Twilight of the Mormons

The smartest piece I've read so far about the Twilight phenomenon, was Caitlin Flanagan's essay for The Atlantic. To date, I haven't read the books or seen the movies, but my Mormon upbringing has made me somewhat attuned to a subject that otherwise is primarily of interest to adolescent females. Anyway, here's Flanagan's take on the books' religion and morals:

That the author is a practicing Mormon is a fact every reviewer has mentioned, although none knows what to do with it, and certainly none can relate it to the novel; even the supercreepy "compound" where the boring half of Big Love takes place doesn't have any vampires. But the attitude toward female sexuality -- and toward the role of marriage and childbearing -- expressed in these novels is entirely consistent with the teachings of that church. In the course of the four books, Bella will be repeatedly tempted -- to have sex outside of marriage, to have an abortion as a young married woman, to abandon the responsibilities of a good and faithful mother -- and each time, she makes the "right" decision. The series does not deploy these themes didactically or even moralistically.

I think the reason why most reviewers don't know what to do with the books and films' supposed Mormonism is because the moral examples put forth, while certainly more conservative than much of what we see in secular culture, are broad and shared by a good many other religions. Mormons aren't exactly alone in their desire to see young women value marriage and children, abstain from premarital sex, and to see abortion as immoral.

In that context, this Religion News Service piece "Mormon imagery runs deep in 'Twilight'" had me scratching my head a lot. The set-up of the piece is basically a strawman:

"People make up all these Mormon references just so they can publish 'Twilight' articles in respectable publications like The New York Times," actor Robert Pattinson (Edward, the film's central vampire character), told Entertainment Weekly. "Even Stephenie said it doesn't mean any of that."

It's possible that Meyer never set out to weave LDS imagery into the 'Twilight' background. Yet intentional or otherwise, it's hard to ignore:

What follows are six bullet points discussing the alleged religious themes in Twilight. Some of the things do sound like they might in fact reflect a Mormon worldview:

--The story's teenage heroine, Bella, avoids coffee, tea, alcohol and tobacco -- not unlike the Mormons' "Word of Wisdom" health code. Bella also advises her father to "cut back on steak, much like the LDS teaching to eat meat and poultry "sparingly."

Again, I haven't read the books -- but if that's the case it could well be the author's Mormonism that influenced the characterization. However, many of the things highlighted are mighty thin gruel:

--Mormons believe angels are resurrected beings of flesh and bone. The most familiar is Moroni, who stands high atop LDS temples, trumpet in hand. The Book of Mormon, the faith's trademark Scripture, says Moroni was a fifth-century prophet who visited church founder Joseph Smith. Smith described Moroni as radiating light and "glorious beyond description."

Bella describes her vampire boyfriend, Edward, as an angel whom she cannot imagine "any more glorious." Edward's skin sparkles in the sunlight, and he visits Bella's bedroom at night. But Mormon angels don't have wings; in the "Twilight"  film, Edward sits in the science lab, the outstretched wings of a stuffed white owl just over his shoulders.

Huh? That's an awful lot of import to project on use of the word "glorious." And there's this:

--A unique LDS teaching is that marriages are "sealed" for eternity; spouses are referred to as eternal companions. Bella describes her relationship with Edward as "forever."

If proclaiming that love is "forever" is somehow indicative of LDS teaching, then every song lyricist and hack poet alive must be Mormon.

There was one thing in the piece I did find kind of fascinating, and contra some of the previous points, evinces a sophisticated understanding of Mormon theology:

--Bella and Edward's marriage, and her quick pregnancy, underscore the Mormon emphasis on the family. But Bella's half human/vampire fetus nearly destroys her, so her distraught husband suggests an abortion and artificial insemination. Mormons permit abortions if the mother's life is in danger, and artificial insemination is an option for married couples.

Whoa. I feel like the author has stumbled on to something, with her discussion of the Mormon doctrine of "free agency." (For more on this doctrine, see this article from a former member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the archives of the church's Ensign magazine here.) And interestingly enough, the Mormon take on sin and the exercise of free will is anchored in the church's belief in the "premortal existence," i.e. the church's belief we all inhabit the same spirit world before we are born, and this belief in turn profoundly shapes the church's position on abortion. But that's a lot to unpack, and it gets such short shrift and it is ultimately so vague I'm not sure what to even say about it.

In any event, while I applaud the author of the piece for trying to cover a lot of ground, she teaches film at UCLA and religion is not necessarily her bailiwick. This is really more of a religion story than a film piece. There's not a single quote from anyone in the piece who is an expert in Mormon doctrine. Three phone calls to the right people could have resulted in a more interesting piece. Finally, here's how the piece ends:

Bram Stoker probably never imagined that vampires would represent a religious doctrine. But more than a century later, Twilight shows that these nocturnal creatures can accommodate just about anything.

Are you kidding me? There's no creature in popular culture more freighted with religion than the vampire -- they drink blood, recoil from crucifixes, and are a walking commentary on resurrection and redemption. If you went back and time asked Bram Stoker about Vampires representing religious doctrine, I'm pretty confident he would have seen this one coming.

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