Fifty Shades of Grace





Yesterday, I posted an article on the newest phenomenon in the publishing world. Today I want to explore the reasons fueling the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey, and examine why we as believers should be concerned with the foothold it occupies in the American psyche.

BLACK AND WHITE AND GRAY AREAS

Torture, rape, and romance. The problem for the believer is that nothing in his worldview has prepared him for this sort of engagement. His very innocence insulates him. The Shades of Grey lie outside the typical evangelical experience. I believe this is why so many Christians have remained silent on the matter—we simply don’t know; or if we do know, we’re not quite sure what to do about it.

And sometimes, we want to keep it that way.

There are things we don’t want to know. There are people we don’t want to know. I certainly do not purpose that you read the book; of course I don’t. But there are things in our society that move to shape the culture and of these things, we must be aware. The force of the darkness bearing down on the landscape of our future, of our children’s future, demands a response—a response Christians are uniquely fitted to give.

However one might choose to view Grey, it must not be discounted as a passing fad. It must be understood that a problem exists and that Christian Grey, for whatever reason, answers a need that fits that problem. Indeed, until we grasp the urgency of the matter, we will never come to terms with its solution.

Abuse is disgusting, the subject matter is perverse. And for the Christian, everything in his context tells him so. He cannot conceive that anyone would reasonably believe otherwise. In this respect he is “innocent as doves.” But the rest of the mandate remains, we are to be “wise as serpents” (Matthew 10:16).

CLASSIFYING GRAY

There are three approaches Christians appear to take to the Grey phenomenon.

  1. The first is to view the series as an intellectual choice.
  2. The second is to view Grey primarily as an ethical concern.
  3. The third is to pursue Grey as a spiritual symptom.

If we say that Grey is an intellectual choice and therefore a private concern—a fantasy and nothing more—we deny the holistic nature of man. Indeed, “our imaginations come from somewhere. Our imaginations may be internal in some ways, but they are influenced by external forces.” Such an individualistic approach “typically [reverts] to the most superficial kind of liberal individualism that shuts off people from others, ignores the predictable harms… and ignores the way in which we all collectively construct the culture in which we live.”[1]

If we grant Grey a primarily moral meaning, we run the double (and perhaps more likely) risk of self-congratulatory goodness (Luke 18:10-14).  Though perhaps less obvious, it is nonetheless culpable. This view says, “The danger shall not come near me. I won’t read it. Simply ignore it and let it run its course.”

But just as with the former view, it’s not enough. It’s not enough to keep a distance. It’s not enough to tug at the robes of religion or of reasonable law and hurry by the other side (Luke 10:31-37). In short, it’s not enough to be right. We are called to do justice, it’s true; but we are also called to love mercy. To walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8), “for we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.  But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior”.  (Titus 3:3–6, ESV)

THE CASE FOR GREY

In the end, I am not sure that either the psychological or the ethical course would make much difference. The Grey series is built on emotion. Raw and simple. And “… egoistic passions, when once let loose, are not easily brought again into subjection to the needs of society.”[2]

But feelings do not emerge from a vacuum; they occur within a context, the framing network of a worldview already in place. One’s reaction to a story, a song, even a fine piece of art, is largely determined by the context that has shaped his understanding. All his past experiences and history come to the fore, defining, comparing, helping him to perceive. Therefore literature and its variant forms become the stage upon which human emotions are acted, conveyed, and/or understood.

Suppose I told you of a man who was asked to slaughter his own countrymen. Suppose I told you that the man looked at those he was to execute—whole families of fathers, mothers, infants, lovers—and willingly took up the implements of their death. Suppose I told you that he didn’t hesitate or even shed a tear. Suppose I qualified the account by saying that, apart from this one aberration, the man was essentially a good fellow, a hard worker and well-liked by his friends. Would you believe me?

Now, how would it change the story if I told you that the one who issued the request held the man’s family hostage? What if you knew that a refusal from him would ensure the worst kind of suffering for his family? What if I told you that he would be forced to watch every tear, hear every plea—all the while helpless to rescue or comfort? How might your understanding change to know that he was given a choice: his wife, his children or the others?

It’s a twist that touches the heart and blurs the moral line. A connective point of understanding is reached. Parents comprehend the tale with a vision toward the faces of their children. Husbands see their wives and wives see their husbands. Suddenly the way forward is not so clear cut. Whatever one may think about the man and his decision, the heart is engaged as we ask the question—what would I do if given the same choice?

In the same way, Fifty Shades of Grey makes no sense to the believer, and, if I am correct, the reason lies within the realm of our faith. Scripture teaches that redemption is found in Christ. For Grey however, healing is achieved in his torture of the book’s heroine, Ana Steele—a fact she contemplated in the book:

“He’s not a hero, he’s a man with serious, deep emotional flaws, and he’s dragging me into the dark. Can I not guide him into the light?”

If we approach the subject with a worldview that says that true love redeems past pain, Grey fits nicely.  It’s a process Ernest Becker called, “The Romantic Solution.”

