Thursday, November 19, 2009

What Shines in "Twilight"?


Looking at four key ideas of the vampire saga that stand out for Christ followers.

Stacey Lingle
Thursday, October 2, 2008
Christianity Today

It's your typical romance. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Obstacles keep them apart. They overcome the obstacles. Happily ever after.

Except for the vampires. And werewolves.

OK, so maybe the Twilight saga isn't so typical after all. Especially considering the four-book saga has become one of the hottest pop culture phenomena since Harry Potter, prompting midnight release parties and vampire proms. Typical teen romances don't cause that type of response. There's something decidedly different about Twilight.

I picked up the first book out of curiosity, mostly to see what my friends were raving about. And, to be honest, I'm always looking for a good story.

If you haven't read it, Twilight is the story of teenage Bella who falls in love with Edward, a 108-year-old vampire frozen at age 17. Edward and his family have chosen to not feed on humans, hunting only animals. Bella and Edward, throughout the series, are torn between their feelings for each other and the inevitable problems that arise from a human-vampire romance.

After reading all four books—Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn—I started to think back. What was I taking away from them? What do these books say about God, about life, and about love? In over 2,300 pages of reading, there's a lot to digest. What are the key ideas and attitudes in the Twilight saga? A few stood out to me as a Christian.

Love

Bella and Edward show us a type of romantic love that's powerful, passionate, and perfect. They are ready to sacrifice anything for each other. They always try to act in the other's best interest. They are thrilled to simply be in each other's presence. Their biggest conflict is whether or not Bella should become a vampire: She wants to spend eternity with Edward, but he doesn't want her to forfeit her humanity for him. Pretty different from the fights between most young couples.

Bella and Edward's relationship actually exemplifies a lot of what the Bible says love should be. Think about the Bible's description: "Love is patient, love is kind." (1 Corinthians 13:4); "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). Of course, no real couple can be this perfect all the time. But these passages, and stories like Bella and Edward's, remind us of the perfect love that God has for us. God intends for romantic love to reflect his deep desire for an intimate relationship with each of us. The Bible even calls us his bride! (Isaiah 62:5) While there may not be an Edward or Bella in our lives, God's love is a perfect love that never ends and never fails.

Temptation

Temptation provides a lot of the compelling tension in the Twilight world. The vampire in Edward is tempted by Bella's scent—it's all he can do to not devour her at first. And then as their relationship progresses, they face a different physical temptation: sex.

Yet the characters show an impressive mastery of temptation. Edward makes up his mind that he will not eat Bella, no matter how hungry he feels or how good she smells to him. He decides that something is more important than his hunger: Bella's life. And when Bella pressures Edward to have sex with her, he explains his belief that sex is for marriage, and it's important to him that they wait. Even though he wants her just as much as she does him, Edward decides that doing the right thing is more important than doing what feels good.

If you're like me, you face temptation about 100 times a day. It may be the temptation to lie, to cheat, to envy, or slack off when we should be working. Temptation affects everybody, even Jesus. The Bible describes how, after fasting for 40 days, Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness. Satan tried to use food, power, and pride to cause Jesus to sin. Yet Jesus didn't sin, even though he was tempted.

How can we, in our day-to-day life, respond to temptation without sinning? Well, for starters, we take a cue from Jesus and, yes, even Edward.

First, think about Jesus' temptation and check out Matthew 4:1-11. Every time Satan presented a temptation to Jesus, Jesus responded by quoting Scripture. He knew the Scripture so well it overflowed from him, even when he was hungry, thirsty, and exhausted. God's Word gives us all the truth we need to detect Satan's lies and empty promises.

Second, set thoughtful boundaries to avoid temptation in the first place. In Twilight, Edward sets limits for himself. He takes temptation seriously. He knows actions have consequences and that if he gives himself one tiny inch, he could lose control. He recognizes, like Paul, that "nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out" (Romans 7:18, NIV). Because of that, Edward has to be very careful about what situations he puts himself in. When he wants to eat Bella, he doesn't let himself get too close to her. And when he wants to sleep with Bella, he doesn't let their physical relationship go past kissing. This is a decent example of the Christian life. He understands that sin is often a slippery slope. For us, this might mean setting boundaries for the types of movies we see, or the kind of conversations we participate in, or the way we interact with the opposite sex.

Spirituality

Some of my Christian friends are concerned about these books centering on "demonic" creatures. Aren't vampires evil? Shouldn't we stay away from anything Satanic? These are good questions, and it's so crucial to be careful about what we feed our minds.

