The mystics say you can find God anywhere. I believe many women have found him in “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
The trilogy has sold more than 10 million copies, mostly to women over 30 who can’t put the books down. Publishing rights have been sold in 37 countries and movie rights have been secured by Universal.
The books chronicle the relationship between a dominating male entrepreneur, Christian Grey, and a young female college graduate, the submissive Anastasia Steele. The series has been mulled by many writers who have debated whether or not this is a setback for women, to be attracted to a submissive relationship, or a breakthrough, to be able to openly read and discuss a book so sexually explicit that it is often referred to in the media as “mommy porn.”
My son was in a New York restaurant last week and overheard two middle-age women discussing how hot the books were. He felt compelled to tell them I was reading them, too. I did indeed (as research I maintain) and I believe the reason the series is so compelling is that it touches on something much greater than sex or even loving relationships.
I think the “Fifty Shades” phenomenon is about religion.
Not religion in the conventional sense of the word, but in how we are redefining faith practices today as more and more people--especially women--shun man-made traditions yet continue to yearn for religious experiences.
Diana Butler Bass writes in “Christianity After Religion,” that millions of people share her story “of growing up in a formal religion, finding that somehow chilly or distant, and rediscovering God through a mystical experience.” She continues, “Religion morphed from an external set of rules into a vibrant spiritual experience of God. Somehow the word religion did not seem quite adequate to explain what had happened.”
Never before have there been more “seekers” who are not satisfied with the religion they grew up practicing, those who are possibly secular but want more, those who have never really made a connection to the divine but are looking for a way. Sexual relationships are a major part of religion, with some traditions seeing it merely as a means of procreation, not to be enjoyed while others celebrate sex as a gift from God
So what is it about Christian Grey and his dominant yet ultimately loving, even worshipful relationship with Anastasia Steele that has touched so many women’s souls? What is it about being a submissive woman, as is the expectation for so many women in so many religions, that has such appeal?
In his book “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics,” Ross Douthat writes, “In this America, too, the Christian teaching that every human soul is unique and precious has been stressed, by the prophets of self-fulfillment and gurus of self-love, at the expense of the equally important teaching that every human soul is fatally corrupted by original sin. Absent the latter emphasis, religion becomes a license for egotism and selfishness, easily employed to justify what used to be considered deadly sins. The result is a society where pride becomes ‘healthy self-esteem,’ vanity becomes ‘self-improvement,’ adultery becomes ‘following your heart,’ greed and gluttony become ‘living the American dream.’”
The “Fifty Shades” books celebrate these qualities. Certainly the kinky sex is outside the norm, yet reading about it has mesmerized and even “inspired” women and to improve their marriages and even their lives.
If “Fifty Shades of Grey” is religion, is it Ross Douthat’s nightmare of bad religion? It is certainly all about instant gratification. Is that what women are searching for? Or is it more nuanced?
Grey starts out in the books intending to dominate (beat and cause pain to) Anastasia in his famous playroom dubbed “The Red Room of Pain,” and ends up loving and not wanting (or rather willing) to hurt her. One could compare him to the God of some peoples’ imagination.
Christian is at times punishing, sadistic, angry, demanding, intolerant, fickle, bewildering, withholding, omnipotent, omniscient, awesome, abusive, kind, generous, wise and -- above all -- loving and cherishing.
Just when Anastasia has had it and is about to give up on Christian for doing something absolutely appalling, just when she no longer believes in him, he redeems himself by doing something so outrageously wonderful that she cannot abandon him and is pulled back into the fold. Just when he is withholding his love from her and she is weeping and can no longer bear it, he embraces her with an overwhelming totality. Just when she is doubting herself for her submission, he turns the tables and offers himself to her.
Sound familiar? These are some of the same emotional conflicts that I believe could be attributed to Mother Teresa and her lifetime struggle in her relationship with God.
I once had a very religious friend who would say, whenever she had a problem, “I’ll just give it to God. I’m just going to put myself in his hands.” There always was something very appealing about that idea. Just leave it to God. In the case of Christian and Anastasia, that, with a little resistance here and there, is what she does. Once the resistance is gone, the sadism ends and the love is complete. How relaxing.
Perhaps that is what is attracting so many women to these “Fifty Shades of Grey” books unknowingly. We all live in our own Red Room of Pain (private hell) for some part of our lives. Fifty Shades shows heaven can exist as well, and shows us a way to experience some of that overpowering bliss on earth.
In “Bad Religion” Douthat writes, “at the deepest level, every human culture is religious - defined by what its inhabitants believe about some ultimate reality, and what they think that reality demands of them. The reality doesn’t have to be a personal God…But Bob Dylan had it right: You gotta serve somebody and every culture does.”
Sally Quinn | Jun 14, 2012 12:13 PM