When Jessi Bridges first heard about Fifty Shades of Grey through a fellow blogger, she had no idea what all the fuss was about.
But she found out quickly. Bridges’ social media networks soon exploded with women discussing the erotic novel—including, to her shock, many of her Christian friends. Bridges, a 27-year-old wife and mother, couldn’t understand how so many missed the danger of the book’s unbiblical message.
“This trilogy should be approached … as pornography, plain and simple,” she said. “Christians should absolutely avoid it.”
Now, as the immense popularity of the Fifty Shades trilogy carries into 2013, evangelical leaders are warning women to avoid falling prey to the novels’ dangerous but seductive message. Women, they say, must realize that Fifty Shades of Grey—with its blatant immorality, unrealistic fantasy, and plethora of violent and graphic sex scenes—is anything but “grey.”
When it first hit bookshelves two years ago, British author E.L. James’ underground erotica fan fiction became a mainstream best-seller almost overnight. To date, the trilogy (including Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed) has sold more than 65 million copies worldwide, according to the Daily Mail of London, setting records as the fastest-selling paperbacks of all time. Dubbed “mommy porn” by the media, because of the number of young mothers and suburban housewives snatching it off shelves, the stories chronicle the relationship between Anastasia Steele, a naive college graduate, and Christian Grey, the mysterious billionaire who pursues her.
Although praised as “a passionate love story” by millions, concerned evangelicals like Shannon Ethridge call Fifty Shades “a lust story.” Ethridge, a Christian speaker and author of a new response to the trilogy called The Fantasy Fallacy, said the novels breed ungodly and unrealistic expectations in women’s minds: “When we focus on intensity [in sexual relationships], we miss out on emotional intimacy.”
Ethridge also found the type of sexuality portrayed in the novels disturbing and unhealthy. In Fifty Shades of Grey, Grey asks Steele to contractually submit to painful experiences involving bondage, domination, and sadism—partly, readers learn, as a way of channeling revenge against his abusive mother. Ethridge believes that when real individuals entertain sexual fantasies, they are similarly (albeit unknowingly) seeking to deal with past emotional wounds. “Sexual fantasies are the brain’s way of trying to heal emotional trauma and unresolved emotional wounding,” she said.
And yet pornographic literature like Fifty Shades of Grey only medicates emotional pain—it never solves it, said Ethridge, adding that a healthy sexual relationship is trustful and emotionally healing, while James’ novels are candy-coated fantasies that would inflict enormous “physical, spiritual, and emotional baggage” on individuals in the real world.
Despite the books' unbiblical message, evangelicals like Ethridge know many Christian women who do read the novels but “whisper the confession” behind closed doors, fearing backlash from peers. Last month, the Huffington Post reported that leaders at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary hosted a “closed-door women's meeting” to discuss the impact of the novels’ increasing popularity within the church.
For most Christians leaders, the erotic nature and graphic sexual content of the Fifty Shades books are reason enough to keep away. But according to Dr. Susannah Clements, Christian professor of language and literature at Regent University, the foremost issue with James’ trilogy is not an overload of sex, but a lack of godly truth.
Fifty Shades of Grey is rife with incredibly potent, eroticized lies about sex and human nature, Clements said. The novels tell women that love is most exciting when it is dangerous or taboo, that relationships are most compelling when they’re about wielding power rather than exercising sacrificial love, and that “being used is a way of being treasured.”
To restore a healthy perspective on sexuality, Clements argued, Christians must confront the effects of a centuries-old church tradition: the view that denies the inherent goodness and value of sex within the bounds of marriage between a man and a woman. But viewed within a scriptural framework, the truth about sexuality is far from dirty or shameful. Nor is it awash in gray shades of ambiguity and compromise—rather, the truth about sexuality is a biblical, black-and-white design for freedom rather than bondage, healing rather than wounding.
Women can leave deceptive fantasy worlds far behind, Clements said, and embrace their sexuality as a beautiful, God-given gift to be used rightly both artistically and in practice: “Christians should seek for sexuality, just like every other aspect of life, to be placed under the Lordship of Christ and demonstrated in a way that expresses what’s true about who we are as humans, created by God.”