Fifty Shades of Grey

A Review from a Biblical Perspective

By September Grace

Stories have the power to change the world, and Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James threatens a cultural revision as to how we treat each other as people, especially within the context of an intimate relationship. But is Fifty Shades of Grey's influence damaging? Beneficial? Morally neutral? There are very few popular books that are one-hundred percent edifying, so why has Fifty Shades of Grey been singled out as a subject of such intense controversy?

When I started the book this summer I came into it with the goal to find at least one redeemable aspect that would explain to me why this book of all things had become such an incredibly huge phenomenon. Perhaps the writing was as poor as I had heard, but the storytelling would be good. Perhaps the characters would prove to be strong and complex. Perhaps there would be solid research, a fun side character, an interesting quirk...something.

But even with that frame of mind, the best I could come up with was, "Well, I liked the chauffeur for about a sentence."

While the easiest element to pick on is the explicit sexual content, well, it's an erotic romance. Explicit sex scenes are part of the deal when it comes to erotic romance; they create an integral part of the story's structure. These scenes do not make Fifty Shades of Grey any more "heinously evil" than the other books on its genre shelf. This isn't to say that its sexually explicit content isn't a problem; I would definitely advise steering clear of the book for this reason alone — just that it doesn't make the book special.

It's important to note from the start that Fifty Shades of Grey is a secular novel. It does not claim to present a Biblical view of love, and none of the characters are portrayed as remotely religious, let alone Christian. However, while I acknowledge it as secular fiction, I cannot acknowledge it as just fiction. James' bestselling book is not merely reveling in its five minutes of fame; it has made a clear impact on the lives of readers everywhere, as is evident in some of the following ways.

Back in 2012, Fifty Shades of Grey broke the record as the fastest selling paperback book ever [1], and following in its wake was a boom in the sex toy industry [2] and in rope sales [3]. In the meantime, even the pro-BDSM (an acronym for bondage and discipline; dominance and submission; sadism and masochism) crowd was (and is) frantically waving their hands, saying that the relationship between Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey is a dangerous and inaccurate portrayal of the BDSM lifestyle [4]. E.L. James' erotic romance trilogy has brought things that used to be discussed and practiced in secret into the mainstream, labeling them as desirable and exotic. Which leads me to ask some questions...

How does Fifty Shades of Grey treat people?

People are special. People have been made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). God formed man with an artist's love and affection (Genesis 2:7). Even after the Fall "God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life." (John 3:16) "We love, because He first loved us." (1 John 4:19)

Human beings are supposed to love each other, and we all have an innate desire to be cared for. Throughout the New Testament, Jesus places a heavy emphasis on showing love, compassion, care and respect for our fellow man (Matthew 22:37-39; John 21:15-17) and woman (John 4:1-26; John 8:1-11; Romans 16:1-2). (Also see: Matthew 5:42, Luke 10:30-37, Matthew 25:40) But none of these virtues are shown in Fifty Shades of Grey.

A sit down with Christian Grey

Given how swarms of women have sung the praises of Christian Grey (the "hero") as the "ideal man," I was expecting him to be more alluring. Stronger, or maybe even softer. Someone who was, in some way, charming and attractive. What I got instead was a character who was rich and allegedly good-looking who flaunted his power and needed to validate his own existence by manipulating and using someone weaker than him. While E.L. James refers to Grey as "in charge," he's more than that; he's controlling and possessive.

Throughout the book, Anastasia Steele (the "heroine") makes internal comments that she views Grey as "some kind of monster," laments about how she's intimidated by him, and expresses general annoyance at his super control-freak tendencies. The times she does stand up for herself and say, "No," Grey gets angry. Even when she tells him that he's scaring her, he doesn't respond except to command her to turn around so he can undress her. (A command to which she complies.)

