I have a confession to make. I have read all four of the Twilight Saga books and seen the first movie twice. But I have another confession to make; I don’t like Twilight. I apologise to all those fans out there but sci-fi /fantasy is not really my thing, or romance novels, or big fat books that come in multiples. But please don’t hold this against me, as I must admit, I am fascinated by Twilight, and perhaps I’m somewhat obsessed with it.
Twilight fever has been sweeping the world. Seventy million copies have been sold worldwide, and the saga spent 102 weeks on the New York Times Best seller list. The first three books are to be made into films (the fourth one pending). Twilight was released last year, and New Moon is due out in November. All this hype leaves someone like me, who is not immediately drawn into the world of Twilight, asking: What am I missing? And what is it about Twilight that is speaking volumes to so many people the world over?
The Twilight Saga is a series of four books: Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse and Breaking Dawn. The first was written in 2005, and the last was released in 2008. They are the work of Stephanie Meyer, an American mother who is a practicing Mormon. The idea for the saga was birthed out of a dream that Meyer had, of a beautiful sparkling vampire and a young girl who are deep in the throes of love for each other. The story inhabits the fantasy/sci-fi-world of vampires and werewolves. But don’t be mistaken; these books are more teen romance and angst than sci-fi or fantasy. They tell the story of Bella Swan, who moves to Forks, Washington and has her life turned upside down by meeting and falling in love with the vampire Edward Cullen. “About three things I was absolutely positive. First, Edward was a vampire. Second, there was part of him ... that thirsted for my blood. And third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him.” [Tw p170/1]
We find in these 2,000 pages almost the whole gamut of human emotions: ecstatic love; desire; passion; temptation, risk; fear; security; pain; angst depression and sorrow. Maybe this is why this book has resonated with some 70 million people worldwide?
Wading through all these books can be somewhat intimidating. There are many Christian themes: eternal life, sacrifice, true love waits and perhaps even pro-life ideas, that we as youth workers can use and explore. But I think if we scratch beneath the surface we will find just why this saga has resonated deep within people. At the core of the Twilight saga is desire, passion and transcendence. And I think that Edward and Bella offer us a theology of desire, passion and the transcendent.
The phrase ‘Another world is possible’ has been talked about a lot recently, and isn’t this exactly what transcendence is about? And so, as Christians shouldn’t we be living a transcendent life? A life that says another world is possible? The Twilight saga offers us a very small glimmer (although somewhat pale and dim) of this experience where another world is possible. But the world that is possible for us as Christians is one where, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3-10 So, how do we offer this to others? In a word - worship. Worship offers us a transcendent experience, one where we can encounter God. This encounter re-creates us which in turn means we can re-imagine the world.
The themes of desire and passion are also obvious, seeing that most of these books are about sexual encounters. Bella and Edward’s relationship speaks to our deep need for love, and to be known. As Augustine said, “The single desire that dominated my search for delight was simply to love and be loved.” This expresses our longing for connection and intimacy. I wonder what happens though when we transfer Bella and Edward’s experience of love onto our faith, and our relationship with God? I wonder if it takes us into the realm of thinking that ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’? I have reservations about this kind of theology, because it can mean that we become elevated to a position of supreme honour and importance. Our faith becomes self-fulfilling. I think we can fall into the trap of thinking Jesus will make everything okay. He will make my life successful, because he loves me. But I don’t think that is the kind of love and passion we actually find in Jesus. His love was self-giving.
In the Bible (namely Song of Songs) we can find many examples of passionate and erotic language to denote God’s desire and passion for humanity. Erotic and sexual language speaks of self-abandonment, and giving to another, as well as our desire to be known by another. Bella is even aware of this. Before she has sex the first time, she makes this observation, “How did people do this - swallow all their fear and trust someone else so implicitly with every imperfection and fear they had - with less than the absolute commitment Edward had given me?” (BD p83)Kenda Creasy Dean in Practicing Passion puts it this way, “Passion communicates itself. For all its steamy connotation, eros is primarily a communicative impulse...The objective of intercourse is the communion of souls...Eroticism expresses our longing for mutual association...”
So the erotic could be said to be a symbol of the way we seek to know God as intimately as God knows us. This is quite different from equating the erotic with thinking that ‘Jesus is our boyfriend’, who loves me and will make me happy and successful. If we scratch beneath the surface in the Twilight saga we actually find a hint of this bigger picture of passion. The pain and suffering that Bella experienced when Edward leaves her not only reminds us of Jesus and his suffering passion, but also hints at what true passion is about. “Passion must feel like life or death - nothing less - or it is not passion.” - Kenda Creasy-Dean. Jesus had a passion worth dying for, as did Bella, Edward, and Jacob for that matter! And as we see in the Twilight saga, often our passion causes us great pain and suffering. It’s not always an ecstatic moment of bliss.
Don’t we all want to live a passionate life and have something to live and die by? And isn't this exactly what we find Jesus calls us to? “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” Mark 8:34-36. Here we can see that following Jesus is about imitating him. And if Jesus lived a self-giving life, so we must too. This means living a life of abandon and surrender, one in which through death we gain life, where in losing we are resurrected.
