How 50 Shades of Grey Turned Evangelicals into Casaubons

One of my favorite books of all time is George Eliot’s Middlemarch. It’s a rich, complex saga of trying to make the world a better place amidst fools, charlatans, cynics, and misguided morals. It’s in the last instance that we find dear, devoted, ascetic Dorothea Brooke marrying the dried up old clergyman Mr. Casaubon because she believes she can accomplish her life’s work through his book, which is a key to all mythologies.

Now, let’s be honest: Mr. Casaubon is not–exactly–an intellectual panty-dropper.

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He’s a very well-read man, but he’s self-satisfied and pedantic. He dialogues with no one and he relies on his own readings. It’s precisely his intellect that leads him to presume that he can create a Key to ALL Mythologies, and he insists on Dorothea keeping up his work after his death.

It is, of course, a fruitless exercise. How can Mr. Casaubon, a reasonably intellectual (though not curious or intuitive) man, believe that his grasp of mythology will make him the definitive expert on ALL MYTHOLOGIES? Especially since he has not traveled to other continents and heard first-person accounts of obscure mythologies? He’s simply relying on what little he’s read and assuming it comprises the whole.

What does Mr. Casaubon have to do with Fifty Shades of Grey? you might be wondering, dear reader. Well, as it turns out, he’s a handy metaphor for a debate that is currently waging in the Evangelical pop culture blogosphere.

If you’ll recall, I wrote about Fifty Shades of Grey two years ago when I read the first book. I was motivated to read it only after seeing its inclusion on the New York Times bestseller list and realizing, “This book is a THING and I probably need to know something about it.” I was semi-curious out of ignorance, but there wasn’t a whole lot of buzz about the book beyond the cringe-worthy phrase “Mommy porn.” I won’t rehash my blog post, but I hated the book for its bad writing, its terrible depiction of a co-dependent relationship, and its misuse of BDSM as a sexual lifestyle. In short: it’s not a good book, it’s not a sexy book, and I was not about to waste my time and energy on it.

Fast-forward to this year. There’s a movie coming out. On Valentine’s Day of 2015. Le sigh. Now, everyone is talking about it, and Evangelical Christians have taken up the cry of “Do not read this book!!!!” I remember this happening in the Summer of 2006, when the film adaptation of The Da Vinci Code was released. This book had been out for what, 3-4 years, and it wasn’t until the movie that suddenly this huge outcry surfaced about the sacrilege, and unbiblicality, and satanic overtones. Of course, no one had actually bothered to read the book to discover it was mostly just a standard mediocre adventure/thriller with an aging academic who wore loafers with no socks (maybe he didn’t. Maybe it was turtlenecks and blazers. But it was some white-man clothing item, and I don’t care to re-read the book to recall my distaste for Robert Langdon’s sartorial choices). But that didn’t stop them from condemning The DaVinci Code from the pulpits, proudly proclaiming they’d never read it and would never see the movie.

I really dislike it when people analyze and evaluate a book they’ve never read. As a teacher of composition and literature, I penalize my students for doing this. Why? BECAUSE IT’S LAZY. And frankly, it’s an insult to my professional practice. I am going to school to be a scholar of literature, and you’re telling me that you don’t need to read the books that I’m reading to give a “better” and more informed opinion? Really?

Look, a bad book is a bad book. But unless you’ve read it, you don’t really know HOW bad it is, and you are not able to form a credible and intelligent analysis on mere supposition and Google searches.

And that is why I am deeply disappointed in the many Christian-themed blog posts admonishing us that Fifty Shades of Grey is a Very Bad and Evil Book and You Should Not Be Reading It, because I Didn’t, But I Can Expostulate on All Those Evils for You So You Don’t Have to Think for Yourself.

For people who struggle within their sexualities (whether erotica drives them away from their partner or if they are single and feeling so horny they are dissatisfied, or what have you) and think this book may be a trigger, I get it. I respect your decision not to read it, and I applaud your mature decision to do what’s right for you.

But here’s where I divide company with these earnest, well-meaning bloggers. You can decide not to read a book, and that’s fine. But then don’t act like an expert on it and tell me why it’s so bad for me, when you aren’t reading this book on the supposition that it’s bad for YOU. It’s mystifying to me that so many people are out to defame those individuals who are supposedly lapping this series up and bringing down the Christian Church with them, when they have no clue or context what they’re talking about. That’s like my student writing a paper on Moby-Dick, when he’s only read the SparkNotes and telling me that he doesn’t need to read Moby-Dick to understand it. That doesn’t work in a classroom, and it doesn’t work in real life, either.

In all the blog responses I’ve seen or watched being posted on Facebook by OTHER people who haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey (and seriously? Ugh. It’s turning into this weird sex groupthink), there’s a common thread: everyone invokes the Bible as a reason NOT to read the book. I believe in the claims of Philippians 4:8 wholeheartedly. I believe in the Bible as the word of God. But then, I have to be incredibly careful how I phrase that, how I live, and how I use the Bible to support my claims. Because if I simply state, “The Bible tells me not to read this book,” that’s one thing. I have made a decision based on my understanding of the Bible and that is MY choice. But then if I tell you, “The Bible tells me not to read this book; therefore, you shouldn’t either,” then I’m imposing my my choice on YOU. I’m acting as someone else’s intermediary. That’s my first Casaubon metaphor: when we try to control others’ behavior, based on our own standards of living and morals, we end up taking away their freedom to choose. Mr. Casaubon continually declare that Dorothea is incompetent to help him make decisions, because he is more scholarly, yet his own limited knowledge makes him a poor choice to collect and anthologize mythology. He creates a will after he is dead that she cannot marry his cousin, Will Ladislaw, or she will lose her settlement–his actions remove her freedom to choose her behavior, and thus make her a slave to his idealism. How do we allow others the freedom of choice that God has allowed us? Are we not supposed to come together and then study individually, to seek truth but to challenge ourselves in the Word? Why is it that someone else decided that Fifty Shades of Grey was a bad book (and again: I believe it’s a bad book), so bad they couldn’t read it, and based on their opinion, decided it was unChristian for ALL of us to read?