And that's the pattern. He gets angry; he takes sex. He doesn't ask for it, he doesn't even demand it, he just leads in, orders Ana around, then begins to do what he wants to her. And she doesn't protest. As one reviewer put it, whenever conflict comes up between them, "they don't talk, they have sex." Grey takes what he wants because it pleases him, and, according to him, the desire to please him should be enough in and of itself to sustain Anastasia.

Biblically speaking, sex is intended to be the ultimate expression of intimate love and trust between a husband and wife. First Corinthians 7:3-5 says, "The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does." (See also Ephesians 5:22-33) In the proper context, sex should be the husband's selfless giving of himself to his wife, and the wife's selfless giving of herself to her husband. It goes both ways in terms of mutual consent. Seeking sexual gratification through control of your partner is sex without love.
"So you'll get your kicks by exerting your will over me."
"It's about gaining your trust and your respect, so you'll let me exert my will over you. I will gain a great deal of pleasure, joy even, in your submission. The more you submit, the greater my joy — it's a very simple equation."
"Okay, and what do I get out of this?"
He shrugs and looks almost apologetic.
"Me," he says simply.

    -Fifty Shades of Grey, E.L. James
It seems the only character in the book who sees Grey as less than noble is Ana's roommate, who is framed as being unnecessarily overprotective. Even Ana's parents like Grey. When Ana flies across the country to visit her mother and discuss her reservations about the man, her mother merely tells her, "Follow your heart, darling, and please, please — try not to overthink things." When Grey meets Ana's father, Grey turns up the charisma and wins the man's approval within one small talk session. They don't even take Ana's concerns into account.

...and a talk about Anastasia Steele.

Grey isn't the only problematic character. While Grey shouldn't be seen as desirable, neither should Anastasia be emulated. Despite her long list of cons regarding Grey, and how scared she is of him even before they're in a "relationship," she still chooses to stay. She still tries to change Grey to fit her ideal man. She pushes his one boundary of "don't touch me," and does an inner victory dance every time he doesn't get mad at her for breaking that solitary rule. Ana has almost as little respect for Grey as he does for her.

But she is also a reflection of the self-devalued view many women have of themselves. Ana has absolutely no sense of self-worth before meeting Christian Grey. She's portrayed as fidgety, dowdy, and almost cripplingly insecure. This is not, in and of itself, automatically a bad thing as literary devices go — if she grows, that is. But instead of growing to find herself worth something because of her innate value (something that even non-Christian characters often discover), Ana finds the entirety of her worth in Grey's lustful "need" for her. She recognizes that he needs her, and, regardless of what he needs her for, his attentions (no matter how harsh) are all she requires to feel important as a human being.

Ana and Grey's relationship set a low standard not just for women, but for people, and additionally reinforces this "sacrificial lamb" mindset that so many women have when it comes to trying to change a man. He says he needs her, and maybe if she just gives him what he needs, even if she doesn't like it, even if it's degrading and sub-human, he will eventually turn over a new leaf and come to care for her and cherish her. Fifty Shades of Grey tells a woman that this is all she's worth, but maybe if she works hard enough she'll earn the right to be loved by someone.

What is love?

But real love isn't earned, nor should it be withheld as a bargaining chip.

First Corinthians 13:4-7 paints a clear image of what love actually is: "Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."

Love is sacrificial. "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13)

Love is not conditional. "But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men." (Luke 6:35)

Grey does not love Ana. He wants to possess, control and use her, but he does not love her. While love is patient, Grey is mercurial. While love is kind and not jealous, Grey doesn't understand why Ana is crying after he hit her, and he desires to keep Ana as close to him as possible so no one else can reach her. While love is not arrogant, Grey flaunts his power. While love is selfless, Grey seeks Ana not for Ana's benefit, but to fulfill his own unchecked desires. Grey merely uses Ana as a sex toy that he has to handle just right so that he can get what he wants from it without it turning tail and running off.