Digging deeper – more themes and stories from the Twilight Saga
In Twilight Bella journeys from crush to intense love. And through her eyes, we are reminded of the kind of love that stops your heart beating, and takes you to another place. “I felt a thrill go through me as I said his name...His eyes were gloriously intense as he uttered that last sentence, his voice smoldering. I couldn’t remember how to breathe.” (TW p71/2) The language of addiction is also used to describe the love that Bella and Edward have for each other. Edward compares his intense desire for Bella (and her blood) with that of a drug addict’s desire for heroin. “It’s not only your company I crave! ... If you locked an alcoholic in a room full of stale beer, he’d gladly drink it. But he couldn’t resist, if he wished to, if he were a recovering alcoholic. ... Perhaps I should have made our alcoholic a heroin addict instead...you are exactly my brand of heroin” (TW p234/5)
The portrayal of this scene in the movie appears to be the one that causes Bella to fall in love with Edward, and certainly makes us girls swoon over such intense love. Imagine having someone love you that much? But I have questions about love being described in this way. Is that really love, to say “you are my personal brand of heroine?” Is being addicted to someone/thing a good thing? Isn’t the very nature of addiction a negative thing? An addiction is described as being physically and mentally dependent upon a particular substance, and unable to stop taking it without incurring adverse side effects. This does seem to be an accurate summary of Edward and Bella’s love for each other, though!
For me this is the part of the saga that resonates quite clearly with the Christian story. We have a God who became vulnerable and weak. He became like us. He endured pain and sorrow, .and died. He identifies with our pain, and importantly we identify with Christ in our pain. In our sorrow and angst we can say with Jesus, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
The only solace that Bella finds is in her werewolf friend Jacob. “I waited for the memory to hit - to open the gaping hole. But, as it so often did, Jacob’s presence kept me whole.” (NM 214) A love triangle emerges between Jacob, Bella, and Edward, causing Bella to be divided, and in a state of conflict and confusion. “I realized that I’d been wrong all along about the magnets. It had not been Edward and Jacob that I’d been trying to force together, it was the two parts of myself, Edward’s Bella and Jacob’s Bella.” (EC p 607)
This raises questions about identity, integrity and consistency. Is it possible to be in love with two people? Can we feel that passionate about two things? What happens when we feel so divided in our soul? And does it matter if we do? (But then again, isn’t this the just ultimate fantasy? What could be more flattering, and boosting to our self-esteem than having two amazing, strong, hot boys, in love with us?!)
Addiction language is also used to describe Bella and Jacob’s relationship: “ ...I had never meant to love him... But I needed Jacob now, needed him like a drug.” (NM 219) I guess addiction is an adequate way to describe that desperation we all feel at times, to be known and loved.
Intrinsically linked with desperation, is desire and passion. This is a major theme throughout the series, especially sexual desire. Almost each page is filled with the waiting and the anticipation of sexual encounters. That tension of the forbidden is captivated beautifully:“And he took my face in his hands again. I couldn’t breathe. He hesitated...Not the way a man might hesitate before he kissed a woman, to gauge her reaction, to see how he would be received. Perhaps he would hesitate to prolong the moment, the ideal moment of anticipation, sometime better than the kiss itself. Edward hesitated to test himself, to see if it was safe...And then his cold, marble lips pressed very softly against mine...Blood boiled under my skin, burned in my lips, My breath came in a wild gasp. My finger knotted in his hair, clutching him to me. My lips parted as I breathed in his heady scent.” (TW p247) This first kiss takes 247 pages to reach, and the waiting and anticipation to that kiss is built over six or so pages. The film also captures that awkward sexual tension. And in some ways you could describe these books as teenage girl porn. All emotion, romance and anticipation, rather than the physical ‘deed’ itself. And in fact when the deed is finally done (for the first time) in Breaking Dawn (p85), the details are glossed over in quite a disproportionate way, to the amount of pages spent building desire and anticipation. (eg Eclipse p 43/4; 186-88) It’s bit of an anti climax, really! And I cannot help but think of the Twilight saga as a ‘tame’ teenage version of Mills and Boon.
This has sometimes been used by Christians, as a means to promote, ‘true love waits’ theology as Edward and Bella hold out till marriage! Edward is able to control himself and not give into temptation. It has been said that Meyer makes abstinence sexy and that Edward and Bella show teens that you can have a perfect relationship without being physical. But I can’t help but think this is a somewhat simplistic reading of the book. For me the main reason Edward doesn’t give into his temptation is out fear of hurting Bella, rather than for moral reasons. (Although he does give a nice pro-chastity speech in Eclipse). After all he is a strong vampire, and Bella is a fragile human. Imagine what would happen, were he to give into his desire and lose control? As Edward says himself; “I have to mind my actions every moment that we’re together so that I don’t hurt you. I could kill you quite easily...If I was too hasty...if for one second I wasn’t paying enough attention...I can never, never afford to lose any kind of control when I’m with you.” (TW p 271) This makes the sexual tension in the book even more alluring. This is what is appealing to the reader. The desire and longing that Edward and Bella feel for one another is passionate and forbidden (It’s a matter of life and death). For me this is more important, and interesting than the fact that they waited!
