Monday, February 20, 2017

On Christian Grey and Christian Fiction

Good morning.

To begin, if you see Trey today, give him a pat on the back. He checked Reagan around two o'clock this morning & caught a low (a low of forty-six (46!) ) that I didn't see coming. We haven't seen forty-six at any time of the day in a good while. It was the first time in a long time we've had to wake her up to handle a low. Lately we've seen no overnight lows, but when they occur it's usually to the tune of around sixty-five or seventy & I can turn her pump off completely, depriving her of the constant tick of basal insulin, & she rises rapidly. You can't play around with forty-six so she was treated to some manic chocolate milk & a few Hershey Kisses (her request) & was in the nineties twenty minutes later. Ladies, marry a man who'll set a two o'clock alarm to check your child's blood sugar. 

The past few weeks have unfolded in such a way as to prompt some heavy thinking on my part about what I read. More specifically, I've been doing some heavy thinking about what I read & suggest others read along with me so we can discuss it together, maybe write a couple of essays, & mentally cast the main characters should the book make it to the big screen. 

As a five-year member of my book club in good standing (since, you know, I didn't bail out when I was having a little meltdown about the demands on my time a week or so ago: read that fun story in last week's blog - - > here) & as a woman in a position to tell sixty or so teens what they're reading next, I am often thinking about books. What has merit? What has literary merit? (wink, wink AP . . . love, hugs, & flowers for you).

Does something contain content so objectionable that despite the book's literary merit, I'm going to stand between the book & the eighteen-year-olds? I'll tell you that few are the books & incredibly salacious would be the content that would fall in that last category; I think that ought to be the attitude of every English teacher, regardless of her religious or political beliefs or literary preferences. Let them read is my motto, or something a little more inspiring than that. I've yet to stumble across a justification for banning a book - from society at large or in a classroom setting - that is anything other than laughable, particularly in this, the year 2017. Admittedly "classroom setting" is not a fixed variable & the age of those in the classroom is certainly a factor, but at eighteen & nineteen years of age, there's little to nothing in a book I might hand them that would shock them. 

A few weeks ago Trey & I went to see La La Land. I'm not going to discuss La La Land today, but it's  a good film so long as you're not opposed to random outbursts of song (I am not) or Ryan Gosling in a suit playing the piano (again, not opposed). Walking to our theater we passed some signage advertising Fifty Shades Darker, the second film adapted from the Fifty Shades of Grey book series. The movie is, I believe, still in theaters as I type. Then, then, before La La Land began rolling, we saw a preview for the upcoming film The Shack. Set to open in March, The Shack is a film adaptation of the book by the same name.

I read The Shack. I read a good bit of Fifty Shades of Grey in its infant, fan-fiction, online-for-free form; admittedly I did some skimming of Fifty Shades of Grey because, well, the writing - content aside - is atrocious. The Shack was a book club selection last summer, otherwise I'd likely have never read it. Fifty Shades of Grey was free online when I read it & was suggested to me during a period of my life when I admit I was reading an unhealthy amount of fan-fiction, otherwise I'd likely have never read it. I don't regret reading either, if for no other reason than to now say this: it is my guess that the Lord finds them equally objectionable, & if I had to go see a film adaption of either, if I had to sit through one of these films, I may well opt for the Fifty Shades of Grey film(s). That's what I said. 

I've said my peace regarding E.L. James's atrocities & you can read that here if you're inclined. With the release of the second film in the series, social media has been alight with pictures of Mr. Grey, pictures shared by women who adore him & cannot wait to see the second film & some pictures  (accompanied by comments & righteous indignation) shared by women who believe the popularity of Mr. Grey is an indicator of end times. I suppose I fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. 

There are certainly reasons to sound the alarm over Mr. Grey. I believe that I, having been raised by loving parents & having enjoyed predominantly functional relationships with men, can read the book, recognize that Christian Grey is abusive, E.L. James is an affront to the English language & the business of novel-writing, & move on with my life. Not all women are so fortunate, & there is danger in promoting Grey's behavior as normal, as acceptable, as sexy, because his behavior is abnormal, unacceptable, & unattractive. I am all in for books that depict abuse victims (Mr. Grey is an abuse victim) who grow up & confront their demons &, you know, seek help. Sadly that's not the way his story unfolds & he lures an idiot unsuspecting young lady into the world he's constructed in an attempt to deal with the abuse he suffered. 

Perhaps the most egregious message is that his behavior is not only okay, but sexy - a relationship goal, even - because he is wealthy. Go ahead & convince me his behavior, his desires, would be accepted & celebrated (& sell millions of books) if he were poor. Money often equals power, & powerful men are attractive, no doubt. Would I find Paul Ryan as attractive were he not the Speaker of the House? I don't know; I mean, he's certainly not ugly, but the suits & the power are part of his appeal. If he'd slash the budget & stop spending so much money he may have a full-blown stalker on his hands. Anyway, the message that powerful men can do what they want, that they have some license or free pass to embark on sexual conquests poor men do not, is something we all discussed back in the nineties when Bill Clinton was president. I guess we learned little.

