I spent Saturday in London and there were posters everywhere with the legend ‘Vampire Weekend’ – of course this turned out to be a pre-release buildup for an album by the indie band bearing that name. I did not much like the poster – too greyed-out and etherial for my taste – but its omni-presence provided a welcome punctuation to the conversation a friend and I were having about vampires.
I live with teen-aged girls, so obviously vampire talk is a staple at the dinner table in our house. But my friend started asking questions that I couldn’t quite answer, and this set my thoughts going in a new direction.
I had made an airy comparison of the modern vampire novels that my daughters love to the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, the strange and mysterious early Christian novels that are among my favourite narratives from ancient literature. The Apocryphal Acts are full of teen-aged girls, and these heroines tend to fall under the spell of a spooky young man who suddenly appears in the village – so far, so Edward and Bella. Of course, in the early Christian stories the spooky young man turns out to be an apostle. But I think it can fairly be argued that these stories are the vampire novels of their day. They explore the same themes of puberty and awakening, the discovery of a parallel reality that makes sense of the awkward feeling of not-quite-fitting-in.
My friend was entirely happy with the apostles-and-vampires idea, but then she asked a question that stopped me in my tracks. What about angels? My friend works as a bookseller in Covent Garden, and she keeps an eye on what people are reading, and what they are looking for in a book. She said she doesn’t see very many people coming in looking for books about apostles – unless you count people who want to buy a Bible – but people come in asking about angels all the time. Of course, the Gospel of Luke tells a story about Mary of Nazareth and an angel that is very Edward-and-Bella, at least up to a point.
So here is the question: what do angels have in common with vampires? And more importantly, do they have anything in common with vampires that apostles don’t share? Or is it just that the people who like books about vampires and angels have somehow domesticated the apostles in their imagination, and made them boring, by turning them from wild-eyed wonder-workers into tweedy bishops-in-waiting? To someone who craves angels and vampires, the apostles seem dull and uninteresting.
I suspect that the problem is a curious tame quality that comes from having cathedrals and schools and streets named after you. It is partly over-familiarity, though it isn’t only that. It is also about being part of the story-line that living institutions use to project their own authority and predictability. The powers that be want you to think that an apostle is a labrador or a golden retriever – solid and steady. But look closely, and you may discover that what you are looking at is actually a werewolf.