The Allure of Dangerous Romance
Suppose that each person possesses a certain amount of energy for wanting and hoping and wishing. This energy represents our deep longings. If we picture that energy as a pile of golden coins, we can imagine the ways we "spend" it. For many girls and women, we pour most of these coins out on romance. We spend the coins on imagining a true love, on hoping that we will meet Mr. Right, our Prince Charming. We sigh over "the one," our soul mate, the romantic love who will finally understand us, who will match up with who we are.
When we're little girls, we watch Snow White sing, "Someday my prince will come," longing for the day when she will meet the man of her dreams. According to the song, when she meets Prince Charming, it will be love at first sight. Snow White and her cousins, the princesses of all our favorite fairy tales, gladly spend their golden coins on yearning for that prince. We've been encouraged to share this longing, to make it our own story.
Bella's romance in the Twilight Saga fits with our tendency to spend our wanting and hoping coins on romance. This romance defies the rules and rushes forward despite all dangers. It is also completely absorbing—it demands everything from Bella (and from many readers of the books as well). Most of all, this romance is fated. Edward and Bella are soul mates, meant for each other. The forces that draw them together are more powerful than the difficulties and dangers that would keep them apart.
Intense and dangerous romance defines the Twilight Saga.
When Bella first sits down next to Edward in science class, he tenses up and looks at her with revulsion. She had noticed him earlier that day but doesn't yet know him. Bella can't imagine why she has provoked such horror from the boy next to her. His strong reaction makes her think about the phrase "If looks could kill."1 She senses the danger between them.
We later learn why Edward looked at her with such disgust. For him, the lure of Bella's flesh, the particular scent of her blood, is uniquely tempting. It is so tantalizing that he has to run away to keep himself from attacking her and undoing all the years he has spent protecting human life. Even though he has practiced restraint for decades, developing self-control, he must flee. For him, Bella is that enticing. Running is the only way to stop himself from ripping her to pieces then and there.
In New Moon, Aro, one of the Volturi guardians of the vampire world, is baffled at the way Edward can resist the "call" of Bella's blood when it speaks to him with such intensity. Why would Edward want to resist such a tempting lure? Why, when something is that desirable, that delicious, would Edward steel himself against the urge to bite?
At the beginning of Twilight, we meet a quotation from Scripture. In Genesis 2:17, God instructs human beings that they "must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die." The book's striking cover art, a ripe red apple, is the forbidden fruit of dangerous love. The romance at the center of Twilight is forbidden because it is so very dangerous.
As Christians, though, we need to pause before we romanticize the knowledge of good and evil. In Genesis, God gives the people many, many good things. They have all they need for joy and happiness and a great life. The choice humans make to disobey God and eat the one "forbidden" fruit is, literally, a fatal choice. It brings sin and death into the world. All of that happiness and goodness come crashing down around them.
Romance threatens to destroy Bella. The books create a constant, suspenseful awareness that Edward is always in danger of losing control and biting her. Every moment that Bella and Edward are together, he struggles with his desire to drink her blood. Bella's friend Mike expresses his distaste for her growing relationship with Edward. "He looks at you," Mike says, "like…like you're something to eat."2
Before spending time alone with each other, Edward prepares carefully, taking precautions to keep Bella safe. He makes sure that he isn't overly hungry. He does all he can to fight against the temptation of her very presence, especially if they leave the watchful eyes of others. He must prepare because his nature is, for Bella, life-threatening. Bella, though, seems unconcerned about her own danger. Instead, she worries that it would cause trouble for Edward if she were murdered on his watch.
Bella does admit, at least at moments, to finding Edward frightening. When he drops his "carefully cultivated façade"3 of humanity, he is both frightening and beautiful to Bella. Her attraction to him is tied up with the fact that he is dangerous.
Repeatedly, Bella confuses Edward by embracing the danger that lies in being with him. He tries, again and again, to warn her off for her own good. She refuses, again and again, to remove herself from this perilous situation.
