I mean, there’s already been a lot of chatter about this year’s theatrical release of 50 Shades of Grey. And by “chatter” I mean my social media newsfeeds have been clogged with various reactions to the film. My conservative friends voice concern that the film promotes pornography. My self-described feminist friends voice concerns that the film’s BDSM elements propagate a “rape culture.” Ironically, while Christians typically toss around the term “grace” and feminists demonize the use of “shaming language,” both groups have shrilly united around a singular message: the film is pornographic, and pornography is bad, therefore women who go see it are in some way contributing to humanity’s further demise. I don’t know about all that, but it seems in today’s digitized age of tribal politicking and moral grandstanding, it’s become all too easy to talk past each other, or to only spout off enough of your opinion to ensure your Twitter followers feel the same way you do. So while I’ve written on this subject before—back when E.L. James series of 50 Shades novels garnered attention—I felt that rather than offer yet another analysis of this subject, it would be more helpful to stop, take some time, and write to anyone who might see all the salivating controversy and be thinking: “What’s the big deal?” I suppose I should mention that I write this as a guy—nay, a single, white, male, Christian pastor. I realize it’s fashionable to question everyone’s agenda, so if this is the sort of resume that bothers you I understand and you’re free to resume looking at cats on the internet. But if you want to have some honest discussion, than maybe—at minimum—this can be a starting point.
Some years ago Kurt Vonnegut wrote a book called Breakfast of Champions. The novel centered on Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer whose short stories seemed cursed to only appear in pornographic magazines. In one such story, Trout told the story of Don, an earthling who “who arrived on a planet where all the animal and plant life had been killed by pollution, except for humanoids. The humanoids ate food made from petroleum and coal. They gave a feast for the astronaut, whose name was Don. The food was terrible.” When Don tells them that yes, earth has “dirty movies,” the humanoids escort him to a local pornographic theater so he can see for himself just how dirty things can get:
“[The movie] was about a male and a female and their two children, and their dog and their cat. They ate steadily for an hour and a half—soup, meat, biscuits, butter, vegetables, mashed potatoes and gravy, fruit, candy, cake, pie…. After a while, the actors couldn’t eat any more….They cleared the table slowly. They went waddling out into the kitchen, and they dumped about thirty pounds of leftovers into a garbage can. The audience went wild. When Don and his friends left the theater, they were accosted by [prostitutes], who offered them eggs and oranges and milk and butter and peanuts and so on. The [prostitutes] couldn’t actually deliver these goodies, of course. The humanoids told Don that if he went home with a [prostitute], she would cook him a meal of petroleum and coal products at fancy prices. And then, while he ate them, she would talk dirty about how fresh and full of natural juices the food was, even though the food was fake.”
I’m unclear if there’s any literary connection, but Vonnegut echoes something written by C.S. Lewis (the author of the beloved Narnia series) some years prior. Lewis wondered, if you found a culture where—instead of strip shows—people crowded into theaters to see “a mutton chop or a bit of bacon,” then would we not conclude that “in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?” In both authors’ views, a planet—a culture—starved for the “real thing” would fetishize their appetites to the point of obscurity.
In our increasingly-individualized world, we are starved for intimacy, for connection. In his celevbrated novel Generation X, Douglas Coupland speculated that “sex was just an excuse to look deeply into another human being’s eyes.”
So there’s almost a sense in which I wonder if 50 Shades of Grey was not in some way inevitable. The problem, of course, is that when we use sex as a means of personal fulfillment, it is never our satisfaction that increases—only our demand. In Superfreakonomics, Levitt and Dubner observe that prostitutes once charged more for acts regarded as “taboo.” Yet acts that once were most expensive are now among the least expensive. What once was shocking has increasingly become the expected norm. We’re like the dwarves from J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels. They delved deeply, looking for treasure. The problem is that they “dug too greedily and too deep.” They awoke a “Balrog,” a foul, unearthly creature impervious to traditional assault. Now what passes for romance is the story of Anastasia and Christian Grey. According to ABC news, Ana “willingly and excitedly agrees to spanking, whipping and gagging, with props like ice, rope, tape” while “Grey instructs her to call him “sir,” and sets rules on everything from her diet to her most intimate grooming routines.”
