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Sex In The Story: One Shade Of Black

Why are professing Christian readers, mostly women, reading and enjoying the pornographic novel “Fifty Shades of Grey,” and are overtly defending this practice? This is worse than Harry Potter hysteria or angst over supposed witchcraft in stories.
| Jul 5, 2012 | No comments | Series:

It’s not our main mission, but here at Speculative Faith we spend a fair amount of time debunking myths (and sometimes plain lies) that Christians believe about stories. So it’s almost refreshing to have one kind come along that I can whole-heartedly condemn.

Moreover, I don’t even need to work hard at the condemnation.

Don’t be such a legalist. Come on in. The “water” is fine.

Why are big-city bookstores putting displays of overt immorality up front? Even they don’t do the same for magazines or videos featuring naked people. Why did I see a copy lying face-up, unhidden, on a woman’s desk in a professional office environment? No man would leave similar material on his work desk or computer screen. Why the double standard?

Furthermore, why are professing Christian readers, mostly women, reading and enjoying the pornographic novel Fifty Shades of Grey, and are overtly defending this practice?

This is worse than Harry Potter hysteria or angst over supposed witchcraft in stories. And it’s not even a slightly trickier issue, like a TV series such as Game of Thrones or a movie such as Titanic that does show naked people but also have other things going on. It’s not even a “romance” novel that merely contains sex scenes. The book I’m talking about is plain sin, impure and simple. That’s its only intent. What’s so difficult about discerning it as such?

First, Scripture itself refutes the lie that any practice is by default “neutral”:

[…] Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.

Romans 14:23

Note: this applies even to things that are, by themselves, not sin-causing! How much more does this apply to something utterly un-redemptive!

[Paul quotes the equivalent of Corinthian advertising slogans] “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!

1 Corinthians 6: 12-15

Note: Paul, inspired by the Spirit, never condemns us being exposed to violence or swearing or false beliefs — he only condemns exposure to sexual immorality.

Again I can cheat, by quoting the Biblical wisdom of friends, other bloggers, and Christian reviewers who have challenged this disturbing trend. It also helps that they’re women.

From fantasy novelist (and Speculative Faith contributor) Morgan Busse:

What makes a book filled with descriptive sex any different than pornography? Both are visually stimulating. Both contain graphic content. And both are addictive.

[…]

I write this post as a call to Christian women. For some, it is a warning about books like these. I stumbled into these kinds of books when I was a young girl and wish I had never opened the covers. I had no idea books with graphic sex existed. I had been taught that to look at naked people in photos was wrong, but not about books with naked people. So as a fellow Christian woman to another, I am warning you now that these books exist, and to be careful with what you read.

[…] Reading books like these is no different than your husband sitting down with the latest Playboy. How would you feel if you saw him do it? How do you think he would feel about your book?

From homeschool mom and anti-unbiblical-“patriarchy” advocate Karen Campbell:

There are other reasons Christian women are reading and recommending this series of books without thought to how they are opening the door wide open for husbands to look at porn and children to allow “naughtiness,” ie, fornication and perversion, into their own lives. In a sex saturated culture where commercials for hamburgers and back to school clothing at Penny’s threaten the purity of the marriage bed, lust is never satisfied. Perhaps the simple beauty of a married and committed one man, one woman relationship seems boring if not antiquated but we are foolish to think so.

From Dannah Gresh at TrueWoman.com:

Fifty Shades of Grey is classified as erotic fiction. According to one online dictionary, this genre of literature is defined as that which has “no literary or artistic value other than to stimulate sexual desire.” I’ve been studying what God says about sexuality for fifteen years. According to Him, there is only one who should stimulate sexual desire in me: my husband. Since that’s God’s plan for my sexual desire, anything other than my husband creating arousal in me would be missing the mark of God’s intention. (Translation: It is sin.)

We could end the discussion here: It’s sin. Don’t do it.

Someone might say, and the thought has also occurred to me: “Being tempted isn’t a sin, only following that temptation. So I could read this, take the good parts, and not really sin.

That’s fine, just so long as I could also enjoy some porn movies, take the “good parts” and “not sin.” Wish me and other Christian men good luck, because that’s all the good we’ll have with that — God’s goodness and glory wouldn’t be the aim of such debauchery. Also, women can see through such stupid excuse-making a mile away. Let’s be consistent here.

Apart from that, during a recent discussion, friend and SF contributor Adam Ross helped clarify the difference between temptation and sin, relating to pornographic fiction:

I’m reading an awful lot here that confuses temptation and sin. […] Looking at porn is not the temptation but the sin. The temptation is the desire or thought of opening up a browser window and typing in an address. When you do that, you’ve crossed over into enacting the temptation. This confusion clearly illustrates the pressing need to address temptation in the Church, I think.

