50 Shades and Evangelical Women

When I’m not napping in the sun or reading a good book (sometimes simultaneously), long, languorous summer weeks often set me to thinking deep(ish) questions and seeking answers on the Web: Is Margaret Thatcher dead? What was the name of that band who sang “Somebody Like You”? Will having two Diet Cokes before breakfast cause cancer?
A few mornings ago, I went to the web to discover whether evangelicals are reading 50 Shades of Grey. I mean, some Christians must be reading the book, right? It’s number one on the New York Times bestseller’s list. The books are getting all kinds of press; the author, E.J. James, has rocketed from fan fiction writer to fame and fortune, and a movie contract is in the works—if James hasn’t signed one already.
When I mentioned the book’s rising popularity this spring to my English majors, most of them groaned in disbelief. A fanfic writer getting a six-figure contract from a major book house? A Twilightknock-off becoming a best seller? We all wrung our hands at the absurdity of it, the book’s notoriously poor writing and stolen characters an assault on our literary tastes. (A few of us, I’m sure, also repressed a bit of envy. To be honest, I’d happily pen 60 Shades of Whatever if it meant fame and fortune. I have no authorial scruples.)
So the first book—the entire trilogy, really—has a huge following. Given its giant share of the reading market right now, I’m sure there are a number of evangelicals enjoying the tale too, of Christian Grey, a “beautiful, brilliant” man who is “tormented by demons and the need to control” (the Amazon blurb, and man, if James’s writing is as good as this, I’m all in). Apparently, Grey—who has lots of steamy sex with the heroine, Anastasia Steele—is in to BDSM. Is it wrong for me to admit I had no idea what BDSM is, until I looked it up on Wikipedia? Oh naïve, naïve me.
Knowing the book’s premise, and also that it’s been called erotica by a number of media outlets, I was sure there would be various religious screeds about how our society is going to hell in a handcart (or is it basket?), and how any good Christian worth her weight in Jesus will not bother with the books. And of course, such screeds are out there, in spades. (See, for example, these articles on the True Womanhood blog by Dinah Gresh and Mary Kassain. Kassain argues, for example, that the book “encourages the sin of sensuality,” a head-scratcher for me: Is sensuality a sin?)
But then I stumbled across this interesting apology for reading 50 Shades of Grey on Her.meneutics, the women’s blogger arm of Christianity Today. The comments following this apology were what really caught my attention: reasoned, thoughtful, and eye-opening; to be honest, many gave me hope for the future of evangelicalism.
The apologist, Jonalyn Fincher, writes that 50 Shades of Grey might be a great tool for leading others to Christ. While that little bit of evangelicalism seems a little problematic to me, I appreciate her argument that Christians should avoid condemning those who are enjoying the triology, and instead use the book as an entry into discussing the complexity of our life journeys, of sexuality, or our self worth.  
Some comments following Fincher’s piece, of course, were of the “Paul tells us not to read this kind of stuff, and so I won’t” variety, and “Typical liberal pap from Christianity Today.” (Ha! I love when the site gets the liberal label. If CT is liberal, then . . . oh, never mind.) But some of the comments were illuminating and thoughtful, like the Christian who admitted to being into BDSM and “kink,” and who was open to dialoging with others about her “fetish community.”  (A post on the Christian nympho movement is forthcoming. For real.)
Even more compelling was the writer who said she loves engaging in cultural discussions, thinks it important that Christians read other texts as a way of knowing the world, but believes the real scandal of 50 Shades of Grey is its deplorable writing. She says, “It’s not the sex I’m concerned about with Christian women reading this book, it’s the terrible writing. ‘The Scandal of the Evangelical Woman’s Mind,’ if you will.”
Seen in this way, 50 Shades of Grey is no better—or no worse—than other books in the Christian romance genre, where there is no kink, no sensuality, no BSMD: where good sex is saved for the confines of marriage, but the plot’s main thrust involves a man and a woman, characters haunted by demons, and salvation of one kind or another through relationship and matrimony. Just like 50 Shades of Grey. I know women whose reading diet is primarily of the Christian romance kind because, they say, the story is so pure. But really, in what ways is a woman’s submission to a dominating BSDM guy (is that what they’re called?) different than a female protagonist in Christian romance, who always submits to the will of her man? And finds salvation only through her relationship to him?
Don’t both texts teach a woman that her role is subsumed by a man’s, and that the most satisfactory way for a woman to find herself is through a man in her life? Seems to me that 50 Shades of Grey, like Christian romances, provide a problematic message—less about sex and kink and the dangers of sensuality, and more about a woman’s place in the world. The Scandal of the Evangelical Woman’s Mind, indeed.
The great writer Madeline L’Engle has argued that bad art is bad religion. Christian romances, like 50 Shades of Grey, do little to reflect the image of our Creator in style or in substance. I won’t be reading 50 Shades of Grey for the same reason I don’t read Christian romances: from what I’ve heard, James’s book is bad art, and so too is a great deal of the pap sold in Christian bookstores. Still, I’d love to hear from others who can defend James’s trilogy (and even Christian romances, to be honest). In the meantime, I’ll be sitting in the sun reading my book club selection for the month Angle of Repose, a text tremendous in its art and its religion. I encourage you all to do the same.