Thinking Biblically About the Fifty Shades of Grey Cultural Phenomenon

Thinking Biblically About the Fifty Shades of Grey Cultural Phenomenon

The movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James, burst onto the movie scene Valentine’s Day, scoring the highest February movie opening of all time in North America. Perhaps this should not have been surprising, considering the popularity of the book, which is Britain’s bestselling book in history, surpassing Harry Potter.

As those called to live out our Christian faith in this culture, how are we to understand this phenomenon? Please don’t hear me inviting you to read this erotica or view the lurid content of the movie. To the contrary, what we see around the edges of this story is reason enough to avoid viewing this sordid tale, which confuses the immoral, abusive treatment of a college coed by a rich narcissistic, depraved man—with romance. But what does the popularity of FSG mean?

Some insight is gained by noting the choice of Valentine’s Day for the movie’s release date. The release target market for the film version was couples, and secondarily women. (Single men don’t typically go to movie theaters to celebrate Valentine’s Day.) In fact, unlike most porn, this movie was viewed by more women than men (68%), and the setting was not the privacy of their own home, but a crowded Imax or Regal theater. So why did millions of married and unmarried couples watch this movie on Valentine’s Day weekend, and what might that reveal about them and our culture? 

OBSERVATION #1:  Most married couples don’t want their sex life to become boring, but are looking for ways to spice it up. So a movie full of erotic scenes Valentine’s night would seem to be a great prelude to love-making.

Biblical lens:  There is nothing wrong with the desire of couples to have a great sex life; in fact the Biblical teaching is that when it comes to those who are married, the best defense against sexual sin is a great offense. "Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well.  Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth… A lovely deer, a graceful doe, let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love.  Why should you be intoxicated, my son, with a forbidden woman, and embrace the bosom of an adulteress." (Prov. 5:15-20)  God wants married couples to be sexually drunk with each other! 

In case there is any doubt about the importance of sex to a marriage in God’s eyes, Paul commands married believers in 1 Corinthians 7:2-5 not to  refuse one another sexually. The verb, refuse is translated “deprive,” and “rob.” Paul roots this behavioral admonition in the principle that in marriage, husband and wife give each other their bodies for their partner’s sexual pleasure. "For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.  Do not deprive one another…so that Satan may not tempt you."

Implications:  

  • We rarely hear that a part of the Biblical strategy for battling tthe lull of porn and other forms of sexual impurity for the married is having great sex with their mate.
  • In today’s sex-crazed culture (not unlike the Corinth of Paul’s day) we must not rob our married couples of another, similar Biblical teaching intended to help them stay sexually pure. They are not to deprive one another but adjust to their partner's sex drive. Their bodies BELONG to their mates for THEIR MATE'S sexual pleasure.
  • Experience reinforces this obvious biblical principle.  Countless Christian men begin looking at porn at times in their marriages when they are getting a lot of “busy” signals from their wives.
  • When a man surrenders to lust, of course we must NOT allow him to blame his wife for his porn habit, nor let wives blame themselves for not being beautiful or sexy enough. However, it is also true that many wives do deprive their mates of the sexual union their husbands desire (and vice versa) and we don’t see Paul giving a “when I’m in the mood” caveat here.
  • Paul is not encouraging anyone to force his mate to have sex. But he is challenging believers to adjust to their mate's desires. What this means for today's Christians is to be intentional about working TOGETHER to satisfy each other’s sexual desires. (This process is not easy. But here is a link to a great resource to help them do that.)
  • Teaching the principles from I Corinthians 7 and Proverbs 5 is even more important in 2015 than it was thirty years ago. Despite the supposed blessing of “openness” about sexuality in our culture, the generation of men who grew up with the Internet are now marrying and bringing major, sexual problems into their marriages.

OBSERVATION # 2:  The legitimate desire to have a captivating love life with their mate is leading millions down the wrong path--viewing erotica or porn together.

Biblical Lens:  Biblically, apart from being a doctor, mortician, or spouse, viewing another’s nakedness is wrong. Viewing pornography is not just sin because it incites lust and masturbation, or because it debases women. It is fundamentally wrong to intentionally gaze at another’s nakedness. In Genesis 9, Ham viewed his father, Noah’s nakedness and his son, Canaan was cursed by God for it. In contrast Shem and Japheth walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father and were commended for it.  Biblically, having your nakedness exposed is associated with shame. Consider Isaiah 47:3, "Your nakedness shall be uncovered, and your disgrace shall be seen. I will take vengeance, and I will spare no one," or Jeremiah 13:26. "I myself will lift up your skirts over your face, and your shame will be seen."

God designed nakedness and the sexual relationship for the privacy of husband and wife alone. Sexual experiences are designed to be stored away in a treasure chest of secret memories known only to our lover and ourselves. Those personal, exclusive secrets bind our hearts together. In contrast, reading erotic stories about another couple’s explicit sexual experience, viewing another person’s nakedness on the screen, or watching others' sexual acts together are not merely wrong; they violate our wife, wound her sensitive spirit, and undermine the spiritual oneness that is the foundation of true intimacy and romance.

