Guest blogger John Mark Reynolds is a professor of philosophy at Biola University, the author of the new book “When Athens Met Jerusalem,” and an On Faith panelist.
The popular Twilight series of books is God-soaked in the quiet American way that will keep it off the “for fun” summer reading list at Richard Dawkins’ 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 author Stephanie Meyer reminds the reader that romance is fundamentally more thrilling than mere sex.
Sadly, however, the books contain a great and glaring flaw. The books (and now the movie) 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.
More cynical souls 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 and the sophistication of the mythology in Twilight 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. G.K. Chesterton’s phrase for dime store novels fits: both the films and the books are “dreadful and vulgar.”
As Professor Paul Spears points out in his critique of the Harry Potter series, 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!
If one thinks about it in this way, these vulgar Twilight books are amazing!
To her infinite credit, Meyer has accomplished something many would have thought impossible. She has passed off an old-fashioned dime store novel (now 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, such as Heathcliff and Cathy, Romeo and Juliet — all referenced in the Twilight books. Though Meyer’s signs are written in very large, blocky letters, perhaps some will be encouraged to read the better books.
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. Any child who grew up wishing that Narnia were real would be eager to hear there might be some basis for truth in the C.S. Lewis stories. So, too, 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 there is hope is much needed.
Meyer’s stories are not literally true, 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.
Unfortunately, Meyer never shows the limits of romantic love. Anything, or almost anything, that gets in the way of Eros is discarded. Love is entirely disconnected from 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 of putting Eros in the place of Jehovah.
From the traditional Christian perspective, love is a great thing, but all human loves can be misused. Love of country can become jingoism, an extreme nationalism that can easily become tyrannical. Surely 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. From a Christian point of view, the problem with this is not 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 objecting to this on theological grounds, more 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.