This week, my son and wife and I had a discussion about the movie Fifty Shades of Grey. When I boldly said, “It’s going to tank” at the box office (and I had my reasons), I was met instantly with “We think you’re wrong.” This week, after watching The Today Show promote it and the internet aflame with stories, I have to admit, I’m probably wrong.
Originally, I had no intent on writing something on the movie. After all, why give it attention when in my mind it’s a cheap imitation of art? But when I saw that advanced tickets sales are huge, particularly in the midwest and south, that got my attention. Here’s one piece by Samuel James entitled, “Fifty Shades of Self Loathing” (here) whose quote at the end, “Self-loathing is a prominent feature of pornography” is spot on.
My problem with books and movies like this is not because I’m old fashioned or some sort of puritanical doofus completely naive about the sexual ethic today. My problem with it is what this kind of literary genre tries to represent and what it does to confuse people, particularly young people. Largely described as erotic romance, the book takes something good and natural and debases, twists, and ultimately deforms it until what’s left is a cheap substitute. While full of raw emotion, love is reduced to something coarse, more similar to a business arrangement rather than fully human. It offers a picture of the romantic ideal that can leave men and women with a warped view of identity, mutuality, and the very act of sex itself.
The word “eroticism” comes from the Greek word, eros. In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis thinks of eros as romantic longing for the one person or “beloved”. Lewis is helpful when he separates the act of sex and eros in that one can be passionately in love with or without sex (if the two were necessarily linked all the time, marriages would be in deep trouble!). Sex is the outcome or result of eros, not what comes before.
He suggests that in eros there are common expressions that point to something much deeper. Think of the phrase, “I could just eat you up”! Lewis writes,
“Lovers themselves are trying to express part of it [eros] when they say they would like to ‘eat” one another.” (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, p.96)
When we say this playfully we are not referring to some sort of cannibalism nor does it necessarily have some overt sexual meaning. Eros speaks of the “beloved” and the link between communion and consummation. There’s even a French word, consumme connecting hunger and human desire. For the Christian, this seems to be what Jesus is getting at when he speaks of eating His flesh and drinking His blood as symbolic of union with the Savior’s love (eucharistic overtones in John 6:56)! There is a union, a connection, that takes places when the follower of Christ consumes the elements to identify with their ultimate love.
However, if eros is not thought of correctly, a very big problem follows. Lewis writes that of all the loves, eros is the most god-like. Because the pull is so strong, to “be in love” can actually be given too much strength, in the wrong way, with the wrong person, in the wrong time. Simply put, eros can become an idol.
“Of all loves [Eros] is, at his height, most god-like; therefore most prone to demand our worship. Of himself he always tends to turn “being in love” into a sort of religion. Theologians have often feared in this love, a danger of idolatry. I think they meant by this that the lovers might idolize one another… The real danger seems to me not that the lovers will idolize each other but that they will idolize Eros himself.“ (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, p.111)
The deep tragedy then of eros is not that it exists or that it can lead to physical sex. The problem is the strong pull of eros (romantically falling in love with the supposed perfect person) and mistaking it solely for physical sex (in the movie’s case, questionable sex acts) in the end turns something beautiful, pleasurable and good into something absurd. In the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, when strong emotions are combined with experimental sex, this becomes, simply “a fact about ourselves” (C.S. Lewis, Inspirational Writings, p.263-264). Lewis says this is to take physical sex too seriously because it reduces desire to some biological drive that needs to be fulfilled (notice how love then primarily becomes self-serving and not self-giving). The problem is not with eros as romantic passion per se, rather it is when romantic passion becomes an ultimate thing in our lives.
And all the time the grim joke is that this Eros whose voice seems to speak from the eternal realm is not himself necessarily even permanent. He is notoriously the most mortal of our loves… What is baffling is the combination of this fickleness with his protestations of permanency. To be in love is both to intend and to promise lifelong fidelity. Love makes vows unasked… “I will be ever true,” are almost the first words he utters. Not hypocritically but sincerely. No experience will cure him of the delusion… Eros is driven to promise what Eros of himself cannot perform. Can we be in this selfless liberation for a lifetime? Hardly for a week. (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, p.114)
In other words, to misunderstand eros and to let desire reign uncontrolled is to end up with a love that is unstable. To idolize eros is to end up with a picture of broken people using each other to get something they can’t describe. This kind of love’s “fifty shades” attempts to arrive at something deep and profound yet the irony is it ends up trivializing love. Yet, in most people’s thinking, that’s as good as it gets. That makes for a lousy love and should remind people that their view of love is, indeed, very shallow.