In recent months, the Twilight franchise revisited the multiplexes of our towns for Breaking Dawn, the final instalment of a five-year filmic saga. The series is a publishing phenomenon almost without precedent. With series sales well in excess of 120 million and translated into 38 languages, it looms large in the popular imagination. The five films that have been made from the raw material of the books have grossed over $2.5bn in box office sales.

While the series is reaching a conclusion, it may resound in the popular mind for some time to come. What is the Christian community to make of this?

Habitual shocker of the faithful, the Seattle church planter and pastor Mark Driscoll is in no doubt. Writing at some length on his blog, The Resurgence, he comments: ‘Twilight is for teenage girls what porn is to teenage boys: sick, twisted, evil, dangerous, deceptive, and popular.’

Whatever the merits of Driscoll’s comments, eroticism would seem to be a point of sales for the books. The heroine, Bella, does not have penetrative sex with her love interest Edward until they are married, so the books were deemed safe for a teenage audience, the initial target group. But she describes her relationship with him throughout the series in erotically charged language. After several hundred pages, their extended foreplay finally reaches its conclusion. The saga of their unconsummated love must have been a sales driver.

The series has also benefited from the ‘Internet effect’. While the Internet often fragments culture and gives a bigger platform to fringe literature, art and music, it also allows for the large-scale and speedy creation of community around popular culture. In the case of Twilight, this found particular expression around the two rivals for the affection of Bella, Edward and Jacob. Team Edward and Team Jacob materials found their way onto websites: T-shirts and all matter of teen-cult paraphernalia.

In many ways, the popularity of Twilight should not surprise us. A study of popular literature since Guttenberg first printed the Bible would suggest that Christianity, fantasy horror stories (Dracula and Frankenstein), sex (where to start?) and alternative spiritualities have always been a lucrative publishing strategy. The Twilight saga brings them all together in one place. But what does it all mean to the reader?

Christian and cultural discernment

In the cultural studies book, Twilight and Philosophy (Blackwell) the authors ask, ‘What do the struggles of “vegetarian” vampires who control their biological urge for human blood say about free will? From a feminist perspective, is Edward a romantic hero or is he just a stalker?’ The Christian community will also want to look at what this cultural phenomenon says about the human condition. But first, a very short plot overview.

Bella Swan, the heroine, has a very poor self-image. Edward Cullen is part of a local pacifistic vampire clan but is wary of Bella because he doesn’t want to accidentally destroy her while in a vampiric frenzy. Then there is love rival Jacob, who on occasions becomes a werewolf, the enemy of the vampires. The Cullen parents are the pacifistic heroes of the story and try to persuade Edward that there could be grace and forgiveness for his violent vampire past.

So what are we to make of all of this? The Christian responses to popular fantasy literature are three-fold but often at odds with each other:
One is radical denouncement. If you tell a story that contains a mythic element which conveys anything other than conventional Christian supernaturalism, then you are guilty by association. (CS Lewis and JR Tolkien are viewed with suspicion by adherents of this view.)

Others adopt the redemptive analogy approach. This is at the heart of small group studies that seek to encourage young people to: Look at the courage of Bella in overcoming her difficulties; look at the inner struggle of Edward as he seeks to renounce the violence; look at the heroic stance of the Cullens, mother and father, as they renounce their vampiric past.

The third Christian approach is what some would callprophetic discernment. Prophetic discernment would look at some of what's going on in popular culture and say: ‘Is it possible that a story which is mythical, ie not actually objectively true, nevertheless might have truth or a deceptive idea within it, which might influence the listener (or reader)?’

So, when Jesus told the story of the rich man and Lazarus, was this actually a representation of the ability to see from heaven into hell? Or was Jesus just taking a popular folk story, and using it to critique the unjust Sadducees?

Discerning Twilight?

Should we approach Twilight in the same way? Part of the challenge is this: the Twilight saga champions the idea of a power that is part of our humanity, not an external power, such as the Holy Spirit.

This ‘power of the mind’ concept is attached to myths about the supernatural powers of the people of the lost city of Atlantis. These powers are now thought to be latent within us. Eleazar, a character in the Twilight story, refers to the latent talents that Bella is rediscovering as she creates a force field, without initiation or mystical ritual that protects people from physical harm.

Bella is not the only one. The elitist and aggressive Volturi vampires have a variety of gifts including hearing your every thought, discerning your emotions, making you feel pain all over your body, and emotional manipulation. The ‘good’ vampires can send a jolt of electricity through you, make you blind, and perform natural miracles. They can also see the future.

The Christian equivalent of some of these ideas is found in Luke 7:39. Jesus knows the Pharisee’s thoughts. In 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, a series of gifts are described. Within classical Christian theology they are known as gifts of grace; they are gifts from God; they are not latent within us.

(Not) subversive side stories

?Is part of the Twilight appeal its affirmation of the cultural norms of First World capitalism? Alice, one of the Cullen girls, is obsessed with material goods. For a wedding she purchases 20,000 lights and 3,000 flowers. The Cullen mother says at one point, ‘We never wear the same clothes – Alice won’t let us.’ Alice also eventually gets the yellow Porsche she craves as a reward. Alice embodies the values of a consumer culture.

And does Bella’s intense vanity normalise our culture’s obsession with beauty? When Bella gets bitten and becomes a vampire, she looks in the mirror and says, ‘At least I’m pretty now.’ In our culture, a heroine who fixates on her body image makes sense. God’s message, however, is that our identity can be rooted in something far more beautiful and mystical: his unconditional love.

The Twilight saga sells conformity to the Spirit of the Age to a generation who believe themselves to be rebellious. Is this the vision of life we want to buy into?