In addition to climbing to the top of the bestseller lists, E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey (the first in a trilogy) is attracting attention from those alarmed not only by the book’s sexual content, but by the fact that the book’s audience is predominantly composed of young adult women.
In fairness, I have not read the book. I was most thoroughly exposed to its themes in a recent article by Jenny Rae Armstrong. She quotes from ABC News, who summarizes the book in this way:
Anastasia Steele, 21, and a virginal college student, can’t say no to dashing 27-year-old Christian Grey, who insists she sign a contract that allows him to submit her to his every sadomasochistic whim. In their first sexual encounter, Grey unveils his silver tie and binds her wrists in knots, and Steele does as she is told. He is also fabulously rich, a telecommunications tycoon, and uses his wealth to take care of her like a pampered princess. “Ana,” as he calls her, willingly and excitedly agrees to spanking, whipping and gagging, with props like ice, rope, tape–a repertoire right out of a BDSM (bondage, discipline, dominance and submission) manual. Grey instructs her to call him “sir,” and sets rules on everything from her diet to her most intimate grooming routines.
Armstrong’s excellent article aimed to address the central question: “Why do women fantasize about abuse?” She concluded that the complexity of female sexuality does not yield one reason, but the appeal arises from a woman’s emotional, psychological, and even physiological makeup.
With so much to appreciate in Armstrong’s thorough evaluation, I can add nothing here. And while I suspect the book’s content has prompted many to adopt a posture of avoidance, as a pastor I believe that the cultural impact prevents such works from merely being ignored or condemned. For if history be our test tube, this series of novels (and their inevitable film adaptations) will continue to captivate the hearts and imagination of young women, just as other series have done in the recent past. Commenting on the film adaptation of The Hunger Games, youth expert Walt Mueller observes that young adults “will watch it, chew on it, process it, and digest it with or without us. The latter option offers us a great opportunity to talk about the bigger story—God’s story—and the things that really matter.”
I suspect that many struggle to see how to connect God’s story to BDSM erotica, and I’m personally grieved that such a response is even necessary. Nevertheless, I believe that the gospel has meaningful things to say to every situation, even the places that seem the darkest – and perhaps there especially so.
And so I write for pastors, parents, youth workers, and anyone else struggling to find ways to connect to the young women who have invested their hearts in these novels. My aim is to provide a gospel-centered response to the themes raised by 50 Shades of Grey, and hopefully equip readers with the means to connect the gospel to James’ growing readership.
JUDGES 19: WHEN PEOPLE BECOME PROPERTY
Sadly, sexual brokenness is nothing new, as even the pages of scripture reveal. We find a particularly horrific scene in Judges 19. The details are sparse, yet graphic. We are presented with two principle characters: a Levite and his concubine. No names are given, perhaps in part to underline the dehumanizing character of the story that follows. In a later verse, the man is described as her ‘adon, her “master” (19:27). Maybe this isn’t exactly parallel to the “master” language of the BDSM world, but in both cases the term is rooted in the same dehumanizing impulse. She’s not a person; she’s property.
When the concubine leaves him, he’s in no hurry to retrieve her. Four months go by before we find the couple sitting in her father’s home. Though initially receptive of her family’s hospitality, the man foolishly decides to set out for home, seeming to ignore the fact that he has more miles ahead of him than available daylight. But when darkness descends upon them, the man refuses to stay in a community of Canaanites, pressing onward to the security of an Israelite community. But it is there, while a guest in someone’s home, that they experience the opposite end of the hospitality spectrum. The pounding on the door will not stop until the gang of men can find a body to slake their desire, their eyes set on the male houseguest they had just seen enter town. In a perverse act of self-defense, the man shoves his concubine into the street, where she is gang-raped until morning.
The story’s saddest detail is revealed the next morning, when the morning’s soft rays of light fall on the woman’s frail fingers, her hand extended toward the doorway, reaching for help that never came, longing for the security her husband never gave.
“Get up,” he says. But she is unresponsive. He slings her on the back of her donkey to finish the journey home – he has one final use for her body. He slices her into pieces, distributing them around the nation of Israel as a symbol of the unprecedented barbarism. If you read the final chapters in Judges, you see that this incident quickly escalates to the tribal, and then the national level.
“…BECAUSE OF THE SPLENDOR I BESTOWED…”
Is this merely an isolated incident? A by-product of an androcentric, patriarchal society? Such modern objections seem to overlook the original author’s intent. The nameless characters serve not only to underscore the dehumanizing nature of the sexual depravity, but also to serve as a warning for all of Israel: left to his own devices, every man in Israel is capable of this level of cruelty. The story is set not in a pagan community, but in the perceived safety of an Israelite town. In a story hauntingly similar to that of Sodom, Israel is forced to admit that they could no longer presume that the dangers were isolated to the world “out there” – in Canaan. They were realities that lurk within each and every human heart.
