In the run up to the release of “Fifty Shades of Gray” last month, I have been inundated with requests calling on me to protest the film for being oppressive to women, and for encouraging what was once known as “white slavery.” I have not read the book, or seen the movie, nor do I have any intention of doing so, which puts me in a poor place to pass judgment on it, so I won’t. Nor will I join in the protests, mostly because I suspect that protests will only attract further attention to the book and movie. Who doesn’t mind sticking one in a Pharisee’s eye?
What I do find curious though, is the juxtaposition the “Fifty Shades of Gray” phenomenon displays. The concern is that it glorifies sexual violence and oppression of women. Yet the primary audience of “Fifty Shades” is women. In fact, it was written by a woman. There is something ironic about numbers of smart, modern, “liberated” women, envisioning life as Christian Gray’s sex slave. Is this what we have come to?
Actually, that is perhaps the natural outcome of liberation, because the ultimate act of freedom is enslaving oneself to another. Buried in old court reports from the late 1840s up to the Dred Scott decision in 1857, you will find curious cases involving slaves who have been brought north by their masters. By virtue of their new domicile, were they now free? In one of the more famous of these cases, Betty’s Case, 10 Monthly Law Reporter 456 (1848), the court took the unusual step of calling the slave into chambers, and asking her directly what she wanted to do. It was not an easy choice. If she decided to go free, she would have to stay in Massachusetts, for a time at least, and could never go back to the South, where her husband and children were. In the end, she chose be near her family, and remain a slave.
If we look only at the outcome, we may miss a subtle point. The judge let Betty choose. He gave her freedom, in a way most of us rarely experience. The ultimate act of freedom is in choosing to what or to whom we enslave ourselves. We are all subject to someone or something. Jesus captured that reality in warning his followers that they could not serve two masters, they must either obey God, or something else. (Matt. 6:24; Luke16:13)
Christian teaching holds that total submission to God as the goal of the Christian life. Paul goes so far as to identify himself as a slave of Christ. (Phil. 1:1; Tit. 1:1; Phile. 1:1) Christian mystics likewise have used the language of enslavement or total abandonment to God to describe the soul’s joy that culminates in a union with God. Only then can the soul be truly happy.
Teresa of Avila described this union in a manner not unlike “Fifty Shades of Gray”:
“I saw in his [an angel’s] hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.” (Chapter XXIX; Part 17, Teresa’s Autobiography)
Is this what the fans of “Fifty Shades of Gray” seeking? Having broken free of many constraints of the past, and imbued with empowerment, are they driven to find fulfilment through enthrallment, however, imaginary, to Christian Gray? Lacking a real angel, they settle for a literary devil? They do sell their virtue cheap.