With "New Moon" having recently broken box office records in its opening weekend, I feel compelled to make a confession: I have read two of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight books. Well, one-and-a-half, actually, since I skipped over large sections of the second one (or maybe it was the third I'm not sure whether I started with the first installment).
Perhaps I would be more prudent to avoid the topic altogether, rather than risking my credibility as social observer and cultural commentator. In my own defense, with two teenage daughters in the house, I seemed to be tripping over copies wherever I went and finally gave in to the temptation to see for myself whether the world had found its next Harry Potter phenomenon.
It hasn't, as most females over seventeen and virtually all males have already concluded.
In all fairness, the series does have its redeeming qualities. Insofar as it challenges stereotypes and presents the elemental human conflict between physical desire and moral conviction, it can claim sufficient thematic value to console parents that their daughters could be reading something worse.
Whatever its merits, however, the pop-romantic airiness of Twilight compares with the epic drama of Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles only a little more substantially than "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" compares with the satanic majesty of Milton's Paradise Lost. Alongside the passion, intensity, and psychological torment that characterize the Vampire Lestat and the constellations of living dead that occupy his universe, the foibles of Twilight's characters seem vapid and two-dimensional. Ms. Rice's textured prose makes vampire fans work harder to sate their bloodlust, but leaves them more satisfied at the end of their grim repast.
Perhaps this willingness to explore the depths of vampiric ethos offers some insight into Ms. Rice's own transformation from peddler of macabre fantasy and religious skeptic to a devout Catholic. Although there are many roads that lead to personal revelation, none directs the seeker of truth toward recognizing his own humble place within the vastness of Creation more surely than the path of spiritual introspection. By peeling away the layers of superficiality that conceal the divine nature of the universe, one inevitably discovers the dazzling light of spiritual reality.
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And now Ms. Rice has taken yet another unexpected turn. After suspending her vampire sagas to write two books on Christian themes, the author is publishing Angel Time: The Songs of the Seraphim, a novel about an assassin recruited by the Almighty Himself to defend a Jewish family in the Middle Ages.
Whether consciously or not, the story that emerges from the plight of Jews in times long past has afforded Ms. Rice the opportunity to bring many of Judaism's most compelling philosophical principles to light.
Angle Time's hero, Toby O'Dare, is a repentant hired killer in search of personal and spiritual redemption. "Toby thinks of himself as utterly damned," explains Ms. Rice in an interview with Sue Nowicki of McClatchy Newspapers. But hope rises from the ashes when a divine emissary presents Toby with the unexpected alternative of using his unique talents to protect rather than harm, to serve the true Master of the Universe rather than selling his soul to the highest bidder.
Among the most famous insights from the classic commentary of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchoki is the articulation of the Torah's mandate to serve the Almighty "with two hearts the inclination for good and the inclination for evil." Rather than suppress our unholy desires, the Torah requires us to search for ways to channel them for good. Consequently, an individual whose nature predisposes him toward violence might find his vocation as a surgeon, a butcher, or a soldier. In the novel, Toby becomes a soldier of G-d as an expression of his repentance.
The concept of repentance is itself a complicated one. "Toby [has] to accept that G-d can forgive any sin," explains Ms. Rice, "and I think most people have trouble accepting or believing this, too, especially people fighting very bad habits of what they consider to be sin. It can be hard to believe one is worthy of G-d's forgiveness." Indeed, the Jewish concept of repentance is expressed through the term teshuva, literally "return." In order to restore our relationship with the Almighty, we have to believe that He has the power to erase the past and reshape the future. Without that trust, true repentance is impossible.
Overcome by remorse for his misdeeds, Toby's grief opens his heart to the prospect of redemption. "I am heartily sorry," he proclaims to G-d. "For all my sins because of the fear of hell, but most of all, most of all, most of all because I have separated myself from You."
No words could more perfectly describe the Jewish ideal of repentance. Teshuva miYireh repentance from fear derives from anxiety over the direct consequences of our actions, that we may suffer punishment or forfeit reward. In contrast, teshuva meiAhavah repentance from love springs forth from the bitter realization that we have damaged our relationship with our Creator and caused Him anguish like a child who has rebelled against a parent. We give no thought to the punishment that may await us; just the opposite, we eagerly embrace whatever stripes we may deserve in order to clean the slate and again become close to G-d.
Ms. Rice even dabbles with the metaphysics of kabbalah by suggesting that the perception of divine beings encompasses every generation and all eternity in a single glance. "[I]n heaven, there is no time such as we experience on Earth," she says. "If G-d can see all things, His view of linear time must be almost inconceivable to us." Indeed, Talmudic mysticism teaches precisely that.
Of her transition from atheism to devotion, Ms. Rice makes no apologies. "I was never a real atheist and finally had to admit it," she says. "I had to surrender to the belief in G-d and the love for Him I had always felt."
For the vampiric faithful who worship at the altar of religious skepticism, such comments must surely make their blood run cold.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Yonason Goldson teaches at Block Yeshiva High School in St. Louis, MO, where he also writes and lectures. Visit him at http://torahideals.wordpress.com .
© 2010, Rabbi Yonason Goldson