by Marionette van Deventer (Shofar Stellenbosch)
I can’t claim to have the kind of body that looks good in a bikini. (Yes, I know. You’re wondering where this is going.) Although I enjoy swimming, for quite a while I wasn’t willing to set foot on a beach because of the deep sense of social ineptness that accompanied my one-piece.
So you can imagine my surprise when I found out that in 1907 a woman was arrested for wearing a one-piece swimming suit. One that covered her from head to toe. The accepted attire for swimming at that stage was an ankle-length chemise-type gown (picture your grandmother’s nightgown). History progressed (or shall we say regressed) and by 1946 a Frenchman, Louis Réard, designed the first two-piece swimsuit that exposed a woman’s navel.
None of his usual models would wear it and he had to resort to hiring a nude dancer. There was shock and uproar but, in 1962, Bond girl Ursula Andress made her appearance on the silver screen in a white bikini and, although it took another 20 years for the bikini to become the most popular bathing suit of choice, the trajectory was set.
You might think that my aim is to make some kind of “moral high ground” statement about swimming attire. This is hardly the case. However, when I’m tempted to equate my entire self-worth as a human being to my ability to frolic around in some stringy piece of material, I need to take a long hard look at myself and realise that my sensibilities have been trained by culture, not the Gospel.
The reality is that our worldviews aren’t automatically reprogrammed when we commit our lives to Christ. Our sinful nature thrives on what this fallen world feeds us and the way that we distinguish between right and wrong, desirable and undesirable, life and death is rarely in line with God’s wisdom. Christian discipleship includes a process of becoming aware of how we’ve been shaped and learning to trust that when we surrender to God’s ways, it leads to life.
culture’s take on sex and marriage
If you scan popular media to see where culture is heading with regard to sex and marriage, it’s not difficult to see that the trajectory isn’t based on orthodox Christian views. There are TEDTalks that describe humans as sexual omnivores who roam from one sexual partner or gender to the next, Canada’s introduction of a new sex education curriculum for primary schools, the first three-way marriage between gay men and an Oprah interview with Rob Bell in which he claims that it’s just a matter of time before the Church accepts gay marriage and stops using “letters from 2000 years ago as their best defense”. A Danish farmer who had CCTV cameras installed when his sheep started to resist human contact found that men were raping them during the night. Sex zoos that cater for the growing bestiality market are on the rise and all the while we’re entertaining ourselves with shows like Modern Family, which culminated in a tear jerker season finale in which gay couple Mitch and Cam got married.
It’s a funny show. I get it. “It’s not as if I am going to change my beliefs about homosexuality just by watching it,” I hear you say. You might not. But the media has always made use of progressive exposure, often with a good dose of humour, to train the public conscience. Jesse Tyler Ferguson (who plays Mitch) is quoted as saying, “I think that when a lot of people watch the wedding episode, they’re going to see it as a marriage between two people that they care very much about and forget that it is a wedding between two men specifically.”
The three gay men who got married expressed similar sentiments when saying that, although some do not agree with their choice, many have “a better understanding of sexual orientation as many same-sex weddings appear on TV, newspapers and social media. … We believe many people do understand and accept our choice. Love is love, after all.”
In recent weeks the media has taken a step further with the release of the movie Fifty Shades of Grey, which is said to target married women over the age of 30 (thereby labeled as “mommy porn”). As with Ursula’s bikini, its release was accompanied by massive public buy-in, on the one hand, and outrage on the other. It’s based on a trilogy of novels written by E.L. James (a woman) and, despite being described as “dull and poorly written”, the first book became the best-selling adult novel of all time after selling a million copies in 11 weeks.
The story revolves around the relationship between Christian Grey, a high-powered businessman, and virginal college student, Anastasia Steele, whom he lures into a BDSM (bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadomasochism) relationship. She’s attracted to him but he isn’t interested in romance. He invites Anastasia to become his “submissive” in a sexual relationship by signing a contract that sets out the terms of their dominant-submissive relationship. She takes a while to become used to his sadomasochistic tastes but because of her yearning to be close to him, she relents.
