Fifty Shades of Boredom (And Why Marriage is Sexier)
I've never read or watched Fifty Shades of Grey or its newly released sequel, Fifty Shades Darker. I'm all about doing cultural exegesis, and for that reason I do try to read, watch, and listen to what's trending in popular culture to get a pulse on how the Word of God applies. But the trailers and Wikipedia summaries of Fifty Shades are enough for me to know that its sequel is the dog returning to its vomit. Perhaps someone more initiated into its inner circles can make a positive argument for some kind of underlying virtuous message, but at this moment I would find that hard to believe. Let's just admit that sometimes our culture enjoys morbid, twisted plots for their own sake.
My first train of thought as I heard about the movie's release was - I really, deeply, sincerely hope that this movie will tank among the members of my church, and Christians in general. My second thought was a question - What lies behind the movie's almost inevitable success? In other words, what is it about our culture that draws us, like moths to a street light, to all things sexually obtuse and perverse? What pushes us beyond the bounds of normal, healthy, monogamous sexual expression into the seedy shades of Fifty Shades of Grey and Fifty Shades Darker?
My initial thought is that as a culture, we're all suffering from an acute case of collective sexual boredom. We've forgotten the God-given goodness of sexuality, as well as the enthralling possibilities that proceed from erotic desires experienced in the safety, security, and life-giving context of heterosexual monogamy.
Sex is Good.
Christians often get a bad rap when it comes to sex. We're labeled as prudes or killjoys - pale faced curmudgeons who instinctively smother any kind of pleasure. Unfortunately, I'm sure there's plenty of Christians who fit the profile, but their disdain for the enjoyment of God's gifts comes not from good theology, but from somewhere else. Even St. Paul, in his letter to Timothy, warned the young pastor that the outright rejection of bodily pleasure is a sign of demonic false doctrine:
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer - 1 Timothy 4:1-5
The apostle rebukes the false religion of those who would forbid marriage or food, or anything that God has created for his glory and our joy. C.S. Lewis echos the same thought in his classic Mere Christianity. Lewis notes that Christianity is unique among the great religions of the world in that it is the only faith that explicitly affirms the goodness of creation. Furthermore, no part of our bodies, and none of our desires or instincts are inherently evil to any degree. All are created good, and yet because of the self-seeking nature of sin, become instruments for evil when used in the wrong way, at the wrong time, or in the wrong amount.
Wrong Way, Wrong Time, Wrong Amount.
So, sex is good. God did not create it to be enjoyed with regret, but with joy. And any limits placed on this good gift are limits that preserve its goodness and our dignity rather than cramp our freedom of expression. As G.K. Chesterton put it, "The more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild, " and later in the same book he adds, "Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are walls of a playground. Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism."
A brief comparison of married sexual expression with the kinky stuff of Tinder, Fifty Shades, and whatever else our culture prizes as its sexual birthright, gives weight to my point. Vanity Fair was spot on when it said we're living in a "Dating Apocalypse," full of sexual insecurity and dissatisfaction, and if we have ears to hear, we'll admit that all of this stems from sex that defies Lewis' three God-given limits on good things.
Sex used in the right way means sex used for intimacy (not fear), trust (not domination), security (not uncertainty) and the broader gift of family life (not dead end fantasies and money wasted on sado masochist accessories).
Sex used at the right time means sex with a more than willing assent to all the other commitments that come with it (not only sex as it's convenient or useful), and also when both partners are willing (and not to any degree coerced).
And finally, sex in the right amount means that sex is a part of life (not the source of life), and one of the many ways we give affection to our spouse (not a mad grab that slashes and burns relationships in the pursuit of pleasure).
Necessity vs. Gift
SO, back to my original point, I suspect that Fifty Shades does so well in our culture because we're ignorant of, or unwilling to receive, God's higher and better purposes for sex. When sexuality becomes the holy grail of self actualization, what follows is an obsession with morbid, risky, and outright dehumanizing expressions of it. We end up normalizing what sane minds would call degrading, abusive, and controlling.
Simply put, sex within marriage has the potential to enthrall rather than bore for two key reasons. First, in a healthy marriage, sex is integral to the relationship, but not its epicenter. Giving yourself to other person, both in the bedroom as well as outside of the bedroom is what really counts. Working on a hobby with your spouse, holding hands just because you can, having an honest argument that draws you closer, changing diapers, reading the Go Dog Go seven hundred times, working overtime so you can enjoy the weekend with your family, saving up and planning for the Disney vacation, getting married young and learning to shop together on a skeleton budget, looking at past photo books and laughing at shared memories, getting the stomach bug all at the same time as family, etc., etc., etc..... all of these things make sex deeper and more interesting. Anything less than a full commitment that lays down its life for the other person makes sex listless, aimless, and poised for the boredom that leads to blind folds, handcuffs, and fantasy novels.
Second, sex becomes all the more interesting when it's not the main thing in your life. In his book The Meaning of Marriage, Tim Keller cites the cultural observation made by author Ernest Becker well before Fifty Shades. Becker argues that in the absence of God, our desire for romantic love becomes an all-demanding deity - what he called "apocalyptic romance." If you know anything about the false deities of the pagan world, you know that they are often grotesque, inhumane, and demanding of sacrifice. So, also is our modern approach to sex and romance. Becker writes:
The love partner becomes the divine ideal within which to fulfill one's life. All spiritual and moral needs become focused in one individual... In one word, the love object is God... Man reached for a "thou" when the world-view of the great religious community overseen by God died. After all, what is it that we want when we elevate the love partner to the position of God? We want redemption - nothing less (pgs. 36-36).
The Christian approach is far different. No human relationship can bear the weight of our deepest longings. Only in Jesus Christ and his self-giving love do we find a love upon which we can rest the weight of all that we are - the good, the bad, and the ugly - and not tailspin into destruction. And its only in this love that we are set free to truly love the other not as an object of worship, but as an object of love. "We love because he first loved us."
From this vantage point, sex is one of the many good things in this life, not the thing that completes us. Whether someone is called by God to celibacy or to marriage, our value is pinned on the man who was crucified and risen, not in the embrace of a lover. When we drink deeply of this truth, we are then free to love in more interesting and fulfilling ways. C.S. Lewis sums it up well, and as you ponder this quote compare the worldview of Fifty Shades with worldview of Christianity - the difference between the two is black and white, with no grey in between:
Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.
*For more on this theme, here's a sermon given by Pastor Randall Pekari recently on the topic of lust - "Countercultural - Matthew 5:27-37"
Rev. John W. Rasmussen - Our Savior Lutheran - South Windsor, CT