Fifty Shades of Grey is a film, currently doing the rounds in British cinemas, produced by Universal Pictures. It is based on an erotic romance novel by British author E L James, first published in 2011, the first instalment in the Fifty Shades Trilogy that traces the deepening relationship between a college graduate, Anastasia Steele, and a young business magnate, Christian Grey. It is notable for its explicitly erotic scenes featuring elements of sexual practices involving bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism (BDSM). Fifty Shades of Grey topped best-seller lists around the world, including those of the United Kingdom and the United States. The series has sold over 100 million copies worldwide and been translated into 52 languages, and set a record in the United Kingdom as the fastest-selling paperback of all time.
I confess that I have not seen the film, but I have read all three volumes of the Trilogy. The film has had poor reviews with filmgoers saying that the best thing about going to see it was the popcorn they bought to eat whilst watching the film? Apparently the sex scenes are unintentionally funny, with audiences dissolving into laughter at the ridiculous activities Anastasia and Christian get up to at times. One critic I recently listened to on the radio reported that the film was so bad that, during the screening she attended, half the audience left well before the end of the film. I will not be going to see the film. To be quite honest, the books were bad enough in themselves. The plot (which runs through all three books) is thin, the quality of the prose is poor, and the much vaunted sex scenes themselves, are frankly boring. After reading the first few I skipped the rest in an attempt to follow the plot. On a more serious note I really wonder why the books are so popular, given the colossal growth of gender based violence world-wide at this moment in time. Books and films featuring BDSM surely only feed and encourage this kind of awful behaviour? Fifty shades of grey it is indeed … and more!
We are currently in what is known in the Church Year as the Season of Lent. Lent is a religious observance in the Liturgical Calendar of many Christian denominations that begins on Ash Wednesday and covers a period of approximately six weeks before Easter Sunday. The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer, through prayer, penance, repentance of sins, almsgiving, atonement and self-denial, for the events of Holy Week. Lent, along with its pious customs is observed by Christians in the Anglican, Calvinist, Lutheran, Methodist, and Roman Catholic traditions, and today, even some Baptist and Evangelical Churches also observe the Lenten season. During Lent, Roman Catholic and some Protestant churches often remove flowers from their altars, while crucifixes, religious statues, and other elaborate religious symbols are veiled in violet fabrics in solemn observance of the event. Lent is traditionally described as lasting for forty days, in commemoration of the forty days which, according to the three Synoptic Gospels, Jesus spent (before beginning his public ministry) fasting in the desert, where he endured temptation by the Devil (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12,13; Luke 4:1-13). Because of the fact that many Christians obsess with the idea of ‘giving up things for Lent’, and with many churches deliberately making their buildings as dull and colourless as possible, Lent could well be described as Forty Days of Grey?
To be honest, I find myself in somewhat of two minds about this ‘negative approach’ to the Season of Lent. Part of me finds the whole idea of ‘giving up things for Lent’, and deliberately making our church buildings (and oftentimes our church programmes during Lent) as ‘dull as dishwater’, both depressing and infuriating at one and the same time. I get really fed up with people telling me what they are giving up for Lent – everything from chocolate to posting on Facebook – and too many churches come across as ‘out of date’ and ‘cold’ (literally and spiritually) as it is, without enhancing this perception during Lent. On the other hand, I find myself coming round, more and more, to the idea of Lent being a season in the year when we deliberately take time out to think seriously about the meaning of life and the cost of all that God did for us in the gift of his ‘only begotten Son’ to both the manger and the cross!
This change of heart is partly because I have become increasingly concerned about the ‘shallow triumphalism’ of much evangelical and charismatic Christianity in recent years. I am even struggling these days with the current trend in a growing number of churches to advertise the Sunday Morning Worship Services as a ‘Celebration’? To be honest, there are some Sunday Mornings when I just don’t feel like celebrating; some Sunday mornings when it is actually a ‘struggle’ to even ‘get up’ and ‘go to church’. And some Sunday mornings, the way the Holy Spirit seems to lead us in our act of corporate worship, is much quieter and contemplative. For me, this is often when we gather around the Lord’s Table for Communion. These are times for quiet reflection, not ‘celebration’. There are times for us to ‘let our hair down’ and really celebrate as Christians – Easter Sunday being one of them! But not necessarily every Sunday? We need to be more sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit. To go where he leads us. To ‘go with the flow of the Spirit’!
Now I desperately want to be a ‘part of the solution not part of the problem’ person, but I really do think we desperately need a more ’rounded’ or ‘holistic’ approach to both the Easter message, and the whole of the Christian Life for that matter. There is too much ‘skewed’ Christianity going on these days, for me. As far as our understanding of Easter goes, this came home to me a few years ago when I was invited to preach in another church and was sent a copy of the Church Magazine. In this magazine the Minister of the Church had written about Easter, and the gist of the message was that since the events of that first Easter took place more than 2,000 years ago, and we were therefore now an ‘Easter People’, basking in the reality of the Resurrection of Jesus, the quicker we moved on from the events of Good Friday to those of Easter Sunday, the better. I understand what the Minister was trying to say, but think that the sentiment was misplaced in as much as I believe we need to contemplate the Cross just as much as we need to rejoice in the Resurrection.