2. Twilight, 221.
3. Twilight, 264.
Romance in the series is something dangerous and illicit. That is, it is against the law. Every rule of both human and vampire society is working against the couple. He threatens her existence with his thirst for her blood. She threatens his existence when she discovers his secret life. Bella and Edward want what they simply shouldn't have.
So how should Christians view illicit romance?
To start with, we don't exist alone. God has created us to live in community, and we do that as the church. The church exists as both the body and the bride of Jesus. Christians, then, are never rogue agents. We're parts of a body. Paul, in 1 Corinthians, puts it like this:
The eye cannot say to the hand, "I don't need you!"
And the head cannot say to the feet, "I don't need you!" (12:21)
We need each other. We need each other in the area of romance just as in every other area of life. Other members of the body can help us to see things that we couldn't have seen on our own. They can help us discern whether our romantic interests are really in our best interests. They can help us to discern whether our romantic interests are in God's interests. Parents, pastors, Christian friends, and youth leaders can be the church for us in helping us to think about romance.
This idea that the church should have a role in our romantic stories is a grating one. I understand if you'd rather head for a long, painful visit to the dentist than ask for someone else's opinion about who you should or shouldn't dream about.
The idea of romantic accountability irritates us because we think of romance as a very private thing. Bella and Edward certainly do. Bella hides the truth about Edward from her parents. She ignores Jacob's feelings about the dangers of her relationship. Though Edward's family eventually grows to love Bella, he deliberately ignores their early worries about the complications involved with him loving a human girl. He breaks the vampire taboo against revealing his world to a human. Their attraction to one another is so very strong that it seems there is nothing for them to do but ignore the rules meant to keep them safe.
Yet nothing in the Christian life is truly private. We belong, after all, to God and not to ourselves. While this idea seems to go against the way we want romance to be, it is actually one of God's very good gifts. God made us so that we shouldn't be alone, and God didn't do this to annoy us. God doesn't give us the church to impose a bunch of arbitrary rules on us. God gives us the church as a blessing. The fact that you are not alone is a good thing. It means you're not at your own mercy.
You and I both know that the church is not a perfect place. It is a place for sinners, so we can't expect the church's efforts to help us be discerning about romance to be perfect either. It helps, though, to remember that the church exists for a reason. It exists for God's glory. It exists to be Jesus' holy bride.
When we ask the church—parents, friends, leaders—to hold us accountable about romance, we're not giving people license to control us with whatever their own preferences might happen to be. We're not asking, for instance, if someone else thinks this or that person is physically attractive. I can imagine all kinds of really bad reasons why people might think we shouldn't be attracted to someone. If someone dislikes a person because of his race or because he isn't from a wealthy family, we as Christians wouldn't find any help for accountability there. Still, we need accountability. We're asking other people to help us be the church, to glorify God and become His holy bride, in every area of life. Including romance.
As we look for accountability in the area of romance, we have a way to tell what good romance or bad romance is like. If attraction to someone else glorifies God, this is a good sign. If the person who captures our romantic interest is good at serving Jesus and helps us be good at it, this too is a good sign. When we're caught up in romantic feelings, these good signs may be the kind of thing we miss. Worse, we may miss bad signs, like our attraction to someone pulling us away from God or encouraging us to be less than the people God wants us to be. We may even miss it if our attraction is actually putting us in danger.
Step outside of Bella's shoes for a moment, and imagine you were her best friend. Would you have been worried about the danger involved in her romance with Edward? Romance should not be dangerous. We have jokes and stereotypes about girls being attracted to "bad boys," but the truth is that those attractions often cause a lot of pain. Bella's disregard for her own safety is a warning sign, one we should pay attention to if we see it in ourselves or our friends. We especially need accountability when we might be putting ourselves in danger.
