My answer to objections about 50 Shades of Grey

A few weeks ago I wrote some thoughts about the popular 50 Shades of Grey book series. Recently in the Bread for Beggars blogging network some of us wanted a good Biblical response to this series, and I decided to take a second stab at it. That article can be found here.

The one problem is that I have heard personally and through other reading so many arguments for and against these books that while I can attack the main issue, I can’t reasonably give all the arguments their just response in a single article. But we humans are prone to thinking that our one argument trumps the overarching principle that already answers our one argument, just so long as our one argument wasn’t directly addressed. It’s okay, I do it too. Well, it’s not okay, but we’re all in the same boat.

So I’d like to try and answer some of the arguments that people make for why these books are worthwhile. I’d also like to address the arguments people typically make against the books, because I think that some are inaccurate, some are not helpful, and some are spot on; it’s good to know the difference. [WARNING: I am a bit frank throughout, so if you’re seriously uncomfortable with discussions about sexuality, you might just pass on this. Then again, if you are uncomfortable, you probably aren’t reading these books, so this might not be relevant. ADDITIONAL WARNING: I have trouble editing myself. I force myself to do it usually. But I didn’t this time, which means this is LONG.]

Arguments for the series:

  • “It’s entertaining.” This might be the most obvious argument to answer (which is why I’m hitting it first), but it’s surprising how I still run into it once in a while. Usually on the tails of some other more genuinely expressed argument (“I think it is helpful to me because X…. plus it’s just entertaining!”). However, people also find pornographic films, violent and bloody horror films, Howard Stern, and hot dog eating competitions entertaining. Doesn’t make them healthy or god-pleasing (I’m not condemning hot dog eating competitions, just… ew.) The Romans found it entertaining to feed Christians to lions. King David said, “I will not look with approval on anything that is vile” (Psalm 101:3). That’s a good attitude for us to adopt when it comes to entertainment choices.
  • “It’s an escape from a routine life.” I get that the humdrum routine of life, whatever it might be, can be a drag, and that anything that provides some excitement is attractive. But why aren’t science fiction, fantasy, mystery, or drama books enough? Why does it have to have detailed sexual content? That’s a question you might want to spend some time asking yourself. Are you trying to fulfill the need to escape, or a different need? “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble,whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever isadmirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8). What does this say about where we turn for escape?
  • “I get good ideas for spicing up my sex life.” There is nothing wrong with a husband and wife who want their sex life to be more exciting. It is pretty typical that after a few years of marriage, a couple of kids, and the pressures of every day life, sex can feel more like a chore than a joy. I don’t believe God intended sex to be dull. That’s why some Christians have made it their business to provide resources, direction, and advice for couples. The best means for spicing up your sex life with your spouse is not to go look at someone else’s sex life, fictional or otherwise.
  • “It has a good story.” I’m not sure I buy this one, given that most honest reviewers have said it’s a pretty poorly constructed story. However, let’s assume it does have a good story. And let’s assume someone found a movie full of heavily detailed pornographic scenes that also happened to have a good story. Should we still watch the movie? If you’re a wife, and your husband was watching such a movie, would you accept that argument from him? How about this – if you’re looking for a good story, there’s this book, see, and it’s full of really interesting stories. Not only interesting, but true stories, incredible though some of them may be. Some are even stranger than fiction, but they all point to a much better truth than 50 Shades of Grey ever will.