Much tastier and with fewer contaminants (that is, unless the replicators glitch).

Finally, perhaps the best commentary on the subject comes from my friend, Christian:

I’d prefer Fifty Shades of Earl Grey.

“Tea. Earl Gray. Hot.” That’s a kind of heat anyone (tea lovers, anyway) can appreciate with pure motives.

Now for questions.

  1. What are your thoughts about this book and “erotic fiction”?
  2. What story or kind of story have you read and later regretted?
  3. What books or even genres do you, right or wrong, consider irredeemable?

(Note: because of last Saturday’s cancellation of the live Reading Group at my church, that series will continue next week.)

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Paul Lee
Member

I don’t disagree, but someone has to have read it in order to legitimately tell us that its entire purpose is sinful.  Otherwise, how can we know for certain that it’s not really a “mixed bag” with a lot of garbage thrown in, but with a legitimate artistic purpose?  The more people condemn without knowing what they are condemning, the more rumors grow, and the rumors might not be true.  This is what happened to Harry Potter.
 
I’m not trying to be adversarial.  I’m certain that 50 Shades of Gray is bad, and I believe the hysterical condemnation of Harry Potter was misguided.  I just need to see the consistency.  How can we know that we’re right about 50 Shades of Gray when a lot of Christian critics were certain that Harry Potter was of the Devil?
 

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

That’s why I would issue the implicit disclaimer: if I’m wrong in the assertion that it’s a book about an unmarried couple, in which the man controls the virginal woman with all kinds of deviancies and nasty stuff, then someone should step up and say so. But don’t concede the point and make it worse — as many professing-Christian readers are doing — by not even answering that claim, but instead saying “It’s a story!” or “It could help with my marriage.” Cheap baloney. If that’s true, then let’s be fair; Christian men can now legitimately take out Playboy subscriptions to “help their marriages.”

Galadriel
Guest

In another Christian discussion,  I read that 50 Shades began as an AU Twilight fanfic, where Edward, Bella, and Jacob are humans.  Wish I could find the link, but the information is available. While authors aren’t responsible for their fanfiction, it makes me even more wary of the Twilight fandom.

C.L. Dyck
Guest

The Editorial Department currently has someone blogging about 50 Shades and fanfic. They include a link to Galleycat’s find of the original story in online archival form.
http://www.editorialdepartment.com/blog/item/coming-out-of-the-fanfiction-closet

Christian
Guest
Christian

Eh. You can find that crap in even the most innocent of fandoms, like Tintin and Tolkien. If we live in a sinless world, I’ll eat my hat.

Kessie Carroll
Member

Yeah, that’s how the book got popular. The author had a fanbase for her fanfics first, and they bought the book en-masse when she published it. That’s all you need for a bestseller.
 
I’ve quietly battled against the whole fanfic-porn thing my entire fanfic career. I want to read extended universe stories, dangit. I don’t want to see the author’s favorite pairings in page after page of sewage. So I wrote stories without porn and if people don’t like that, tough.
 
I haven’t read Fifty Shades because I’m not much of a Twilight fan (read all four books and went “meh” way back before Twilight was a Thing), and I’m not interested in reading fanfic porn of it. Having read Twilight, and extrapolating from it the way I know fic writers do, I don’t need to know any more than that.

Kessie Carroll
Member

It does highlight a deeper issue about women reading romance novels by the truckload and never getting taken to task about it. One thing I’ve noticed is that those women usually have awful marriages or are divorced. A lot of romance writers are, too. I think I’ve encountered one in five who was still married.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Ordinarily I would agree that “this is another reason for me to avoid fanfiction,” except that I already avoid it quite naturally. I might as well say, “That’s it, I’m boycotting the Saw franchise and Bob the Builder products.”

From what I understand — from the Wiki page, anyway — the book was revised before “official” publication so it wouldn’t technically be Twilight derivative. Still, the very fact that it’s blatantly marketed as not only pornographic “erotica,” but of the power-and-control variety, means this really shouldn’t be that tough a discernment issue.

Right?

Evidently not; not if “just avoid [insert sin] and it will be fine” is one’s only criterion for supposedly acceptable fiction reading. Surprise, surprise. Christian Fiction Reader Sr. inserts “cursing, violence, sex scenes” in between those brackets, and Christian Fiction Reader Jr. inserts “legalism.” Either way, bad criterion.

