by Marc T. Newman [critic]
I have a confession to make. I am not a tweenage girl. And some of them will take immediate offense that I am criticizing what many of them consider “the greatest love story of all time.” I know this because I was at the Thursday midnight screening of The Twilight Saga: New Moon and I saw it with my own eyes and heard it with my own ears. With every haunted glance, every near-kiss, every desperate clinch, audible sighs erupted throughout the theater, sometimes drowning out the dialogue. When the film was over, I saw numerous young ladies dabbing at their eyes with popcorn napkins. It was really just too much. Really.
Based firmly in Romeo and Juliet - that is if Romeo were an undead, 100-year-old vampire - The Twilight Saga: New Moon (adapted from the best-selling series by Stephenie Meyer) tries hard to ratchet up the romance. Edward and Bella are about as star-crossed a set of lovers as you are likely to encounter, particularly since Edward has the stunning misfortune of being dead. They separate when Edward feels as if his presence puts Bella in too much danger, and, of course, his absence increases her vulnerability as a target. Needing a protector, in steps lupine Jakob Black. Mayhem, and not a little bit of almost kissing ensues. As someone who spends considerable time in theaters trying to ferret out the cultural and spiritual implications of popular film, I am not unaccustomed to seeing silliness on the screen. And I am not a curmudgeon - I love a good, sentimental film as well as anyone else. So if New Moon were simply a silly, Hannah-Montana-with-fangs type of film, I probably would just let it go.
Unfortunately, New Moon takes advantage of its tweenage audience’s budding love interests and spiritual inexperience in ways that really are horrifying. [For other discussion topics related to New Moon, see our FilmTalk Small Group Bible Study at www.movieministry.com] Since the film is breaking box office records, — the weekend estimates are over $140 million — meaning that millions of people are rushing to see it, this fictional film opens a very real opportunity to discuss how to approach spiritual issues, the danger of love as an idol (one that demands reckless sacrifices), and why it is the Church, not Hollywood, that has the best answer to the human desire for passionate romance and love.
Are People the Final Arbiter of Spiritual Truth?
While some critics have focused on Bella’s reckless behavior in pursuit of Edward (more on that below) hardly any have hit on the film’s spiritual solipsism - the idea that the individual is all that exists and is, therefore, the ultimate arbiter of truth. When phrased in that way, most people can immediately see the dangers inherent in such belief. Bella, in the book (not the movie) describes her own theological training at the hands of her father and mother: “My own life was fairly devoid of belief. Charlie considered himself a Lutheran, because that’s what his parents had been, but Sundays he worshipped by the river with a fishing pole in his hand. Renee tried out a church now and then, but, much like her brief affairs with tennis, pottery, yoga, and French classes, she moved on by the time I was aware of her newest fad.” (New Moon, p. 36).
To set things up for the uninitiated, Edward wants Bella, and Bella wants Edward. But Edward firmly believes that if Bella becomes a vampire, so that they can be together and not grow old, that it will cost Bella her soul. As a creature who fears eternal damnation, he is unwilling to bring her into such a state. But Bella, devoid of belief, has apparently come up with one on her own. She fervently claims that Edward does have a soul, and that she will not forfeit her own should she follow him into vampirism. On what does she base this hopeful claim? In the film the argument never advances beyond some kind of personal intuition. What it really comes down to is that Bella believes that Edward has a soul because she really wants him to have one. And she will not lose her soul, because, if she thought so, Edward would never give her what she wants.
Vampires are fictional creatures. New Moon is a movie. I understand. But underlying the theme of this fictional film is a very real philosophical presupposition. Human intuition - or human desire - is the determining factor in revealing spiritual truths. If we want badly enough for something to be true, it must be so. Compare this attitude with what the Apostle Peter claims: “So we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts. But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” (2 Peter 1:19-21)
Determining that we can make up spiritual truths to suit our current emotional states is asking for trouble. If you want to know if someone, or some thing, has a soul, and what is likely to happen to one’s soul, the best place to turn is to the Person who created it: God. As creatures, we are not competent to assess our own spiritual state any more than a car could understand any of its own mechanical defects. For that, one needs to consult the operator’s manual. Fortunately, God has provided us with truth about who we are, what we are made for, and how best to live out the lives that we have from Him. It can be found in the Bible.
Bella’s emotion-driven theology is not the only problem that plagues her. She is also so consumed by her forbidden love that she makes an idol of it, and willingly sacrifices her own safety in exchange for the merest glimpse of her beloved.
Love as An Idol
It is easy to understand what drives modern love stories. Bella is only mimicking her pop culture environment. Love songs abound in which a love-struck singer professes endless, undying love, explaining that the beloved is “everything” and “means the world” and is “the only thing that matters.” Songs speak of how another’s love will “catch me when I fall.” The lyrics tend toward adoration - the kind that used to be reserved for God (just thumb through an old hymnal and you will see what I mean).