Similarly, Ana sticks around because she believes Grey is the sole path to giving herself some measure of value. Without him, she sees herself as nothing. She's just as scared to let him go as he is to lose her. This isn't romantic, it's tragic.
I want his love. I need Christian Grey to love me. This is why I am so reticent about our relationship — because on some basic, fundamental level, I recognize within me a deep-seated compulsion to be loved and cherished.
    -Fifty Shades of Grey, E.L. James
Disney's Tangled and Frozen have more solid images of real love than Fifty Shades of Grey. Grey and Ana's version of love is a deflating lifeboat in a stormy ocean of doubt and panic. There is no sacrifice in their relationship. Some may argue that Ana makes grand sacrifices for Grey, but I would argue, in turn, that even then her tolerance is borne from her selfish desire to not lose his approval. It's not for him, it's for her.

If not love, what is Fifty Shades of Grey about?

The relationship between Ana and Grey seems to have a lot more in common with abuse than love. He manipulates her, scares her, and physically hurts her, and he doesn't see anything wrong with it.
"Part of my role is to look after your needs. You said you wanted me to stay, so here I am. And yet I find you [crying]." He blinks at me, truly bewildered. "I'm sure I'm responsible, but I have no idea why. Is it because I hit you?"
    -Fifty Shades of Grey, E.L. James
I'm not the first person to play the "abuse" card against Ana and Grey's relationship, but the most common defense I've heard for this couple is, "But it's consensual! So what's the problem?"

But arguing "mutual consent!" to defend an abusive environment isn't even valid. In an abusive environment, the victim is required to consent therefore voiding it as true consent at all. For most of Fifty Shades of Grey, Ana isn't allowed to say "no" to things because, after all, she's just a submissive and her job is to say "yes" — even though she never officially signed the contract with Grey. (Yes, there was an actual sex contract involved. And it was lengthy.)

But let's say this book is actually consensual throughout. They don't claim to hold to Christian values, so yes they can do what they want. If she says, "Sure, you can treat me like dirt!" and she's fine with it, then what? Does that make Grey's treatment of her as sub-human acceptable? No! God shows us how to treat each other, and God's instructions should always come before people's preferences. Even if we don't claim to follow God or Christian morals, most people will rally to defend a person identified as "abused" because we all have an innate sense of right and wrong (Romans 1:18-21).

Maybe we need to go back to a more basic question: "Why is abuse wrong in the first place?"

Because it is degrading. It is dehumanizing. It is a mistreatment of a person who has been created in the image of God with God's power because of that very God's love and affection. Love does not always mean giving people what they want, but instead seeking to best encourage them toward being more Christ-like.

Why is Fifty Shades of Grey so popular?

There are many women who love Fifty Shades of Grey for the exciting element they say it adds to their sex lives. Other women call it porn, like it as porn, and make no other defense as to why they read and enjoy the books. E.L. James herself said she doesn't know why her books are selling so insanely fast, that it was just her own personal "mid-life crisis" fantasy [5]. But when asked if she thought women secretly desired to be submissive, she answered with, "Possibly, yes. You're in charge of your job, your house, your children, getting food on the table and doing all of this all of the time, it'd be nice for someone else to be in charge for a bit." [5]

But Grey's in-chargeness should not be viewed as a positive or desired image of leadership. Whereas Biblical leadership lies in the husband's sacrifice to give himself to his wife and to seek her best interests, Grey's dominance is just greedy possession of Ana as a means to an end. Similarly, Ana isn't submissive because of the love and trust built between her and Grey, she's merely silenced into a pattern of passivity and docile acceptance.

Fifty Shades of Grey paints an image for women that being devalued and used is desirable. It perpetuates the idea that true masculinity means being uncontrollably violent. (Both of these concepts perpetuate the problem of downplaying the seriousness of rape.) Fifty Shades speaks of an exclusively selfish and manipulative definition of "love."

If women want a strong man, they would not want Christian Grey, because it takes more strength to love than to harm. If women want a man that showcases true masculinity, they do not want Christian Grey, because true masculinity lies in self-control, taking responsibility, and caring for the weak and timid — not exploiting them.