Michelle R. Wood
Member

Ahh, Stephen, don’t condemn fanfiction! Fanfiction helped bring about His Majesty’s Dragon, and some of the best genre stories I’ve ever read. The fact that some people use this forum to fulfill their [weird, sick, insert adjective here] fantasies is no reason to avoid a writing format that could be quite fun. I’ll agree, a good 75% to 90% of it is blatant wish fulfillment and drek, but there are some real diamonds in the rough out there if you no where to look for it.
On the main subject of discussion, I’d really like us to avoid blanket statements that lump the entire romance genre (and its readers) with erotica. That’s about the same as lumping all superhero movies (and their fans) into superhero porn. There are plenty of women out there who enjoy a simple romance story purely as a small diversion and who, in fact, flocked to the Christian romance scene primarily to avoid graphic sexual content. They are not necessarily unhappy/frustrated in their marriage, or looking for an escape from a dreary existence. They happen to like stories where people fall in love.
I’ll use the same argument here I used on the Her.meneutics blog post where romance and porn were equated: aside from speculative novels, my books of choice come from the mystery aisle. There can be a lot of graphic content in crime novels, more on the violence side than of a sexual nature (though there’s a lot of that too with certain authors). In fact, I’d say some crime novels are unduly focused on the violence/gore instead of offering a good story, to the point that the reader is being stimulated purely on an animalistic level. However, I think it’s a poor argument that anyone who indulges in a good mystery (or even a penny dreadful) is sick, twisted, or otherwise prone to criminal tendencies.
I’m not arguing with your main point, Stephen. (Actually, I think a real problem with any story primarily consisting of erotica is that, stripped of the titillation factor, it’s incredibly boring stuff). What I do want to point out is that there are plenty of “fantasy” novels that I think are probably just as bad as this book (though I can’t specifically address either, having not read them, just seen the covers in casual passes at the library). Does that mean we give up the whole genre? I believe one of the points of this blog is to say “No.” Likewise, we should not throw out the whole Romance genre (and its readers) due to a similar consolidation.

Galadriel
Guest

As for the fanfiction element,  it can have good and bad elements like any other writing. I both read and write it–mainly for Doctor Who, and I have found some really good stories with character development and stirring plots, and I have found terrible junk that is un-formatted wish fulfillment. I just brought up the fanfiction element because I thought it was intriguing,

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Furthermore, there’s likely an even better reason to avoid this kind of stuff:

It’s just plain stupid.

Seriously, I wonder. With all the wonderful stories out there — dealing with wondrous worlds, glories and splendors, fantastic creatures, and titanic struggles between good and evil that reflect our world in greater reality — why would anyone want to indulge instead in a three-volume series all about consensual rape and physical abuse?

Perhaps this says more about human nature than we would care to admit.

Krysti
Guest

Stephen,

Addressing what Bainespal wrote:  since the flap started over Harry Potter, I’ve been a little wary of Christian reviews that essentially boil down to “this is bad because EVERYONE Christian says this is bad and therefore you shouldn’t read it.” I get the impression that you feel that way too.

A few days ago, before I saw any Christians discussing the book, a friend shared a review of Shades of Grey by a secular woman who is into the power and control scene.

Her reaction to this book–and the sequels–was an appallingly frank listing of the story’s flaws; a thoroughly disgusted annoyance at the story line’s complete divorcement from reality; and an appalled amazement at the denigration of women evidenced by the glorification of the leading man’s manipulative and controlling behaviors that were never checked or thwarted in any realistic way by the leading lady. Even though she voices objections to some of his expressed desires, he insists on his way, and she lets him have it almost every time, with the completely unrealistic result of her total happiness with him, and his redemption and eventual capitulation. 

I got the best sense of what was in those books from that review — by someone unsaved who frankly admitted she had hoped for better in the power and control department.

Most of the rest of her list of what constituted better included the type of plot development and elements of good story that I could agree with as a Christian. She didn’t like Twilight either. I’m not into vampires, and I’m not going to read Twilight for many of the same reasons she gave, too.

My point for you: there are plenty of unsaved people out there who read these books. I’m not sure that a Christian reviewer always has to.

If you as a reviewer want to skip Shades Of Grey, I’m sure there are a thousand other books published just this year that you could read instead, some of them undoubtedly worse, but many of them much better. The world will survive quite well without yet one more reviewer filling head or heart with the dreck in this book.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Finally I get the chance to respond to some comments. (For about a week I’ve had a cold and sinus infection; otherwise I would have been much quicker.)

From Krysti:

since the flap started over Harry Potter, I’ve been a little wary of Christian reviews that essentially boil down to “this is bad because EVERYONE Christian says this is bad and therefore you shouldn’t read it.” I get the impression that you feel that way too.