I find it disheartening to see such a dismissive, anti-intellectual conversation predominating the discussion surrounding Fifty Shades of Grey. Yes, it’s a bad book. I’m not arguing that point. But why? I’m disappointed to hear non-readers dismiss it as pornography, lustful, or ungodly without invoking the implications of such labels. What does lust mean? What forms does it take for women and men? How do we see it or find it in our own lives and activities? For example: I find Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love gratuitously titillating and sexual. For its thinly veiled relationship to the Book of Hosea, it feels more like a romance novel for women who only read “Christian” books. And yet I’m not seeing people pouring out protests from their personal blogs. Why? What’s the difference between Michael Hosea’s emotional possessiveness and Christian DamagedGoods’ sexual possessiveness? Someone tell me. I’m at a loss over here.

On that note, the sex-oriented critiques, based on the Bible’s views of sex, marriage, and lust, have also thrown me for a loop. People have described the novel’s crudely-drawn and laughable sex scenes as pornographic and something to stay away from. That leads me to my Casaubon metaphor #2: Evangelicals are starting to reveal their deep sexual repressions, and it’s going to have to prompt a discussion on sexuality. Like, now.

*Disclaimer: I’m taking off the gloves here. I’m going to be clinical and frank. You’ve been warned.*

On the one hand, the novel itself reveals a weird, deeply-seated repression that plays itself out as fantasy-fulfillment. Christian DamagedGoods is so abused and emotionally damaged that he forces his partner to eat (food, that is–seriously, it’s super weird) and become a submissive for him? Really? And Ana Snore is sooooo virginal that she has sex for the first time and suddenly has a hilariously unrealistic amount of orgasms from missionary sex? I think we can all agree that E.L. James has no idea what BDSM is, and hasn’t had sex since the 1980s.

On the other hand, the Christian response has bewilderingly focused on lust, pornography, and pre-marital sex. Non-readers have called it pornographic and titillating to the point of being disturbing. One blogger mentioned that her mother had read it and could not get the images out of her head. Really? Vanilla sex with an unrealistic amount of orgasms is traumatic? I’m not going to lie, I was traumatized too: I was traumatized by Ana Snore brushing her teeth with Christian DamagedGoods’ toothbrush. NO. JUST. NO. I was also extremely traumatized by the detailed description of her tampon being pulled out. That’s all I can say. It was really, really discomfiting.

But still: are we  really so sexually repressed that we cannot even *read* bad cheesy romance novels that use terrible and childish sexual euphemisms without fear of being so aroused that we masturbate wildly to images of boringly described millionaires? No, seriously, I’m asking are we that sexually out-of-control that when someone watches a porn, all they see are breasts and vaginas on women everywhere? That when we read bad literature about vanilla sex pretending to be naughty, we turn that into an idol???

It feels like this line of criticism is taking the idea that sexuality is dangerous, that the only way we can remain sexually pure is to tamp it down as far as possible so that we can’t even feel a natural, healthy lust for the sexual partner that we are married to. That a woman is so sexually suggestive that the merest hint of bikini or spaghetti straps reduces her to breasts and a vagina. That a man is so sexually fired up, he is continually always one-click away from fantasizing about other women on the computer. That sex is dirty and bad, even when we are married and trying to sexually pleasure each other in the way that works best for our bodies and minds.

It’s like Mr. Casaubon. He’s a married man. He has this gorgeous, devoted wife. And what does he do on his honeymoon? He spends his time in the library searching for the Key to All Mythologies. He stays up all night and avoids going to bed with Dorothea. Dude. Make use of that marriage bed. It’s okay. You’re married now. It’s in the Bible to be naked and unashamed!

This brings me to my Casaubon metaphor #3: we as Christians see the Bible as the Key to All Mythologies. And for believers, it is. But the problem is, we abuse our knowledge to belittle or shame others into believing what we do. We argue that because we are Christians and we have accepted salvation, we have The Truth and that’s the end of the discussion. But what is truth? How does that look from faith to faith? How does what the Bible said 2000 years ago remain relevant in my life today? These are questions I wrestle with every day. I read my Bible every day, and each time, I gain new insight, new knowledge, new TRUTH.

I’m always saddened by people who “proof text” their way through an intellectual discussion, arguing that because Paul decried the sexual practice of a pagan temple, gay people should not get married. That because Paul declared a woman should not preach in an area where women were priestesses at a pagan temple, women can’t preach. That because Deuteronomy 22:5 declared that a woman should not wear a man’s clothes and vice versa, it is sinful for a woman to wear pants. This kind of spiritual practice does not invite people to know Jesus–it establishes us as The Key Mythologians and others as Wrong. Mr. Casaubon denigrated Dorothea’s assistance, love, and help, because she had an inferior education and a woman’s mind. Rather than invoking discussion, he decried her differences and shamed her into silence.

Let us not go down that dreary route. Instead of simply denouncing something as bad and wrong, let us ask each other why and how we know this. Where do we obtain our knowledge? How do we know our knowledge is credible? Let us, above all, not be made to look silly over something as silly as Fifty Shades of Boring Grey.

 

*If you want an excellent and well-informed blog on why Christians should not read the novel, Jeannie Campbell invokes her skills as a LMFT to provide a therapist’s perspective on Christians, sex, and abusive relationships that is both insightful and godly. *

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Filed under Books, Culture, Faith, Marriage, State of mind

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