“I want you to behave in a particular way, and if you don’t, I shall punish you…”

Granted, it’s not the traditional way Prince Charming wooed his lady; but then, fairytales didn’t typically include rape, bondage and written contracts of non-disclosure.

That is, until now.

Fifty Shades of Grey

From humble roots as a homespun hobby, the popular Fifty Shades of Grey series has cultivated new standards for both marketing and morality in the digital age. Having sold more than ten million copies in its first six weeks of stateside publication, Grey captured an easy 25% of the market for adult fiction. And it hasn’t stopped yet. In the four months since its American debut, the trilogy has dominated virtually every major print and e-book list—from the USA Today to the New York Times where it leads in no less than four major categories. Publishing rights to the series have been sold in another 37 countries, including the United Kingdom, where Fifty Shades of Grey achieved the record for the highest ever weekly paperback sales.

Grey is the New Green

No one is more surprised at Grey’s popularity than its author, the heretofore obscure E.L. James, a.k.a. Erika Leonard.

James first conceived Grey as a sort of online hobby, taking her cues from vampires “Edward” and “Bella,” a la Twilight fame. Once the series gained a following, James reworked the story, vested her characters with new names, and stripped them of their parasitic proclivities. Eventually Grey was removed from the web and picked up by a small Australian publishing house. Vintage Books later saw the stateside potential and laid out seven-figures for the publishing rights—an investment that has more than paid off.

Recently named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World, the forty-something married mother of two confessed her writing days’ obsession with Grey’s plot. “This is my midlife crisis, writ large,” she said. “All my fantasies in there, and that’s it.”[1]

It’s a fantasy obviously shared by others—many, many others. Readers’ greed for all things Grey has fueled everything from a Hollywood bidding war to a proprietary line of Grey-inspired perfume, clothes, lingerie, and more. With a film adaptation underway, James hopes to carry the momentum forward with a new series geared toward teens. Husband Niall even landed a book contract, giving the couple a share in the children’s market as well.[2]

But the cultural impact of the series transcends book sales. It has in fact, sparked a new wave in book trends. In an interview, Grey publisher Anne Messitte told the New York Times, “We’re making a statement that this is bigger than one genre. The people who are reading this are not only people who read romance. It’s gone much broader than that.”[3] Grey, it would appear, has tapped something deep within the female psyche.

So, who exactly is Christian Grey and why has his story created such a stir?

Characters and Synopsis.

The history of Christian Grey is not burdened with deep thought. That the ethics are skewed, few will deny; fewer still deny James’s claim that she’s “not a great writer.”[4] By all accounts, the author has served up a mash of bad morals, bad characters, and (if it were possible) even worse writing.

As the story goes,[5] Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele began their relationship with a contract that reads in part—

“The Submissive may request her release at any time, such request may be granted at the discretion of the Dominant, subject only to the Submissive’s rights under clauses 2-5 and 8 above.”

Grey’s jealousy, narcissism, and aberrant abusive is, we are led to assume, offset by his wealth, social standing, and dashing good looks. Ana, on the other hand, has beauty and a brand of intelligence (supposedly) enhanced by naiveté. In a next-day dialogue that followed Ana’s outing with a male friend, Christian confronted Ana—

Ana: Are you going to hit me?

Christian: “Yes, but it won’t be to hurt you. I don’t want to punish you right now. If you’d caught me yesterday evening, well, that would have been a different story.”

One might wonder why, if not with a view toward correction, one human might hit his fellow being. The answer is chillingly plain—he did it for pleasure.  Indeed, however much the author might wish to pose her heroine as a smart and strong-willed young woman, Ana’s bruised flesh reads differently.

Reader Response

What is it about Christian Grey that makes him irresistible to so many? How is it that women elevate savagery to the station of romance?

James voiced her opinion in an interview, “Once you’re in charge of your job, your house, your children, getting the food on the table, doing all of this, all of the time, it’d be nice for someone else to be in charge for a bit maybe,” [6]

But “in charge for a bit maybe” isn’t exactly what Grey has in mind—and Ana knows it.

“What do I say? Because I think I love you, and you just see me as a toy. Because I can’t touch you, because I’m too frightened to show you any affection in case you flinch or tell me off or worse – beat me?”

It’s a point Grey never attempts to hide, telling her, “It’s the fact that you are mine to do with as I see fit – ultimate control over someone else.”

So saith masochists, evil dictators, and stalkers ’round the world.

Opposing Voices

Sadly, Christians have remained largely silent on the topic. To date, Grey’s only real opposition has come—not from the Church, but from an unlikely association. Libraries, that unoffending mainstay of the quiet intellectual, have hunkered along dividing lines: those that feature the book are besieged by crowds impatient for Grey;[7] others, having refused to carry the book, are besieged by the ACLU.[8] In an open letter[9] to the Brevard County library, groups petitioned for the reinstatement of the books on the peculiar grounds that “residents rely on the library… to ‘think more and become smarter.’”[10]

But libraries aren’t the only ones opposing Fifty Shades of Grey. Feminists deplore the series as an affront to the social and political gains of the past thirty years. To them, Grey represents a return to the dark age of patriarchal ethics. However, the feminist voice disqualifies itself by virtue of its own party line; to wit, “a woman’s right to choose.” For one thing, female prerogative is driving the market for all things Grey. For another, whatever one might think of her relationship with Grey, the fact remains: Ana did choose. This so-named “freedom to choose” is a concept much dwelt upon by the author—a device necessary to offset the illegal nature of Grey’s dominance. For example, when Ana protested the pain of a recent beating, Grey responded in an email, “Subject: You Didn’t Call the Cops.”

“… For the record—you stood beside me knowing what I was going to do. You didn’t at any time ask me to stop – you didn’t use either safe word. You are an adult – you have choices. Quite frankly, I’m looking forward to the next time my palm is ringing with pain… [there is] no place to run. I would find you. I can track your cell phone—remember?”

Where Do We Go From Here?

“C. S. Lewis memorably said that a nation’s culture is the dress of its religion—in other words, the way in which a society conducts itself, its institutions, value systems, and family and national life, is rooted in what it believes.”[11]

If Lewis was right, what commentary does Grey offer on modern day belief? Indeed, all of this begs the question—what on earth is happening? If James is influential (as she obviously is), what is she doing with that influence? What kind of world is her ideology preparing? And what kind of future is our silence arranging for our kids? Grey raises implications we cannot afford to ignore.

To be sure, this is not a review of the book; rather, my aim is a critique of the culture that foments and embraces a Grey mindset. If we are to be wise and discerning, if we are to be a people who understand the times, who know what we ought to do (1 Chronicles 12:32), if we are to serve the purpose of God in our own generation, (Acts Acts 13:36), we must engage the culture that consumes Shades of Grey.

Over the next few days, I plan to explore these questions further, beginning with tomorrow’s topic: why should Christians care?

[5] Please note, I have not read the book. Nor do I plan to do so. Direct quotes from the book have been gleaned from online reviews, including a sampling of the more than 11,000 Goodreads reader reviews.

[7] Some libraries report upwards of two thousand hold requests.

[8] Recently, the Florida ACLU linked arms with the National Coalition Against Censorship.

See http://www.usatoday.com/life/books/story/2012-05-25/50-shades-of-grey-ban/55211608/1

[11] Colin Hamer, Anne Boleyn: One Short Life That Changed the English-Speaking World (Leominster, UK: Day One Publications, 2007), 24.

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