You mean, you get the impression I feel the same as expressed in that quote? Or do you mean you believe I feel the same as you? If the latter, that’s the truth!

In fact, if even one person who actually read the book stepped forward and said, You’re actually wrong on this one; Christians are in fact lying or repeating myths about this book also, my position would be thrown into question. That’s what I kept saying back when I was critiquing The Shack, based on reviews from readers. But no one ever said “You’re wrong about the book’s content.” Ultimately they could only say, “It doesn’t matter,” or, “It’s just a story.” I reject those lines. And they are also the only “rebuttals” any professing-Christian porn defender could give.

I’m not sure that a Christian reviewer always has to.

Yes, there is no need. In fact, I believe that even for me to read this book would be sexually sinful. Just because it’s porn-made-mainly-for-women doesn’t mean it would not be porn to me also; though it could be porn that doesn’t “work” on me as effectively. As Adam pointed out in that discussion, reading the book would not merely bring exposure to temptations. Reading the book would be in response to temptations — willfully asking for even more and giving in to those sinful desires.

It would be remiss to end this comment without this reminder: that nothing we can do on our own to avoid this book will impress God. Only through Christ’s atoning sacrifice and resurrection, the Gospel, is sin defeated.

C.L. Dyck
Guest

It stuns me how much conflict and confusion these books are causing among Christian women on blog reviews, and how compelled they seem to feel about asking each other’s opinion of the books. It came up again recently in a homeschooling forum I frequent. Twice in two weeks, come to think of it. Seems everyone knows someone who wants to read them or thinks it’s okay because it’s a “redemptive” storyline or will help their marriage. (????? A-That’s a very sick marriage, indeed, then. B-What on earth skewed notions are already in these women’s heads about their husbands as people and partners, that they would ask such things of them?)

Alison
Guest
Alison

Some really interesting discussion here and I’m glad it’s going deeper than just ‘this is porn don’t read it’. When I first heard about the books I thought ‘these are not for me’, but was then asked to read them for a review (for Christians). I am surprised that the original reviewer here is male, as this is not male fiction. My husband of 30 years assures me that the fantasies are much more female (he skim-read the first one), and I would agree.
I find the comments here on the romance genre extremely interesting because what this book boils down to, stripped of all the sex, is a romance of the sort which I actually think is almost as ‘pornographic’ as the explicit erotica. Why? because it’s the fairy-tale plot of slightly clumsy, doesn’t-think-she’s-attractive girl who meets Mr tall, handsome, rich stranger and falls for him at first sight. He falls for her and eventually, after trials and tribulations they get married and live happy ever after. For a bonus, she rescues him from the traumas of his past and gives him beautiful healthy children.
Why do I say ‘porn’? It’s because I think this kind of fantasy is perpetuating the myth of our times that to be ‘in love’ means an intense passion, that you must have fantastic sex every time, that you can find this amazing one person and even if your man is emotionally scarred or hurt you (the woman) can rescue and restore him. Life is not like that, but that’s what we get fed by films, books, advertising and so on.
As for the sex scenes, in the end they do get a bit tedious, though undoubtedly making the books live up to the title of ‘erotica’. What’s more worrying is the heroine’s submission to some of the more extreme controlling sex. While I don’t have a problem with Christians using sex toys if it helps, even the willing submission of a woman to being tied up is problematic, demeaning and harmful. You only have to contrast this with the Song of Songs, where in very sensual poetry two lovers pour their hearts out in praising and appreciating one another.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

I am surprised that the original reviewer here is male, as this is not male fiction.

This, however, is not a review. Almost all the reviews on this site are of Christian speculative novels. This thing is nothing of the sort, with its anti-Christian stuff — but from what you wrote, it sounds more “speculative” in the worst way possible!

It’s the fairy-tale plot of slightly clumsy, doesn’t-think-she’s-attractive girl who meets Mr tall, handsome, rich stranger and falls for him at first sight. He falls for her and eventually, after trials and tribulations they get married and live happy ever after. For a bonus, she rescues him from the traumas of his past and gives him beautiful healthy children.

That is just ridiculous.

The exact reverse of anatomical enlargement done to please men.

It’s not real, and never was, and never will be.

Now imagine the credence this gives to women who are in legitimate abusive relationships and already believe, deep down, that they can Tame the Beast and live happily ever after. Along comes some escapist con-artist to put it into words. Great.

Suddenly Twilight‘s abusive-relationships themes seem not-so-bad. Also “great.” Will we need to keep saying that against those who invent new ways of doing evil?