  • “It gets me in the mood for sex.” Well, of course it does! That’s the point of erotica and pornography. But does it foster intimacy between you and your spouse? That is, if you can’t get into the mood by focusing on intimacy with your spouse, isn’t that a sign of trouble between the two of you? I heard a story once about a man who had spent so much time viewing pornography that he literally could not make love to his wife without a pornographic magazine open on the bed next to him. Would we argue that the pornography was a good thing because it enabled him to have sex? “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but I will not be mastered by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12). On the other hand, couples who have developed a deep and abiding intimacy between each other know how to create the mood for sex without the need for erotica and pornography. Maybe you’re not there yet, but isn’t that something to work for?
  • “The Bible also has erotic language, so it can’t be bad, right?” This is a little more difficult to answer because it is true, there is some sensual language in the Bible. Song of Solomon uses a number of idioms that are almost certainly references to certain sexual acts, and it makes reference to our sexual parts. In the Song of Solomon, you have two unnamed characters expressing their love and passion in sensuous, symbolic, poetic language. In erotic literature you have specific characters engaged in specific acts described in vivid (and sometimes vulgar) terms. When I read Song of Solomon, I don’t feel a sense of embarrassment or shame, but the excerpts from 50 Shades that I have read made me uncomfortable. Here’s one way to think of it: You might see a nude painting in an art gallery and not be too embarrassed, but if you see a cell phone picture of a nude girl taken for her boyfriend, you would be. Why? Because the intent is different, and that’s apparent in the way it is presented. Ultimately, I think that the fact that we are human and weak and given to abusing our own sexuality, as a general rule with sensuous you should be cautious about anything that doesn’t come directly from the Holy Spirit, rather than using the Holy Spirit’s work to justify a human’s crass and pale imitation.
  • “Just because it talks about sex doesn’t make it bad.” True! And that’s not the point. I am not against writing that talks about sex. In fact, I’m not even against stories that contain characters who have a sexual relationship. I’ve read plenty of stories where it is clear that two characters have had sex, but without the detail of the scene. In the same way you might share with a friend over coffee that you and your spouse had a good time celebrating your anniversary (“…if you know what I mean…”), but you wouldn’t take a video of it and show it to your friend, or spend hours going into detail about the things you did. Because some things are meant to be kept between the two of you. A respectful author understands this and writes his or her characters and scenes with that respect.
  • “I’m single, what does it matter if I’m reading erotic books? I’m not hurting anyone.” Well, yes you are – yourself, and your relationship with your Savior. But I get it. Single people have the challenge of wanting an appropriate sexual outlet but not having one. But avoiding pornography and erotic literature isn’t something you start doing once you get married. Who knows, maybe some day you will get married – do you want this baggage? And if not, you have a different calling. Both Jesus and Paul pointed to the fact that being single gives a person the opportunity to be more focused on serving the Lord. Indulging in worldliness does not make it easy to keep focused on serving God.
  • “Doesn’t God just want us to be happy? Reading these books makes me feel good.” Sorry, that’s the Osteen Doctrine, and it’s not in the Bible. God wants you to have joy – the joy that comes from knowing your Savior. Jesus lived a perfect life so he could give it to you – and it didn’t include reading erotic novels. Jesus died an innocent death to redeem you – to buy you back from worldliness and sin, not to give you over to it. Find joy in him, rather than shammy worldly happiness.