THE ROMANTIC SOLUTION

Becker (a non-believer, I might add) postulated that modern man, having denied the sufficiency of the living God, “edged himself into an impossible situation. He still needed to feel heroic, to know that his life mattered in the scheme of things; he still had to be specially ‘good’ for something truly special… If he no longer had God, how was he to do this? One of the first ways that occurred to him… was the “romantic solution”[3]

“In case we are inclined to forget how deified the romantic love object is, the popular songs continually remind us. …  These songs reflect the hunger for real experience, a serious emotional yearning on the part of the creature. The point is that if the love object is divine perfection, then one’s own self is elevated by joining one’s destiny to it. One has the highest measure for one’s ideal-striving; all of one’s inner conflicts and contradictions, the many aspects of guilt—all these one can try to purge in a perfect consummation… In one word, the love object is God. As a Hindu song puts it: “My lover is like God; if he accepts me my existence is utilized.” No wonder Rank could conclude that the love relationship of modern man is a religious problem.”[4]

After all, said Becker, “If you don’t have a God in heaven, an invisible dimension that justifies the visible one, then you take what is nearest at hand and work out your problems on that.”[5]

SHADES OF REDEMPTION

Ultimately, it would appear that Fifty Shades is about redemption. Instead of an intellectual issue or an ethical concern, Shades reveals the gaping wound of a human soul. This is the point at which, I believe, readers connect.

According to the book, Christian Grey suffered some form of childhood abuse. It is this abuse, we are led to understand, buried deep within his psyche, which causes him to exact such a toll from Ana. He has been hurt. Badly. He has been shamed and battered and inwardly bruised. He is, as Grey’s publisher observed, “a man tormented by demons and consumed by the need to control.”[6]

It is not the psychology of Grey that is at fault: indeed, the bulk of his appeal lies in the way of his pain and thwarted circumstance. Rather, the problem with Grey is the way in which he sought redemption. Having dispensed with God, Grey became an end unto himself; truth was what he imagined, duty what he might command.

This certainly softens the case for Grey in that we at least have a context for his actions. Still, he is without excuse. No amount of suffering can justify the affliction of an innocent. Indeed, Indeed, Grey’s cruel treatment of Ana reveals him to be of the predatory nature that propagates abuse rather than overcomes; the type that forms the catalyst for untold cycles of brutality. A man might tyrannize his home or his nation but the fact remains; he is a tyrant still.

TRANSLATING THE GREY

So why should we concern ourselves with Shades of Grey?

We must care because the matter of Christian Grey has altered the perception of cruelty, stranding abuse in the no-man’s land of preference rather than principle.

We must care because Shades of Grey distorts the imagery of the Cross; because it is diametrically opposed to the Gospel message that “the strong are bound to protect and save the weak because God wills it so”. We must care because “only in the Gospel “can we hope to keep self-sacrifice, and love, and heroism, and all the things that make us glad to live and not afraid to die.”[7]

We must care because the Cross pierces the shadowlands with a variegated grace—the rainbow of the promise that God Himself would provide the way out of evil (Genesis 9:16; Revelation 4:3)

We must care because of the coming generation; because the littlest reasons are some of the most profound.

We must care because books like Grey send a message to men, telling them that Victoria’s Secret is the enjoyment of pain.

We must care because Grey teaches girls to expect pain—and not protection—from men; that Jesus, God incarnate, is therefore not to be trusted.

We must care because books like Grey amount to emotional pornography for women, enslaving them in a visionary world of un-reality.

We must care because for many, Grey is the reality. Every day, every hour, real women and real children live out this kind of torture. They don’t like it; they endure it. They don’t feel cherished or loved or affirmed; they are regarded as a commodity. (For more information see Wellspring International, a ministry of Ravi Zacharias Ministries, International.)

We must care because there are Anastasias all around. The girl in the check-out line. The woman in the sports car. The tired mother wrangling a troop of kids. You wouldn’t know it to look at them, but they are Anastasias.

In my work at our local pregnancy resource center, I’ve seen the Anastasia Steeles, beautiful young women beaten and worn and afraid. I’ve sat beside them as when they were scared to answer the phone yet too terrified to ignore it. I’ve taken the phone from trembling fingers and lips that plead, “Tell him you’re my friend… that we’re visiting… anything… just don’t tell him where I am.” I’ve weighed my words carefully, knowing that if I faltered, my conversation would later be read in the bruises on their bodies. And I’ve knelt beside angry five-year-olds who threaten to “kill Daddy if he hurts my Mama again.” No, the Christian Greys of the world are not romantic; they are not sexy. They are evil.

We must care because Anastasias are all around us. Hiding their bruises, hiding their scares. Anastasias are all around.

FIFTY SHADES OF GRACE

In the end, Grey wants redemption. From the abuse of the past, from the pain of the present, for the hope of a future that is free of both. Grey wants redemption. But then, so do we all. And our God is compassionate. The hand that stretched out to write in the sand (John 8:1-10)also stretched out to receive the nails. The arms that enfolded the sinner embraced the Cross. Let us therefore walk wisely before these issues of sin and death and a most holy redemption. Those of us who’ve been known amazing grace must run to those caught up in shades of grey. (Matthew 4:16)

Tomorrow I plan to finish up with a look at how believers can engage a culture that consume Fifty Shades.


[1] Robert Jensen, “Just a Prude? Feminism, Pornography, and Men’s Responsibility”, http://www.secularhumanism.org/library/fi/mcelroy_17_4.html (accessed July 10, 2012).

[2] Russell, Bertrand (2007-03-30). History of Western Philosophy (Routledge Classics) (p. 684). POCKET BOOKS. Kindle Edition.

[3] Becker, Ernest (2007-11-01). The Denial of Death (Kindle Locations 2987-2992). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Book description released by the book’s publisher, see Amazon website.

[7] Caplan, Bruce M. (2011-12-20). The Sinking of the Titanic (Kindle Locations 2019-2021). Seattle Miracle Press. Kindle Edition.

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