What makes ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ so popular?
It was the best-selling book of all time in Britain a few years ago, according to the Telegraph, and sold more than 100 million copies worldwide. Yet, this is certainly not because it is a contender for winning the Booker literature prize. The novel by E.L. James has received mixed reviews, being negatively compared to Mills and Boons and described as appalling writing by Laura Barnett. Don’t hold your breath either if you expect the film (released this weekend) to win any Oscars, since it has had mixed reviews already.
Neither is it breaking new ground in terms of storyline or art-form, since it has similar content to the mid-eighties erotic drama film, ‘9½ Weeks’. Nevertheless, it has already taken in millions in advance ticket sales, in contrast to ‘9½ Weeks’ which was a box-office disappointment. In fact, at a preview screening of the mid-eighties film for 1,000 people, all but 40 walked out, and 35 of those who remained commented that they hated it.
In contrast, what makes ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ so popular now? And how should we respond to its popularity?
[This article is intended partly to help at a pastoral level for those in our fellowship to have a biblical way to respond to this film. It is also, hopefully, a Christian response which will help those who are enticed by it, to consider another response.]
Fifty shades of black and blue
For those who are fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with the content of the book or film, some points may be helpful in understanding what all the fuss is about. The story is between billionaire businessman Christian Grey and graduate student Anastasia Steele. He is a broody, domineering sadomasochist, while she is a vulnerable virgin. It has been described as soft-core pornography, or ‘mommy porn’, due to its popularity among women. Kaley Payne writes, “Pornography is about intent: an intention to elicit sexual thoughts and feelings. So there’s no question this film is pornography, just as the book before it. It is fantasy sex.”
Yet this film features not just explicit sex, but also bondage, domination, sadism and masochism (BDSM). Although a large DIY store admitted that its memo alerting staff to expect increased sales of rope, cable-ties and duct tape was in jest and simply a PR ruse, this nevertheless gives an idea of what some viewers might copy in their bedrooms after watching the film.
While many filmgoers might be attracted by the erotic content featured in the trailer, it is concerning that this book and film can in reality encourage sexual violence towards women. Mandy Marshall (co-director of Restored, an international Christian Alliance to transform relationships and end violence against women) writes: “Fifty Shades of Grey is not a romantic love story, it’s abuse.” Gail Dines (professor of sociology and women’s studies) goes further in her assessment of the impact that such relationships portrayed in the film have in real life; “The most likely real-world ending of Fifty Shades of Grey is fifty shades of black and blue. The awful truth in the real world is that women who partner with a Christian Grey often end up hightailing it to a battered women’s shelter with traumatized kids in tow.”
The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realist that the reason that this film is so popular is because public opinion and attitudes towards sex, pornography, and even BDSM have changed over the years. Decades ago, pornography was considered morally wrong, while BDSM was virtually unheard of. Yet, over the years, a slow but persistently increasing exposure to immoral and explicit romantic films and TV dramas have not only fed public appetite, but have become expected as the new norm. While opposition to such low moral standards in the arts would once have stifled such productions, public opinion in general has now shifted to the other extreme, with ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ almost sold out before opening weekend in some places.
The film industry is a business, and by and large operates on a supply and demand basis. If there is enough demand, they will make and screen the films. With some cinemas devoting most of their screens to just this one film, it is clear that the hearts of the public (in general, although there will be many exceptions) are drawn towards ‘mommy porn’ meets BDSM. What makes this film to popular is the change of heart towards pornography which the public in general is demonstrating.
Sex is a gift from God, but sin turns it from light to darkness
Unlike the sex portrayed in this film, God’s plan for sexual relations is not centred on selfish personal gratification, and does not include inflicting pain or fear on others. It is the giving of oneself for the good and pleasure of the other in the relationship. It is the husband seeking to please his wife, and the wife seeking to please her husband. When both are unselfish, both are fulfilled by the other, as they are not only pleased by giving pleasure, but by receiving it as well.
But sin distorts and corrupts what God has intended for good. Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr. has written, “The corruption of the gift of sex is, more than often realized, an assault upon that human dignity that is the Creator’s gift. The attempt to declare beauty at the expense of goodness and truth is at the heart of the problem of pornography.” The problem is that we all naturally tend towards sin, because of the sinfulness in our hearts.
God prohibits all forms sexual immorality throughout the Bible, in both the Old Testament and New Testament (e.g. Deuteronomy 27:20, Hebrews 13:4). Sin takes what ought to be a blessing, and misuses it. What ought to be enjoyed in good conscience before God is instead often distorted and done in secret, in darkness, resulting in guilt, pain and broken relationships. But it is worse still when we don’t even have a conscience about sinning. Al Mohler continues, “Now, we live in a society fast losing even a sense of shame about its pornographic obsessions.”
Responses: Option 1, moralism; Option 2, gospel.
At this point, many people would simply say, “don’t watch it”, or “change your ways”, or “you should feel ashamed of yourself”. But that is not what Jesus would have wanted to be known to say. It is not that those are not legitimate responses, they are. Jesus would agree with them. The problem is that those responses are just moralism, telling people to do what they clearly do not have the ability to do. Telling an addict (e.g. a sex addict) to stop being addicted is not enough. It doesn’t work most of the time. This is because people know that they are doing wrong, but they are powerless to do otherwise. While it does not excuse the adulterer or the immoral, we need redemption, not condemnation. We need to be set free from bondage to the darkness of sin, so that we can walk in the light of holiness.
Jesus didn’t come to condemn, but to set us free from sin (John 3:16-17). He has told us that there is a time coming when judgment will be the order of the day (Acts 17:31). All sin will be addressed, judged, condemned and punished on that day. But precisely because of that, God wants to free us from condemnation, from receiving what we are due for our sin. As the perfect judge, he cannot let us off the hook by simply turning a blind eye to sin, without committing a miscarriage of justice. So, he has another way of letting us off the hook, by taking the punishment for sin himself, in our place (2 Corinthians 5:21). That is why we need the cross, that is why we need to trust in Jesus ‘alone’ for our salvation (Romans 6:23).
But there’s more. When we simply ask God for forgiveness, trusting, believing, that Jesus has done what it takes, we also receive the Holy Spirit into our lives. The Holy Spirit (as his name implies) reverses the degeneration towards darkness, and leads us into the light of holiness (Galatians 5:22-23).
The gospel is what we need to hear, not mere moralism. But once we hear the gospel, we are freed and enabled to live a morally upright life. “All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.” (1 John 3:7)
To enjoy sex, live a godly life in a restored relationship with God
Finally, God is not against enjoying sex. After all, he created it. Sex was God’s idea to give us pleasure. But, only within strict boundaries of a loving married relationship. If we want to enjoy sex without the guilt of immoral pleasure, without the impact of broken relationships, without the enduring aftermath of abuse, we ought to live according to God’s plan for sex. We ought to turn to him, firstly for forgiveness and to have a restored relationship with him in general, and then to have our emotional, psychological, physical and spiritual needs met. He is the giver of all good things (James 1:17). Fulfilment comes from turning to him, and centering our lives on him, and receiving blessings from him. Anything else might offer or promise fulfilment, but doesn’t deliver.
Instead of turning towards the darker shades of grey, turn towards the light, through faith in Jesus Christ.
There are a number of good biblical responses to books and films such as ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, such as ‘Pulling back the shades: Erotica, intimacy, and the Longings of a Woman’s Heart’ which is reviewed here.