There are quite a lot of arguments I’ve seen against 50 Shades of Grey. Some are helpful, some are not. Let’s take a look:

  • “It is pornographic.” It does conform to the standard definition of pornography, which is “printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings.” So from that standpoint, yes, it is. Many people like to make a distinction between erotic literature and pornography because it feels more comfortable to them. They might be against pornography but not against pornography. But either way, the Bible has a pretty simple summation about these things: “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people” (Ephesians 5:3).
  • “The sex scenes involve abuse.” This is one of the issues that causes me concern about the books. There is a classification of sexual behavior called BDSM – “Bondage, Domination, Sadism, Masochism.” It usually involves one person being restrained in some way while the other person is allowed to do as they wish, and in its extreme forms involves causing some kind of pain. Sex therapists and psychologists have claimed that those who enjoy this are not necessarily deviant or sexually maladjusted, and that it really is about trust, trusting your partner so completely that you surrender all control to them. 50 Shades does involve sexual activity that falls within this classification. So is it abuse? Well, some don’t see it as such, and so they might see this argument as ignorant. However, the question I have to ask is this – does BDSM reflect the kind of self-giving, protective, freeing love Jesus shows us, which we are to in turn show in marriage? Does such activity open the door to harmful sexual attitudes or interests? Does it reflect a sense of dignity for the person? I don’t know how everyone would answer these questions, but they make me concerned enough to wonder if a book full of that kind of thing can be healthy for a person.
  • “It has a terrible story / It is poorly written.” I’ve heard this from people who have looked at it objectively as a novel. I won’t try to disagree, but I will say that this isn’t the main issue. I’ll also grant that a terrible story to one person is a good story to another. It sort of depends on your interests, reading experience, and maturity. I know plenty of people who feel Twilight is a great story, but I’m not among them. However, in the end, this isn’t going to win anyone away from the books, so it may not be a useful argument. I’m more intrigued by the question of what makes some people find it a good story. What are the elements and themes that attract so many people – Christians included – to an erotic novel? What do those elements and themes say about our society and what it is looking for?
  • “It cheapens God’s design for sex.” The characters in 50 Shades begin their relationship unmarried, and while I believe they get married later in the series, the pattern of their sexual relationship continues. So, in that sense, yes it does cheapen it, because it does not portray it as a beautiful thing to be preserved for marriage, or something that is redeemed and changed by them getting married. But I think we have to be cautious not to simply throw this out without explanation. We live in a culture where people don’t often understand God’s design for sex, and unfortunately many Christians are not doing a good job of demonstrating it. We have to be careful to avoid hypocrisy here, because the Church’s history of creating human rules that limit the sexual freedom within marriage also cheapens God’s design for sex. The Church has done a poor job in the past of creating a positive picture of what God intended, and while we’re working to correct that, we have a long way to go. So, if you’re going to use this argument, make sure at the very least that you make it clear what you mean, and that you are doing everything you can to model it. “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure” (Hebrews 13:4)… but who is going to show the world how that looks?
  • “It started as a Twilight fanfiction.” Yeah, this one is actually true. The author wrote it as an X-rated version of Twilight (called Master of the Universe, a title only slightly more creative than “This is a Twilight FanFic), using the same names and basic characterizations, but changing settings and situations. It has been noted that about 89% of the original fanfic text is preserved in the book 50 Shades of Grey. In other words, somewhere out there was a publisher who said, “Lady is writing a porno version of Twilight and posting it on the internet? Snap that up!” Doesn’t really speak to the integrity of the book. But since this is now a well known fact, this argument probably doesn’t get much mileage anymore.

How are you feeling at this point? Angry, ready to throw stones at me? Convicted? Still have arguments.

At the risk of sounding like I’m beating an old drum, I’m going to say what I’ve said in other articles on this – wherever you are with this, turn to Jesus. Embrace his mercy. Understand the nature of his love, and spend time diving deeper and deeper into who he is and what he’s done for you. Jesus became one of us, lived among us, felt the same desires and urges and was faced with the same worldly appeals. With strength and courage he faced them all and did what was right. Then he went up a hill, hung on a cross, suffered the unmitigated wrath of God, died your death, and came back to life… for you. In light of all that, I guess I would ask you… do you still have an argument?


50 Shades of Real Intimacy

This post is addressing the book and soon-to-be released film 50 Shades of Grey. At the end of the post I want to point to something better – a variety of resources for Christian couples who want to enhance their intimacy and sex lives. If you don’t know what 50 Shades of Grey is, or simply don’t care one bit about it, feel free to skip ahead to the resources.

Let’s think of this in a somewhat stark and blunt way. I always feel a good blunt description helps put things in perspective once in a while. Would you rather: a) read a poorly written book about fictional characters engaging in unmarried sex that involves use of force, bondage, and abuse, OR b) read a book aimed at developing godly sexual maturity and intimacy?

I suspect that the average person would look at the first description and naturally shy away. Which is why I’m completely baffled by the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon. 100 million copies sold, mostly to women. An entire trilogy of books. And now a movie. And it was originally a Twilight fan-fiction!

On second thought, no, I’m not baffled by it. Not in the least. It is nothing else than a testament to the pernicious nature of sin that all it takes to justify what is essentially pornography, dress it up as literature, and sweep millions of people into it. Including Christians.

That’s the part that’s most frustrating to me – there are Christian women who I know personally who have posted on Facebook about reading it. There are self-professed Christians who have come to the book’s defense when someone criticizes it. Many have tried to justify its gratuitous use of sexual description by claiming that it has a really good storyline (which, from what I’ve heard, is simply not true). But even were that the case, does that really justify it? Try to make the same argument for a movie that has dozens of graphic sex scenes.

What is it that makes this thing so compelling to people? I think one particular woman – Lindsay Marks Harold – hits the nail on the head when she says this:

I think women gravitate to 50 Shades of Grey (and other similar erotica) because they haven’t embraced the proper roles in sex and marriage. Feminism has taught them that they can never, ever, in any fashion submit to a man…unless it’s during sex, if that sort of thing is their cup of tea. Anything goes in the bedroom. Feminism told them that it’s degrading to be a stay-at-home mom or to submit to a husband or to want a lot of children. They should never have sex with their husbands unless they feel like it. They should never let a man make decisions for their family. But having a stranger use and abuse you sexually? Well, that’s empowering, don’t ya know.

