Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Theology of Vampires and Werewolves

by Ben Howard

Today I'm going to be continuing on in a series of posts about ideas that came from watching the first three Twilight movies over the weekend. Like I said yesterday, I don't think these movies are particularly good, but they do raise interesting questions if you probe a little beneath the surface.

As I reflected on the movies, I was struck with how the differing mythologies of vampires, especially the Cullen clan, and werewolves mirror two distinct paths of Christian thought regarding identity.

If you're unfamiliar with the movies or the books, the Cullen family is different from many other clans of vampires. Taking a cue from their leader, and de facto father, Carlisle, the Cullen family has given up feasting on human blood. Though they still crave it and though it's presence can still spur them into a frenzy (a common theme in the movies), they eat animals. At one point, Edward describes them as the vampire version of vegetarians.

Also, Carlisle is a doctor in addition to being a vampire. He has historically turned others, like Edward for example, into vampires when given the choice between life as a vampire and death.

These two combine to make the Cullen's a very ascetic family. They are constantly trying to repress their natural urges and impulses so that they will not lose themselves in their demonic side. Edward even has to repress himself sexually around Bella by imposing his self-will over against the horrid fate of giving into his baser urges.

It's difficult to watch these kind of lifestyle choices and not see in them an corresponding ascetic brand of Christianity. This is the brand of Christianity that views humanity as essentially fallen. In response to this basic brokenness, Christianity is then used as a means and a guide on how to control oneself. Sex is bad. Indulgence is bad. Even emotion can be viewed as bad becaue it showcases a lack of restraint.

This of course is set off against a decadent “world”, which in the Twilight world would correlate to the Volturri or the army of newborn vampires from Eclipse. This “other world” is full of those who irresponsibly indulge in their demonic nature, accented in the movies by their blood red eyes.

This view of identity, where a person is by their very nature demonic and differentiated by their ability or willingness to control that demonic side, is then juxtaposed with the Jacob's tribe which has the ability to turn into werewolves.

Instead of fleeing from the terror of being a werewolf, the culture of the tribe embraces it as part of the tradition and part of their very identity. There is no disconnect between their physical nature and their ideological nature. This has the effect of liberating them from the weight of both asceticism and indulgence. It's clear when you watch the movie that this integration of nature with ideology allows Jacob's tribe to be looser, freer, more enjoyable than the tightly wound and tightly controlled world of the Cullen's and the wider vampire community.

I think this resonates with a view of Christianity that understands that there is a darker side to humanity, but that this darker side does not overshadow the essential goodness of humanity. Occasionally we may be monsters, but even monsters can occasionally be good.

One of my favorite papers that I ever worked on in graduate school was on Augustine and Julian of Norwich. If you know Augustine at all, you probably know that he argued in favor of original sin and the brokenness of mankind. If you leave Augustine to his own reasoning then humanity is left in a fairly dark place because we are all broken. In Augustine's view we must fight against our broken nature in order to keep it from destroying us. It's a bleak world full of restrictions.

But then I read Julian of Norwich, a mystic thinker of the late Middle Ages. Julian also understands that humanity is broken and that sin is part of the world, but that isn't the end of her story. She takes Augustine's ideas and flips them on their head. In Julian's mind we know two parts of the story. We know sin and brokenness exists and we know that all will be well. Somehow we will get from point A to point B though we don't know how.

By steering into the skid and embracing our brokenness, our demonic side, the monster inside of us, Julian is able to allow us to move beyond sin and embrace redemption. Acknowledging and moving past this aspect of our identity frees us to act in a productive and positive way.

It's time for Christians to stop thinking that they're vampires and embrace being werewolves.


You can follow Ben on Twitter @BenHoward87 or email him at benjamin.howard87 [at] gmail.com.

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