The romance in Twilight is all-consuming. When she falls in love with Edward, Bella doesn't have space for anything else in her life. The books use words like obsessed or consumed to describe Bella's feelings for Edward. Edward influences everything Bella thinks and does. She is willing to surrender her entire life for Edward, ready, in his words, "for this to be the twilight" of life, "…ready to give up everything."4 Readers of Twilight are consumed by this romance too. I've heard plenty of accounts of the series eating up all of someone's time and energy, almost swallowing her up.
As Christians, we have to be immediately suspicious of an account of romance that consumes our entire being. One of the strongest warnings in Scripture is against idolatry. Again and again, the people turn away from God's commandments:
4. Twilight, 497.
You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God. (Exodus 20:3–5)
In the New Testament, Paul describes the sad state of living in idolatry. We human beings have become fools and "exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles" (Romans 1:23). We've made a bad trade, Paul is saying. We've traded in God's glory for sad images. While you and I probably don't pray to an idol carved to look like a bird or a reptile, we are still tempted to idolatry. We're tempted to trade the most amazing, priceless, astounding thing in the world—the glory of the immortal God—for images. We trade God's glory for illusions.
Is there anything that demands you give allegiance to it before you give glory to God? That thing is an idol. Is there anything that wants to consume your whole life, to take from you all your energy and longing and wishing and hoping? That thing is an idol. It is easy for romance to become such an idol.
Paul continues his description of idolatry in the first chapter of Romans. Not only do human beings make this bad trade, but the trade has consequences. What happens to human beings when we trade in God's glory for something else? We're handed over to our sinful desires. We're trapped.
The message of the Bible is that God should be the center of our lives. Jesus highlights this message when He quotes from the book of Deuteronomy:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. (Mark 12:30)
Jesus is not talking about loving God halfway. He's not talking about spending half of your energy on God and half on other things. Jesus repeats the word all four times in the verse above. How should we love God? With all that we are. With heart, soul, mind, and strength. With passion, longing, thought, and energy. With desire, time, attention, and activity. In Jesus, we see someone whose whole life is about God. He offers us the chance to have the same kind of life.
More than anything else, romance in the Twilight universe is something fated. Bella and Edward are meant for each other. They are the ideal of what romantic soul mates should be. Their connection is powerful, immediate, and irresistible. They are drawn to each other, pulled together as though by a magnetic force. Bella seems to exist just for Edward. Her very makeup, who she is at the core, is a perfect match for his desire.
In addition to Bella and Edward's romance, the series portrays another strong instance of fated romance. In Jacob's werewolf pack, werewolves find romance through "imprinting." When he meets the "one," the fated love, the werewolf immediately imprints on the other person. Jacob describes this in strong terms. He explains to Bella, "It's not like love at first sight, really. It's more like…gravity moves. When you see her,
suddenly it's not the earth holding you here anymore. She does. And nothing matters more than her."5 Imprinted pairs experience "peace and certainty."6
Sam, the leader of Jacob's pack, has imprinted on a woman named Emily. Sam accidentally harmed Emily when he was in his wolf phase. Before he imprinted on Emily, though, Sam was in a committed relationship with someone else, Leah, but when he imprints, he has no choice but to leave Leah behind. The treatment of Leah's situation in the series is incredibly frustrating. Her rage and pain at Sam's rejection isn't handled with much seriousness. Sam, in the romantic world of Meyer's series, has no control over this rejection. The bonds of a loving relationship cannot hold him when fate steps in and he imprints on Emily.
5. Stephenie Meyer, Eclipse (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2007), 176.
6. Stephenie Meyer, Breaking Dawn (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008), 153.
Emily also receives very little attention in the narrative. We see that the injury Sam caused her is a source of pain, particularly for him, but we don't see much about the difficulty of living with and loving a werewolf who unintentionally scarred you. We don't hear much of Emily's voice or about what choice she had in loving Sam. She would, presumably, have had very little choice if fate truly meant her to be with him.
