Twilight: A blank slate?

The new Twilight film is out and Cathy and I will be going along as soon as we can find babysitters for the kids one night, so expect a review soon.

In the mean time, there are a host of new articles on the “Twilight Phenomenon” in the media again, asking “What does this mean for us?” (My guess: Nothing. It’s just good entertainment!). Critics of these films tend to approach them as a bit of a “blank slate” on which to project their own understandings of modern western society and young people especially.

One of the sillier attempts at writing on this “blank slate” is highlighted on Cathnews this morning: this offering from a “young voices” section on the National Catholic Reporter website (ask yourself: Why would a magazine like NCR need a specific section entitled “young voices”? As opposed to…?): “Twilight: The ‘Eclipse of God'” by Jamie L Manson. “Young” Jamie opines that films like “Twilight”, “Avatar” and “Lord of the Rings” are successful because people are yearning for “presence”:

Is it just a strange coincidence that on the date of the release of “Twilight: Eclipse”, the pope announced the creation of a new pontifical council to address what he calls the “eclipse of God”?…

The pope is correct: there is a great clash of cultures taking place in the West. But it isn’t the sacred that is pitted against the secular. Rather, there is a clash between a church that still sees fit to operate like an absolute monarchy and a laity that takes an active interest in developing and exercising their consciences and spiritualities. As Donald Cozzens has aptly explained, the Catholic Church is the last feudal system in the West. Its authoritarian, hierarchical model of leadership is medieval in its founding and, even to this day, in its functioning. Absolute loyalty is required for such a system to work.

This weekend, the United States celebrates Independence Day. This holiday marks our nation’s separation from a monarchical rule that had repeatedly abused its power by not making itself accountable to its own established laws. After much struggle to humbly petition the English monarchy, the leaders of the 13 Colonies found the monarchy to be deaf to the voice of justice. So, they asserted their truth that all are created equal and entitled to inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

As the church’s injustices have grown and its attempts at absolute control have swelled, Catholics in the West have realized that their founding democratic principles are as essential to their spiritual health as they are to their social and civil well-being. Until the Church ceases to function like an absolute monarchy, its attempts at evangelizing the West are a set up for failure. Those in the West do not wish to be controlled and dominated with re-Christianization. What they seek and respond to is presence: presence to their deepest pains and daily struggles; presence to their longings, their questions and their need for healing; presence to their joy and their flourishing. What they seek is the communal practice of the teachings that Jesus offered in the Gospels.

Well, Jamie may be right. People may well be pining for “presence”. But the “presence” of what, Jamie? If people have a God-shaped hole in the centre of their being, is anything other than THE PRESENCE of God going to fill it? And is what fills this God-shaped hole just “the teachings of Jesus offered in the Gospels”, or is it Jesus himself, fully human and fully divine? IOW, is it just Jesus? Or is it The Christ, the Son of the Living God for which the world is yearning?

Pope Benedict understands that “the teachings of Jesus” have no meaning without an encounter with the Presence of the Person of Christ (still waiting for that second volume of Jesus of Nazareth!). And he certainly understands, unlike many on the editorial team at National Catholic Reporter, that there cannot be an encounter with the Person of Christ apart from his Body present in the Church and in the Eucharist.

I know the restlessness that films like Avatar and Lord of the Rings and (even!) Twilight can stir in people. It is the restlessness that all people have until they find their rest in God. And the Church – medieval, outdated and far from the American ideal of democracy as she may seem – has a role to play in answering that restlessness.

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27 Comments

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27 responses to “Twilight: A blank slate?

  1. Tom

    A rough and ready mix of superstitious natural religiosity and paganism. I deplore the state of my fellow youth…this is pretty standard for the course…

  2. Tony

    Some impressions David:

    – Your attitude to film criticism, especially those critiques that try to see a cultural context for films, seems dismissive and superficial.

    – I’m at a loss as to why you’d ask ‘Why would a magazine like NCR need a specific section entitled “young voices”?’ Wouldn’t it be the same as asking why a diocese like Melbourne has an Office for Youth?

