The trailer is smoldering temptingly on computers around the globe. Fans of the book are checking their diaries and booking tickets online. Reviewers are readying their pens and preparing their remarks. In just a few short days 50 Shades of Grey will hit the big screen, just in time for Valentine’s Day.
On one level, this is just another in a long line of films with a storyline that portrays sex and relationships in ways far removed from God’s design. But it is so much more than that. I believe that 50 Shades of Grey can serve as a kind of cultural barometer that alerts us to the colossal changes that have been occurring in recent years, and to the consequences they bring.
So what can the 50 Shades phenomenon teach us today? I teamed up with Helen Thorne, who has written Purity Is Possible: How To Live Free of the Fantasy Trap, and together we prepared 7 lessons from 50 Shades of Grey.
EROTICA IS IN
Erotica used to be considered “artsy,” a niche interest with maybe just a hint of the clandestine thrown in. Erotica has been a popular genre for some time now, but has generally been one that remained muted in the marketplace, and especially when it was targeted squarely at women. But erotica has evolved. It has moved from shop-floor to shop-front, from might-read to must-read, from late-night theater to prime-time theater. This is a phenomenon we can lay largely at the door of 50 Shades. In 2012, a genre whose best-selling titles might sell 70,000 or 90,000 copies suddenly had a product that was flying off the shelves in its millions. It flew off the shelves and onto the bedside tables of women across the globe. Did you know that it was the #1 bestselling book of 2012, and the #2 bestselling book in 2013? No longer a style of book to be read behind closed doors, 50 Shades and its two sequels established erotica as a genre to be read on buses, restaurants, in the office over lunch, and one to be discussed freely, openly, and without shame. Three years on, we see women (and men) now willing to buy explicit material not just for themselves or their partners but for their mother, aunt, and daughters as well. And the pundits would have us believe that 50 Shadesis going to be a box office smash when it launches later this month.
SEX ISN’T JUST FOR MEN
Maybe it is too obvious to say, but women are sexual beings. In recent years a great deal of attention has been focused on pornography—internet pornography especially. Unfortunately, almost all the attention has been given to men, primarily young men, and the shocking quantities of porn they consume. But the50 Shades phenomenon highlights the fact that women are sexual beings as well, and that women have sexual struggles of their own. These struggles may take a different form than they do for many men, but they are really the same at their core—deep-rooted heart idolatries that seek comfort, control, pleasure and fulfillment through what God forbids. 50 Shades and other erotica is far from innocuous, far from just fun—it’s a real battleground for the hearts and minds of women.
EROTICA IS DANGEROUS
Erotica has its appeal (which is why it sells in such quantities, of course). The steamy and sensual scenes it portrays resonate deeply with readers of many ages and backgrounds. For some, the stories echo experiences they have found pleasurable in their past. For others, the narrative fuels plans for the future. For others still, the storyline offers to fill (even if just fleetingly) the relational void left by loneliness, marital strife, or the pain of abuse. For a few short hours the words of a book or the images on screen transport consumers to a more comfortable, more pleasurable place. But such experiences are not without their cost. Individuals enter in to the narrative and join with the characters in their quest for pleasure—or pain (both figure prominently in 50 Shades of Grey)—and in doing so reinforce the wayward tendencies of their heart. For some, the impact of such contact with erotica is not instantly obvious but, for the more vulnerable, the effects can be devastating. The lonely devote hours to fiction, which reinforces their reliance on fantasy relationships rather than real relationships. The broken become more convinced that abuse is the norm, a horror to be endured without question. The controlling see legitimacy in their quest to treat others as objects for their pleasure or convenience. And the struggling become ever more dependent on the fake images in their mind to achieve arousal when in the company of the one they aim to love.
EROTICA IS IN AMONG CHRISTIANS
It might be convenient to think that such trends exist primarily outside the church. It might be more comfortable to assume that Christians are immune. After all, the clarion call to purity is proclaimed from the pulpit Sunday after Sunday and many do take that call to heart. But recent research suggests that up to 20% of Christian women are indulging in regular or occasional online pornography. If this is accurate, how many more are embracing the lure of best-selling erotic material once the Sunday service has ended? Like it or not, erotica is being consumed by people in our congregations. Women in our churches have read it, and we expect women in your church have too. And, for many, the decision to buy the book wasn’t a particularly difficult one. Many of us are so bound up in the culture in which we live that we aren’t even beginning to be shocked by material that a generation ago would have left a significant proportion of the congregation gasping for air. It’s not just a problem out there in the world, but a problem within the church as well.
Tim Challies is a well-known blogger, author, web designer, and book reviewer, as well as a pastor/elder in his home church. His websites include Challies.com and DiscerningReader.com. Tim has written The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment, published by Crossway, The Next Story, published by Zondervan, and Sexual Detox, published by Cruciform Press.
Helen Thorne is the blog editor at The Good Book Company. She has a passion for biblical counselling, edited The Good Book College’s course in a Women’s Ministry and is a trustee of Capital Youthworks (the charity behind Sorted and Sorted Nano) and has written Purity Is Possible.