With an age restriction of sixteen in South Africa, the movie was promoted as a perfect choice for a Valentine’s Day date. A friend of mine recalls sneaking into a 16-rated movie when she was 15. The movie was Speed – Sandra Bullock driving a runaway bus. Twenty years later what gets rated as sixteen has changed quite beyond belief as scores of teens and adults stream to the theaters to get educated in the school of BDSM.
Those who’ve voiced concerns believe that the movie is a depiction of abuse. Christian is said to be obsessive and manipulative. Sandwiched between expensive gifts and helicopter rides, he tracks Ana’s whereabouts, pitches up unannounced and takes advantage of her when she’s intoxicated. His sex-trafficked mom was killed by her pimp when he was young and he ended up losing his virginity when an older woman seduced him to become her “submissive” in a BDSM relationship. Since then the only relationships he’s been interested in are those where he can use sex as a tool to dominate and control.
Sam Taylor-Johnson, the director of the movie, and Dakota Johnson (the actor who plays Ana) object to the claims that the movie portrays abuse by saying that it depicts a process of empowerment as Ana chooses to explore different aspects of herself. Others have agreed, saying that the movie presents us with a depiction of what real relationship looks like. “Love is not always gentle. It’s not always equitable. It’s not always kind. Sometimes it’s painful and tempestuous and emotionally draining.”
how family forms us
If you’re a Christian reading this statement, 1 Corinthians 13, where Paul encourages us that love is in fact gentle and kind, will most likely spring to mind. Some find it easy to reject false ideas of love as portrayed by the media, but the lived experience of others may have shaped them in ways that make the Bible’s description of love hard to digest. If you’ve experienced any kind of brokenness in relationships, you’ll know this. Marriage and family have a massive influence on our ability to flourish in relationship with ourselves, others, and ultimately God.
What if God designed marriage and family life in such a way that it teaches us about Himself? What if the use of metaphors like the Bride of Christ, books like Songs of Solomon and stories like Hosea’s marriage to Gomer point us towards eternal truths? What if the vulnerability we experience when promising devotion to someone within the confines of covenant, which can only be annulled by death and destroyed by sexual unfaithfulness, is a gift from God to give us a glimpse into His covenant with us?
What happens when we introduce sexual practices, which revolve around the pain of one partner for the pleasure of the other, into that relationship?
Is God like Christian Grey? Is He a mysterious, powerful type who withholds affection to impose His will? Does He derive pleasure from our pain and satisfaction from our submission to His demands? A.W. Tozer famously said that “what comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” Stop for a moment and think. How do you view God?
Hopefully most of us don’t view God as the abusive type. But then you hear stories like this one posted on Humans of New York of a girl who came to the city to meet up with a 55-year old married man whom she met online.
“It’s a BDSM thing. Sort of a daddy/daughter thing. … I think I’m using this relationship to try to pull myself out of a dark, dark hole. At the very least, it’s the ultimate support system. I think it started at an early age. [My parents are] very religious. My father is the son of a missionary. My parents would always do room searches where they’d go through my stuff and take anything they didn’t agree with, and break any CD’s that they didn’t think were Christian. I tried to hide things behind bookshelves. I even tried to create a hole in my wall. But nothing worked. I remember getting in trouble for leaning up against my friend at church. The youth pastor said we were acting like lesbians, and my mom said I was ruining her reputation. I’ve been on anti-depressants since I was 14, which is the age my parents started taking me to psychiatrists to figure out what was wrong with me. … I worry about going insane. … I just need to feel pain. … There have been seven times recently where I’ve had a knife to my wrist and I was trying to get the courage to kill myself.”
I don’t imagine that this girl is a frequent church attender but she must have been at some stage. Sadly her experience of church, family and Christianity set her on a trajectory where Christian Grey is her idea of a support system, instead of Christian community.
Studies show that family life is the platform where we learn to form attachments and fulfil one of our most fundamental needs – the need for belonging and connectedness. When these attachments don’t get formed in a loving, secure environment, it can trigger a range of psychological disorders. We become anxious when we face the loss of relationship, even if that relationship is detrimental to our wellbeing. We tend towards depression and antisocial behaviour and end up treating others as objects to be used to fulfil our ever-raging needs.
These attachments start forming when we’re babies and are influenced by simple things like touch. There was a time when scientists couldn’t work out why so many babies who were placed in orphanages died. Their surroundings were clean and they received adequate nutrition, yet they didn’t survive. The research showed that a lack of touch was killing them.
