Oh God, So Funny It Hurts
The mystics say you can find God anywhere. I believe many women have found him in “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
The trilogy has sold more than 10 million copies, mostly to women over 30 who can’t put the books down. Publishing rights have been sold in 37 countries and movie rights have been secured by Universal.
The books chronicle the relationship between a dominating male entrepreneur, Christian Grey, and a young female college graduate, the submissive Anastasia Steele. The series has been mulled by many writers who have debated whether or not this is a setback for women, to be attracted to a submissive relationship, or a breakthrough, to be able to openly read and discuss a book so sexually explicit that it is often referred to in the media as “mommy porn.”
In his book “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics,” Ross Douthat writes, “In this America, too, the Christian teaching that every human soul is unique and precious has been stressed, by the prophets of self-fulfillment and gurus of self-love, at the expense of the equally important teaching that every human soul is fatally corrupted by original sin. Absent the latter emphasis, religion becomes a license for egotism and selfishness, easily employed to justify what used to be considered deadly sins. The result is a society where pride becomes ‘healthy self-esteem,’ vanity becomes ‘self-improvement,’ adultery becomes ‘following your heart,’ greed and gluttony become ‘living the American dream.’”
The “Fifty Shades” books celebrate these qualities. Certainly the kinky sex is outside the norm, yet reading about it has mesmerized and even “inspired” women and to improve their marriages and even their lives.
If “Fifty Shades of Grey” is religion, is it Ross Douthat’s nightmare of bad religion? It is certainly all about instant gratification. Is that what women are searching for? Or is it more nuanced?
Read the whole thing. For the kind of thing it is, it cannot be improved on. See especially the part about how Mother Teresa was a sort of masochist, just like the pervy chick in “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Not even Christopher Buckley at his most satirical could make Sally Quinn’s theological musings up.
UPDATE: Edward Hamilton has a good comment, worth of an Evans-Manning Award:
Despite the frequent use of the term “mommy porn” in various trend-watching news items, I have yet to see any hard statistics supporting this interpretation. “Mostly to women over 30″ sounds like the kind of lazy statement made by someone who attempted to back a few anecdotes with about five minutes of fact-checking, and settled for just repeating the same claim that everyone else was making, on the grounds that you can’t get fired for running with a crowd.
I’m wary of anyone who tries to write an opinion piece in which an entire paragraph consists of questions. It’s a cop-out that amounts to saying “I suspect that there’s a good point to made here, but I’d rather pass on to you the duty of making it myself.”
That being said, I don’t doubt that there’s some reasonable argument to be made for sexuality being the only force powerful enough to occupy the spiritual space vacated by urban secularization. If you’re hungry for deeper meaning in your life, and you refuse to allow God to play a foundational role in your personal philosophy, there’s just no alternative. You need the emotional power of sexual experiences, and you need them coupled to the same quasi-religious power dynamics that Abrahamic covenantal monotheism formerly provided.
Human beings by nature need to worship, and deprived of a God for the object of that worship, the only other options are “nature” and “other humans”. Given a choice between a limp, anodyne spirituality with a toothless god-entity who makes no claims on human behavior, versus a charismatic billionaire playboy who ties up women with neckwear and scolds them for failing to respond to his masculine charisma and obsessive behavior…. well, I have a lot of sympathy for women who are choosing the latter. At the very least, it sounds more exciting.
Read through the Jewish scriptural narrative. Do you see a God who resembles the average mainline church’s blandly inspirational Life Coach in the Sky, or do you find a jealous and protective husband who insists that Israel follow strict behavioral codes, upon pain of discipline? The novels sound like perfectly dreadful literature, aesthetically speaking (I’ve only seen paragraph excerpts), but I bet they’re still doing a better job of getting in the rough vicinity of divine truth than most of the homilies you’ll hear at the local ELCA congregation.
It’s important to remind ourselves, as Lewis said in the Weight of Glory, that the Lord finds our passions not too strong, but too weak. Authentic spiritual practice is not more respectable and less dangerous than kinky sex; it’s much less respectable and much more dangerous (and costly). Any “dominating male entrepreneur” who required of his women the same set of prostrations and dietary restrictions and ceremonial observations of a single Lent in the OCA would be considerably more transgressive than anything I’d expect to find in one of these lightweight novels.