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7 Lessons from 50 Shades of Grey

The trailer is smoldering temptingly on computers around the globe. Fans of the book are checking their diaries and booking tickets online. Reviewers are readying their pens and preparing their remarks. In just a few short days 50 Shades of Grey will hit the big screen, just in time for Valentine’s Day.

On one level, this is just another in a long line of films with a storyline that portrays sex and relationships in ways far removed from God’s design. But it is so much more than that. I believe that 50 Shades of Grey can serve as a kind of cultural barometer that alerts us to the colossal changes that have been occurring in recent years, and to the consequences they bring.

So what can the 50 Shades phenomenon teach us today? I teamed up with Helen Thorne, who has written Purity Is Possible: How To Live Free of the Fantasy Trap, and together we prepared 7 lessons from 50 Shades of Grey.

Erotica Is In

Erotica used to be considered “artsy,” a niche interest with maybe just a hint of the clandestine thrown in. Erotica has been a popular genre for some time now, but has generally been one that remained muted in the marketplace, and especially when it was targeted squarely at women. But erotica has evolved. It has moved from shop-floor to shop-front, from might-read to must-read, from late-night theater to prime-time theater. This is a phenomenon we can lay largely at the door of 50 Shades. In 2012, a genre whose best-selling titles might sell 70,000 or 90,000 copies suddenly had a product that was flying off the shelves in its millions. It flew off the shelves and onto the bedside tables of women across the globe. Did you know that it was the #1 bestselling book of 2012, and the #2 bestselling book in 2013? No longer a style of book to be read behind closed doors, 50 Shades and its two sequels established erotica as a genre to be read on buses, restaurants, in the office over lunch, and one to be discussed freely, openly, and without shame. Three years on, we see women (and men) now willing to buy explicit material not just for themselves or their partners but for their mother, aunt, and daughters as well. And the pundits would have us believe that 50 Shades is going to be a box office smash when it launches later this month.

Sex Isn’t Just For Men

Maybe it is too obvious to say, but women are sexual beings. In recent years a great deal of attention has been focused on pornography—internet pornography especially. Unfortunately, almost all the attention has been given to men, primarily young men, and the shocking quantities of porn they consume. But the 50 Shades phenomenon highlights the fact that women are sexual beings as well, and that women have sexual struggles of their own. These struggles may take a different form than they do for many men, but they are really the same at their core—deep-rooted heart idolatries that seek comfort, control, pleasure and fulfillment through what God forbids. 50 Shades and other erotica is far from innocuous, far from just fun—it’s a real battleground for the hearts and minds of women.

Erotica Is Dangerous

Erotica has its appeal (which is why it sells in such quantities, of course). The steamy and sensual scenes it portrays resonate deeply with readers of many ages and backgrounds. For some, the stories echo experiences they have found pleasurable in their past. For others, the narrative fuels plans for the future. For others still, the storyline offers to fill (even if just fleetingly) the relational void left by loneliness, marital strife, or the pain of abuse. For a few short hours the words of a book or the images on screen transport consumers to a more comfortable, more pleasurable place. But such experiences are not without their cost. Individuals enter in to the narrative and join with the characters in their quest for pleasure—or pain (both figure prominently in 50 Shades of Grey)—and in doing so reinforce the wayward tendencies of their heart. For some, the impact of such contact with erotica is not instantly obvious but, for the more vulnerable, the effects can be devastating. The lonely devote hours to fiction, which reinforces their reliance on fantasy relationships rather than real relationships. The broken become more convinced that abuse is the norm, a horror to be endured without question. The controlling see legitimacy in their quest to treat others as objects for their pleasure or convenience. And the struggling become ever more dependent on the fake images in their mind to achieve arousal when in the company of the one they aim to love. 

Erotica Is In Among Christians

It might be convenient to think that such trends exist primarily outside the church. It might be more comfortable to assume that Christians are immune. After all, the clarion call to purity is proclaimed from the pulpit Sunday after Sunday and many do take that call to heart. But recent research suggests that up to 20% of Christian women are indulging in regular or occasional online pornography. If this is accurate, how many more are embracing the lure of best-selling erotic material once the Sunday service has ended? Like it or not, erotica is being consumed by people in our congregations. Women in our churches have read it, and we expect women in your church have too. And, for many, the decision to buy the book wasn’t a particularly difficult one. Many of us are so bound up in the culture in which we live that we aren’t even beginning to be shocked by material that a generation ago would have left a significant proportion of the congregation gasping for air. It’s not just a problem out there in the world, but a problem within the church as well.

