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Twilight: a horrible book that fathers should consider reading with their daughters

In 2005 Stephanie Meyer published Twilight, a novel for teens she described as a “suspense, romance, horror, comedy.” It tells the story of Bella, just starting grade eleven at a new school in rainy Washington state, and her love interest Edward, a ninety-something-year-old vampire. And to add to the oddness, the cover features a pair of pale hands offering up an enticing rosy red apple.

That’s just a three-line summary, but it should be enough to creep out Christian parents; we know romanticized vampires offering up forbidden fruit can’t amount to anything better than frothy trash, and might well be something worse. So we know this isn’t the sort of fiction we want our daughters reading.

It might turn out, though, that they have other thoughts.

This is the literary and celluloid big thing right now – Twilight has sold 17 million copies and spawned three sequels and two, going on three, films with the third due out this June. It’s an entirely female fan base, and as the books and movies keep coming the phenomenon is also making inroads into the Church. If you have daughters and you haven’t already seen these books lying around your house you soon could.

Of course if the series hasn’t made it to your house yet, why not keep it that way – tell your kids to steer clear. But if it’s already arrived, or if your older daughters are pressing to read it and asking you what’s so wrong with it, you might want to rethink a blanket ban and instead decide to read through the first book with them.

Reading trash

Reading trash with your daughters isn’t an approach I’d normally advise, but there are a couple reasons it’s worth considering in this case.

The first is a matter of practical parenting. When our children are young we tell them what to do and what not to do, and shouldn’t feel obliged to always explain ourselves; our job is to protect them, their job is to listen. When they get older this “no questions asked” approach has to be replaced and explanations have to be offered so our children can learn to grow in discernment. Telling a seventeen-year-old they are forbidden from reading a particular book is treating them too much like a ten-year-old; we don’t want to be doing that unless we really have to. If our daughters want to read these trashy novels that might be an indicator that Mom and Dad still have some important teaching to do, and reading the first book together is one good way to do it.

Secondly, if your daughter is a fan of these books, she’s being attracted to something that should concern parents. On the surface these seem silly, not-so-out-of-the-ordinary teen romances mixed with a bit of nonsense about vampires. The hero is a bloodsucking demon but he is at least a restrained sort who limits himself to animal blood. Because it is written by a good Mormon lass, there is no swearing, and no sex (or at least none in the first book). In fact, even though Bella desperately wants to become a vampire like her beloved Edward, he won’t consider nibbling on her neck until after they are married (no premarital sex and absolutely no premarital blood letting – there’s an abstinence message we can all appreciate – phew!).

The master manipulator

But below this PG surface there is a much simpler, much more vile story being told about an abusive relationship. That’s not how young women are understanding it but any father will recognize what’s really going on. Edward is the boy fathers have nightmares about, and it has nothing to do with him being a vampire.

He is a self-confidant, self-absorbed charmer preying on a vulnerable, lonely young woman. When Bella looks in the mirror she sees a “soft” unathletic girl with “pallid” skin who can’t figure out how to get along with anybody.

Edward is the boy who dazzles her. She describes him having an “absurdly handsome,” “perfect face” complimented by “a crooked smile so beautiful that I could only stare at him like an idiot.” And from his “perfect, ultrawhite teeth” and “flawless lips” proceeds a  “musical voice.” He is, in short, gorgeous and Bella can’t figure out why he would ever be interested in someone like her.

We get pages and pages on his looks, long before we learn anything about what he’s like – Bella is obsessed before they even speak. And what do we learn when they do start talking? Edward is charming when he wants to be, but also prone to sudden and “unpredictable mood” swings – one moment he’s smiling, the next he is furious. In the space of ten pages he goes from being amused to bothered to charming to scowling to mischievous to fierce to smiling, and then fury. Pastor Douglas Wilson has been doing a chapter by chapter review of Twilight and in his posting on Chapter 10 describes the game Edward is playing:

“If you want a certain kind of female to do anything for you, and follow you anywhere, keep her off balance. Be moody and unpredictable. Be as erratic as you can be, and blame her for every change. Wobble down the highway, and every five minutes yell at the person in the passenger seat. The astonishing thing is that this really does work, but it only works if your daughters are the kind of girls you shouldn’t want them to be. It only works if they have the kind of parents who let them read Twilight like it was a Nancy Drew book from the fifties or something.”

Much has been made of the couple’s abstinence pledge, but Edward, it turns out, is the sort to push boundaries, to see just how far he can go without losing control. And Bella is a willing victim – she doesn’t care if he does lose control, even if it destroys her. Her only concern is that she wouldn’t want him to feel bad about it afterwards.

