Christians grapple with the messages in this teen generation's defining book
“He grinned his crooked smile at me, stopping my breath and my heart. I couldn’t imagine how an angel could be any more glorious.”
Bella never had a chance. The protagonist of the breakout bestselling young adult novel Twilight falls in love under the gray, rain-soaked skies of Washington State unthinkingly and unerringly.
It’s just too bad her love is a 108-year-old vampire.
Twilight is the first of a four-part series by Stephanie Meyer and has spawned a blockbuster movie and millions of swooning fans; the movie grossed over $35 million its first day in the theaters and more than $300 million worldwide over the course of its run. Much to the delight of fans, producers are currently casting for the movie based on the second book, New Moon, slated to begin filming in March.
Twilight — book and movie — has become the topic of discussion for Christians: a Google search for Christians, Twilight and vampire finds four million results.
Many find the book to have teachable Christian values. Vampire themes aside, it tackles the subjects of lust and love. It has a male hero, Edward Cullen — the vampire — who refuses to have sex with Bella until they’re married. Good triumphs over evil.
But without motives rooted in Christianity directly, and with a cast of characters literally lacking souls, the book is sparking discussion, and some disparate opinions, in Christian communities.
‘The characters are tempted, and they must resist’
Nancy Capentier Brown is a Catholic homeschooling mother of two teenage girls in Chicago’s North Suburbs. She’s also a blogger, www.nancy-brown.com, and author of the book The Mystery of Harry Potter: A Catholic Family Guide.
She and her 17-year-old daughter both read Twilight and saw the movie. While she has some concerns about them, she embraces the opportunity for discussion and education. Brown has not yet allowed her 13-year-old daughter to read the books; she said many of the themes and scenes in the later books are too mature.
“It does present a challenge to teens to resist temptation,” Brown said. “One of the themes I think that is in there is that the characters are tempted, and they must resist.”
The millions of teen girls lusting after fictional Edward Cullen, says Brown, are reading and seeing an unusual message in today’s culture, which is usually a barrage of blatant sexuality. “There’s some inner longing for girls for a man or a male to hold a standard up,” Brown said. “They should be getting that from their boyfriends, but how many boys are resisting temptation? It’s actually a very counter cultural message in Twilight.”
That Bella does not want to resist temptation, and that she so badly wants to become a vampire, to join the undead, does raise concerns for Brown and other Christian parents.
“It’s one of those things where we need caution but I don’t think we can put it in the category of ‘absolutely forbid it from our kids,'” Brown said.
‘What we have is an equivalent to soft porn’
Marie Pitt-Payne is the coordinator of religious education in a parish of the archdiocese of Chicago. She would disagree with Brown. If Twilight is intended as a book about chastity, she says, it goes a long way instead to achieve the opposite effect.
Women, Pitt-Payne says, “are aroused through first person descriptive narratives of erotic encounters — thus, the ‘romance’ novel.”
“Because society’s standards regarding literature have sunk so low,” Pitt-Payne adds, “parents are now grateful when their children are reading anything – as long as they are reading. In the case of Twilight, however, what we have is an equivalent to soft porn … for girls.”
Further, Pitt-Payne criticizes Twilight for portraying its main character, Bella, as “pathetic.”
“Twilight appeals to what is worst in women and — like the main character Bella herself — makes women and girls appear somewhat pathetic,” she said. “But society is glossing over this fact in a spurious appeal to the value of reading ‘literature.'”
So strong are Pitt-Payne’s convictions about this, she has been writing a blog called Spes Unica, criticizing what she calls the books’ anti-feminist, anti-Christian and anti-chastity message.
‘Yes, even Edward’
But it is mostly Brown’s sentiments that echo around the internet. Christian blogs and websites are seeking to find lessons in the books, if not actual Christian messages.
“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,” writes Stacey Lingle in an article from Christianity Today‘s Campus Life, Ignite Your Faith site.
She continues, “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.”
‘All fantasy has to be judged on a case-by-case basis’
Richard Abanes, like Brown, said the Twilight series presents the opportunity for discussion, and little erosion of Christian values. The evangelical Christian writes about the occult, fantasy, religion and pop culture.
“A good balanced Christian perspective is that fantasy in general is a great genre for children,” Abanes said. “For teaching, for expression, for entertainment.”
“But,” Abanes adds, “all fantasy has to be judged on a case-by-case basis.”
Abanes is an outspoken critic of the Harry Potter series, but this is due to the possibility for imitation. Children who read Harry Potter, he says, were able to go out and find neo-pagan and Wiccan books instructing them on how do practice the magic in the book.
Abanes says no such threat exists with Twilight, and, if anything (once again), it presents rich opportunity for discussion.
If Twilight fans are “going to go out trying to bite people in the neck … something is wrong,” Abanes said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with spirituality.”
And the teens at whom the books are aimed are far too into the books to stop adoring them, or the upcoming movies, anytime soon. The MySpace page for the movie had, as of Feb. 4, over 54,000 comments, mostly from smitten teens — over 40 people commented on the site on a single day. One 17-year-old girl said she saw the movie 23 times. “omg twilight was the best movie i ever seen,” wrote one 14-year-old girl. “edward cullens i love you.”