And so it is with 50 Shades of Grey and our own sexual brokenness. To paraphrase Solzhenitsyn, the line between sexual purity and brokenness cannot be drawn between the covers of a book or the covers on our beds, but through our very hearts.
If we read Israel’s story, we know that this was the case for the nation as a whole, whose disobedience was often described in terms of sexual promiscuity. When Israel turns from God to ally herself with Babylonian culture, it is described in language that might even make Anastasia Steele blush: “she lustfully exposed her nakedness…she increased her prostitution…she lusted after their genitals – as large as those of donkeys, and their seminal emission was as strong as that of stallions” (Ezekiel 23:18-20).
But despite Israel’s disobedience, God has consistently responded to His people with matchless devotion. Ezekiel also describes God’s devotion to His people as a bride adorned with jewelry:
“‘Then I passed by you and watched you, noticing that you had reached the age for love. I spread my cloak over you and covered your nakedness. I swore a solemn oath to you and entered into a marriage covenant with you, declares the sovereign LORD, and you became mine. 9 “‘Then I bathed you in water, washed the blood off you, and anointed you with fragrant oil. 10 I dressed you in embroidered clothing and put fine leather sandals on your feet. I wrapped you with fine linen and covered you with silk. 11 I adorned you with jewelry. I put bracelets on your hands and a necklace around your neck. 12 I put a ring in your nose, earrings on your ears, and a beautiful crown on your head. 13 You were adorned with gold and silver, while your clothing was of fine linen, silk, and embroidery. You ate the finest flour, honey, and olive oil. You became extremely beautiful and attained the position of royalty. 14 Your fame spread among the nations because of your beauty; your beauty was perfect because of the splendor which I bestowed on you, declares the sovereign LORD. (Ezekiel 16:8-14)
Israel would be beautiful not of her own merits, but “because of the splendor that [God] bestowed” upon her. Years later, the apostle Paul would write that the Church is the “bride of Christ,” for whom Christ gave Himself through the cross.
The Levite sacrificed his bride to save himself. Christ sacrificed himself to save His Bride.
FORMED THROUGH DEFORMITY
Though not rooted in romantic love, Christ’s sacrificial love for a wayward people forms the basis for romantic relationships, most fully expressed in the sacred and beautiful promise of marriage:
25 Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her 26 to sanctify her by cleansing her with the washing of the water by the word, 27 so that he may present the church to himself as glorious– not having a stain or wrinkle, or any such blemish, but holy and blameless. (Ephesians 5:25-27)
To call the love expressed in 50 Shades of Grey a cheap counterfeit seems almost too generous. The degradation that undergirds BDSM culture is the complete opposite of the beauty and wonder of God-given sexuality. Ironically, the lead character of 50 Shades is named Anastasia, a name meaning “resurrection.” But such a title hardly seems to fit the dehumanizing treatment that so vexingly allures her. Humanity is made of equal complements – male and female – to debase ourselves in acts domination and submission moves us further from our God-given humanity. The gospel is about becoming more human; BDSM is about becoming less.
Armstrong’s article suggests that women are allured by abuse fantasy for a multiplicity of reasons, but I believe that the gospel speaks in a meaningful way to each of those reasons (and here you’ll notice I borrow Armstrong’s language). To the woman struggling with the past trauma, Christ offers wholeness and healing. To the woman struggling to “rescue the beast,” Christ offers safety and security. To the woman struggling with “pleasant–if guilt-ridden–feelings of sexual arousal,” Christ offers complete transformation. And to the woman struggling to understand her own complexity, Christ offers to walk beside you and show you the depth and beauty of His love.
“The deformity of Christ forms you,” wrote St. Augustine. “In this life, therefore, let us hold fast to the deformed Christ.” Holding fast to the deformed Christ means finding something in Him that cannot be found through mere literary escapism.
The gospel reminds us that while the Levite sacrificed his bride to save Himself, Jesus sacrificed Himself to save His bride. The Levite tore his bride to pieces; Jesus is continually putting His bride back together. The Levite’s concubine extended her hand for help that never came.
On the cross, Jesus reaches through the 50 shades of grey to extend a scarred hand stained by a singular shade of red. From cradle to the grave, His humble life and sacrificial death tell us that whatever our struggles, the answer can never be an absence of love, and His open grave and promise of return tell us that the answer can never be an absence of hope.
In closing, I’ll recommend the excellent book Rid of my Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault by Justin and Lindsay Holcomb.