18.8.10

"Twilight" An Exercise in Discernment


Stephenie Meyer, Twilight. Little, Brown and Company: 2005. 498 pages.

Introduction

What follows is an extended review.  I read this book as an exercise and as research.  It was an exercise in understanding popular culture and in discernment.  It was research in that this book/movie is a feature of teen culture right now.   

As Christians seeking to be discerning in the face of today's various media, I think it is important for us to explore art, and interact with it, on multiple levels: Aesthetic (the content of my normal fiction book reviews), Moral, Ideological, and Theological.  Not all of these apply to all works of art, but we should bring them up when applicable. 


Book Summary

I think everyone probably knows what this book is about but, just in case, I will summarize. Twilight is the story of Edward, a vampire who is part of a unique family that resist the urge to feed on human blood, and Bella, an apparently normal teenage girl who moves to the town of Forks to live with her father, "falling in love."  The plot is driven by all the complications which such a relationship creates.  


Aesthetic Review

Twilight is a very easy read.  When Meyer is focusing on moving the plot forward she does have a way of writing that draws the reader on.  Some of her descriptions are evocative and, if nothing else, I did want to know what happened next.  Still, through the majority of the book I found myself wincing.  It is filled with bad dialog, shallow characters, poor foreshadowing, and unimaginative plot twists. At the beginning I thought that the overplayed teenage angst alone was almost enough to make me put the book down.  Then I got to the many pages of Edward and Bella spending time alone together. Blech. The book is just badly written. Really badly written. 

I do understand that this book is not exactly fit to my tastes nor am I among its target audience.  I imagine that people who like reading romantically driven novels would have found some of the dialog more enjoyable than I did, even if they may not call it good writing.  I also imagine that for a teenage girl Meyer's descriptions of Bella's internal thinking, as well as the high school intrigue with her friends, would be more fascinating.  I, however, found them to be poorly written pointless filler which serve no purpose in the story.  The book is 500 pages long but I could give you all the pertinent details in 1 or 2 pages tops... So, as a piece of fiction writing: Fail. 

1 star, Not Recommended. Yes, I know its popular; clearly many people enjoy this book (Why?!? Why do books like this become popular? What's wrong with you people?).  If you think you may be one of them, then don't let me hold you back.  If you decide to read this book, you will have already received your just punishment: you will never get that time back :) 


Moral Review

I don't have much to say here.  Many people seem to feel that the subject matter alone places this book into the category of, at best, morally questionable.  Yes, the book deals with vampires.  Yes, they are romanticized a great deal.  Yes, vampires are traditionally considered 'evil.'.  But let's keep in mind that they are completely a work of fiction and folk-tales.  Any given author is free to take these legends and provide a unique twist on them. Simply writing about them is not enough to classify a book as 'evil.'  

On all the other moral scales normally employed by Christians in judging such matters Twilight comes out pretty clean.  No swears, no sex, and little violence.  There is blossoming romance, and intimacy, between Edward and Bella, but certainly nothing which would push this book out of the teen and pre-teen category.  

Personally, I find this to be one of the most subjective and least fruitful areas of exploration in engaging popular culture.  Non-Christian works are not going to conform to Christian morals.  As a book by a Mormon, a religious group which shares many moral standards with Evangelicalism, this book fares better than most. But, is that the most important thing to ask?  No.  

(Aside: Of course, there is a time and place for such moral judgments.  Parents rightly hold their children back from 18A movies, and so on.  However, we all have to grow up and mature in our ability to make our own wise decisions about what we take in.  On that journey, we need to know ourselves well enough to know how such things affect us.  This is part of the subjective aspect of discernment.  Thus, I am very careful about movies and books which contain graphic sex; I know my weaknesses.) 


Ideological/Theological Review

Here is where things get interesting.  Here is where I think we ask the most important questions, such as: what was the message of this book? What was it's view of man/god/relationships/etc.? 

In the case of Twilight there are two clear ideological/theological thrusts (and in this case, the two belong closely together, though this is not always the case).  Yes, the book touches on many more issues.  However, the teenage depression symptoms, the intrigue amongst friends, the family relationships, and so on, barely form part of the backdrop for the main issues and story.  They also act as good marketing in that they likely pull in many readers who enjoy such things.  However, there is not enough in those things, as presented in Twilight, to talk about.  Instead, we have two topics. 

Firstly, Twilight has a clear overt topic: Dealing with temptation and forbidden fruit.  This is the driving tension of the entire novel.  Before you even open the book you are presented with outstretched hands offering an apple; clear Genesis imagery.  Then, on the first page, Meyer has included Genesis 2:17 "But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die."

From then on this point is belabored to the point of exhaustion in the dialog and interactions of Edward and Bella.  Meyer insightfully latches onto the propensity of human beings to long for the very thing which they should not have.  Specifically, the forbidden fruit is the romance of Edward and Bella.  For Edward it is a massive temptation and risk.  What if he drinks her blood and kills her? For Bella it is a dangerous situation to be in, best avoided.  What if he drinks her blood and kills her? But, in the face of their feelings, both of them push onwards.  