Erotica Wounds Our Walk

That’s bad news for the spiritual health of believers everywhere. How many single Christians have leafed through the pages of 50 Shades and found that it merely increased their discontentment? How many buy into the lie—fleetingly or permanently—that pre-marital sex is better than God’s good gift of celibacy? How many tell themselves that bondage sex, violent sex, is a better expression of true love than the faithful, mutual self-giving that the Bible expounds? How many married Christians have been swept along by Mr. Grey and his winsome ways and in the process become even more disenchanted with the faithful husband who lacks the jet, the suits, the spontaneity, and the mystery. But even more than that, engagement with erotica belies our identity in Christ. Jesus is the one whose love is true. He is the one who has died for us, clothed us in righteousness and called us into the Kingdom of light. He is the source of comfort, hope and life in all its fullness (John 10:10). He is the one who, by his Spirit, enables us to become increasingly pure, increasingly holy, increasingly different to the world around us. Yet erotica opposes that growth. Each time we indulge, we take our garments of righteousness and toss them back into the mud and mire of lust. The Ephesian call for “not a hint of sexual immortality” (5:3) is side-lined, ignored, trampled into the ground. 

Erotica Harms Us All

The church is called to be pure, a light to the nations, a temple of the Holy Spirit, an adopted family changing to be ever more like its head. That’s an exciting call and an extraordinary mission. But when books like 50 Shades get consumed more avidly than the word of God, that mission is stunted. How can we, as a body, model what it means to flee sexual temptation (1 Corinthians 6:18) when we don’t think twice about spending money on tales of lust? How can we be a body who faithfully fights temptation if we leave the armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-17) languishing in the cupboard while we clothe ourselves in impurity instead? How can we hope to maintain integrity in the eyes of our brothers and sisters if we say we will help them battle sex trafficking in one moment but pay to enjoy scenes of violent sex in the next? How can we bring true hope to the abused, the lonely, those struggling with their married or single states if we act as if it’s just a bit of fun to dwell on casual sex with someone we barely know? How can we expect an unbelieving world to flock to the light of the gospel, as displayed in our lives, if we act in ways that are no different to the world around us? We are united in Christ, and when we sin, we sin not only against ourselves, but against the entire body.

Erotica Shows We Need Jesus

It’s not too late though. We’re not without hope. We serve a Savior who is willing to pour grace upon grace into his children’s lives. The death and resurrection of Jesus is powerful enough to deal with the mess many of us are in. At the foot of the cross we find family for the lonely, hope for the hopeless, comfort for the wounded, restoration for the broken, joy for the downcast, strength for the weak and forgiveness for the sinful. All he asks is that we return to him in repentance and faith. His divine power is equipping us with all we need for life and godliness (1 Peter 1:3) and that power isn’t going away, because we are sealed with the Spirit who lives within. 

50 Shades may be a wake-up call for the individual and corporate drifting that has been at play in our lives. It may be a spotlight shining on the pain of the vulnerable in our society. It might be an alarm bell sounding a message of danger ahead if we do not change. But it is also an opportunity to show what true love really is. Our world desperately needs a good dose of real love? So, as 50 Shades of Grey hits the screens, let’s love God well by honoring him wholeheartedly with our eyes, ears, hearts and minds. Let’s love our brothers and sisters well by encouraging them with truth rather than lies. Let’s love our unbelieving neighbors by showing them how beautiful and alluring purity looks. And let’s love ourselves by committing ourselves wholeheartedly to living in light of the immense love that has been lavished on us. “See what a great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1)

Helen Thorne is the blog editor at The Good Book Company. She has a passion for biblical counselling, edited The Good Book College’s course in a Women’s Ministry and is a trustee of Capital Youthworks (the charity behind Sorted and Sorted Nano) and has written Purity Is Possible.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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