50 Shades of Grace- Is Jezebel to blame?


photo credit: image74889 via photopin (license)

photo credit: image74889 via photopin (license)

I was holding a fitness magazine in line at a grocery store when a lady from my church surprised me. We chatted for several minutes, and it wasn’t until I left the store that I noticed the headline across the top of my women’s fitness magazine was one of those ‘how to please your man’ topics. I remember being more uncomfortable about the headline than the bottle of wine I was also buying. As a pastor, we don’t always know how to address the issues of sexuality or dating, even though they seem to be the headline of every movie; and certainly every magazine has at least one article about the topic. If we do address the topic, we often do a really awkward job, leaving Christians more confused and people treating the symptoms of sexual impurity instead of the cause.

I know of one prominent pastor who seemed obsessed with sex. He also received a lot of criticism for being chauvinistic. He often spoke about the need for married couples to be very sexually active, and anyone not in a married situation to be very guarded around the other gender lest they fall to temptation. He was very popular, particularly amongst male listeners. I have several guy friends who love this guy, and not wanting to be judgmental because someone sounds condemnatory, I decided I should experience this church and their leader for myself.  

I decided that with all the talk about the pastor of this church, I should try and learn more about him. I listened to one of his sermons and also to an interview. He seemed to talk about sex as if a woman is designed for the pleasure of her husband, but not vice versa, and there was no sense that women have so much more to offer. I don’t think his extreme beliefs are representative of what most Christians believe, but I think the number of people who listen to him highlights that people are curious about what the stance of Christianity really is. A lot of people seem to want black and white rules for how to engage others in a world where rules are always in flux. If someone has a strong statement or stance, people will listen, even if their natural inclination isn’t to agree; at least someone is making bold statements. 

When I was in college, there was a book called “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” by the Christian author Joshua Harris. I read it cover to cover and remember thinking that some of the principles seemed great. I thought that maybe the answer to how to guard this heart was held in this book. The main principles were not being selfish, having modest behavior, and focusing on knowing the other person. These all seemed like things that were consistent with the teachings of Christ, but when I got to some of the ways things played out, I didn’t track with Harris. He suggested that dating wasn’t okay, and that unless you were marrying the person you were dating, you were actually emotionally cheating on your future spouse. Yikes! I knew several girls that were unsure if their current relationship was going to end in marriage who broke off the relationship, as they were saving their dating selves for ‘the one.’ Part of me thinks these girls are still waiting.  

Joshua was a sincere person, and I know he was hoping to honor women, but I think that some of his writings had the opposite effect. The way that he described a woman’s role in dating seemed pretty harmful. He described how women needed to guard their brothers in Christ and dress modestly. The definition of modesty was of course defined by the male and his ability to not think sexually of his partner. He relayed a story about a girl who wore a tight fitting top, which her date asked her to change so as not to cause him to stumble. 

Hmmm… so his sexuality was her responsibility? That didn’t seem right, and it wasn’t about what the heart was thinking. This seemed to be treating a symptom and not the root of the issue; it was confusing to say the least. His book, and the movement that followed it, had a huge impact on those who read it. I know people are trying to maintain purity in the form that they have been told and sold from various pulpits, and that is admirable; but when we focus on the way we dress and whether or not we kiss the person, I think we are on the slippery slope of legalism that doesn’t deal with the heart of the matter. I think it has us focusing on the symptoms of the issue and not the issue itself. 

I was recently at a pastor’s conference where a man stood up and shared that he had overcome his addiction to porn. There was a round of applause. Now I understand that being addicted to porn, or being addicted to anything, has terrible adverse affects for the individual and the person he or she is in a relationship with, so I applauded. I applauded until I realized something: he wasn’t treating the cause of his addiction, only the symptoms. He shared that he now had an accountability partner and that he didn’t go to movies with any form of sexuality in them. He than said that he was more satisfied with his “smoking hot wife than he ever has been.” She stood there looking frankly a little medicated and uncomfortable. Once again a round of applause. Side note: going to these conferences always reminds me of what an anomaly I am. I am usually the only female in the room in the workshops, and if not, I am the only younger female. So most of those applauding this man were guys. He then shared that it had been a really hard process, especially because he wanted to see the movie 300 but couldn’t because he heard there was some nudity in it. I have never laughed as hard as I did when one of the pastors I work with sarcastically said, “wow what a martyr.” His viewing the female body only as a sexual object, and women in general as somehow the tempting presence, only helps to continue the idea that women are dangerous and something to be resisted unless she is your “smoking hot wife.” I think that this continues the cycle of treating symptoms, when the heart is still objectifying the object. In or out of marriage, we need to see the person as more than an object and sexuality as more than an act.

  1. Steve says:

    Sarah, everything about this post is spot on. The way that sexuality is viewed ‘in the church’ is damaging and backwards. Your last paragraph about the man who admitted to overcoming pornography is a great example. There are deeper problems that we simply aren’t addressing. I commend your work and am inspired by it.

  2. I’ve noticed that the focus on modesty and telling women “don’t cause your brothers to stumble” always ends up farming out the responsibility onto women, as if dudes have no choice but to objectify. And the sad thing is this is usually the stance of the type of preachers that are obsessed with masculinity. This sort of message is damaging to both genders.

    On the other hand, I also know that there’s the Christian camp that so wants to be upright and not lusting and such that they translate any amount of attraction as lusting and so beat themselves us for feeling attraction. That also isn’t healthy or useful.

    And of course sometimes these two things combine and leads to people who are really confused about anything having to do with sexuality – having loads of guilt about even having a sexuality.

    Coming from this side of Christianity I think it is quite challenging to have a healthy view and relationship to sexuality because like you pointed out it focuses on symptoms. And focusing on symptoms instead of the issue always leads to problem solving that ends up unhelpful long term.

  3. Jenni says:

    Well said. You are great with words and share from a unique perspective. I appreciate your ability to bring humor and insight to a topic often left untouched…or certainly rarely explored through the eyes of a woman.

  4. KR says:

    I grew up during a time when there was a heavy emphasis on abstinence, purity, and I lived through and embraced the True Love Waits movement. Maybe it’s still like that in fundamentalist churches (SBC), I’m not sure. But I know that it has done nothing but make life much more difficult to deal with when things get complicated as they tend to do. It didn’t really prepare me for anything but guilt and shame when there could have been a healthier approach to sexuality.

    Thanks for having this discussion

  5. Douglas Nason says:

    How strange it is that the #1 and #2 reasons for divorce – money and sex – are rarely talked about in church. Is it any surprise that the divorce rate for xtians is about the same as the general public?

  6. Chris says:

    “Joshua was a sincere person, and I know he was hoping to honor women, but I think that some of his writings had the opposite effect.”

    I can’t be nearly as generous as you were in the first half of that statement, Sarah.

    There were so many red flags with Harris and his theology right from the get-go. For starters, he was barely out of his teens when he that book. Did it ever occur to anyone, particularly church leaders, to ask themselves what a 21-year-old knew about long-term relationships – or anything else, for that matter? Joshua was also home-schooled, which may have led to him bringing up the rear, socially-speaking. The fact that his 21st birthday had come and gone and most of the young women in his church were taller than he was probably didn’t help his already shakey self-image much either.

    I believe that at least part of the motivation of Harris and Gothard in writing and preaching the kinds of genophobic legalistic lunacy that they did was an unspoken desire to impose their own sexual repression and hang-ups on others. I could be wrong. In fact, I hope for their sake that I am, because they’ll have a lot to answer for on Judgment Day.

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