50 Shades of GRACE
by Kristyn Komarnicki
"In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." Telling the truth about sex and intimacy, about what our bodies are designed to do and be, and about the inseparability of sexuality and spirituality is indeed revolutionary. In a society that systematically and aggressively commodifies the human body and short-sheets relationships—in a world where sexual violence and domination are spun as romance and love (a la the cultural phenomenon known as 50 Shades of Grey)—we can easily lose sight of what is real, what is true.
Neither the books nor the film version of E. L. James' blockbuster trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey portrays truth. Like the books, the film attempts to enrapture women and men of all ages with its slick, fairy-tale fantasy of a dashing young billionaire whisking a recent college grad off to his world of penthouses, private helicopters … and torture chamber. Although the leading man, Christian Grey, is presented as someone to be pitied for a loveless childhood defined by sadomasochistic sexual abuse at the hands of a woman, the story puts a seductive veneer on his proclivity for sexual violence. While he possesses virtually all of the potentially dangerous characteristics of a domestic abuse perpetrator—jealous, controlling, sadistic, hypersensitive, moody, power-wielding—he is presented as an attractive lover. And although he "can't make love" (his words—he prefers something "harder"), we are expected to believe that his love-interest, Ana Steele, will eventually cure him of his abusive past. By taking him to therapy? By encouraging him to surrender to a Higher Power? No, apparently it's much simpler than that—by submitting to his sophisticated brand of sexual torture.
Domination and submission; master and sex slave, an arrangement sealed by a legal contract: These are the elements that form the core of the story. Fifty Shades of Grey takes the childhood sexual abuse of a boy and the vulnerability of a fatherless girl and serves it up as erotic romance. One human in complete control of another, a "red room of pain" equipped with chains and horsewhips: In reality, this is the stuff of nightmares (and crime reports), yet the publishing house and film studio present it as a Cinderella dream.
A number of wise people have invested in exploring why it's such a powerful fantasy (the popular success—and influence—of the Fifty Shades phenomenon cannot be overstated), and I recommend that you check some of them out (start with Pulling Back the Shades and The Fantasy Fallacy), so I won't go into that here. But as someone who advocates for healthy sexual expression and the joys of true intimacy, I am deeply concerned about the Kool Aid we have been drinking in our society, as well as in the church: A 2013 Barna study announced that 9 percent of practicing Christians have read the novels (dubbed "Mommy porn" by some news outlets), which is the same percentage of all American adults who have read them.
At ESA we want to tell a story about how relationships really work, about "what women want" and what truly satisfies men. We may be in the minority, but we don't believe we are alone. We believe there are lots of folks who long for a better story, one that offers real hope, depicts healing, and maps the road to true intimacy.
We believe there are lots of people, like you perhaps, who want to know the truth, and want to tell the truth, but don't know where to start. How can we share our concerns about the falsehoods depicted in Fifty Shades of Grey without coming off as gloom-and-doom culture critics? How can we engage those around us with something better, something joyful and true? How can we share the source of the hope that lies within us? Hollywood and E.L. James have presented us with a huge opportunity here for dialogue and discussion of important issues—how can we take advantage of this?
In an effort to provide some tools for reflection and engagement, we launched a 50 Shades of GRACE campaign to help you wreak revolution by reflecting on and sharing the revolutionary truth about God's life-giving, joyful purposes for our sexuality and relationships. Our hope is that you will focus on them in your prayer time, find fodder in them for conversations with your friends, and share them far and wide through your social networks.