Rules, Relationships & Fifty Shades of Reality
by Shannon Ethridge
One of my fondest memories from childhood is playing badminton with my older brother. Next to our house we had a vacant lot with towering pecan trees spaced perfectly to support a badminton net, so we spent many hours gleefully lobbing birdies back and forth from one side of our makeshift court to the other.
However, my brother liked to win, and his perception of the boundary lines seemed a little different than mine. If I let a birdie drop on my side of the court anywhere near the boundary line, he’d insist that it was “in bounds” and therefore his point. But when he let a birdie drop to the ground anywhere close to the boundary line on his side of the court, he’d insist he did it on purpose because it was “out of bounds.”
I found it maddening but played along just to enjoy his company, because that’s what little sisters do. But I believe that if we’d spray-painted clearer boundary lines along the grass in that vacant lot, I’d have won more games, or at least scored a few more points than I received credit for.
Never has this dilemma been more evident than in this calendar year, as we’ve witnessed the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon sweep the globe with tremendous force. Some insist that the graphic trilogy (written by E. L. James) is harmless. “Readers know the difference between truth and fiction!” is a common mantra from advocates. However, adversaries insist, “This kind of literature is dangerous to society!” While Christians debate whether the books should or should not be read, sales numbers climb into the multimillions, and waiting lists at local libraries stretch a mile long.
As I’ve read blog post after blog post—some proclaiming the pros of the story; others crying out about the cons—I’ve realized that a culture war isn’t just brewing. It is already raging! And when I learned that a European hotel replaced their Gideon’s bibles with Fifty Shades of Grey in all of their hotel rooms, I could only deduce that this isn’t just a cultural war. It’s a full-blown spiritual battle.
Although I didn’t see the Fifty Shades onslaught coming, no doubt God did. And I think He’s let me feel the ground rumbling. For three years I’ve been saying, “Someday I want to write about understanding the origins of our sexual fantasies!” And through all of the media madness and literary-critic chaos, I realized that the time for the book isn’t someday. It is now!
As I’ve been sharing the message of this book with many friends and colleagues—that fantasies are really just the brain’s way of trying to heal itself from past trauma—the questions I receive most often are, “Where do you draw the line? What fantasies do you consider ‘out of bounds’ for a believer?”
Just as in that badminton game, I’m not as interested in rules as I am in relationships. Rather than judge certain fantasies as right or wrong, or condemn people who wrestle with certain thoughts, I’d like to invite the church to recognize the role that we can play in response to this cultural phenomenon.