She goes on in her blog post about this to point out that our culture has also convinced men that being masculine is bad, which only leaves a void in the lives of many women who want a man to be masculine in the bedroom. The fantasy of a strong and dominating man is attractive because it fills that void, but sin twists and warps that desire into fascination with the idea of dominance.

This is what it all comes down to – sin has twisted and warped the perfect thing God intended with his creation of male and female and the sexual relationship. God’s intended design was that a man would be a man, strong and protective and assertive, eager to initiate the sexual relationship with his wife, and that she would be warm and open and responsive to him. That this was the design is evident in Scripture as well as in psychology and anatomy. But the presence of sin has disrupted the process, leaving us frustrated, lonely, and addicted to that which is harmful to us.

In the end, the only real solution to this is Jesus. It is his love, his cross, his power that redeems us and our sexuality from the messed up world around us. I think it would be very hard to have a deep devotional life and also deeply enjoy reading something like 50 Shades of Grey, because when you see how much Jesus loves, values, and demonstrates love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control, 50 Shades becomes nothing more than a pale imitation of true intimacy. Those who know the spiritual intimacy of Christ will long for a reflection of that kind of intimacy in marriage.

So, if you’re sitting here reading this and saying, “Yeah, but I kinda like that book (or others like it)!” Here’s my advice: spend more time with the Gospel. Sink into what it means to know Jesus and his love for you. Dig into his death and resurrection, and then keep digging into all the riches the Word has to offer.

Now, if you’re already sick and tired of what the world has to offer, but you want to some guidance when it comes to enhancing your sexual relationship in a godly way, here are some resources that I consider worth checking out:

  • Sheet Music by Kevin Leman: Dr. Leman is a fabulous writer. He’s funny, he easy to read, and he’s incredibly practical. I’ve enjoyed all of his books. In this one he addresses many of the issues that married couples tend to face in their sexual relationship, but does so in a way that is so easy to read and grasp.
  • The Song of SolomonYeah, reading the Bible is kind of a no-brainer here, but specifically the Song makes it evident that God is no prude. It is a good encouragement to be romantic.
  • The Marriage BedA website put together by a Christian couple seeking to help other Christian couples develop deeper sexual intimacy and overcome the many obstacles sin puts in the way. It contains dozens of helpful articles, tastefully written and (mostly) Biblically based.
  • For Women Only and For Men Only by Jeff and Shaunti Feldhaun: While these books aren’t primarily about sex, they shed light on a lot of the issues between men and women, most of which do contribute in some way to the sexual relationship.
  • Mars and Venus in the Bedroom by John Gray: All of the books in John Gray’s landmark series are worth reading. While they generalize a lot about the nature of men and women, for many couples the things he says hold true. This one addresses the differences between men and women in the bedroom.
  • The Gift of Sex by Cliff and Joyce Penner: The authors are Christian and the book addresses sexuality from a Biblical perspective. It is a bit more clinical than others, which can be both good and bad. If couples are trying to address issues relating to physical or psychological issues, this one might be especially useful.
  • Laugh Your Way to a Better MarriageThis is a video series presented by a pastor about how men’s and women’s brains operate differently, and how it impacts everything from dealing with stress to how we approach sex. Funny, insightful, and just plain entertaining, it’s well worth watching. Pro-tip: you can find most, if not all of it, on youtube.
  • Covenant SpiceThere is nothing wrong with a husband and wife acquiring products once in a while to assist their sexual relationship, especially when trying to overcome specific challenges. But it is hard to get those products without being exposed to all kinds of shameful advertising. The folks at Covenant Spice are Christians who wanted to help other Christians by offering an online shop without the smutty ads and images. They ship stuff in discrete packaging and are very respectful of the intimacy that exists in marriage. ‘
  • Hot, Holy and HumorousThis is a blog run by a Christian woman who wants to encourage other women (and men too) in god-pleasing sexual intimacy. I have often found her stuff to be some of the best written available online.