Sunday, August 29, 2010

Article Review

G. A-D.

Mormon Vampires: The Twilight Saga and Religious Literacy by Edwin B. Arnaudin (2008)

This reading is two excerpts from a Master’s thesis. The Literature Review discusses the origins of the Twilight book series and a background of Stephanie Meyer, focussing on her Mormonism. It explains how it is a tenet of Mormonism that creative productions of Mormons reflect Mormon ideals, and it is for this reason that when Meyer denies propagating Mormonism in her text, she is either being naïve and ignorant, or simply lying. Further research into the links between ‘Twilight’s themes and Mormon beliefs present the saga as almost propagandist, actively encouraging abstinence and vilifying sexual women, denying women agency and supporting female submission to their males in frighteningly unequal and disrespectful heterosexual relationships, for example between ‘Bella’ and ‘Edward’.

Arnaudin draws on personal interviews with Meyer, and discusses her upbringing in a Mormon community, making connections from these experiences with Twilight’s ‘Bella’s, such as getting married as a teenager, a common occurrence in Mormon communities.

The Discussion section is on Religious and Mormon Literacy. It discusses the very few explicit references to religious themes, for example when ‘Edward’ claims he “cannot accept evolution”. Arnaudin merely lists the references however fails to contextualise them. For example, vampires in the world of ‘Twilight’ are meant to be the wisest of creatures due to their age, and it is this supremacy that gives Edward the authority to deny evolution, meaning that Meyer is making a very strong statement for creationism, a Mormon belief. However, Arnaudin does make the very legitimate claim that only through a solid knowledge of religious, Mormon literacy, can the series be interpreted for what it really is.

Arnaudin states that it is important that the books be seen for their true nature – propagations of Mormon doctrine. However this statement is left on its own, and would have been much more poignant if supported with a reason as to why. Throughout his thesis, Arnaudin tiptoes around the social damage that he warns against in his conclusion. Perhaps it is a subject for another thesis; however he does himself a disservice by introducing the potential threat so late in the piece, and then failing to support it with theoretical evidence.

The Mediatization of Religion: A theory of the media as agents of religious change, by Stig Hjarvard (2008)

This journal article is a theoretical framework behind how media work as agents of religious change. Hjarvard uses the term ‘mediatization’ to describe the process by which social change subsumes social or cultural fields into the logic of the media. He states that media as a cultural institution becomes a prominent producer of various religious imaginations, as opposed to mere conveyors of presupposed messages of religious institutions.

His general argument is that media work as agents of religious change, not the other way around. He bases this argument on Meyrowitz’s 1993 model: The 3 metaphors of media, which are “media as conduits”: the manner in which media presents messages between senders and receivers, and how media are distributors of religious representation, “media as languages”: the format of the messages sent, and the way they frame the relationship between the sender, the content, and the receiver. As a consequence, the media adjust and mould religious representations to various mediums and genres, and “media as environments”: how media institutions facilitate and structure human interaction and communication.

Hjarvard uses a quantitative survey conducted in Denmark to assess the manner in which people engage with the media in religious contexts, and found that there is a growing majority of people for whom media consumption is their primary engagement with religion or spirituality. There is a marked decrease in participating in institutionalised activities such as attending church.

Hjarvard also explores what he calls ‘banal religion’. It is essentially the symbols and elements of religion that we are exposed to regularly yet have a degree of detachment from their original contexts, for example, the Christian cross is as much a fashion statement as a faith statement in Western couture. This means that we are in a way subliminally exposed to religion constantly which means that when we are overtly exposed to it we may be more accepting of it as our ‘defences are down’ so to speak.

The entire article is very western-centric, something which Hjarvard fails to identify himself as a limitation. It fails to define what particular religious or spiritual material it refers to under the broad term of ‘religion’, leaving one to assume, due to generally western focus that it means the Abrahamic religions. He also, in discussing the survey results, failed to explain what ‘spiritual issues’ the questions referred to. This ambiguity detracts from the validity of the conclusions drawn on peoples’ religious engagement with the media.

Celluloid Savior: Jesus in the Movies, by Jeffrey H. Mahan (2002)

This article discusses the portrayals of Jesus in four films: “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988), “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” (1966), “The Ten Commandments” (1956) and “King of Kings” (1961), with brief references to other films that also depict Jesus. He compares their different approaches to Jesus, primarily how they explore his ‘humanity’, and the effect of this on the success of the film.

Mahan focuses on “The Last Temptation” as it was the most controversial for Christians of the four films, and says this is because it presented an alternate reality in which Jesus was not the son of God. It was in a kind of dream sequence in which Jesus was given a choice between a ‘normal’ life and living out his divine purpose. He ultimately chooses the latter, which one would have thought an empowering message for Christians, but Mahan fails to explain why this is not the case.

Mahan discusses the problematic nature of interpreting such a well known yet divisive character. He states that merely having a significant subject does not beget a compelling film. To add difficulty, the film also has to be accessible by those with no personal investment in the subject, yet still appeal to those who do; essentially the film must appeal to both believers and non-believers. This is especially difficult to do, he says, with a Protestant audience, who are usually among the most virulent protestors of movies depicting images as it goes against the Biblical teaching regarding graven images.

Mahan points out other difficulties in portraying Jesus, such as the need for ‘harmonising the gospels’, that is, condensing the different books that mention Jesus into one narrative, as well as translating the stories into a narrative that would be enjoyed by modern audiences, who are apparently much more interested in the motivations behind characters than the audience the gospels were originally written for. The claims made by Mahan are superficial and he provides little to no evidence for his assertions of the qualities of a ‘modern audience’, and makes no allowance for cultural difference among them.


The Twilight and the Jesus articles both explore the difficulty and divisive nature when presenting religious stories. It is a volatile topic to address through film or text, and is invariably going to insult somebody. However, it also is the recipe for a wildly successful franchise when done in a manner that is “banal” enough to appeal to the masses while offending the least amount of people; a point embodied by the runaway success of the Twilight franchise, especially with the release of the feature films (which occurred after the writing of the article).

This success is also explored in the Mediatization article, when in the results of the survey it discusses the most popular religious or spirituality themed films, such as Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, both of which are increasingly lucrative book to film franchises. It is making religion accessible, while not proselytising to or strongarming audiences that is supporting a consistent and profitable interest in religion in the media.

Arnaudin EB. 2008. Mormon Vampires: The Twilight Saga and Religious Literacy. A Master's Paper for the MSc in Library Science, School of Information and Library Science of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, April, 2008. (accessed 23rd August, 2010).
Hjarvard S. 2008. The Mediatization of Religion: A Theory of the Media as Agents of Religious Change. Northern Lights. 6,1, 9-16. group_id=_2_1&url=%2Fwebapps%2Fblackboard%2Fexecute%2Flauncher%3Ftype%3DCourse%26id%3D_110412_1%26url%3D (accessed 23rd August, 2010).
Mahan J. 2002. Celluloid Savior: Jesus in the Movies. Journal of Religion and Film, 6, 1, (accessed 23rd August, 2010).

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