When babies aren’t touched, they stop developing. When they are touched, it “is associated with favourable weight gain, attentional skills, emotion regulatory capacities, and attachment security.” When they grow up touch deprived, they tend towards aggression and violent behaviour and interestingly also end up with what scientists call “indiscriminant friendliness”. They believe that all adults are wonderful and would easily go off with any stranger. You see this when you visit a home for neglected children – they usually overwhelm any visitor with affection, yearning to be touched and picked up.
The problem is that these children will likely respond exactly the same to a visit by a paedophile.
In our adult life the effects of poor attachment causes two forms of relational dysfunction. The first group avoids attachment, reacts negatively to affectionate touch and “tends to use sex to manipulate and exert power over sexual partners.” The other group forms anxious attachment, has an unquenchable desire for connection and ends up saying yes when they mean no, for fear of losing the relationship.
Sounds a lot like Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, doesn’t it?
bondage or adoption: which spirit will we live by?
One day Jesus insisted on traveling through Samaria, an area in which Jews would not have set foot. Samaritans were idolaters, half-breeds, not the type of people a respectable rabbi should speak to. While His disciples went to fetch food, He met a Samaritan woman at a well. She wasn’t the type of woman that you’d want your son to bring home. She’d been married five times and was living with yet another man (who wasn’t her husband). Jesus, God in human flesh, didn’t reject her because of her sin but instead showed her where to find the connection that she’d had been craving all along. The liberation she experienced brought revival to a city of outcasts (John 4).
The reality is this: while we may be appalled by the massive excitement that accompanied the release of Fifty Shades of Grey, the excitement should also tell us something about what people are hungry for.
Maybe BDSM didn’t become cool while we weren’t watching. Maybe men and women are so damaged that abusive relationships are the only language they understand. Maybe it reveals “a very broken society desperate for answers and relief from pain deep inside their souls. BDSM blurs these lines of love. It turns them upside down, and it teaches what we thought was love to become boring and old fashioned, while what we once thought was abuse is sold off as exciting and erotic.”
What will these people find when they come to our churches? How will we minister to those who are being seduced by the media’s incessant onslaught to redefine marriage, love and intimacy? What about those who are already sitting in our services?
If you’re a Christian and drawn to Christian Grey, I urge you not to hide away in shame. Jesus took man’s whip upon Himself so that we won’t ever have to. Because of His great sacrifice we can be made whole in every crevice of our dark souls as we encounter the power of His love (Romans 8:11; 1 John 4). The Gospel doesn’t point us towards a set of instructions. It shows us the way to a relationship with the living God. He knows our frame and He knows our need. He created the appetites which, when perverted, war against our souls. He can forgive the dominatrix. He can heal the abused. He can restore our ability to trust, love and give.
On the day that the movie was released, there was a 40 percent rise in women who searched for BDSM pornography on the internet. Interestingly, the word “submission” was the top search item that was used. Studies show that women who enjoy forceful submission have a desire for sexual power and an ex-dominatrix reports that the men who came to her confessed that they enjoyed being the “submissive” because of a need to let go of control. We know we’ve been made to submit, to surrender to someone stronger than us. This is true for women in marriage and for all of us in relationship with God and one another (Ephesians 5; Colossians 3; James 4:7). What happens when marital roles are turned upside down? How does it influence our view of God when our idea of submission is shaded by bondage, dominance and control?
Our societies are dominated by a spirit of bondage that leads to fear but the world desperately needs the spirit of adoption which helps us to relate to God as Father (Romans 8:14-15). We all need to see expressions of the kind of love that’s not founded in fear or punishment but that is steadfast and secure (1 John 4:18). This love is not found in a deep, ethereal connection with God that’s void of human contact, but rather in the normalcy of healthy community life infused with His Spirit.
God created things this way. He created the marriage bed as the place where eternal beings are conceived and family as the vehicle for nurturing and growth. He mandated the Church to be an eternal family into which we are born again (John 3:3) and raised to full maturity (Ephesians 4:13). May God give us the grace to be secure, loving church communities where people can encounter the healing presence of Christ. It doesn’t need to be perfect. It just needs to be grounded in Him.
May we be reminded of Jesus’ prayer: I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world (John 17:15-18).