Good girls and bad boys

If our daughters aren’t seeing through Edward, if they’re proceeding from the first book to the second and third and fourth, still caught up in the “romance” of it all, it’s clear Dad needs to step in and do some remedial teaching about the right sort of things young women should be looking for in young men.

But if this Twilight phenomenon goes beyond our household and our daughters and has spread amongst all the young women of our churches it could be an indicator about a lack in our young men. Good girls are most attracted to bad boys when all the nice boys they know are of the spineless sort. Yes Edward is moody, selfish and above all dangerous, but he does offer a perverse, domineering form of male leadership. Young women in the world around are starved for real male headship so they’ll find even a sham “dazzling.” If our Christian young women are succumbing to this craze it could mean they are similarly deprived.

This was first published in the March 2010 issue. Jon Dykstra’s copy of Twilight served for some time as his coffee cup coaster, and was infinitely improved in its new role.

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Book Reviews, Popular but problematic

The Hunger Games: doesn’t tackle the issue it raises

A book about kids killing other kids, that is written for the teen market? If that doesn’t grab your attention, then you must not be a parent. The Hunger Games is the first book in a trilogy by Suzanne Collins that has, since 2008, sold more than 5 million copies. On March 23 a movie adaptation of the first book hit theatres and made a quarter of a billion dollars in just 10 days. This is the latest big thing in teen fiction. And like Twilight before it, a pivotal element of the plot is causing concern for Christian, and even non-Christian parents – this is a story about kids killing other kids. Deadly plot does not a bad book make Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen lives in a post-apocalyptic world where what’s left of the United States has been divided up into 12 Districts, all subservient to “the Capital.” We learn that there was once a 13th district, but it rebelled, and in the resulting war the Capital destroyed it. Every year since then, as show of their submission, each of the Districts has had to provide the Capital with two Tributes, a boy and a girl, to fight to the death in a made-for-TV spectacle reminiscent of the Roman gladiatorial games. Katniss becomes the District 12 female Tribute after she volunteers to take her 12-year-old sister’s place. Now the setting is grim, but a grim setting does not necessarily a bad book make. After all, “kids killing kids” would serve as a good summary of Lord of the Flies. In William Golding’s classic, he makes use of grim plot elements to talk about Man’s depravity, and how even “innocent” children are fully capable of murder (or as the catechism puts it: “we are all conceived and born in sin”). A great writer can use a dark setting to present an important Truth. Rooting for the anti-hero However, Colllins is no William Golding. Her premise is intriguing - the hero of our story is placed between a rock and hard place. Since there is only one final winner in these “Hunger Games” Katniss would seem to have a terrible decision to make: to kill or be killed? But Katniss never makes that decision. Collins has created a moral dilemma that, on the one hand, drives the action, but on the other, is hidden far enough in the background that it never needs to be resolved. Neither Katniss nor any of the other Tributes ever consider the morality of what they are being told to do. And Collins so arranges the action that Katniss is not put in a situation where she would have to murder someone to win the game - she does kill several in self-defense, but the rest of the Tributes kill each other, and Katniss’s only immoral kill (which the author clearly doesn’t think is immoral) is a “mercy kill” near the end. This is quite the trick, and it is the means by which Collins maintains tension throughout the book: we’re left wondering right to the end, will she or won’t she? But consider just what we’re wondering: will the “hero” of our story murder children to save her own life, or won’t she? When the plot is summarized that way, it’s readily apparent why Collins never presents the moral dilemma clearly; if it is set out in the open, it isn’t a dilemma at all. It’s wrong to murder. It’s wrong to murder even if we are ordered to. And it’s wrong to murder even to save our own life. That’s a truth Christians know from Scripture, but one even most of the world can intuit. Conclusion Golding used his grim setting to teach an important Truth. Collins uses her grim setting to the opposite effect, confusing right and wrong for her young auidence by not directly confronting the sinfulness of obeying obscene orders: “You have been chosen to go kill other children for the enjoyment of a viewing audience.” Yes, there was a time when even the world understood it was no defense to say "we were just following orders" but that's far from common sense today (our culture has forgotten that all will have to answer to God for what they've done). Collins obscures the Truth when her unquestioning Tributes, Katniss included, are portrayed as just doing what they have to do. Many among her teenage readership won't have the wisdom yet to recognize that there is another choice: that the players could decide it is better to suffer evil than to perpetuate it. So this is not a book that will help our young people think God’s thoughts after Him. If your teens have already read or watched the "The Hunger Games" they may be eager to defend it, and explain why this review is quite unfair. If so, that's quite the opportunity. Parents, let them tell you all about it, but require from them that they defend it using God’s standards....