With fan-fiction origins, E.L. James book, 50 Shades of Grey, has officially become the most widely sold book in Britain – ever. The book, the first in a trilogy, includes explicit scenes and heavy doses of bondage, dominance and sadism. Here in America, the originally self-published book still stands near the top of The New York Times Best Sellers List with international sales hitting more than 65 million in print and digital copies. So far, it’s been translated into 30 languages making its author, a British housewife and mother of two, a multi-millionaire overnight. With a fan-base of teenagers, college students, along with single and married women over 30 – the critically panned book series dubbed “Mommy Porn,” has launched the way into a largely untapped market of female erotica readers.
I have not read the book and don’t intend to read it. Wikipedia’s synopsis tells the story well enough despite its author’s description of it as an “old fashioned love story.” Plain and simple – it’s pornography. Originally titled “Master of the Universe,” the book, due to “reader demand” can now be found on a waiting list at many public libraries across the U.S. Its wide success has spawned 50 Shades of Grey theme parties, PDF’s, board games, a 50 Shades Album, 50 Shades – The Musical and soon, 50 Shades of Grey – the movie. The trilogy has even become the subject of a university class started this semester at American University.
What is most astounding and frankly disturbing, is the popularity of a book series which features a lead character, Christian Grey, who represents the antithesis of God’s designs for the nuptial (spousal) relationship, along with the utter lack of self-respect its female protagonist,Anastasia Steele, has for herself. Since when did a sadomasochistic, non-committal control freak who finds pleasure in physically demeaning, abusing and emotionally manipulating a naïve college girl become a literary hero of so many women?
As ubiquitous as 50 Shades of Grey is these days, I cannot help but think of the vast spiritual, moral, mental and emotional strides women could make (not only for themselves but also our culture as a whole), if they read Blessed John Paul II’s Theology of the Body instead – a series of 129 addresses he gave under the form of Wednesday Catechetical talks in Rome from 1979 until 1984.
As the first major teaching of his Pontificate, Theology of the Body (TOTB) is an extended Catechesis on the truth of God‘s original design for human sexuality and thus the dignity of the human person. As part of TOTB, JPII emphasizes how the dignity of the human person can be distorted through sin – such as pornography – and how it has been restored and renewed through the redemption of Jesus Christ. TOTB additionally focuses on Catholic teachings about the sacramentality of marriage, chastity/virginity, adultery, the resurrection of the body and contraception. The central theme of TOTB is that “the body” is a sign of the invisible mystery of God. In this sense, the body can be viewed as a kind of sacrament – with the mystery of God being revealed through it. Therefore, the body alone is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine.
However, in the case of 50 Shades of Grey, the complete opposite of personal and individual human dignity is presented. Instead, a twisted and false notion of love which reduces the human being to nothing more than an object is presented as something glamorous and dazzling. In reality, Anastasia ceases to have attraction as a person with her only value being a mere object of fantasy to be used for sexual pleasure. While women may feel the book is a harmless form of entertainment, Shades of Grey ultimately gives way to darkness leaving one on a path of deception. In other words, it belittles God’s gift of personhood and the body as the Temple of the Holy Spirit and we ultimately degrade and harm ourselves by reading it. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price.” (I Cor. 6:19-20)
Part of John Paul II’s TOTB explains that lust in its distorted various forms destroys the nuptial meaning of the body and the full awareness of the human being by making it only an article of attraction. Lust depersonalizes and degrades, thereby hindering mutual acceptance of the other as a unique gift and expression of God’s love. In this way, it debases the marriage covenant which constitutes the foundation of the “one-flesh” union. Having our best interests at heart, Christ wants to remove distorted notions of the human body from the nuptial relationship so that in purity of heart, the nuptial meaning of the body and the individual person shines in mutual self-giving within sacramental unity. Thus, true union comes in discovering the true value of the beloved.
John Paul II’s TOTB is not about being prudish – or about me sounding like the Church Lady from Saturday Night Live. Instead, it is about accepting the love that Christ wishes for the nuptial relationship – the type of love he created since the beginning of the world which he called “good” (Genesis 1:31).
Unfortunately, in 50 Shades of Grey, millions of women the world over are instead buying into 50 shades of deeply defective and distorted fabrications of what constitutes real and lasting love.
In his reflections on TOTB, Catholic apologist and founder of Totus Tuus Ministries, Jim Seghers, notes that “such twisted notions of love disconnects the body from personhood and becomes exploitive, selfish and violent, ultimately cheapening and belittling the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit.” When we accept the lie of Shades of Grey and all types of pornography, we are ultimately left unhappy, disillusioned, confused and denigrated. Why? Because we are seeking something that has been designed to prey upon our human weaknesses and draw us away from God. It then becomes harder for us to recognize ourselves as children of God and temples of the Holy Spirit.
Blessed John Paul II gave the world a great gift with his teachings on Theology of the Body which points the way out of the gray and into the light of God’s loving plan for humanity. Theology of the Body is about recognizing, even amid a culture saturated in distorted versions of love, JPII’s personal invitation to all men and women, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, to freely embrace our true dignity.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “When a man loves a woman, he has to become worthy of her. The higher her virtue, the more noble her character, the more devoted she is to the truth, justice, and goodness, the more a man has to aspire to be worthy of her. The history of civilization could actually be written in terms of the level of its women.” If women would only then take a moment to pause and realize their great value and worth in the eyes of God, I wonder if a book series such as Shades of Grey would still be as popular. I doubt it!