In my head I've written an essay comparing & contrasting Christian Grey to Jay Gatsby, both men who use their money & power (& ability to wear a suit well) to attempt to cope with the ghosts of their respective pasts. I haven't actually typed the words because I feel it would be so, so wrong to compare & contrast a Fitzgerald character - Gatsby!, one of the greatest literary characters of all time - to Grey, a character E.L. James constructed based on Stephenie Meyer's Edward Cullen character & whom James wrote with the nuance & efficacy of a first grader. 

Okay. So I have again said my peace regarding Christian Grey. Moving on. 

With that said, & to answer your burning question, the reason I'd opt to see Mr. Grey on the big screen over The Shack (understand I plan to see neither) is that, nearly a year after reading the book, discussing it with the book club ladies, thinking about it, & reading some recent commentary on the upcoming movie, I am comfortable saying, in this public forum, that The Shack is as morally questionable as Ms. James's infamous books, perhaps more so. Keep reading.

If you've not read The Shack, I obviously don't recommend you race to do so. Published in 2007 & written by Canadian author William P. Young, The Shack is labelled & shelved as Christian Fiction (picture me cringing & making gagging noises). To sum up, it's a (not particularly well written) novel about a man whose daughter is kidnapped & presumably murdered. The man can't cope with the turn his life has taken. He ends up driving back to the area where the kidnapping occurred & there he finds a rundown shack that is then transformed into a glowing, homely, inviting abode where - guess who? - the Father, the Son, & the Holy Spirit are living in bodily form. I kid you not.

It was one of the biggest whoas I've ever experienced while reading, & I have read a lot of stuff over the years. It was not a good whoa. I kept reading because I knew there was an impending book club meeting looming & I wanted to be able to back up my whoa with evidence. So, to keep you up to speed: the Lord - the Lord God who created the heavens & the earth, who raised Adam from dust & formed Eve from Adam's rib, who sent His Son to die in my stead & then raised Him from the grave, defeating death - is living (& cooking) in the shack in the form of a black woman. Yes, yes.

Last summer I stated my displeasure with & incredulity over the novel when the book club met. Someone brought cupcakes that night & so I said my peace, ate my cupcake, & went home to think no more of The Shack. Unfortunately the movie is to be released in March & between seeing the preview for it before La La Land & reading a couple of hot takes on the book & the film lately, it is haunting my thoughts again, juxtaposed with a couple of thoughts on Christian Grey who is once again gracing movie screens across the country. It is troubling to me that Christians lambast Mr. Grey  but some of them will see The Shack & openly promote this book & this film with zeal without questioning its content or message. I suggest that Mr. Grey is a diversion, the obvious scapegoat, while likely countless books & films fly under our radar; we never give them a second thought, & in fact promote some of them, encouraging others to read them & see them.

I'm going to do something that may be lazy, but it'll save me some time & I am all about saving time right now. A week or so ago there was a lively discussion on my book club's Facebook page about, well, books. I am going to paste for you something I shared with them, essentially my thoughts on "Christian Fiction" (hint: I am not a fan):

Christian fiction has always made me cringe, just the label in itself. It implies there is fiction Christians ought to read, & then "other" fiction that, I guess, is "less Christian" or flat out sinful. I think this label does Christians a disservice by luring them to read books that are often poorly written, books that are unlikely to expand your vocabulary or your mind, books whose characters are often flat & rarely reflect the true, complex, messy, sinful nature of God's most precious creation: man. I also think Christian fiction helps propagate the stereotype that Christians are not intellectuals, but rather uneducated, mindless automatons who have no place in academic arenas. Truly our saving grace is C.S. Lewis; both his fiction & his nonfiction is impeccable.

The "other" fiction is what your kids are reading or will read in school - no matter where they go to school. I assign it & discuss it with teens with whom I also attend church. I read it at Harding & at Louisiana College, both private Christian schools. It is the literature that is covered on the AP exam. It is some of the best stuff humanity has produced. Yes, it contains language. Yes, it depicts the horrors of humanity. It's considered the best not only because of the authors' command of language, but because in the characters we see ourselves, our own humanity, rather than a sanitized caricature that I think so often describes characters in Christian fiction.

More than once in the past someone has asked me where my dad gets his material for the Bible classes he periodically teaches at church. Simple: he reads. He reads anything & everything. He doesn't put down a book because he runs across a curse word, or rape, or sex, or murder. Whose stories tear our hearts out in the Bible? David, a man who gave in to lust, & then committed adultery & murder. Paul, who killed Christians.

I think the difference in our book club & a book club whose members are not Christians should be the same difference in the education I got at OCS & Harding & Louisiana College: not a vastly different book list, but rather an exploration of the books via a Christian lens. We, me & all you ladies who are so precious to me, are blessed by our station in life, by the knowledge of the Truth we have, to be in a position to assess literature with an understanding that some of the men & women who wrote it didn't have: namely that we are all created in the image of God, but we are all also subject to our sinful, fleshly desires . . . it's a set-up that lends itself to some great books.