Seventy to eighty percent of the purchasers of the book, Fifty Shades of Grey, are women. EL James, who is telling the erotic tale from a woman’s point of view, has tried to clothe erotica and soft pornography with an aura of “respectability” for wives and single women. Women enjoy love stories—so this Fifty Shades phenomenon is luring millions of women subtly into the addictive world of pornography.  Scripture says, "Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret." (Eph 5:11-12).

Implications:  So if having an intoxicating love life with our wives is a core Biblical strategy for defeating lust and we are not to use pornography or erotica to jumpstart her sexual engine, how do we fan the flames of our sexual relationship with our wives when we’re feeling deprived? A few thoughts.

  • Become a great lover. Romance for a wife begins with feeling emotionally close all through the day. Listen to her day and the feelings behind her words. A great motto is: always touch her heart before touching her body. Remember romance to a woman is making her feel special. Here’s an article on how to do that.
  • Talk with her about your sexual relationship. Because this is not only awkward but could explode into an angry discussion about manipulating her to get more sex or lead to an even deeper rejection of each other’s sexual nature, my wife and I have written a guide to help a couple talk about their love life in a positive, safe, open way. The resource, Intimacy: God’s Design for Marriage is written deliberately in the form of three dates for couples to talk about differences in their desires for emotional and physical intimacy and, out of love for one another, work to satisfy each other’s desires. Here’s an inside look at this resource. (By the way we’ve found that even those with the best marriages love this book. That’s why their marriage is so strong—because they are always working at it.)
  • Bring this concern to God. On my prayer list for my wife and marriage, alongside of “help me be less selfish” is “help us have an intoxicating love life.”  (I believe in basing my requests on Scripture!) After all, God thought this thing up!  And HIS Word urges the married man struggling with straying sexual desires, Drink water from your own cisterns….Be intoxicated with her love.
  • I have found that when we surrender our sexuality to him, God delights to bless our effort to keep our sexual desires focused on our mate. Despite serious misunderstandings in this area with my wife, and numerous times of taking matters into my own hands, God has been wonderfully faithful when I have put my sexual appetite and our sexual relationship on the altar. He has helped me have hard conversations with my wife to better understand each other’s romantic/sexual desires, and to work (imperfectly) together to better satisfy them, (which is why we wrote, Intimacy: God’s Design For Marriage.)

OBSERVATION # 3 The enormous popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey may provide an insight into the widespread restlessness of the human heart. 

Biblical Lens.  "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might." Deut. 6:5.  We were created to have our hearts captivated with an over-powering love for God.

We humans want to have our hearts captured by something that intensifies our feelings.  Intoxicating lovemaking fits that description. So does the heart-pounding suspense of a thriller, the heart-lifting beauty of a great musical performance, the heart-satisfying triumph of the good guys at the end of the story. Perhaps the heart’s longing  to be captured by overpowering emotion explains why some folks love horror movies while others are captured by radical ideologies like radical Islam that blind them.

Sex and romance are significant idols of our day, promising far more heart satisfaction than they are capable of delivering.  Though God wants Christ-followers to be sexually drunk in their marriages, he does not want us looking to sex to provide more heart-satisfaction than it is able to provide.  CS Lewis said it best in his sermon, The Weight of Glory, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” 

The antidote to the heart’s restlessness as a believer may not be a better sex life but an intentional commitment to delight ourselves more in the Lord. “Delight yourself in the Lord,” writes the Psalmist “And he will give you the desires of your heart.” (Ps 37:4) Paul commands the church at Philippi, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice.” (4:4) To find joy in the Lord means to set time apart to celebrate his wonderful perfections, to bask in his unconditional love, to thank him for his enormous blessings, to be awed by his unfathomable greatness.  The regular vertical alignment of our hearts is a critical pre-emptive discipline in a culture that pays advertising executives six figures to flood our world with images designed to get our sexual engines revving.

OBSERVATION # 4 The enormous popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey, both the trilogy and the movie, ought to grieve our hearts.

Biblical Lens.  "When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." Matt 9:36

I should be inwardly weeping for all the little girls who grew up hoping that one day a wonderful man—a handsome prince-- would fall in love with them and be so captivated by their charm and beauty that they ask for her hand in marriage. These little princesses have grown up now. But were the truth known, millions, (both married and single), are still longing to be fully loved and wanted, despite their flaws, by a man.  Sadly, they are being taught that to be loved by a man they need to do despicable, degrading, humiliating things sexually. And this message is going out worldwide.

As you and I know, the name of the man their empty heart really longs for is Jesus Christ. As wonderful as human sexual union is, it is a type, pointing to a far greater, more pleasurable union that will one day be the joy of Christ-followers. We, Christ’s bride, will be spiritually joined eternally to our Bridegroom. Humans are created for God and he, ultimately, is the answer to our deepest heart longings. The world-wide popularity of Fifty Shades ought to cause us to see in a fresh way the unsatisfied condition of the human heart apart from Christ.  Lonely men and women across the globe are expecting more of romance and sex than they are capable of delivering.

Too often, the worldwide explosion of interest in the Fifty Shades of Grey Trilogy leaves me either condemning the non-believers, or being envious that they can get away with reading this erotica and I cannot. (How foolish!) When I think Biblically, however, I weep for those who are looking for heart satisfaction to an idol that will draw them in and enslave them. The answer to their heart longing is the unconditional love of Christ and the joy of a personal relationship with the most fantastic being in the universe.