The main characters in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight saga practice sexual abstinence, but Wheaton College theology professor Beth Felker Jones doesn't think Christians should celebrate the books as a model for chaste romance just yet. At first glance, it seems like there's a lot to like about the romance between Bella, an average teenage girl, and Edward, a 108-year-old vampire with a Victorian sense of morality—he insists that Bella marry him before consummating the relationship. Felker Jones wrote the book Touched by a Vampire: Discovering the Hidden Messages in the Twilight Saga (Multnomah, 2009) to examine the themes of sexuality, gender, salvation, and eternal life wrapped up in the love story of Bella and Edward. She spoke with Christianity Today about the appeal of the books, their approach to sexuality and Mormon theology, and why they should concern Christians. Note: Some spoilers ahead.
There seems to be a level of obsession with the Twilight books and movies. What makes them so appealing to so many readers?
The series has to do with things most people care about: the meaning of life, love, romance. We're looking for something to make life meaningful and exciting and interesting and worthwhile.
Was there anything of spiritual merit that surprised you in the books?
What's most interesting and, arguably, most worrisome about the books is that they're full of spiritual themes. The Twilight universe is a moral universe. The love story may be what captures readers, but the stories are also powerful because they deal with what it means to be good and to try to overcome evil. They also deal with the longing human beings have to be transformed, to be set free from our limits and weaknesses. All of this could open up quite a conversation about the gift of salvation.
How do the books answer this question of being set free from our limits and weaknesses? How do they contradict a Christian view?
In the Twilight saga, Bella finds freedom from her limits in her transformation from a weak human being to a powerful, immortal vampire. She longs for this transformation because she wants to be with Edward, but she also wants to escape her clumsiness and the vulnerability that threatens to separate her from Edward. Transformed Bella—beautiful, strong, vampire Bella—is the Bella who is finally at home in the world and with herself. This longing for transformation points to the desire that we all have to be set free. We're broken and vulnerable, and we long for meaning. But where Bella finds her "salvation" in Edward, Christians recognize that true salvation is found in Christ.
These books seem to have provoked less criticism from Christians than did the Harry Potter books, their predecessors in the fantasy fiction craze. Why do you think that is? How would you compare the two series?
In some ways it baffles me. I happen to be a Harry Potter fan, and of course those books aren't perfect, but there are some interesting things going on with love and morality. Maybe it's just the obvious use of magic in the Harry Potter books [that bothers people], but I think the Twilight books could be more of a concern, as they shape a worldview that values this obsessive love. Maybe the Mormon themes in the books let Christians in the door without complaining and don't make Christians stop and ask better questions about what's really going on.
John Granger wrote in Touchstone magazine that the Twilight novels are "an allegory of one gentile seeker's coming to the fullness of Latter-day Saint faith and life." Are there any particularly Mormon themes in the books that might be at odds with a Christian worldview?
I read a quotation the other day from a Mormon woman suggesting the books could be used as a Mormon evangelism tool, saying, "Perhaps we could say to people, 'We can promise you will be together forever and no one will even have to bite you.'" I can see this theme of eternal family as the place where salvation happens as an "in" to Mormon evangelism, as it is very much part of Mormon thought. As is the way goodness is approached in the books: the vampires in the books are struggling against their darkest desires [to drink human blood] and they talk quite a bit about their souls—whether they have souls, and whether God might reward them for their attempts to be good. What's missing is the Christian gospel, the idea that we can't overcome our darkness on our own, that no matter how hard we work to be good, we're going to fail, and we're going to need Jesus. The picture of goodness in the books is a salvation by works. "I'll try hard enough and perhaps God will be pleased."
While some Christians might commend the books for their strong stance on abstinence, marriage, and family, you write that you're hesitant to praise the books' approach on these issues. How is the series contributing to a conversation on abstinence?
I heard Christians saying, "The characters are waiting until marriage, isn't this great!" I think the themes of abstinence, marriage, and family give us a glimpse into the author's Mormon worldview in which marriage becomes a kind of salvation. Family is tied up in salvation as well, and while the abstinence message is there, the books are still very much erotic reads and are not going to help readers, particularly young readers, to think about the good place of sexuality in God's plan. Instead, we just have this intensely erotic, desperate waiting, a waiting that, oddly enough, Edward is totally in charge of. Bella has no interest in it, and she puts all the responsibility on his shoulders. There's no aspect of togetherness. When they do marry, I worry about the way their sexual relationship works and what that looks like in contrast to what a good marriage should look like.
What aspects of Christian sexuality is Twilight failing to present?
In the books, sex is portrayed only as a pleasure to be deferred. In Christian thought, it's so much more than that. It's a good gift from God, and it is a pleasure, but it's also meant to show fidelity between a husband and a wife, to teach us about faithfulness, to teach us about loving God, and to be a reflection of God's faithfulness to the world, instead of just this desperate waiting.
You examine the portrayal of gender roles and the "harmful feminine stereotypes" represented by the main character, Bella. She is supposed to represent the everygirl, but the books focus on her weakness and constant need to be rescued by strong, perfect males. As Christians, who desire the fullness of God's intentions for us as men and women, how should we consider the books' models for male and female identity?
Bella's character is pretty much flattened into someone who loves Edward and needs him and centers her life on him. God creates us with gifts and talents and vocations and we need to honor those by developing them and not just erasing ourselves for the sake of some kind of love relationship. And it can put completely unfair pressure on men to be this kind of superhero, to be the savior of women. What we expect to find from love in real life is another human being who's struggling with us through sin, trying to love God and trying to help us do that, too.
In your book, you describe how in good fiction "the story world changes our world." What new possibilities or ideas does the Twilight saga offer for Christians?
It suggests that we build our desires around this fantasy relationship between Edward and Bella. I hope that we would make more room for the biblical story to shape what we hope for and to see what God has done for us. [The Bible] has an account of love that is intense and wonderful but can really fulfill us, instead of leaving us disappointed cynics when we realize that we're not going to find a glittering Edward.
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Touched by a Vampire is available at ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
Christianity Today reviewed the first and second Twilight movies. Laura Leonard wrote about the series for the women's blog.
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