We hear even less of the voices of other characters imprinted on by werewolves. Jacob's friend Quil imprints on a child named Claire. The reader is assured that there is nothing inappropriate in his loving devotion to the toddler. Quil will not desire her romantically until she is a grown woman. For now, he is a devoted baby-sitter. But the narrative doesn't address the question of the inherent imbalance of power in a relationship between a girl and a man years older than her. Even if Quil would still be physically young when Claire grew old enough for him, he'd still have years of experience she wouldn't. It would be difficult for there to be much that was mutual about such a relationship. Quil would always have the upper hand, the stronger voice.
The assumption that romance is fated is very widespread, and it's portrayed in a compelling way in Twilight. What are the consequences of accepting this idea of romance? First, if romance is determined by fate, if my love has to be my soul mate, the one I am meant for, then the possibilities of choice and accountability disappear. I'm no longer free to make good choices about who I want to share my life with. Instead, I am bound by fate. Also, I can no longer seek the good advice of other Christians about my romantic life. Fate is the only advisor I need.
Fated romance thus not only destroys our freedom to choose at the beginning of a relationship, but it also threatens our freedom to continue to choose love in the face of difficulties and distractions. If I were bound by the idea of the fated romantic soul mate, I would follow him whenever I found him, even if that meant leaving someone else behind, like Sam leaves Leah for Emily. The idea of fated romance destroys good marriages in just this way. If I become convinced that someone other than my husband is actually my soul mate, then I lose the freedom God gives me to keep on loving my husband through thick and thin. I lose the freedom to continue to choose love daily, to keep my commitments, and to enjoy all the rich blessings of a steadfast love.
The idea that you belong with a soul mate, then, robs you of your freedom. It steals from you the power God gives you, through the Holy Spirit, to make good choices, choices that are for God's glory. The idea of a soul mate binds us. It wraps us in chains. Why, then, are we so captivated by this idea? I think it's because we want to be loved by someone who is just for us, someone who really fits with who we are. We want it desperately. We're hurt and we're broken, and we want someone to meet us exactly where we are.
No human being, however, can fulfill us. No human being can complete us. No human being can give our lives meaning. If what we hope for from romance is fulfillment, completion, and meaning, we are going to be sadly disappointed. We'll demand something from another person that he or she cannot possibly give.
The good news is that we don't have to give up our hopes. But we do need to put them in the right place. God is so much more than human beings can ever be. This doesn't mean that God will do whatever you want or that you can mold God to be the way you'd like Him to be. It does mean, though, that God has a really beautiful way of meeting us exactly where we are.
God knows exactly what human need is and knows exactly what to do about it. God jumped right into the world with us. God became "flesh and made his dwelling among us" ( John 1:14). God-in-the-flesh fits what we need so perfectly. Jesus is God there for us, experiencing what we experience, struggling with our struggles. He's been tempted. He's known need.
We needed to touch and see God's love for us, and God came to us as the touchable, seeable, Jesus. We needed to be healed, and Jesus took on all of our mess, all of our guilt, to heal us. We needed to know who God was, and Jesus came so that we could see "his glory" (verse 14).
This is more compelling than a consuming romance. This reaches right into the depths of our being to touch us as we truly are.
THINK ABOUT IT/TALK ABOUT IT
1. What are your favorite romance stories? What makes them so compelling?
2. Who can you turn to for accountability? Wait. Don't skip over this question. I hope, if you're young, that the answer might include your parents, but if there are reasons it can't right now, do some brainstorming. A family friend? Someone at church? at school?
down the block?
3. Who can you offer accountability to? Who can you help to see what kind of choices will serve God's glory?
4. Even with no vampires around, how can romance become dangerous in our lives?
5. What would it look like for romance to be about glorifying God?
6. Talk about the concept of the soul mate. Do you think it is a problematic concept? Does it have a lot of power in your life?