As I read the Twilight books, I found that the vampires in these books don't fit the classic vampire mold. No protruding fangs, no coffins, and they're not repelled by garlic or crosses. They have no dark mission, demonic connection, or contact with the spiritual underworld. They aren't "spiritual beings," but are more like humans with a horrible contagious disease. The only thing "vampiric" about them is that they feed on blood—which of course is forbidden by the Bible. Other than their thirst for blood, these vampires operate very like human beings. They have free will. They can choose to do good or to do evil. Edward and his family choose to do good because they believe that even vampires are not exempt from ethical standards. Unlike most vampires, this clan doesn't feed on humans, but they do drink the blood of animals because they must to live. Edward's father, Carlisle, even believes that they have souls and an afterlife. To me, it seems the vampires in these books are not demonic at all, but are metaphors for the human experience. These vampires' darks sides represent the very real monsters inside each of us. They are fighting against the temptation to do evil, which is what we as humans have to do everyday.

Nevertheless, spirituality is certainly relevant to the reading of Twilight. After all, part of the allure of the Twilight series is that it is "other-worldly." It's a fantasy. Sorry ladies, but there aren't really gorgeous, shimmering, chivalrous vampires and werewolves out there waiting to complete your life and mine. Yet the idea of them is captivating. Why? Because we are, essentially, spiritual beings. We know this world is not all there is, and we long for more. But fantasies like Twilight can become a distraction to our faith when we allow them to become a replacement for what we should be "fantasizing" about—spending eternity in the presence of God.

Bella is a clear example of someone who has misplaced her affections in this way. In her whirlwind romance with Edward, she directs all her love and desire toward Edward. She is so single-minded that the she doesn't even blink at the thought of giving up her soul (which is what would happen if she became a vampire so that she could be with Edward forever). This should strike us Christians as seriously wrong. She is choosing romantic love over her soul? As Jesus said: "What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?" (Matthew 16:26, NIV) Now Jesus wasn't talking about becoming a vampire, but he was saying that our soul is the most important thing about us. Our soul, and our relationship with God, should be something we treasure and nurture, not willingly damage or discard for an earthly high.

One last spiritual note: The books don't have a great amount of God content (no major characters are believers), but the stories also don't discourage or deny God's existence. In fact, the characters live in a world—like that of most vampire fiction—where God is present. For instance, Carlisle, the respected leader of Edward's vampire family, mentions at one point that it wasn't his choice to become a vampire and lose his soul. For most vampires it isn't and so he hopes there's a way they can be saved and enjoy an afterlife.

Leaving Twilight

So, now that all four books are neatly lined up on my shelf, and I have left the world of Twilight, a couple questions remain. Was it worth it? Did my time reading this series profit me in anyway? It's a mixed bag. Was it entertaining? You betcha. I definitely got swept up in the heady romance of Bella and Edward. Was it encouraging and uplifting? Kinda. I saw good win out over evil, and was reminded of the power of love. Was it filled with a Christian worldview? Definitely not. The saga of Bella and Edward contains some elements that I know aren't part of the Christian life. When I weigh things presented as true in the books to the Truth of the Bible, they don't measure up. For instance, I cannot agree with Bella's attitudes towards spirituality or sex.

(As with all things, it's important to use discernment in choosing what you read. This series does contain scenes of kissing and references to married sex. It has some language and violence. And there is a pretty gory scene in the final book. If you do read Twilight, talk about it with your parent or youth leader.)

But on the whole, I believe there were some valuable lessons tucked in those 2,300 pages. Love. Sacrifice. Good triumphing over evil. Those are things that I, as a Christian, can appreciate.

Now What?

Some discussion/reflection questions from the Twilight saga.

The only two openly Christian characters in the books are Carlisle's father (a minister who led vampire hunts in the 16th century) and Angela Weber (Bella's classmate). How do these characters portray Christianity differently? Who is portrayed as being more Christ-like and in what way?

On p. 307 of Twilight, Edward says "You see, just because we've been dealt a certain hand … it doesn't mean that we can't choose to rise above … to try to retain whatever essential humanity we can." He is talking about his choice to not drink human blood. How could his words apply to the Christian life? What does he mean by "essential humanity"?

Edward expresses his belief that God created vampires alongside humans, in a predator/prey relationship. How do you react to this? Does this fit the character of the God that you know?

In New Moon, Edward explains he doesn't want to have sex with Bella because he doesn't want to ruin her chances of going to heaven. Is this a Christian perspective? Why or why not? What do you think of Bella's stance on sexuality?

Breaking Dawn, the fourth book, features an unplanned and dangerous pregnancy. Some characters advise abortion to protect the life of the mother, yet the mother chooses to deliver her child regardless of the cost to her own life. What did you think of this plot point? What did you think of the arguments for and against from various characters? Is such self-sacrifice biblical? Can you think of examples from the Bible when someone suffered for the sake of another? What is the Bible's take on this?

Many people have reacted negatively to Breaking Dawn because it positively portrays "teenagers" getting married and having a baby. Why do some feel this is a dangerous message? Do you feel it is inappropriate? How were you able to relate to such character developments?

(For the opinion of the Vatican, see here.)
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