“But,” you might be thinking, “what’s the harm in a little ‘guilty pleasure’ now and again?” You might be tempted to think that Christians are bent on smothering desire beneath the crushing weight of moral duty. But this misunderstands the issue entirely. The whole reason I chose to write is because if we focus only on issues of pornography or abuse, then we’ve only addressed the concerns of the surface. I believe the gospel speaks more deeply than that. I believe that what’s at stake here, is desire.
Humans were made for worship, you understand. That is, humans were made to both cultivate and express their desires. In his 2005 address to Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace argued that “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship…is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”
Think about it. Do we not frequently conflate sex with some sort of religious ecstasy? In the 1980’s The Cure sang of a woman’s love as being “Just Like Heaven.” More recently Trent Reznor unleashed his sexual frustrations in a song called “Closer to God.” Catholic writer Peter Kreeft writes that “…spiritual intercourse with God is the ecstasy hinted at in all earthly intercourse, physical or spiritual. It is the ultimate reason why sexual passion is so strong, so different from other passions, so heavy with suggestions of profound meanings that just elude our grasp.”
In the fourth century, a man named Augustine described human desire through the phrase ordo amoris—literally “the logic of the heart.” He conceived of the human heart as something like a pyramid. You will never flourish, Augustine would say, until God is at the top. All other loves are meant to occupy the other spaces bellow. So sin, he says, is misdirected worship. It’s like Tom More from Walker Percy’s novel Love in the Ruins, who says that “I believe in God and the whole business…but I love women best, music and science next, whiskey next, God fourth, and my fellowman hardly at all.” And of course his life becomes an unmitigated disaster. Reorder the food pyramid and it’s bad for your body. Rearrange the pyramid of your heart and it’s bad for your soul.
So please understand: your desires are not shameful or bad—but I think we need to address the ordo amoris. Could it be that 50 Shades speaks to a heart that’s “out of order?” I know you might be skeptical of Christianity, but is it possible that the gospel might have something meaningful to say to every level of human desire?
DESIRE FOR PLEASURE
First, let’s admit that Christianity hasn’t always had the best approach to human sexuality. Perhaps reeling from his life as a sex addict, the fourth century Saint Augustine believed that sex should be exclusively reserved for reproduction—not pleasure.
But Augustine got it wrong. The Bible itself contains some pretty lurid descriptions of human sexuality—most notably a collection of poems we call the “Song of Solomon.” Hebrew scholars note that “the Hebrew is quite erotic…There is no shy, shamed, mechanical movement under the sheets. Rather, the two stand before each other, aroused, feeling no shame, but only joy in each other’s sexuality.”
Sexual desire isn’t bad or shameful or dirty—it’s just that sexuality is only truly satisfying when enjoyed in the way God designed. In Jeremiah, God laments that his people “have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water (Jeremiah 2:13).” You understand the imagery here, right? It’s like going from the Perrier bottling plant to the sewage treatment facility.
What we’re talking about is “lust.” Now hold on; I know that when we use the word negatively we sound like we’re evoking a puritanical age of sexual repression. But even Simon Blackburn of Cambridge University argued that lust is “the enthusiastic desire, the desire that infuses the body, for sexual activity and its pleasures for its own sake.” Though Blackburn suggested there might be times when such feelings are only natural, he largely argued that the “for its own sake” part does not serve us well-individually or socially.
Think of it this way: if “sexual sin” was merely a social construct, then why would it be so universal? Contemporary psychologist Richard Shweder says that there are three different types of ethics. If I accidently curse during a wedding toast, I feel embarrassed for having violated the “ethics of community.” If I fail to receive the promotion I sought, I may feel frustrated or angry for having failed to meet my personal standards of “the ethics of autonomy.” But if I violate some deeper law, I feel ashamed and ever dirty for having violated “the ethics of divinity.” Similarly, Mary Stuart Douglas has argued that nearly all cultures describe ethics in terms of “clean and unclean.” So shame and guilt can’t possibly be dismissed as “residual catholic guilt”—they’re far too universal. Even if you don’t agree with everything Christianity has to say, you must agree that danger is found in lust.
Pornography often forms the seedbed of lust. I realize that the line between pornography and entertainment has become blurry—if not vanished altogether. Once upon a time the Supreme Court decided that one of the criteria for pornography is the violation of a “community standard.” But in today’s atomized world there is no one Community, but a vast network of individuals. What offends one may stimulate another—or vice versa.
So even if we can’t quite land on where the “porn” boundary lies, we can at least admit that some things exist only to cultivate lust. I mean maybe—maybe—you enjoy 50 Shades for its storyline or writing style—but you’ll forgive me if that sounds suspiciously like the guys who read Playboy “for the articles.”
