Twilight’s Flawed Faith

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by John Mark Reynolds [author, academic]

Twilight is restful, the children’s hour, a time when story telling comes naturally. In a gentler era Longfellow wrote of this time:

I hear in the chamber above me The patter of little feet, The sound of a door that is opened, And voices soft and sweet.

Novelist Stephenie Meyer has a different vision of twilight. In her books if parents hear noises upstairs at twilight they might want to check carefully: one of the kids may have a vampire visitor. At the very least, if the kids are reading at all, then the bedtime story is more likely to be one of her four books about a soulful vampire and the young woman who loves him, than any story Longfellow would have approved. Quite a few mothers, if my research is correct, have joined the kids as fans of Twilight.

More cynical souls might dismiss Twilight as a potboiler . . . a Harlequin Romance for 21st Century tweens and their parents. Though it improves from book to book, the level of writing regarding vampires and the sophistication of the mythology is not worthy of Joss Whedon let alone Bram Stoker. A colleague of mine was driven to email ranting by Meyer’s use, and reuse, of the same adjectives.

Worst still, anybody who comes to Twilight by way of the hit movie has even greater reason for skepticism. It is to romantic films what Legally Blonde II was to courtroom dramas. Chesterton’s phrase for dime store novels fits: both the films and the books are “dreadful and vulgar.”

As Professor Paul Spears points out, however, Chesterton was quite willing to defend the value of “dreadful and vulgar” novels. The vulgar has the benefit of being common and there is no shame in that. Chesterton believed the cheap novels of his day often reinforced vulgar or common morality, and helped stimulate a wholesome desire for heroes and heroic behavior. After all, sometimes dreadful and vulgar prose is the only sort that can grab our attention. Simple pleasures, such as the vulgar book, need not be guilty pleasures!

To her infinite credit, Stephenie Meyer has accomplished something many would have thought impossible. She has passed off an old-fashioned dime store novel, sold for quite a few dimes, to a generation supposedly too “sophisticated” to appreciate the genre. Like the best “dreadful and vulgar” books, the Twilight series is fun, a ripping good story, and reinforces many traditional American values.

Twilight, like this blog post, will never be considered great literature, but it might spur an interest in better books. At best, Edward and Bella, the main couple in the book, are signposts pointing to the great romantic couples of literature. The books themselves mention Heathcliff and Cathy, Romeo and Juliet. Though Meyer’s signs are written in very large, blocky letters, perhaps some will be encouraged to read the better books.

Twilight is God-soaked in the quiet American way that will keep it off the “for fun” summer reading list at Richard Dawkin’s summer camps for aspiring young secularists. The vampire hero believes in God. He longs to go to heaven, but fears he might go to hell. The morality portrayed is, with exceptions, conventionally Christian. It is no small tribute to say that Stephanie Meyer reminds the reader that romance is fundamentally more thrilling than mere sex.

As a mythic alternative to the “real world” Meyer points to the inadequacy of any view that forgets romance, poetry, and the metaphysical. Like Hamlet, Meyer uses common supernatural props, vampires, and werewolves, to remind young adults that there might be more in heaven and in earth than is dreamed of in their government school’s philosophy. The natural longing of young adults for something more than our consumer driven culture is supported, even if her heroes always have all the money they need. Her novels affirm that the practical alternative may not always be the palatable, or bearable choice for humankind.

Twilight is infused with the hope of divine mercy: even a vampire may have a soul and escape damnation. The possibility of some final action bringing on eternal loss is taken seriously, but so too is a creation that is fundamentally full of grace. There is hope in Meyer’s book and that too makes this “dreadful and vulgar” book interesting and important to those who might never have been exposed to such ideas in a way that captured their imagination. Just as any child who grew up wishing that Narnia were real will be eager to hear there might be some basis for truth in the stories, so any kid who wishes that supernatural creatures, both good and bad, exist will be less receptive to the siren call of secularism.

This is sad and cynical age and Meyer has written a very optimistic book. She gets away with it by a surface darkness, but you are right to assume that in her universe love will conquer all. Such optimism that here is hope is much needed.

Meyer’s stories are not literally true: there are no vampires, but they contain some big metaphysical truths. There is good and there is evil. There are facts not available to mere science, and humans do have souls they can lose. Mercy and grace are available, and most important of all, love is the key to finding happiness.

If one thinks about it in this way, those vulgar Twilight books are amazing!

The universe of Twilight is oddly, though charmingly, old fashioned. To give but one example: characters buy and own CDs, an action that for my Southern California students is almost as quaint as if the characters of Twilight suddenly decided to listen to music on the wireless. Of course, the vampires who look eternally young, range in age from old enough for Social Security to old enough for the Uffizi, so they have an excuse, but the same thing is true of the small town life described in the books.

Sadly, the books also contain a great and glaring flaw, at least from the point of view of the Chesterton defense of them. The books encourage the reader to get drunk on romantic love, which given the core audience, may be like preaching the joys of liquor to budding alcoholics.

Meyer never shows the limits of romantic love and anything, or almost anything, getting in the way of Eros is discarded. Love is entirely disconnected with reason. Hunches replace thoughtfulness and critical thinking on the part of the characters is hard to find. Meyer should really read Plato’s Symposium to see the dangers that putting Eros in the place of Jehovah cause.

From the traditional Christian perspective, love is a great thing, but all human loves can be misused. Love of country can become jingoism and this extreme nationalism can easily become tyrannical. Surely, however, the same thing is true of romantic love! “My country right or wrong” is no more dangerous than “my lover right or wrong,” but Meyer never shows she recognizes the danger.

Whatever Meyer intended, my teacher friends report that students who are fans of Meyer see their favorite author as advocating this one passion over anything. Of course, from a Christian point of view, the problem with this is not the romance, but the limits on it. If only we would all pursue the greatest possible love, the love of God, then all our lesser loves could fall into place.

God exists in Meyer, but He does not seem much like Dante’s God who moves the heavens and the stars by love. God shows up, but Jesus is no place to be found. I am not so much objecting to this on theological grounds, but on romantic ones. Christ doesn’t destroy the romance of a better book like Jane Eyre, He makes it tolerable to the rest of us and gives it hope of enduring by providing a reasonable framework for passion.

This is a shame, since if these books simply advocate another kind of selfishness and narrowness, then the books cease to advocate vulgar morality and become merely dreadful. Perhaps Meyer and the rest of us need to go back to our older fairy tales and learn the value of moderation in our human passions.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is pretty useful in that regard. ExileStreet

copyright 2009 John Mark Reynolds

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Biola University.His personal website can be found at www.johnmarkreynolds.com and his blog can be found at http://scriptoriumdaily.com.

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