A main question of this novel, then, is how do we deal with temptation and forbidden fruit? This is actually a very good question to ask.  The answer offered, however, is tragically inadequate.  Twilight contains a thoroughly modern perspective on both sin and temptation.  The real problem, according to Twilight, is not the forbidden thing itself, nor giving in to temptation.  Both of these are desirable.  The real problem is finding a way to make these things work; to sin, but make it OK.  Thus, the forbidden-ness of the fruit is reasoned away.  It is forbidden because it is dangerous, for both parties.  But, if that danger can be kept at bay, then there is no problem.  The answer then, to dealing with temptation, is to find a way to neutralize the negative aspects of the sources of our temptation.  In this case, the answer is will-power. Let me note that though I completely disagree with this answer, I do think that it can provide opportunities for discussing this theme.  

Unfortunately, the above picture is incomplete.  What I have just laid out is one part of the overt message of this book.  However, as it stands alone it is incoherent.  This is because in analyzing that aspect of Twilight in seclusion I have actually left out the much more central theme/message of this book: Romance rules all. The real motivating factor behind chasing the forbidden fruit is emotion and passion, and the reason it is viewed as acceptable (within the world of the novel) is because romance rules all.  

I realize that this book is supposed to be a 'love story'.  And I realize that culturally we have a close association between 'love' and 'romance.'  I will, however, be using those terms to denote two entirely different things (with the exception of the phrase 'falling in love').  The reason for this is because our cultures understanding of romance is not love at all.  

In the midst of everything else, the center of this book is the romantic relationship between Edward and Bella.  The "love" pictured in this relationship is not love.  Instead it is an emotionally driven contagion which comes upon people with undeniable force and which we have no choice but to give in to.  For Edward, his attraction to Bella is described in visceral terms: She is his type, she smells enticing, she looks perfect, there is mystery in that he cannot read her thoughts, and there is the illogical nature of her actions and responses.  As for Bella, let me quote: "my decision was made, made before I 'd ever consciously chosen...." That basically sums it up. She "loves him" (read: desires to be romantically involved with him) for no reason other than that she feels this way. Oh, there is also the bit about him being incredibly beautiful, powerful, a good-bad boy, and so on.  

(Aside: Maybe its just me, but when summed up don't we have the worst of cliches hidden behind a masquerade of vampires and low self-esteem? Is this perhaps the reason for the popularity of the book? It offers the picture of the perfect boyfriend: strong, handsome, invincible, and yet willing to go against his very nature, to overcome his own dark side, for the sake of a girl.  Not only that, but this girl is a prototypical 'normal yet not-normal' girl.  She is what every girl truly knows herself to be: utterly flawed and utterly unique, beautiful and broken.  Bella, in particular, is clumsy, sad and melancholic, has no really strong talents and yet she is clearly desirable, unique, intelligent, and so on.  Thus, Meyer is able to appeal to teenage girls both on the level of their self-perception and on the level of their fantasies... Just some thoughts)

The picture of intimate relationships offered is that of uncontrollable emotional urges.  If taken seriously, this approach to relationships leads to impossible expectations and inevitable brokenness.  It is "falling in love" taken to the extreme.  What begins with "Oops, I tripped, and I landed in love" will almost inevitably end in "oops, I tripped, and fell out of love" or "and fell in love with someone else." The Christian view of love, and intimate relationships, is completely different than the western romantic view.  Love is primarily an action, a decision, a sacrifice and a commitment rather than an emotion.  It is sacred and precious, fragile and invincible, and not to be taken lightly.  We all know that love is the greatest thing in the world, however what Twilight does is to rely on this innate knowledge while totally distorting the meaning of 'love'.  Love is so much more than emotions. The purpose of intimate cross-gender relationships is not to gratify our desires, or because we have been driven, blind with passion, into them.  Rather, their purpose is to lead to marriage, a committed relationship in which we seek the best of the other first and in which we primarily seek the others holiness, not happiness. Read 1 Cor. 13, you will see.  

The picture of humanity offered here is that of beings at the mercy of themselves in a very uniquely modern way.  Edward has the will-power to overcome his very nature, but not to overcome his feelings.  Not only that, but this is pictured as the RIGHT course of action; we ought to submit to our emotions but not to our natures.  The Christian message is such that apart from Christ we cannot ever hope to overcome our sin-nature.  Further, we ought to be capable of growing in wisdom and character, especially with the help of the Holy Spirit, to the point that we control our emotions and not vice-versa.  What we are called to submit to is the will and vision of God, not our emotions.  The right course of action is to seek God, the peace of Christ, and His joy, even in the midst of persecution.  


Conclusion

This is a terrible book. 

Aesthetically it is painful.  

Ideologically this book is on par with western culture.  The message: Sin is relative and we can overcome it.  Our natures our malleable, and we can change them.  Our emotions are our masters, and we can serve them.  

Theologically, this book promotes idol worship: the worship of romance as the ultimate goal and motivator of life and of emotions as the driving forces of our decisions. 

It is in these last points that the true danger of this books lies.  The problem is not that it is about vampires, nor that it is written by a Mormon.  The problem is that it contains an entirely skewed view of intimacy, relationships, human nature, and the goals of life. 

Sadly, I suspect I would reach similar conclusions about most teen romance novels. 

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