Results have been devastating. In her book Pornified, LA Times columnist Pamela Paul interviews women who have been expected to use pornography (or the acts depicted therein) to strengthen their relationships with their romantic partners. One such woman reports: “My [sexuality] has definitely been influenced by similar pornographic forces that men experience…At the same time, it’s icky…I don’t just want to become [another body]….I felt cheapened…I felt so empty after the experience.” Still more recent surveys have shown a correlation between 50 Shades readers and abusive relationships. We can’t possibly dismiss this as merely “art.” It has a profound impact on our social fabric.
Jesus knew something about this. He encountered this attitude in a woman he met by a well in a village called Sychar. The woman had been through multiple (failed) marriages, and currently sought security in the arms of a man who was not her husband. Jesus promised her that “whoever drinks of the water I give him will never be thirsty again” (John 4:14). It’s as if Jesus is saying: I want more for you. I want more for you than just another attempt at marriage. I want more for you than another fleeting sexual experience. I want more for you than another haphazard search for intimacy. And I believe he says—to you and to me—I want more for you than the pornography you’ve been using to satisfy your deepest thirst.
Your desire for pleasure is real. And it’s good. But it will not serve you to satisfy your thirst in a “broken cistern.” C.S. Lewis famously wrote that human hunger only makes sense if food exists to satisfy it. Romantic love only makes sense if marriage exists to satisfy it. So, he concluded, “if I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
DESIRE FOR LIBERATION
Wait, you may be thinking. That’s fine if some people wish to find satisfaction in religion. But people pursue sex because it is satisfying. It’s only that Christians want to turn back the clock to 1950’s Leave-it-to-Beaver-style morality, where women belong in the kitchen lest they succumb to their urges.
For some, I’d imagine the world of Christian and Ana represent a world of escapism—which in turn testifies to a world where women are free to explore their sexuality in any way they choose. Sexual independence, we’re convinced, is the surest solution to centuries of sexual shame. The problem is that this simply hasn’t been the case. Sexual liberation has not increased a woman’s sense of honor. For instance, some years ago we became culturally enamored with Carrie Bradshaw, the fictional star of the HBO series (later a movie) “Sex and the City.” But Shelton Hull considered the implications of Bradshaw’s lifestyle in an article entitled “Modern Woman as Love Machine: The Post-Feminist Landscape, as Projected by ‘Sex and the City:’”
“[Bradshaw and friends] drink to excess and exist to be laid by guys who, this being Manhattan, have no incentive whatsoever to love them. Not that love really matters in the real world anymore; it’s all about money and power and control. Love, as a modus operandi, is a pursuit best left to those for whom it is their only salvation from a life at the bottom of productive society… Any points to be made about the nature of sexual relations in modern America have been obscured by free-love frivolity, although apparently unprotected sex is okay as long as one does so only with wealthy white males one has met at a trendy nightspot.”
Hold on, Mr. Hull. Isn’t this a double standard? Aren’t men applauded for sexual conquest while women are dismissed as “improper” (or given some far more degrading name)? The answer, sadly, is ‘yes,’ a double standard assuredly exists. But sexual conquest is always dehumanizing, whether male or female.
See, my feminist friends object to a patriarchal society whose sexual and modesty standards contribute to a “rape culture.” What we should be promoting instead is a “consent culture.” And here is where I part ways, in what I’ve often called the myth of a consent culture. Mind you, we should never tolerate anything less than explicit sexual consent—that truly is rape. But we should not settle for only consent. A consent culture moves sex away from “what is mutually beneficial” to “what is permissible.” A consent culture reduces women to the mere gatekeepers for the male libido. Women are worth more than that.
The song being sung in virtually every home in America is Disney’s “Let it Go” from Frozen. Every little girl and soccer mom knows the words: “It’s time to see what I can do, to test the limits and break through, no right no wrong, no rules for me—I’m free!” The irony, of course, is that the song’s message is the opposite of the film. It was precisely when Elsa chose to “let it go” that things fell apart. Self-reliance and self-discovery only became a self-imposed prison. Like all fairy tales, the carnage was reversed only through self-sacrifice.