    – The gratuitous swipe — … and he certainly understands, unlike many on the editorial team at National Catholic Reporter … — is just not worthy of you.

    IMHO of course!

    • Your attitude to film criticism, especially those critiques that try to see a cultural context for films, seems dismissive and superficial.

      I am quite happy for film critics to find “cultural context for films” etc, but in the case of commentary on the Twilight films (and I have read a few) it seems like a case of “make of it what you will” – which is certainly what young Jamie has done! The best critic on the whole Twilight saga is the guy who cut his teeth on the Harry Potter phenomenon, is the “Hogwarts Professor” John Granger at http://www.hogwartsprofessor.com

      Being something of a tabula rasa, Twilight acts almost like a mirror on the beholder!

      I’m at a loss as to why you’d ask ‘Why would a magazine like NCR need a specific section entitled “young voices”?’

      Are you, Tony? Well, other readers may not be.

      The gratuitous swipe — … and he certainly understands, unlike many on the editorial team at National Catholic Reporter … — is just not worthy of you.

      Was I being “gratuitous”, Tony? Perhaps. But also, perhaps, what I said is true.

  3. Tony

    I am quite happy for film critics to find “cultural context for films” etc, but in the case of commentary on the Twilight films …

    Fair enough. I assumed (wrongly) that you were making a general statement. Mea culpa.

    Are you, Tony? Well, other readers may not be.

    Maybe so. I still don’t know what you’re getting at. Maybe others could explain, if you’re reluctant.

    Was I being “gratuitous”, Tony? Perhaps. But also, perhaps, what I said is true.

    Perhaps it’s true? That’s some benchmark!

    • Peregrinus

      There’s a received idea in certain quarters, Tony, that “liberal”, “Spirit of Vatican II”, “progressive” Catholics (which NCR is taken to exemplify) are all aging baby-boomers and that the younger generation find much appeal in “traditional”, “magisterial” Catholicism. You can insert the stereotyped adjectives of your choice here, but I dare say you know the tune. Hence “traditional” seminaries are much more successful at attracting applicants than “progressive” ones, younger Catholics are more interested in “traditional” liturgies than older ones, etc, etc, etc.

      Hence the suggestion is that NCR is run by people in their sixties and beyond; they need to have a special section for “young voices” because otherwise there wouldn’t be any in the paper.

      What this received idea overlooks is that older Catholics are more heavily represented – much, much more heavily represented – in the (liturgically active, self-identifying) Catholic population than are younger Catholics.

      So it’s not necessarily the case that the younger generation are more “traditional” their parents and so are remaking or reorienting the church in a more traditional direction. It seems rather to be the case that, increasingly, the church only has appeal for young people of a “traditional” bent. As for the rest, their not-so-traditional parents may retain active participation in the church, but they don’t.

      On this view, young Catholics tend to be more “traditional” not because youth is turning to “tradition”, but because the church has no appeal to youth, unless they are already disposed to turn to “tradition”. And young Catholics continue to be underrepresented in the church because, in fact, not very many of them are turning to “tradition”. The church’s appeal is contracting, not growing.

      Which, of course, is the very point that Jamie Manson makes in her review – young people are looking, but they are not finding what they are looking for in the church.

      David is right to suggest that what they are looking for – whether they know it or not – is the incarnate person of Jesus. And he is also right to suggest that has a role to play in answering that need.

      But we’d have to concede that it is not playing that role very effectively- young adults are the section of the population least engaged with the church. This reality is not at all altered by pointing to the fact – if it be a fact – that those young adults who are engaged with the church tend to be more comfortable with a “traditional” Catholic culture. Our challenge is not to reach “traditional” young adults; it’s to reach the world.

      • Tony

        Ah, I see. Thanks Pere.

        My ‘gratuitous swipe’ filter was not at its best then!

        To quote my former classmate:

        There was a man on the radio today talking about the young people
        Said we should listen to the young people, said they’re a victim of conspiracy
        The young people, ******! What’s that supposed to mean?
        I never did one damn good thing ’til I was over thirty.

