Last week I found myself trying to explain the Twilight phenomenon—the books, the movies, Stephenie Meyer, and Robert Pattinson—to coworkers over lunch. It seems the whole thing can be summed up in one word: obsession. Bella and Edward, the two main characters, obsess over each other. Readers obsess over the books. Fans even obsess over the actors who portray the main characters in the film adaptations. The one obsession that seems to be missing: Christians have remained surprisingly silent on the wildly popular series. As the last breaths of the Harry Potter outcry echo faintly in the distance, Christians haven't had a whole lot to say about Meyer's story of vampires and the girl who loves them. Some have come out against them (Chuck Colson and Al Mohler) and others have embraced them as a tool to promote evangelism and abstinence.
Yes, there's an abstinence message to be found, technically. Author Stephenie Meyer, a devout Mormon, keeps her characters intact until their wedding day. But their reasons for abstaining are purely practical—Edward fears that his super-strength (a characteristic of Meyer's vampires) will crush or possibly even kill Bella if he relinquishes his carefully-maintained control around her. But, as Carrisa Smith notes in her review of Twilight at Christ and Pop Culture, it's unlikely a teenage reader might connect with this reasoning and therefore decide to apply the principle to her own life. Last week I spoke with Beth Felker Jones, an associate professor of theology at Wheaton College and author of Touched by a Vampire: Discovering the Hidden Messages in the Twilight Saga. It was this obsessive nature of the book (and its fans) that first drew her to the books and inspired her to explore more deeply its "hidden messages." Its view of sexuality, she found, was far from helpful. What drives this story and compels readers is the prolonged, unconsummated eroticism that develops as romantic love completely consumes the individual lives of Bella and Edward.
It's easy to dismiss the entire phenomenon as nothing more than teeny-bopper fluff. It's mostly young girls who read them, and the impassioned arguments for the books tend to run along the lines of "But Edward's so dreamy!" The writing has been criticized and the books compared to romance novels for the preteen set. But to do so would be a grave error, in my opinion. Even its harshest critics admit to having been drawn in: "The lure of the books is so strong, even for feminist media critics (I devoured them more quickly than vampires catch their prey), that it's disturbing to resurface and ponder how retrograde Meyer's world is," writes Sarah Seltzer in the Christian Science Monitor. When something resonates so strongly with so many people, even those who fundamentally disagree with its basic premises, we must take notice. For many, these stories are providing more than just entertainment—they are meeting a spiritual need (or at least attempting it). The need to be loved—unconditionally, sacrificially, and by an ethereal, perfect other—this is the the powerful driving force at the root of the Twilight obsession. This is a universal desire, and one created by God to direct us back to to him—the only one who can ever meet it. So it might do good to ask, how is the book channeling the desires it stirs in readers?
As the books are beginning to receive more critical attention from scholars, they are finding strong Mormon themes. Jones mentioned the idea of eternal family, and salvation through the family model, as one idea normalized and glorified in the book. John Granger wrote a fascinating article "Mormons Vampires in the Garden of Eden" for Touchstone magazine about the subversive allegory of the Mormon faith. It is a truly fascinating read for anyone who has read the books, or is looking for a critical interpretation that takes seriously both the text and its implications on faith. He interprets the books as "an allegory of one gentile seeker's coming to the fullness of Latter-day Saint faith and life." He sees moments where Meyer pushes back against the Mormon church's view of gender roles, though he concludes that, "Mrs. Meyer's books are as popular as they are because, like the LDS beliefs that are the substance of her meaning, they reflect and reinforce conventional thinking regarding sexuality more than they challenge it."
Girls are eating this stuff up. But what is it, exactly, that they are eating? If "conventional sexuality" resembles what we find in Twilight, and if Twilight is in fact shaping a young generation's view of love, sex, and what it means to be female (and male), this is more than worthy of our attention. We probably don't need to worry that girls will immediately run to their nearest Mormon temple, but we should worry that they might someday remain in an emotionally abusive relationship because they believe their partner is just trying to express his love (Jones notes that Bella and Edward's relationship displays nearly every characteristic of an abusive relationship). We should worry that they will learn to view sex as only a pleasure to be deferred, or marriage as the ultimate goal of life and, perhaps, even the road to salvation and eternal happiness.
The next time you find yourself in a conversation about the Twilight phenomenon, resist the temptation to gush (if you're a fan) or dismiss (if you're not). See it as an opportunity to engage others' views on gender, sexuality, religion, and yes, even vampires.