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?