PERSONAL: Married; husband's name, Phil; children: Jerusha (daughter). Education: Columbia University, Ph.D.; Princeton Theological Seminary, M.Div.
ADDRESSES: Offıce—3535 Waterworks Rd., Winchester, KY 40391; fax: 859-744-5559. Agent—DeChant Hughes Public Relations, 144 North Kingsbury St., Chicago, IL 60622. E-mail—[email protected] com.
CAREER: Author, editor, and book reviewer. Publishers Weekly, New York, NY, religious book review editor.
The Spiritual Traveler: Boston and New England: AGuide to Sacred Sites and Peaceful Places, HiddenSpring (Mahwah, NJ), 2002.
What Would Buffy Do?: The Vampire Slayer asSpiritual Guide, Jossey-Bass (San Francisco, CA), 2004.
SIDELIGHTS: Jana Riess serves as religious-book-review editor for Publishers Weekly. She holds a Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in American religious history from Columbia University. In What Would Buffy Do?: The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide Riess approaches a subject that seems to be decidedly at odds with her religious studies, and explores what she sees as the deep moral and spiritual messages of the phenomenally popular Buffy the Vampire Slayer television show.
While Buffy has spawned its own diverse groups of fans, aficionados, and believers, the character is also "an entertainment icon that has been attacked by fundamentalists," noted Jason Byassee in Christian Century. "Buffy has been assailed for championing occult figures like vampires and slayers and for its openness about adolescent sexuality." Riess's choice then seems an unlikely subject to represent ideas of spirituality and religious conviction.
The series involves Buffy Summers, a well-scrubbed, attractive young blonde who is in reality a "chosen one," a vampire slayer sent to smite the evil undead and save the world in spite of itself. Arriving to join the sophomore class at a new high school, Buffy quickly gains friends and allies in her war against darkness. Seven seasons and a number of spin-offs later, Buffy and crew were still on the air exposing audience members to the deeper moral and spiritual messages the show offered.
Riess views Buffy as a "classic medieval morality play" that "offered powerful depictions of core spiritual values at work in the lives of its major characters." "Buffy is a complex and nuanced series, full of ambiguity," the author remarked in an interview on the What Would Buffy Do? Web site. "There are no clear-cut answers, but it takes moral and spiritual issues very, very seriously. I am particularly interested in the theme of self-sacrifice in the series." She sees Buffy and other series characters "as bodhisattvas, or individuals who forsake their own chance at nirvana in order to save others," she stated. "They're all about mindful compassion and service."
Riess "readily and often acknowledges the show's mishmash of Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, and Wiccan influences," commented Todd Hertz in Books & Culture. "She writes as a fan, first and foremost, although an uncommonly knowledgeable and perceptive fan, and she reads Buffy the Vampire Slayer on its own terms as a show about growing and searching, loving and supporting, making mistakes and finding redemption." As Buffy and her colleagues move through life they practice an ethical and caring approach to the world. They bond as friends and hold each other accountable for regressions and moral slips, relying on their good works to save them and their opposition to evil as their source of salvation. "Many spiritual values worth Christian exploration are core" to the show and characters, Hertz observed. "Riess's book reads like a primer to these key spiritual values—self-sacrifice, mentoring, sinfulness, forgiveness, redemption, etc.—using the common language of Buffy to explain and probe," Hertz stated.
Far from being a volume that contradicts or demeans religion, What Would Buffy Do?: The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide is "written with an eye to helping religious groups discuss [it] or families use [it] to shape the morals of their children—as scripture or catechisms were once used," Byassee observed. Riess's "analysis, like the show, never gets mired down in too much seriousness and will add a new dimension to how both fans and critics view the popular series," remarked a Publishers Weekly reviewer. "Riess gets at the heart of the show's values and characters in this engaging book," stated Booklist reviewer Kristine Huntley. The author's argument for Buffy "as a model for spiritual journey has verve and intelligence," commented Graham Christian in Library Journal.
Riess is also the author of The Spiritual Traveler: Boston and New England: A Guide to Sacred Sites and Peaceful Places, which describes in detail the past and present of a variety of churches, synagogues, and other religious sites throughout New England. She offers interesting trivia and tidbits, such as the fact that the shape of a New England church indicated the congregation's beliefs—round churches, for example, were traditionally Christian churches. Riess includes travel data for all the sites, such as hours, location, and neighboring attractions. "Riess's writing is always direct and particularly vibrant when she's offering a historical perspective" on New England churches and religious sites, wrote a reviewer in Publishers Weekly, who concluded that spiritual travelers or residents of New England "will benefit from this smart and useful book."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, May 1, 2004, Kristine Huntley, review of What Would Buffy Do?: The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide, p. 1535.
Books & Culture, May-June, 2004, Todd Hertz, review of What Would Buffy Do?, p. 26.
Christian Century, November 16, 2004, Jason Byassee, review of What Would Buffy Do?, p. 22.
Library Journal, May 1, 2004, Graham Christian, review of What Would Buffy Do?, p. 116.
Publishers Weekly, September 9, 2002, review of TheSpiritual Traveler: Boston and New England: A Guide to Sacred Sites and Peaceful Places, p. 55; March 15, 2004, review of What Would Buffy Do?, p. 63.
Monkey Outta Nowhere Web site,http://www.monkeyouttanowhere.com/ (August 20, 2004), review of What Would Buffy Do?: The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide.
Slayage: The Online International Journal of BuffyStudies,http://www.slayage.tv/ (November 18, 2004), "Jana Riess."
What Would Buffy Do? Web site, http://www.whatwouldbuffydo.net/ (November 18, 2004), interview with Riess.*