Christianity says that both men and women were created in the “image of God.” Human beings—including women—are intrinsically valuable, and this value and beauty is revealed when we operate within God’s moral and creative character. I have no real objection to feminism, but I struggle to see how communitarian values might flourish in a society that disproportionately values the individual. I struggle see how feminism might flourish in a world where we’ve divorced anthropology from teleology—that is, woman’s identity from her purpose—and conflated beauty and sexuality. This is our collective fault, mind you, but as a pastor I believe it doesn’t start by learning to empower women but striving to ennoble them.
This brings me to 50 Shades, which leaves the categories of nobility and honor wanting. International novelist Anais Nin once wrote that she longed for “a man who compels my strength, who makes enormous demands on me, who does not doubt my courage or my toughness, who does not believe me naive or innocent, who has the courage to treat me like a woman.” We will not find such a man in Christian Grey.
DESIRE FOR INTIMACY
Still, why would women enjoy a fantasy world that centers on abuse? This is perhaps the most confusing question of all.
In an undergraduate psychology course, I had a professor who said that humans have a hierarchy of attention:
- Positive attention
- Negative attention
- No attention
For instance, children often “act out” to get attention—because negative attention is often better than no attention at all.
Where have all the “good men” gone? According to a CNN article, their mommas’ basements. Instead of marrying, men of marriageable age are extending adolescence. Video games and pornography replace career and intimacy, respectively. What incentive remains to “grow up?”
Enter Christian Grey. In a world where women often feel forced to “pick up the slack” of their male counterparts, where men fail to lead in the workplace or their marriage, the confidence of Christian Grey must surely be alluring. Sure, women are conflicted by the exact nature of his desires—but again, this negative attention must seem preferable to no attention at all.
DESIRE FOR HEALING
Finally, there are women who enjoy 50 Shades because they themselves have been victims of abuse. Cultural experts tell us that stories have the ability to help us process the world around us—as well as our reactions to it. Lev Grossman, book critic for Time Magazine tells us that “when you read [fiction], you leave behind the problems of reality—but only to re-encounter those problems in transfigured form…You don’t read it to escape your problems, you read it to find a new way to come to terms with them.”
Women tragically endure horrific extremes of abuse and sexual assault—some as early as childhood. When you experience any sort of betrayal—and sexual assault seems like the highest form of personal violation—you’re left with a huge amount of what Tim Keller calls “emotional debt.” Why? Because women are often forced to live with a lack of injustice. When your attacker goes free; it hurts. When others doubt your story; it hurts. When you are forced to keep the abuse a secret; it hurts. Where does this pain go? For some women, abusive fantasies—including rape fantasies—can be a means of processing this huge amount of emotional debt. In other words, if abuse hurts when it’s beyond my control, perhaps I can be free of the pain if I can experience it within my control—e.g., in a BDSM setting.
When Jesus went to the cross, he paid both the debt of my sin as well as its consequences. He took my emotional debt on himself—all of the separation, all of the estrangement that I would ever feel was laid on his shoulders. The cross sets me free from bitterness and anger. The cross infuses me with the ability to forgive others—because they debt has been paid for.
CONCLUSION: ANASTASIA AND EUCATASTROPHE
In 2014, Reuters reported that nearly two-thirds of Americans had never seen any of the films nominated for Academy Awards. They eschewed the dark, brooding dramas in favor of lighthearted tales of heroism and Disney’s latest fare. Why? Because, as fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien tells us, fairy tales represent more than youthful escapism. In a famous essay entitled “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien coined the term eucatastrophe—literally “good catastrophe”—what he calls “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears.”
Anastasia—the lead character of the 50 Shades film—ironically comes from the Greek word meaning “resurrection.” And resurrection is the greatest eucatastrophe of all. While most other religious systems base their confidence in religious experience or vision, Christianity anchors itself in the objective, literal reality of Christ’s resurrection.
What does that mean for us? It means that if the gospel is true, we can find hope to be lifted out of a world where Christian and Ana pass for romance. It also means that if I trust in Jesus, then the shame of my sexual indiscretion can be washed away permanently. We live in a “dirty” world—dirty movies, dirty books, dirty talking, etc. Even as a pastor I’m painfully aware that my hands have not always been clean on this matter. But I can stand confidently knowing that my guilt has been eradicated through Jesus.
To you, women, I leave you with that simple hope and that joyful truth. There is something better than 50 Shades, and it’s found in the singular stain of red that ran down our Savior’s face.
If you are looking for something tangible, one group is asking that you take your movie ticket money and donate it to victims of abuse. For more, see: https://www.facebook.com/50dollarsnotfiftyshades.