But when a culture is out of touch with God, it seeks substitutes. The everlasting joy with God that we were made for, must find a substitute if God is rejected. One of the ways that humans have attempted to fill the void created by their own rejection of God is in pursuit of passionate romantic love. As C.S. Lewis notes in The Four Loves, “Love, having become a god, becomes a demon” (83). Bella’s recklessness in pursuing Edward is a sign of her all-consuming quest to have him - no matter the cost.
When Bella is in danger, somehow (the film doesn’t explain it) Edward appears to her to warn her away. Bella quickly figures out that the only way to make the absent Edward present is to ignore his warnings and prolong the contact. She hops on the back of a motorcycle driven by a leering older man; she speeds off, uncontrolled, on a motorcycle of her own; and she even throws herself off a cliff and into a turbulent sea - in a scene that looks like an ancient act of sacrifice. How far removed are acts such as these from the dangerous activity of some teens called “cutting” - an act of self-injury in which teens willfully cut themselves as a way to deal with conflicting strong emotions or relationship problems? Teen girls reason, “If I endanger myself, then he will come, then he will care for me.” Placing oneself in danger is never an appropriate relationship strategy, but it not only works (in a way) for Bella, but for Edward as well.
To put forward this kind of behavior as consistent with deep passion is pandering to vulnerable teens. I recognize the intensity of teen feelings; I used to be a teen. But the kind of relationships that most people desire cannot be found by making lovers into idols. Human beings make lousy gods - they inevitably disappoint. But what truly amazes is that the Church fails to realize that, in the midst of this generational longing for love that will last, it has the answer. We simply need to be bold enough to explain and live it.
The Bible’s answer to teens’ romantic urges is simple: chastity until marriage, and then faithfulness in marriage. When I get a chance to speak to teens or college students on the topic of love and romance, I pose a set of choices to the young women. I don’t think this scenario originated with me, but I cannot recall the first person I ever heard explain it in this way: “How many of you would like this to be your future? You meet a man in college. He’s great - an awesome guy. You fall in love. You get married. And three years later he says that he has outgrown you. You get a divorce. You are miserable for a couple of years. You start a career. You meet a guy at work. He is outstanding - much better than that first jerk. You fall in love, you get married. You have a couple of children. And five years later he get a promotion, has an affair with his secretary (who is 23 years old), divorces you and marries her. You are crushed. A couple of years go by. You meet another man. He is a hero. You know this because our culture tells us that any man who would date a woman with kids is a hero. You are tentative, but eventually he wears you down, you fall in love, and you marry him. And it works out great… for ten years… and then….Okay, I think you get it. Now here is scenario number two: You meet a guy in college. You fall in love. You both graduate and he tells you that he loves you and wants to marry you. You tell him that you love him, you want to give yourself fully to him, but want to know what he means when he says it. He tells you that he has been waiting for a woman like you all of his life. He intends to vow before God that he will act in a loving way toward you every day of his life whether or not he happens to feels like it that day, because he is making a lifetime commitment to you. He means it. And then you get married. And he does it.” When I ask for a show of hands, every woman in the room votes for scenario two. Then I drop the bomb: “Which one of those two scenarios are you practicing for?”
I am not arguing that every Christian guy has always lived up to that commitment. I am saying that every Christian guy ought to. It is what the Scriptures command of him - it’s his responsibility. What is more romantic than knowing that a man has pledged to love you, and, if necessary, to lay down his life for you in the same way that Jesus did for the Church? This is not some Titanic-style martyrdom (though that would be included, if required) but a daily sacrifice of self to the well-being of his family as an act love, of honoring God and His institutions. If you still wonder if the Bible supports passionate love, have a look at The Song of Solomon in the Old Testament. God likes love and romance - He invented it.
In fairness to Twilight devotees, I know that marriage is the goal in the books. And when the first Twilight film debuted, I lauded it for its chaste attitude toward the sexual relationship between Edward and Bella. But any fair assessment of the self-destructive behaviors in New Moon would agree that this is a dangerous and ill-advised turn. And there is a better, more fulfilling alternative available in the real world.
God has no desire to undermine the pleasures of His creatures. He made you receptive to pleasure. He intends that you should experience it to the fullest. That is why He created marriage as a secure environment in which a man and a woman could perfect their expressions of love for one another. Movies and books in the Twilight vein (pun intended) recognize the passionate feelings of young people, and have found an excellent way to feed off and profit from them. The Church should step forcefully into this arena of ideas to explain its better way: a way from God, not subject to the whims of individual interpretation, fulfilling rather than destructive, valuing both the lover and the beloved in a mystery that the Apostle Paul tells us is a shadow of the relationship between Christ and the Church. ExileStreet
copyright 2009 Marc T. Newman
Marc T. Newman, Ph.D. is founder of MovieMinistry.com and is an associate professor in the School of Communication and the Arts at Regent University. Requests for media interviews, or reprints of this article, can be made to firstname.lastname@example.org