When he’s asked, Joss Whedon is open about his atheism. When he’s not asked (like when he is writing some of the most beloved cult TV shows of all time or the biggest blockbusters of the decade), Joss Whedon seems pretty quiet about his lack of belief.
In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, Whedon gives you a glimpse into his mind and his perspective on life versus the art he makes and why the two often seem in conflict.
That conflict and Whedon’s honesty about it and in his work is why he’s the atheist artist that Christians should watch.
For most of the interview, Whedon is giving a basic, albeit entertaining, Hollywood interview. He describes the familial isolation that led to his devotion to writing. You can tell that having Firefly cancelled still hurts. He gets into filming Avengers and creating Avengers 2 along with Agents of SHIELD.
The last two questions however show the dichotomy that exists between Whedon the person and Whedon the artist.
EW: Fringe showrunner J.H. Wyman recently gave his take on the future: “I believe in hope, and I believe that we are good. And I believe that we are smart, and I believe that we are going to stop anything terrible from happening.” And I found that interesting because you once said the opposite: “I think the world is largely awful and getting worse, and eventually the human race will die out. And it’ll be our own fault.”
Whedon: I think that’s absolutely the case. I think we’re actually becoming stupider and more petty. I think we have one shot—and that’s education, and that’s being defunded along with all the social services. What’s going on in this country, and many countries, is beyond depressing. It’s terrifying. Sometimes I have to remember who I’m talking to. I’ll say something about climate change, how terrible things are, and meaningless, and the world is headed toward destruction and war and apocalypse. And at one point my daughter goes, “Hey! I’m 8!” She doesn’t want to hear that stuff. But I can’t believe anybody thinks we’re actually going to make it before we destroy the planet. I honestly think it’s inevitable. I have no hope.
EW: That’s surprising, because your work isn’t bleak. Bad things happen, there’s pathos, favorite characters die. But it’s not like the fifth act of Hamlet.
Whedon: No. My stories do have hope because that is one of the things that is part of the solution—if there can be one. We use stories to connect, to care about people, to care about a situation. To turn the mundane heroic, to make people really think about who they are. They’re useful. And they’re also useful to me. Because if I wrote what I really think, I would be so sad all the time. We create to fill a gap—not just to avoid the idea of dying, it’s to fill some particular gap in ourselves. So yeah, I write things where people will lay down their lives for each other. And on a personal level, I know many wonderful people who are spending their lives trying to help others, or who are just decent and kind. I have friends who are extraordinary, I love my family. But on a macro level, I don’t see that in the world. So I have a need to create it. Hopefully, that need gets translated into somebody relating to it and feeling hope. Because if we take that away, then I’m definitely right. I want to be wrong, more than anything. I hate to say it, it’s that line from The Lord of the Rings—“I give hope to men; I keep none for myself.” They say it in Elvish, so it sounds super cool.
He has no hope, but he feels the need to give hope. He sees no over-arching idea of self-sacrifice in the world, but he recognizes a need to have his heroes do just that.
How appropriate that he quotes from Tolkien’s masterpiece. The deeply Christian Tolkien gave us the word eucatastrophe, which we looked at yesterday – the idea of hope and joy bursting into a story at the last moment when there seems to be none.
Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and others could write stories with this hope because they knew hope. They had experienced the Eucatastrophe in the incarnation and resurrection of Christ. They recognized that their myths, and all other myths, were a reflection of the one true myth. I cannot imagine the intense pressure and strain to give out what you don’t have, as Whedon is attempting to do.
Instead of being freed by the story of Christ, Whedon is unknowingly bearing the weight of it. He admittedly has no hope personally, yet he feels a need to give it to the audience. He knows instinctively that the story must have it, as all good stories do.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer had hope that one day the slaying would end. Captain Malcolm Reynolds had hope that eventually the Alliance would stop chasing. The Avengers had hope that their putting aside petty differences could save New York. Agents of SHIELD have hope that they are making a difference in the lives of individuals and the world, even without superpowers of their own.
Christians should watch Whedon because culture is watching Whedon (and because he’s good at what he does). But also because he is wrestling with Christian issues unbeknownst to him. He’s struggling with why every story, including our story needs to have a thread of hope, despite things seeming so hopeless around us.
This is our opportunity. A hopeless man is telling the world a hopeful story because he wants desperately to be wrong. We can tell him and everyone else: you are wrong – there is hope. Let me introduce you to Him.