So … now that we have cleared the air about whether or not a Christian should watch 50 Shades of Grey, I want to share my reflections on the film. I would love to be able to say that it was a good film (it wasn’t) or that it’s surprisingly edifying (it’s not) or that you should go see it (don’t) but I can’t.
What the film does do (however unintentionally) is open up a conversation about how we approach sex and relationships as broken people. In that respect, it’s a cautionary tale as old as time that takes us right back to the beginning of Scripture and the human story.
At the beginning of the Bible, man and woman are created in God’s image and we are placed in the Garden of Eden. There we find two trees, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We are permitted to eat from the tree of life (but we don’t) and forbidden to eat from the tree of knowledge (but we do) … though not without influence. We are spurred on by the serpent who tempts us by reframing our understanding of what God is like:
4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
This is how sin and brokenness break into our world — when we seek to be like God, when we aspire to move from creature to creator. At the beginning of the story, Adam and Eve trust God and find their identity and place in him. When the eat of the tree, it is because their trust in him has been broken by the serpent. In the absence of trust comes a hunger for control, a need for dominion over our world — a need to be gods rather than God’s.
In the film, this is the first thing that we learn about Christian Grey (a character who I’m not sure whether to describe as protagonist or antagonist.) One of his first lines is: I am in complete control of every area of my life … which, when we explore it, is another way of saying ‘I am completely alone.’ The pursuit of control, as many of us know from experience, is a journey towards isolation and disconnection. Love cannot be controlled nor can it survive in a relationship of control. That’s why the tree of knowledge is in the Garden — because love must be chosen. There can be no love without choice and, therefore, love cannot exist in a system of control. Control is the antithesis to love and, for many, a way of protecting ourselves from the risk that love requires.
When Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge, their reaction teaches us so much about what it means to be part of broken humanity. Before God makes his presence known in the aftermath of their sin, they run into the woods and make clothing out of leaves. They don’t need to be told they have something to hide — they feel it. It is not an intellectual truth that can be examined but rather a visceral, guttural change in how they see themselves that drives them away from the light.
Shame always rides on the heels of sin. It is the shadow that sin casts.
When Adam and Eve make clothes it is another facet of their need for control, a way for them to define what is seen and what is not. Control kills intimacy. It shapes the world that others see and hides our true selves beneath our fig-leaf facade. It robs us of the chance to be known and the longer we remain unknown, the harder it is for us to feel loved.
Christian Grey’s outer world is picture perfect. He has the office, the cars, the apartment, the money and the looks to convince the world that he has it all together. It is an intricate and ornate fig-leaf that protects him from being known and this is an important part of the story. We know from the outset that he is hurting and hiding —and that’s ok. We all are. The problem is that we are never allowed beneath the mask.
Grey is accidentally similar to Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. At the start of the film, the Joker raises a knife to someone’s mouth and asks ‘Do you want to know how I got these scars?’ and the audience whispers internally, ‘Yes! I need to know what made you this way.’ He tells his story and we think we understand. Our understanding leads to compassion. Our compassion leads to empathy. And our empathy is suddenly torn to shreds by betrayal when he once again raises the knife to someone’s face, asks the same question and then tells a completely different story. We then realise that we never knew him, that he is the embodiment of the chaotic, destructive unknown.
With Grey, we see the mask he has put up and know that there is a dark story behind it — but it is a story he never tells. He alludes to it once or twice but never lets us in deeper. His secret is never shared and, without the secret, we cannot understand his violence. The film chooses to focus on the pain he inflicts rather than the pain he has borne so we end up caring more about the violence ending than his story changing.
The beauty of being human is that once you know someone’s story, you can’t help but long for their redemption, no matter who they have become. Sadly, Grey’s vulnerability only goes as far as ‘Someone hurt me. Now I have to hurt you.'
After the ‘Fall' and the ‘Covering’ in Genesis 3 comes the ‘Curse’, a passage that explains so much of our human brokenness. From this point on in the human story, men and women will face tendencies towards different struggles. Men will tend to struggle against the ground in their efforts to eke out a living and will find their identity in bending the world to their will. Women will tend to struggle against a need to be loved and finding their identity in relationships.
(No, I don’t think this is true of just one sex or the other.)
What is most frustrating about 50 Shades is an acceptance of these tendencies in the weaving of a paper-thin story about caricatures of masculinity and femininity at their worst. Grey needs to dominate and subjugate the world by the ‘sweat of his brow’ while Anastasia Steele is owned by her need to be loved by a man she doesn’t know and can’t trust. They are tragic figures hurtling towards further tragedy … and it has nothing to do with un-erotic sado-masochistic love making.
The reason I wanted to write about this film is that, as Christians, we can often be outraged by destructive things for the wrong reasons. 50 Shades of Grey is a bad film that tells a story we should push back against … but not just because it glorifies dominant-submissive relationships. What struck me most about it is that it simply accentuates and exaggerates the temptations that we already face.
It’s a tale as old as time.
We all long to minimise the risk that love requires by controlling others.
We all want to wear masks that will stop people from seeing our brokenness.
We all face the temptation to find our identity in our work or in our partner.
We all find it easier to be gods rather than be God’s.
If we are going to push back against the trends that have a destructive influence in our culture, our battle will not be against secret rooms of chains and whips. It will be against the secret parts of ourselves that need to dominate, manipulate or exploit. It will be against our fear of vulnerability and telling our secrets. It will be against the impulse to define ourselves by what we achieve or who we seduce.
It’s easy for us to whip ourselves into a frenzy about the sensational and extraordinary stories of our world that we don’t experience. What is harder is for us to talk about is the common, the day-to-day realities of disconnection, dominance and distortion that everyone faces, both within the Church and without.
What the world is crying out for is people whose pushing back begins with, ‘Here is my struggle. Here is my secret. Here is my failure.’ So let’s start there.