        Paul Kelly, Nothing On My Mind

        Not that I necessarily agree with him, of course (I may do when I get a little older)!

        • It should also be noted that it is a general trend among those young people who still identify with any religious community – not just Catholic, but Muslim, Jewish etc – that they are also more attracted to the traditional or orthodox style of their religion, partly because the rigid lines of distinction act as identity boundary markers and thus provide a sense of security etc. etc.

          It is also an obvious fact that a very large number of young people don’t want any such “authoritarian control” over their belief patterns and run a mile from any suggestion of this kind of religion.

          But watering down the Faith until it becomes something palatable to those who are fearful of committment and authority is NOT the solution to the problem of how to reach young people who are fearful of orthodox religion with the message of the Catholic Faith.

          The solution is rather
          1) to help them identify clearly that the “hole” which they experience in their lives is “GOD-shaped”, and
          2) lead them to the one who can fill that hole, ie. the “GOD-shaped” man, Jesus (please excuse, for the moment, imprecise Christology of that expression); and
          3) point them to that community in which this Jesus can be found, ie. the Catholic Church; and, finally,
          4) help them overcome their fear of the authority of the Church by understanding that the very function of this authority is the preservation of this very message.

          All of that is a big ask, but the fact that there are “young people” in the Church who connect with this message when it is clearly addressed to them tells us that it isn’t hopeless. This very same message has spoken to countless generations of “young people” over the last two thousand years, through many different changes in society and world-views. I don’t think there is anything particularly different about “young people” today from the past. It isn’t the message that we need to change, it is that we need to communicate it better.

          In my opinion, magazines of liberal Catholicism such as the National Catholic Reporter are trying to reach out to “young people” by changing the message, rather than communicating the message better.

          • Tony

            It should also be noted that it is a general trend among those young people who still identify with any religious community – not just Catholic, but Muslim, Jewish etc – that they are also more attracted to the traditional or orthodox style of their religion, partly because the rigid lines of distinction act as identity boundary markers and thus provide a sense of security etc. etc.

            Surely this could be said of any minority sect or group?

            In my yoof I knew blokes who were exclusively (GM) Holden drivers and, suprisingly, just about everything about Holdens was good and the faults were minor. The opposite was true in terms of their attitude to Fords.

            Knowing that though, it would have been dangerous to come to any general conclusions about Holdens (in relation to other cars) or drivers in general.

            I suspect that there’s some tension between the manufacturer and such groups. It may be that such groups would want particularly ‘Holden’ features to remain or even be enhanced, but the manufacturers wouldn’t want to alienate other drivers (or potential Holden owners) by not being ‘flexible’.

            (There’s a metaphor there somewhere. Maybe it’s in the boot.)

            • Paul G

              But if GM decided to put Toyota hubcaps on its newest model, the “outsiders” and potential Holden owners might think GM doesn’t have any confidence its own hubcaps.
              On the other hand, if GM can convince everyone that it doesn’t matter what hubcaps you use, provided the wheels are genuine GM parts, then they might get more buyers.
              Or something like that.

              • Peregrinus

                Stop that metaphor before somebody gets hurt!

                I think we’re missing the wood for the trees here.

                The article by Jamie Manson that David refers to makes the point that people are seeking a spiritual “presence”, and cites Twilight, Avatar and the like as evidence of this. I think the value of that particular evidence is debatable, but let’s accept that people are, indeed, hungry for and open to a greater spiritual reality than materialism and consumerism can offer. (If nothing else, Christian anthropology suggests strongly that they should be.)

                Right. The article goes on to make the point that, however much they may be seeking “presence”, and however open they may be to it, they are not for the most part finding it in the church. That, too, I think is something we would all broadly agree is correct.

                Manson suggests that this is at least partly because the church is “an absolute monarchy . . . feudal . . . authoritarian . . . hierarchical . . . medieval”. She presents this as inconsistent with “an active interest in developing and exercising [the laity’s] consciences and spiritualities”. She suggests that these characteristics do not equip the institution to meet the spiritual need that people are experiencing. Rightly or wrongly, they perceive the church to offer “control” and “domination” through “re-Christianisation”, instead of “presence” to pains, struggles, longings, questions, need for healing, joy and flourishing; instead of “the communal practice of the teachings of that Jesus offered in the Gospels”.

