A Theology for Fifty Shades of Grey

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A Theology for Fifty Shades of Grey

Millions will mark this Valentine’s Day weekend by taking in the new release of Fifty Shades of Grey, a modern-day publishing phenomenon that became the basis for the highly anticipated movie adaptation.

Written by E.L. James, Fifty Shades of Grey tells the story of literature student Anastasia Steele and her sexual encounters with the young entrepreneur Christian Grey. Dubbed by many as "mommy porn" because of its escapist appeal to working mothers and suburban housewives, sexual practices such as bondage, domination, sadism and masochism are featured throughout. It’s even listed as erotic literature on the book cover. 

The movie will, no doubt, follow suit.

And yes, I’ve read it. I even did a three-week teaching series on it, which you can listen to here. It’s one of the most salacious books I’ve ever read. I believe there can be, and even should be, a place for sex in literature - and certainly when it’s key to the story.

But Fifty Shades of Grey is just one sex scene after another, almost as if the point is to glamorize and promote bondage, domination, sadism and masochism. Sorry, but in terms from an earlier age, it’s just a dirty book.

But sex isn’t dirty.

As Genesis outlines, we were made in the image of God as male and female. Sexuality was God’s design. Which means that not only is sex a good thing, it’s a God-thing. It was part of His desire and design for our bodies and lives.

Philip Yancey gives an interesting reflection on this that drives home just how much attention God gave to this part of our life:

“Having studied some anatomy, I marvel at God laboring over the physiology of sex: the soft parts, the moist parts, the millions of nerve cells sensitive to pressure and pain yet also capable of producing pleasure, the intricacies of erectile tissue, the economical and ironical combination of organs for excretion and reproduction, the blending of visual appeal and mechanical design. As the zoologists remind us, in comparison with every other species the human is bountifully endowed.”

But why?

The Bible says there were two reasons: procreation (Genesis 1:27-28) and intimacy (Genesis 2:18, 22, 24). Much has been written about procreation; less, unfortunately, about intimacy. But as Eugene Peterson wonderfully paraphrased the words of the apostle Paul, “There is more to sex than mere skin on skin. Sex is as much spiritual mystery as physical fact...the two become one" (I Corinthians 6:16, Msg).

Tragically, when the fall rocked all of creation, sex was not left untouched. Adam and Eve suddenly realized they were naked (they became sexual objects to each other with all that attends to lust and shame). Intimacy was stunned as they began to blame one another. Even the beauty of childbirth would forever by marked, now, by pain.

So sex fell with the rest of creation.

And it’s kept falling.

For example, sex outside of marriage trivializes and then destroys the emotional union it was intended to provide as a compliment to the lifelong commitment of marriage. It does damage to the soul and makes a mockery of the intimacy it was created to serve (I Cor. 6:17-18; Hebrews 13:4).

But that’s not all.

Sin in any form is a direct offense against God that separates us from His love, and that includes sexual sin. God created us. We are spiritual beings. Part of our creation was sexuality. When we misuse our bodies through sexual behavior, it tears away at our soul and drives God away.

Maybe more than any other sin.

Again, as Peterson paraphrases,

"There is a sense in which sexual sins are different from all others. In sexual sins we violate the sacredness of our own bodies, these bodies that were made for God-given and God-modeled love, for 'becoming one' with another. Or didn't you realize that your body is a sacred place, the place of the Holy Spirit?" (I Corinthians 6:18-19, Msg).

All to say, celebrate sex this Valentine’s Day. Every day, for that matter. But not the fallen kind. Not the Fifty Shades of Grey distortion.

Sex is a beautiful, wonderful thing. And the Bible looks at it as a beautiful, wonderful thing. So beautiful and wonderful that it teaches us to honor it and preserve it in all of its power and wonder, intimacy and mystery.

So it’s not that before marriage sex is bad, bad, bad, and after marriage, sex is good, good, good.

It’s that sex is good.

But taking it out of its place is bad.

Sex is very much like a fire. In the proper place and setting it is beautiful. But if it gets outside of your fireplace, if it gets outside of where it belongs and where it is meant to be contained and harnessed and channeled, it can burn your house down and destroy everything you have.

So when it comes to sex, the Bible would agree with the popular slang that it can be “hot.”

But it would add that the fire that warms,

...can also be the fire that burns.

James Emery White



Philip Yancey, Rumors of Another World.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. You can also find out more information about the upcoming 2015 Church and Culture Conference. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

A Theology for Fifty Shades of Grey