I'll end with this: in the last year we've read two books that discuss/depict child rape &/or child abduction. Both of those books can be found in the "Christian" section of a bookstore, so what is it that is so objectionable in other books?

I don't want to give you the impression that all of our discussions mirror this one; make no mistake, we mainly discuss where we're eating every month & share memes. I also don't want to leave you with the impression that we have vicious fights over what we read. They've certainly humored me in times past; we've read A Farewell to Arms, The Awakening, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Great Gatsby, & probably a handful of other books I suggested that were not popular among the group. All I want in a book, particularly a book club selection, is a story that keeps me awake reading & has enough meat & depth to sustain a discussion when we meet. I am not even pushing the books of literary merit on them anymore since I have another, decidedly more captive, audience with whom I can now discuss books of literary merit.

(also, since I threw him in the above discussion, my dad read The Shack &, to put it mildly, he was not a fan . . . )

I think The Shack is perhaps the most dangerous of all fiction because it is labelled Christian, but is, in my opinion, dancing dangerously with flat out heresy in its depiction of the Trinity as this random, happy group of human hippies living in a shack cooking & gardening. You can't read the Old Testament without walking away with an understanding that God takes His image incredibly seriously. The visual representation of God in The Shack was jarring to me as I read, & it bothers me still. More importantly, I think it likely displeases the Lord. 

It is my suggestion to you that to watch human actors portray the Trinity - particularly the Lord God & the Holy Spirit, who have never taken on flesh - is a bad idea. I think reading the book & seeing the visual images the film will present, should a person choose to do one or both, ought to force a mature Christian to do some hard thinking (raises hand), but, & most disheartening to me, might possibly suggest heretical ideas about the Trinity to an immature Christian, or - shudder - to someone who has no Biblical knowledge & stumbles across the book or the film. I think it would be better - less damaging, that is - to sit through Fifty Shades of Grey than to have one's head filled with images of Octavia Spencer portraying the Lord God Almighty. Foul language in books doesn't faze me; I just keep reading, & I've never found it to influence my own speech (I think hearing it is another matter; I believe that does influence my own speech). The exception to that is the Lord's name in vain; I always cringe when I read it, & more so when I hear it because if there is a hierarchy of foul language, that is certainly at the top of the pyramid. I think what unfolds in The Shack & what will unfold on screens across the country soon is the equivalent of taking the Lord's name, or in this case His image, in vain. It is a twisted, inaccurate representation of God, in my opinion.

If you are a Christian & point fingers at those who pay to watch Mr. Grey but are not troubled by Ms. Spencer parading around on screen as the Lord, sit down with your Bible & familiarize yourself with passages in which the Lord discusses the use of His name & His image. He is a jealous God. He does not want to be reduced to a plot point or a pancake-flipping, full-figured grandmother. Do not delude yourself & claim this book or this film are spreading truth because they are not. Among other Biblical inaccuracies, The Shack promotes the idea that the Father, the Son, & the Holy Spirit can be whomever or whatever we need, & that is flat out not found in the Bible. 

Filth is filth & Hollywood has always sold it; it is fine if you want to point it out for what it is when something like Fifty Shades of Grey comes along, but a large black actress gallivanting around on screen as the Lord who created you - who created the actress herself! - ought to bother you down to your marrow. It galls me, & it is particularly galling because the word Christian is plastered across this book & this film. If you think Satan uses books & films like Fifty Shades of Grey for his purposes but don't think he has wormed his way into the "Christian Fiction" market you are, well, wrong. Where would you concentrate your efforts if you were Satan? 

The success of the Fifty Shades of Grey series, which was originally written as fan-fiction & published online, as well as the success of The Shack, which was originally self-published & went on to sell millions of copies & now will appear on the big screen, is disheartening to me as a Christian, as an English teacher, & as a person with a decent vocabulary. Our standards for entertainment, both in the form of what we read (if we read) & what we watch, are low. As I've said, I will read pretty much anything - but I think about it. Whatever you read, take the raw material, as Locke suggests, & think about it. Question it. Figure out why you love it or why it bothers you so you can explain to others who read it without batting an eye why they ought to lose a few winks of sleep over it. The Shack forced me to do some deep thinking about the Trinity. I sat down with my Bible because I felt like the content of The Shack would bother the Lord, but I couldn't figure out exactly why.

I'll tell you what I told my students when we read The Screwtape Letters: nothing is gospel but the gospel. Nothing. Even if it is C.S. Lewis, & even if it is shelved as Christian Fiction, question what you read. In the coming weeks, whether you see The Shack or not, read your Bible & be prepared to explain the Trinity as it is presented in the Bible. Social media is buzzing about this film & the opportunity to insert a little bit of truth will likely present itself. 

To sum up, don't turn your nose up at the Fifty Shades Darker moviegoers as you saunter into The Shack. Don't pat yourself on the back too hard because you limit your reading to Christian Fiction; in fact, if this is the case, please come talk to me. I will be Monica & you can be Rachel & I'll make all your reading decisions for you & you will thank me.

Not all that glitters is gold, & not all that's labelled Christian is as advertised. Finally, if you're determined to see a movie right now, La La Land is probably your best bet.


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