Two Roads Divergent

DivergentOne of the most hopeful signs for culture is the quality of young adult fiction on the market. Since I’m now in the book industry, Publisher’s Weekly is required reading. I always take a look over the fiction lists as well as the non, and over the past several months a couple of “teen fiction” books have been near the top for regular bestseller lists as well as for demographic-specific ones. (That is, adults seem to be reading them too.) One of those books is Divergent by Veronica Roth. While movie tie-ins certainly don’t hurt, as many of us opine, it is difficult to do justice to a complex story on screen. Divergent is one of those books that stays with you after you’ve closed the cover, and that suggests to me that something deeply meaningful is going on. What about dystopias is so compelling?

I’m not indulging in any spoilers to say that Divergent is a dystopia. Set at an indeterminate time in the future, civilization still exists—at least in Chicago—as society has fallen into five factions: Dauntless, Erudite, Candor, Amity, and Abnegation. Each group has its own beliefs as to why civilization collapsed, based on philosophical dispositions. Abnegation, the self-deniers, are the leaders of government. And clearly, the idea of Abnegation is a form of quasi-monastic Christianity. In fact, among the factions, Abnegation is the only one that seems to mention God. The other groups, stressing bravery, intellect, honesty, and peacefulness, don’t really have much need for the divine. To deny oneself, however, requires a powerful motivation. Even the protagonist’s name, Beatrice, is taken from its favored status among early Christians. I know little of Veronica Roth, but I have to wonder whether Dante is in the background here.

In the acknowledgements to the novel, Roth first gives thanks to God. As a high school convert to Bible-based Christianity, I suppose that’s only natural for a writer who is, at the moment, only twenty-five. Writers for young adults often have their religion close to the skin. Stephanie Meyer’s Mormonism translates into moral vampires. Orson Scott Card provides Ender Wiggin with values from the same faith tradition. People are, despite the logical implications, inherently religious. That doesn’t prevent Divergent from being a page-turner. Full of action and personal development, the first book of Roth’s trilogy bristles with self-sacrifice and belief in something better to come. Even if it’s a world we have to make ourselves. And like most human enterprises, it comes out as a well-meaning dystopia that underscores the value of reading for us all.

Fanpire Club

FanpireIt has become an odd world indeed when thousands of people look to vampires for family values. Although I’ve not read any of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight books, I have been curious at the reception they have received. A literary agent said, a few years back at an event I attended, that publishers want vampires. There is no end in sight. Perhaps it is my inherent trust of scholars that led me to read Tanya Erzen’s Fanpire: The Twilight Saga and the Women Who Love It. Why would a religious studies scholar write about Twilight? Because Erzen realizes, as many scholars are beginning to that: 1. vampires are very religious monsters, and 2. many more people care about books like Meyer’s than they ever will about scholarly minutiae. I, for one, learned that I’ve missed out on a huge part of pop culture by insisting that my fictional reading must have at least an attempt at depth. Erzen ably points out that there may be truths beneath the surface even here.

When I first became aware of the Twilight books, I was surprised that no one seemed to be making the connection with Dark Shadows. I grew up with the subtle, sensitive vampire who was deeply conflicted. The books that serialized the television series were not profound either, but they evoked an angst that bespeaks a religious need deeply buried. Erzen is able to dig some of this out of Twilight as well. By interviewing fans for whom Twilight has become an ersatz religion, Erzen can show that even squeaky clean Mormon men can’t possibly live up to the vampire standard. The fantasy that has engrossed so many is an image of selfless love. As if Edward Cullen were a less chaste, and more undead Jesus. After all, he gives Bella eternal life and his love never grows cold. The values fit rather well with Latter-Day Saint theology, and provide a model for mortal family values.

More striking is Erzen’s revelation that fandom does not equate to feminism. The women who are empowered to love in unorthodox ways are very much controlled by their men-folk in Meyer’s universe. As Erzen points out repeatedly the ideal lover here is an obsessive stalker with a penchant for abuse (although mostly unintentional). Freedom for women comes at a cost. They may be offered the best in some fields, but even today women do not find equal representations in positions of power in our society. CEOs? Evening news anchors on major networks? Senators? Presidents? Our society is one that talks the talk of equality, but stumbles when it attempts the walk. Vampires cannot exist without victims. Even in the most “advanced” societies in our world, women must struggle in a hierarchy for which the architects, contractors, and supervisors are mostly men. Perhaps women find vampires so fascinating because it matches their experience of a society that takes far more from them than it is ever willing to give back.

National Fear

Back in my full-time teaching days, the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting was an excuse to buy books. Not that we were flush with money, but the prices were so good (we’re talking academic books here) that they simply couldn’t be passed up. Those days are long gone. This year I limited myself to a single book: W. Scott Poole’s Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting. I was not disappointed. Poole gives us a smart study with considerable insight into American culture. Not only that, but it also proved an excellent source of self-understanding. I had never come across the phrase “monster kids” for those of us born in the blue light of the television when the Universal monster movies were released for television viewing in the 1960s and 70s. Poole classifies himself in that camp, and it is clear that we share this “guilty pleasure.”

Categorizing our monsters into types that fit various aspects of the American self-image, we find our national phobias reflected in our fictional fears. Throughout the book the uneasy sense of uncertainty towards sexuality, science, and death, like the revenants described, keep arising from the ground. Although Poole is a historian, it very soon becomes clear that one of the main driving forces behind both identifying and challenging these monsters is religion. It is a view Poole shares with Douglas Cowan and Stephen Asma and other analysts who take seriously the origins of our fears. Monsters creep out of the same mental space as gods. That which is not real is no less scary for its non-existence.

Particularly insightful was Poole’s analysis of the subversive nature of monsters. They challenge convention, forcing a cultural catharsis. The notable exception, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, also has a religious rationale. Meyer, a conservative Mormon, effectively extracts the fangs of the vampire to make it a safe, if not Christian, monster. Monsters make establishment believers uncomfortable, for they remind us of the darkness that always follows the light. Humanity responds with efforts, religious and scientific, to banish the dark. But at the end of even the longest day, night will come. When it does, I would recommend curling up with Poole for an evening of cultural self-understanding. Followed by a bowl of popcorn and a movie from his filmography.

Sinful Moonsters

Wednesday night a student asked me about the moon god Sin. The name “Sin” has nothing etymologically in common with the usual English word for wrongdoing; they are simply homonyms. Nevertheless, when students first encounter this odd juxtaposition they often think that there must be something to it. This particular student pointed out that many activities classified as sinful take place at night, under the moon. Could they be connected? Linguistically, no; but it did get me thinking about the idea of the moon’s baleful influence on various creatures of the night.

Serious academic works seldom take vampires, werewolves and witches, some of the moon’s most infamously unholy acolytes, to be worthy of valuable research time. Meanwhile Stephanie Meyer and company are laughing all the way to the blood bank. Popular culture gives credence to the children of the night that the academic world ignores. I tried to do a little research on the moon and its mythology only to find that most moon books deal either with serious attempts at astronomy or serious attempts at astrology, neither of which I was seeking. I wanted to know when the moon had slipped from being the gentle god/goddess of the night into its role as the overseer of evil.

Evidence was scant, but it seems that in the Middle Ages, maybe influenced by late Roman ideas, scholars began to recognize the moon’s potential as a dismal influence. The moon has long been popular in folklore as a source of lunacy and luck. Lovers crave the moonlight, but so do teenage vampires and raging werewolves. This is, apparently, a concept of no great ancient pedigree. In any case, the moon here has nothing to do with sin.