Another example of this trend to get to Easter Sunday as quickly as possible was brought home to me during our time in Beckenham. Every Good Friday the Baptist Church, along with the majority of other Christian Churches in Beckenham, took part in a ‘March of Witness’ through the main street of the town. We began with a United Act of Worship at the Roman Catholic Church, walked silently through the town following someone carrying a large wooden cross, and concluded with a short Act of Worship on the Green in the centre of the town. Several hundred people took part, and it was a wonderfully solemn and moving occasion which made an impression on all those who witnessed it. At the same time, however, in another nearby London suburb, various other churches also held a ‘March of Witness’ on Good Friday. Their ‘March of Witness’ was very different to ours, however. They waved banners and flags, blew whistles and banged tambourines, sang ‘Praise Songs’ and shouted ‘Triumphant Chants’ … because they too were an ‘Easter People’ and they were celebrating the fact that ‘Jesus is Alive!’ Now, I am not against this kind of ‘March of Witness … it is just not appropriate for Good Friday!
Certainly the seemingly negative approach to Lent – the giving up of things by individual Christians, and the deliberate ‘colourlessness’ of many local churches – can appear to turn this season in the Church Calendar into 40 days of grey. But is this really a bad thing, after all? Applied properly, this more sombre approach to Lent can perhaps underline two very important matters that surely need our attention in these days of ‘shallow triumphalism’ and ‘easy believe-ism’.
Firstly, it can force us to face up to the seriousness of exactly what God did for us in allowing his one and only Son to die on Calvary’s Cross for us. I am not a great fan of the 2004 Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ which covers primarily the final 12 hours of Jesus’ life, beginning with the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane and ending with a brief depiction of his resurrection. Personally I found the extreme violence in the film – particularly the scourging of Jesus – gratuitous and over-long. Nevertheless, it does bring home to us something of the cost of our salvation. I had the privilege of being invited to the initial showing of the film in London, and still recall the absolute silence of the packed cinema at the end of the film. I don’t think this silence was because of the extent of the violence depicted towards Jesus, but rather the powerful awareness of all that Jesus had endured for our sakes. We all need to be made aware of this time and again simply because of our tendency to all too easily forget. As Charles Wesley’s famous hymn (based on Lamentations 1:12), challenges us, ‘All ye that pass by, To Jesus draw nigh: To you is it nothing that Jesus should die?’
And secondly, a more sombre approach to Lent, encourages us to take a more serious view of what it truly means to follow Christ. One of my heroes (if Christians are allowed to have heroes) is Dietrich Bonhoeffer (4 February 1906 – 9 April 1945), a German Lutheran Pastor, theologian, and anti-Nazi dissident. A key founding member of the Confessing Church, his writings on Christianity’s role in the secular world have become widely influential, and his book The Cost of Discipleship has become a modern classic. Bonhoeffer was known for his staunch resistance to the Nazi dictatorship, including his vocal opposition to Hitler’s euthanasia programme and genocidal persecution of the Jews. Arrested in April 1943 by the Gestapo he was imprisoned at Tegel Prison for 18 months, and then transferred firstly to Buchenwald Concentration Camp, and finally to Flossenbürg Concentration Camp, where he was executed by hanging on 9 April 1945 as the Nazi regime collapsed, just two weeks before Allied forces liberated the camp and three weeks before Hitler’s suicide. Bonhoeffer believed that as Christians we should take seriously the call to true Christian discipleship. He clearly demonstrated this both by the way he lived … and the way he died! In The Cost of Discipleship he challenges us to think very seriously indeed about how we respond to the wonderful grace of God given so freely to us in Christ. Is this grace, ‘cheap grace’ or ‘costly grace’ to us? For Bonhoeffer, ‘Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate … Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “Ye were bought at a price”, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us.’
By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,
And confidently waiting, come what may,
We know that God is with us night and morning
And never fails to greet us each new day.
Yet is this heart by its old foe tormented,
Still evil days bring burdens hard to bear;
O give our frightened souls the sure salvation
For which, O Lord, You taught us to prepare.
And when this cup You give is filled to brimming
With bitter suffering, hard to understand,
We take it thankfully and without trembling,
Out of so good and so beloved a hand.
Yet when again in this same world You give us
The joy we had, the brightness of Your sun,
We shall remember all the days we lived through,
And our whole life shall then be Yours alone.
~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45)
[This hymn was written by Bonhoeffer whilst in the Concentration Camp just a few weeks before his martyrdom]