                None of the critical responses offered here have really engaged with Manson’s points. There’s been a good deal of demonization of her simply for having the temerity to be published in the NCR; this justifies her being labelled with “we are church” and “what would Jesus do” (these labels are associated with two radically different Christian movements, but that apparently doesn’t matter) and this labelling enables what she says to be dismissed without any real examination. The irony that this behaviour exemplifies precisely the negative stereotypes which Manson attributes to the church passes unnoticed.

                David comes closest to a serious critique of what she says when he points out that her “wish list” includes communal practice of the gospel teachings, but not “Jesus himself, fully human and fully divine”. This is rather slender evidence, however, on which to mount a critique; the gospels themselves more than once warn against making this distinction too sharply. The embrace of the gospel cannot be disentangled from the embrace of the Word.

                Nothing Manson says here can reasonably be interpreted as a claim that the fully human and fully divine Jesus is dispensable. Her point is that if people see a church which relies on control, domination and authority, and do not see a church which engages in the communal practice of gospel teachings, that church will never be able to lead them anywhere, to anything or to anyone – and least of all to Jesus.

                Is she wrong?

                • Tony

                  Is she wrong?

                  No, or at least, the issues she raises shouldn’t be lightly dismissed with assumptions and labels.

                • I guess that my response was somewhat triggered by the fact that I had just been listening to the two Spirit of Things programs on Progressive Christianity, and the rhetoric that Jamie uses in her piece seemed remarkably similar to that. When the “gospel teachings of Jesus” are played off against an “outdated authoritarian Church” the usual idea behind it is that it is the message of Jesus is more important than the Person of Jesus, and that the role of the Church is to preach his message rather than his Person. Speaking of “presence” seemed to clinch that for me in my mind. It is true, I was probably unfair to read all this into Jamie’s piece.

                  • Peregrinus

                    Fair enough, and spoken like a true gentleman.

                    But I think there’s a useful lesson here. When our instinct is to see an appeal to the gospel as subversive of Christianity, we are probably reacting excessively to whatever it is that has angered us.

                    I have downloaded podcasts of the two Spirit episodes concerned, but haven’t got around to listening to them. Perhaps I won’t, now.

      • Gareth

        A nice soundbite Pergrinus – I would have thought our first challenge as Catholics is to sanctify ourselves.

        It all sounds nice and good that we all have to reach out to young people not engaged with the Church, but if you don’t have any idea of just precisely you are going to do this or if this amounts to anything less that watering down Church tradition/liturgy/morals etc – then your theory is just that – a theory as pointless as the crusty old fools at NCR and the ‘spirit of Vatican II’ (like what is that) Catholics

  4. Louise

    I lost brain cells reading that passage, David!

  5. James

    Ah yes, Jamie L. Manson would have us believe that if an institution isn’t “democratic”, it isn’t legitimate. I’m always amazed at how most modern adherents of “democracy” (a term never defined, of course) seem to worship it above everything else. Which makes me wonder if they’ve ever read, or indeed heard of, the First Commandment.

  6. Peter Golding

    I quite often read the young voices section of the NCR.Almost invariably they sound like the “we are church”/”what would Jesus do?”hippies.
    They appear to be little more than a mutual admiration society with little idea of where the church is headed,which is not in the direction they would like.

    • Tony

      We are church?

      What would Jesus do?

      How could anyone aspire to these?

      Truly shocking, Peter!

      • Peter Golding

        You appear to have little knowledge of the history of the “we are church”movement Tony.

  7. Matthias

    Gareth as Christians-Catholic,protestant or orthodox-we certainly do need to be sanctified and not just churchified,to know the One Who was Crucified .
    AS for the discussion about young people,Collin nunis over at his MIND BODY SOUL website,states that he has found the Melkite young people amongst whom he worships a demand on their part ” to be fed and nourished.” and they are not worried about their ethnic identity.

