White Awake by Daniel Hill, Free for CAPC Members
White Awake brings us back again and again, gently but inexorably, to the truths that we’re so unwilling to face, steadily prying our hands from our eyes.
Even if you aren’t a female between the ages of 11 and 18, chances are you’ve heard of Twilight, the first volume of Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling vampire romance/adventure series. You may have seen the striking book cover, with two pale hands clasping an apple (“Whack!” goes the symbolism.). You may have seen the trailer for the movie, directed by Catherine Hardwicke (The Nativity Story) and slated for release in December. You may have heard a group of girls squealing and sighing over the name “Edward Cullen.”
However, I’m guessing, based on a brief Google search, that you may not have seen much Christian commentary on the series. I’ll attempt to provide some here, focusing on the novel’s potential effects on teens, since they’re its target audience. Let me state right off, though, that I’m not a parent, nor am I a teen anymore, so take my perspective for what it’s worth. Also, if you’re someone who’s concerned about Twilight because it deals with vampires, and vampires are supernatural, then my approach probably isn’t going to satisfy you. I’m starting from the assumption that fantasy has much to show us about ultimate truth. I’m more interested exploring how the version of love presented in Twilight is and isn’t consistent with the Christian ideal of love.
So here’s the spoiler-free plot summary for those of you who are behind: 17-year-old Bella Swan moves to the tiny town of Forks, Washington, to live with her father when her mother gets remarried. There she meets the Cullens, a family of “vegetarian” vampires (they only drink the blood of animals they hunt in the woods). Romance with Edward Cullen, the eternally 17-year-old son of the family, ensues, as does some suspense and adventure.
From what I can tell, many parents are happy about Twilight because, unlike many teen novels these days, its protagonists do not have sex. Granted, this is partly for practical reasons, since Meyer’s vampires possess super-strength and, Edward explains, if he ever lost control, he might accidentally crush Bella. Not your average reason for teen abstinence. Bella isn’t particularly religious, and we don’t learn more about Edward’s beliefs until New Moon, so it wouldn’t make sense within the story for them to have a more principled reason. Stephenie Meyer is Mormon, and she’s stated in interviews that this is part of the reason that she will never include a sex scene in her books. So it’s a fairly clean read, but teens can’t really apply the characters’ motivations to their own decisions about sexual activity.
What I see as actually more important and relevant to moral issues is the Cullens’ abstention from drinking human blood. The Cullens have definite beliefs about right and wrong, and they strive hard, against their instincts, to pursue right. When Bella asks Edward how he can work so hard to resist regular vampiric tendencies, Edward replies, “But you see, just because we’ve been . . . dealt a certain hand . . . it doesn’t mean that we can’t choose to rise above — to conquer the boundaries of a destiny that none of us wanted. To try to retain whatever essential humanity we can.” Quite admirable.
Carlisle Cullen, the family’s “father” (none of the Cullens are related by blood — they’re bound together by their “vegetarian” lifestyle choice), is so driven by compassion and the desire to save human life that he has become a doctor, in spite of the constant temptation in which that places him (exposure to human blood, etc.). Edward is drawn to Bella both in the normal, human, hormonal way, as well as thirsting for her blood, which requires him to practice a lot of self-control, especially when they’re in close physical proximity. Young readers may get a little obsessive and squealy about Edward, but there are worse things than having a crush on a character whose prominent virtue is self-control. Granted, they’re probably more excited about his perfect face and well-muscled chest and lovely topaz eyes (the descriptions of Edward’s physical perfection do get a little girly), but maybe they’ll learn to admire his non-physical characteristics as well.
I should mention, though, that the self-control issue also makes Bella’s and Edward’s physical contact highly erotic — not in a graphic way, more in a psychological way. That’s not a bad thing for an old married reader like me, but I do wonder about the effect this would have on younger readers.
However, if I were a parent, I think my biggest concern with Twilight might be its over-emphasis on romantic love. Bella and Edward say things to each other like “You are my life now” and talk about being together forever. For Bella at least, their relationship trumps everything else in her life, even life itself. She desperately wants Edward to turn her into a vampire, too, so that they can truly be together. Fortunately, Edward refuses, once again turning to deeply ingrained principles of right and wrong. It would be wrong to deprive her of normal human life, he feels, and so he refuses for her own good, because he loves her. Maybe because Edward was born in 1901, he has a much more developed set of values, including love that puts the good of the other person over self-fulfillment.
If Bella doesn’t become a vampire, she will age and eventually die, as Edward remains an immortal teenager. We get the feeling that something will happen by the end of the series, so that they can stay together “forever” without Edward violating his principles. It’s intriguing to speculate about how this impasse will be resolved, and its resolution (presumably in the final book, Breaking Dawn, to be released on August 2) will probably determine my final opinion about the series. In the meantime, though, I’m struck by the emphasis on achieving eternal romantic love, and wondering how much it has to do with Meyer’s Mormonism. In Mormon belief, as opposed to Christianity, marriage and family bonds are eternal, lasting into the afterlife. It’s an appealing idea, and that very appeal is part of why I believe that the Mormon idea of heaven is false and the Christian heaven is true. If I were making up a religion, I would sure want it to allow me to be with my husband forever. But, for Christians, part of the purpose of marriage is to represent Christ, his love and self-sacrifice, to each other. It’s a way of knowing Christ. When, in heaven, we actually see Christ face to face, we won’t need our human approximations of his love. We’ll have the real thing, rather than the analogy. It’s not romantic, and from our limited human perspectives, it may seem unappealing, but, again, that’s part of what convinces me that it’s true.
If I had a teen daughter, though, I wouldn’t forbid her from reading Twilight simply because its idea of love isn’t completely consistent with Christian love; on those grounds, I would have to forbid a whole lot of literature from throughout history. Instead, I think Twilight presents a perfect opportunity to discuss Christian love and how it compares to the love between Bella and Edward. Your teen may not want to hear that romantic love isn’t the be-all and end-all of her life, but she’s probably much more likely to listen to you (moms and dads) if you have read the book too and can appreciate what it does well.
All in all, Twilight is a well-written, suspenseful story. You want to stay up late reading just to find out what happens next — and in this respect, it’s certainly similar to the Harry Potter books. Bella’s first-person narration is very convincing, and the dialogue is often witty. My husband and I are enjoying reading the Twilight series aloud to each other, and I suspect I’m not the only non-teen looking forward to the rest of the series.
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