Edward is the one with the iron strong will. He is the one who can withstand the temptation(after all he isn’t human), whereas Bella is the one who cannot control herself (after all she is only human), and longs to jump Edward’s bones, and will do almost anything to make this happen. “Just let us try...And I’ll give you what you want. I’ll marry you...You can even buy me a fast car if that makes you happy! Just...please.” (EC p448) Despite this apparent role reversal (the boy with all the self control) and Bella’s upfront and sex-crazed tendencies, Bella is not portrayed as a ‘feminist’ who is proud of her sexuality and the desire she feels. “...right now, physically, there is nothing I want more than you. More than food or water or oxygen. Intellectually, I have my priorities in a slightly more sensible order. But physically....It’s all I want.” (EC p446&8) Rather there is a sense that Edward is the hero who can control himself, and that she is a silly weak human with desires. Bella is only allowed to do what he wants. Maybe this is too harsh a reading of the books. But I find the fact that Edward will give Bella what she wants (becoming a vampire and sex) only if she marries him first (what he wants), somewhat manipulative. He disguises it under the motive of protection, driven out of love for her. This protective streak of Edward’s, and Bella’s desire for to be protected is worth reflecting on.
This idea of safety seems to be an important part of Edward and Bella’s relationship, and in fact a central theme to the whole saga. Edward is the ‘protector’, and Bella is ‘defenseless’. Protection and safety is the reason Edward leaves Bella. It’s safer for her, without him around. And in a way he came back to her, out of safety. It’s safer for her, if he’s around to protect her. Bella calls Edward her savior “I wanted nothing more than to be alone with my perpetual savior” (TW p144); and has a deep longing for safety. Her relationship with Jake, demonstrates this also, “He was my comfort, my safe harbor.” (NM p411) For me, this raises lots questions. Why do we as woman find this appealing? Is this what we want? Do we want to be protected, by another? Is a woman’s role in a relationship to vulnerable and weak, and is the man’s role to be strong and to protect? And if we long to be protected and find someone who will protect us, is there anything wrong with that?
Eternal life is another strong Christian theme found in the saga. Vampires have gained eternal life, but Edward believes at a cost to their souls. Here, Carlise explains Edwards view, “God and heaven exists...and so does hell. But he doesn’t believe there is an afterlife for our kind...You see he thinks, we’ve lost our souls..” (NM p 37) This raises many questions about heaven and hell, for us. Is eternal life mere immortality? Unlike vampire transformation, does our ‘immortality’ as Christians, speak of a greater transformation than just personal? Bella becomes obsessed with immortality, and transforming into a vampire. She is distraught over the fact that she will age, and Edward won’t (despite the fact that he is 110 years old!). “And now that it had hit, it was even worse than I’d feared it would be. I could feel it - I was older. Everyday I got older, but this was different, worse, quantifiable. I was eighteen. And Edward never would be.” (NM p6/7) But Bella’s desire for immortality is not just for immortality's sake as Edward often thinks, but rather out of her desire to be with Edward forever. Bella’s quest for vampire-hood becomes a point of tension between Edward and Bella’s perfect relationship. “..Edward was dead set against any future that changed me. Any future that made me like him - that made me immortal.” (NM p10) But in Breaking Dawn, after a slight plot twist, Bella does finally get what she’s always wanted. She picks Edward and marries him; she gets to have sex as a human, but she becomes pregnant! And with no ordinary child, it’s half vampire and half human. It sucks the very life out of her. So, via another strong Christian theme - self sacrifice, Bella does gain her immortality. There was just no other way for Bella to survive this pregnancy and birth being human. “When you loved the one who was killing you, it left you no options. How could you run, how could you fight, when doing so would hurt your beloved one? If your life was all you had to give your beloved, how could you not give it? If it was someone you truly loved?” (BD p2) She does die in birth, and the only way to save her, is for Edward to transform her. So a vampire she becomes. After all this self-sacrifice, and suffering passion the saga ends in a state of utter bliss. “Forever and forever and forever...And then we continued blissfully into this small but perfect piece of our forever.” (BD p754)
I have questions about what is portrayed as love in the saga. It is a love of heightened emotion and feeling all the time, an ecstatic heart-stopping feeling. What happens when we find ourselves in a relationship, and our heart continues to beat? Or it stops beating erratically when our love walks in the room, or touches us? What happens when he doesn’t want to stay awake and watch us sleep all the time? What happens when we desire a love that is better than reality? (Conversely, what about young people, mainly boys, who have been raised on a diet of sexuality through internet porn, exalting sex to a place that is far from real? What happens when these two people meet?)
Blythe Toll is an artist based in Melbourne, Australia. She has been involved in youth work of some description for 10 or so years, and currently works for Urban Seed - a Christian-based organisation working with the homeless and marginalised people in the city of Melbourne. There she is involved in the education department, speaking to some 10,000 students about homelessness and other urban issues.