits on high smiting people who defy them. Which brings us to:
FREE WILL vs. PREDESTINATION
Man, is this the big theme of the series, or WHAT? And we're told this over and over and over again. Connor: "Good? Evil? They're just words." The entire season 4 arc is ALL ABOUT FREE WILL - does it even exist? Gunn and Skip in "Inside Out:"
Gunn: No way. We make our own choices.
Skip: Yeah, sure. Cheese sandwich here, uh, when to floss. But the big stuff...?
The best scene BAR NONE for the proof that we DO have free will (and how we make wrong choices, and are INFLUENCED to make those choices) is when Connor chooses to kill the virgin. Absolutely does he know that killing is wrong. He feels that he has no choice, but when he is talking with Darla, he begins to understand that he DOES. Only when his fears - and the physical presence of Cordevilia luring him to her wishes - take control, his face is wrenched in agony and he yells at Darla "You are not my mother!" And drags that crying child to the slaughter. God. That is some DARK stuff, there.
And that's a great explanation for why men does the evil that it does... do. Fear. What's Connor's fear? That he'll turn out to be as miserable a father as HIS. (Because as a child, he can't see the heavy sacrifices that his father DID make for him. He's still clouded with the lies of Holtz.) That a chance to make a family WORK will go wrong. (Family is his number one motivator. For both good and evil.) For his overwhelming need to be loved. God, does he just need someone to LOVE him. And not lie. (And there's another theme, but I am getting out of control.) "You are all my children now." From Freddie Krueger to Jesus, that line has brought more men to their knees to follow the wishes of someone more powerful than they are.
And what makes Connor submit to Jasmine? We find out later that he has seen her for the horror she is all along. (And why is he REALLY not bothered by that? Yeah, hell dimension, appearances don't mean much but it's more than that. Look at any picture of the crucifixion from the medieval times. Christ, sores and blood and gore all over him, his face contorted with agony... That's the message Holtz taught him from infancy. Pain and agony in the name of others is beautiful and righteous.) So Connor accepts Jasmine willingly and submits to Her Will because NOW... NOW he doesn't HAVE to make a choice. And given the last choice he made (oh, god his FACE when the blood splatters on him and ACK!), that has to be a lot of relief.
And there's a wonder at why ANYONE would choose to live in that world. Jasmine takes away all choice (and pain and suffering and...) and you just get to BE. "A slave state" Fred calls it. But... what on earth do you think the Christian view of Heaven is? No more sorrow, no more suffering... How on earth is that possible? You got it - no more choice. Just float and strum your harp. That's a horrible oversimplification, but then again: I grew up in the south. Sure Jasmine eats people. The Biblical God sacrificed people ALL THE TIME, psshh. But through Team Angel, Joss makes us really LOOK at that concept. Yes, a few dying so that billions can live seems a small price to pay. Unless your loved one is the price, you know? And even though the knee-jerk reaction is to call Jasmine evil, she does do some good. She gives people peace, hope... And some people go loo loo as a result. Just like today with Jesus and the whole killing doctors is justified because "they kill babies" thing. Loo loo.
Quickly, and then I am SHUTTING UP because I'm getting TEDIOUS, Jasmine takes Connor's "pain" at one point (like... she's all vampiric with need and creepy, too) and she feels HIS pain to grant him peace. THAT, my friends, is an excellent - yet creepy - allusion to the Garden of Gethsemane, too.
GOD I HAVEN'T EVEN GOTTEN INTO PROPHESIES!! Okay, this is the part where I shut up and YOU talk. :) cross linked to churchofjoss