  8. Lilly

    Peregrinus:

    “None of the critical responses offered here have really engaged with Manson’s points. There’s been a good deal of demonization of her simply for having the temerity to be published in the NCR; this justifies her being labelled with “we are church” and “what would Jesus do” (these labels are associated with two radically different Christian movements, but that apparently doesn’t matter) and this labelling enables what she says to be dismissed without any real examination. The irony that this behaviour exemplifies precisely the negative stereotypes which Manson attributes to the church passes unnoticed.”

    Well said, Peregrinus.

    I watched with interest the comments that David made on his review of Avatar, and came away with the same disappointment.

    I believe your last comment says it all in a nutshell and am amazed that no-one has picked up on this:

    “Nothing Manson says here can reasonably be interpreted as a claim that the fully human and fully divine Jesus is dispensable. Her point is that if people see a church which relies on control, domination and authority, and do not see a church which engages in the communal practice of gospel teachings, that church will never be able to lead them anywhere, to anything or to anyone – and least of all to Jesus.

    Is she wrong?”

    No, she most certainly is not wrong. What is wrong, is an institution that fails to recognise the culture of it’s own time and to engage with it, in order to understand just how the young ones that are seeking to fill that “God hole”, are looking to these forms to answer those bigger questions. I have three teenage children who are not interested in the slightest in church, but are very interested in narratives, paradigms, spirituality and how this is teased out in the kinds of films spoken of here.

    All too often, these kinds of films are viewed with fear because they seem to lack the obvious message of Jesus directly, but how I would love to see these films discussed with the messages that underlie them. Take the fear away from wanting to be in total control and you will get a more willing and listening audience from not only the young ones, but their parents as well. Let them be engage in unravelling the messages, help them to find the gospel messages (or lack of), but most importantly, realise that the gospel messages are something that they need to discover for the first time for themselves, not something that is taught with such utter control, containment and fear. You will only be teaching them to adopt a rigid set of beliefs that has not necessarily come from their own lived experience, and hence, as they travel further, they would be more inclined to drop them as they discover their own truths.

    • Hi, Lilly, and welcome to the commentators table (someone pass the port to Lilly, please?).

      As I said to Perry, my reaction to Jamie’s comments were coloured by the fact that I have been hearing a lot about “Progressive Christianity” lately, the Christless Christianity which wishes to do away with dogma and the Person of Christ in favour of the “wise teachings” of the “historical” Jesus.

      I am interested in what disappointed you about my review of Avatar. I actually enjoy fantasy films a lot, and am certainly not anti Avatar/Twilight (certainly certainly not Lord of the Rings!).

      However, there is also the assumption that the “modern” ideal of democracy is what is appealing about these films. I don’t see that at all. Twilight presents values that are rare in our world today: Edward is an “old-time gentleman” in his relationship to Bella and this nostaligic kind of romance is what attracts so many. Avatar presented a dream world, a “heaven” if you like, totally unlike our modern, beurocratic and cold society. Lord of the Rings has nostalgia for the medieval all over it. There is very little in that film that would tell me people are yearning for “democracy”.

      Thus, precisely what Jamie sees in the Church as “outdated” – its very “medievalness” – is what makes it attractive to many. It is, in part, precisely this “mystique” of the ancient which is one of the Catholic Church’s big selling points (eg. the appeal of Gregorian Chant). I know that Brian Coyne would probably jump on this admission as proof of what he has always said about my own attraction to the Catholic Church (and I hasten to point out that it is NOT the central appeal for me!), but it is a reality. Many other Christian communities have tried to “modernise” their message and structure and appearance, but with no more success in spreading the Gospel. Even the “Progressive Christians” on the Spirit of Things admitted that their movement has little appeal to the young.

      The Catholic Church offers “presence” in spades, a REAL PRESENCE of a Real Christ. That must always remain central to who we are as Church.

      • Peregrinus

        Hi, Lilly, and welcome to the commentators table (someone pass the port to Lilly, please?).

        We’d love to, but we can’t. We can’t see Lilly’s comment yet. Is there a glitch in the software?