On a Personal Note...

I'll be honest. I haven't read many romance novels. They're not really my thing. However, I have discussed — at length and in-depth — the romance novel industry with a close Christian friend who is directly involved with it. Personally, I don't like the treatment of sex as a mandatory plot point, and I don't like the general pitying attitude toward virginity.

But I have no issue with those who enjoy reading romance novels. I believe that it is up to each individual Christian to thoughtfully consider and decide what they will and will not read (Romans 14). Because of this, I would have brushed off Fifty Shades of Grey as just another book that wasn't my cup of tea. And that's what I did for the last few years, figuring it would just fade away like everything else.

But instead of fading into the background, Fifty Shades of Grey has thrown open doors that used to be collectively ignored as taboo. While this isn't always a bad thing, it is a bad thing when those doors are not treated with discernment. While it's rash to throw the baby out with the bath water, it's just as reckless to automatically accept something as harmless or prudent merely because it's slipped into general conversation or acceptance.

As I was reading Fifty Shades of Grey there were multiple points where I felt so filthy that I wound up taking an extra shower. For me, this was not an enjoyable read. Instead of being able to laugh it off, or being able to see it as a harmless fantasy, I just felt incredibly depressed by the time I closed the book. While Fifty Shades of Grey did help me appreciate the real men in my life all the more in contrast to Christian Grey, it also placed a seed of discouragement in my heart that men might be getting the idea that Grey is the type of man women want. He certainly isn't the type of man I'd want. But a poor view of men and women wasn't the only damaging misinformation this book propagated.

Instead of carefully and delicately handling the highly sensitive topics of sex and BDSM, Fifty Shades of Grey flaunts the topics like it has just unearthed the juiciest town gossip ever. Because of this book, millions of people have been given an immature, ill-advised and harmful introduction to the BDSM subculture, and they are anxious to try it out. Because of this book, erotic romance and erotica (which many call literary porn) have become mainstream and acceptable. It's not the book itself that really matters, but rather the shift in culture it has encouraged, and the subliminal messages its popularity could be planting in our moral compasses.

Many people see nothing wrong with this book. Many people see nothing wrong with Christian Grey or Anastasia Steele or how their relationship works. And, in all fairness, whether or not someone chooses to read Fifty Shades of Grey is not a salvation issue. Nor should it be treated as such.

However, the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey does open up a unique opportunity to discuss the true biblical definition of love that centers around sacrifice, not selfishness. If we have friends who adore the book, we can talk about it with them. Why do they like it? What draws them in? Would they want Christian Grey as a significant other or to be in Anastasia Steele's shoes? If so, why? We cannot change anyone's mind, but we can be open to respectful and kind discussion. Perhaps God will even use some of our questions and inquiries to grow people or draw people to Him. We really can never know.

Right now Fifty Shades of Grey is just fun, dirty reading for many people, but it's possible that for many others, Fifty Shades of Grey is, or will become, a frightening reality. We need to be ready to respond to the potential repercussions of this culture shift — not just in a reactionary way, but in a biblically sound and compassionate manner.

[1] Paul Bentley; "'Mummy porn' Fifty Shades of Grey outstrips Harry Potter to become fastest selling paperback of all time;" Daily Mail.

[2] Steve Cooper; "Fifty Shades Arouses More Than Book Sales;" Forbes.

[3] "Boom in rope sales tied to bondage novel?;" NBC News.

[4] avflox; "The Troubling Message in Fifty Shades of Grey;" BlogHer.

[5] Michelle Kosinski; "'Fifty Shades' author 'stunned' at success of erotic trilogy;" Today Books.

TagsBiblical-Truth  |  Christian-Life  |  Controversial-Issues  |  Current-Issues  |  Personal-Relationships  |  Sin-Evil  |  Womens-Issues

Published 9-17-14