August 7, 2014

50 Shades of Grey, and the Worship of Sex

I refer the reader to the remarks of Mr. Noah Berlatsky, in the formerly reliable magazine The Atlantic, regarding the upcoming film 50 Shades of Grey. Mr. Belatsky is among the vast majority of the Western world’s inhabitants who is eagerly anticipating the filmed version of the best-selling porn novel of all time. For his part Mr. Belatsky considers the film’s trailer to be a work of “genius” and a “tour de force.” He suspect the film will be far superior to the book, at the very least because the books author, Mrs. E.L. James, and her clunky prose, have been kept as far away from the script as possible. The trailer, thanks in part to Beyonce’s vocals, celebrates the combination of “sex, competence, power, wealth, and…obsessive control.”

On what initially appears to the opposite end of the conversational spectrum are the remarks of Mr. Jonathan Van Maren, writing at the pro-life powerhouse: LifeSiteNews. He encourages his readers who stumble across a copy of 50 Shades to “burn it.” He traces the well-established link between pornography and the ills of the world. Broken homes breed an environment for porn and porn breeds an environment for broken homes. The vicious circle can only get larger or smaller, but it remains a circle. Mr. Maren sees the circle of porn widening under the influence of the 50 Shades obsession. The book, and by extension the movie, is a “celebration of pain, rape, and destruction.”

Having published on the insidious and ugly effect of pornography before, I feel a strong compulsion to criticize the picture of sexuality in Mrs. James’ work. But I cannot convey more anger than Mr. Maren and I am not equipped to defend the average, everyday men against the apparition of Christian Grey.  Fortunately, on this latter point, an army of Christian wives have beat me to it. With admirable aplomb and searing chutzpah, the women have defended their flesh-and-blood Christian husbands against the ink-and-imagination Christian Grey. One woman, a Mrs. Haley Morgan Smith, writes: “Poopoo on you, Christian Grey. Jeremy Landers (her husband) is the finest, sweetest, most wonderful man on the earth and I reject anything that says other wise.”

I will not say more than the Christian wives because I cannot say more than the Christian wives. Theirs is the right to respond for they have been offered the insult. If, at a party, Mrs. E.L. James says to another woman, “My, my your husband is quite the sop. Can you just imagine how much better life would be if he were leaner and more virile and if he smacked you for fun?” It does no good to interject with an oration on the virtues of conjugal love and fidelity. Better to let the trumpet blast from the insulted party with its own full force: “Who the HELL are YOU to criticize my husband!?”

I will instead confine myself to dispelling one, unfortunate, idea surrounding the film: that ours is a culture that worships sex. Mr. Berlatsky and Mr. Maren both agree on this point. To the former this worshipping celebration is admirable, even worthy of note as a rare accomplishment. To the latter this celebration is a sign of the decay of the West. They both suppose that our culture worships sex. We do no such thing.

Worship demands ritual, sacrifice and reserve. Consider for a moment the delicate and exacting balance surrounding marital love-making prescribed in Karol Wojtyła’s Love and Responsibility. The Bishop of Krakow weaves a balance of both movements of the body and movements of the will, which must be precise and even perfect if love is to not give way to lust. We must give to the other without thinking of the cost, yet the problem of reciprocity must be addressed, for we are fallen creatures. It is not enough to simply “not have sex” before marriage; a man and a woman must never even consider the other person as an object to be used. On this last point he offers a brilliant essay on tenderness. The signs of affection which we associate with a couple in love: small kisses, the holding of hands, the tracing of fingers along the beloved’s face… these may be either a symptom of virtue, communicating unconditional love to the other, or a symptom of nefarious vice, practiced only in pursuit of the attending emotions and sensations. We must always practice tenderness from virtue. But, adds the future Pope, we must not suppress emotion and sensation, for often they happen to us, as we are passive. We must absorb them into a love of the other: into the personalistic norm. This exacting description of love and responsibility reads like a description of a dance: it has a level of complexity impossible to consciously maintain except as a learned art.

Thus, those things we actually worship are things treated with both affection and reserve. A man who worships, say, his car will know every crease, every curve and be able to account for every drop of oil beneath the pistons. His reserve will be found when his teenage son asks to drive the car for prom. No, he cannot drive the car. He can’t even look at or breathe on it wrong. The car is delicate and must be handled with care and respect. The car is kept in the world’s most secure garage because the car is worshiped. Further, objects of worship are not one thing in the world, but become the world themselves. We Roman Catholics speak of both physical and spiritual nourishment in the Eucharist and mean these words rather literally. All that we need is contained in that which we worship. If a man, say, worships sports, his team will not be a mere accessory to his life, but rather be all of it. There he shall find community in his fellow fans. He shall find nourishment from the food eaten at the game. He may even be clothed in the colors and symbols of the team. His loyalty will be fierce. In season and out, the man who worships sports will stand by his team and draw from that fountain all the syrup and sweetness of life.

Obsession on the other hand treats the object as just another thing in the furniture of life, a necessary thing perhaps, but just a thing. The worshipper is tempted to think that he only exists for the object of worship. The obsessive is tempted to think that the object of obsession exists only for him. A obsessive “lover” will scream “I love you,” even as he beats the snot out of his “beloved.” A drug addict does not worship drugs, but rather needs the drugs to serve and worship him. Bad dope is unacceptable because bad dope does not provide the required offering: a peaceful high and a pleasant sensation. Objects of obsession are not sought to provide everything because the logic of obsession precludes the possibility. An object of obsession cannot be “all things to all people” it cannot even be all things to one person. Take the manic “lover” again: as surely as he is violent will he claim to be a victim. “I give you everything and this is the thanks I get?!” The true lover, and the true worshiper turn this formula on its head: “You have given me everything and this is the thanks I offer.”

From this it is plain that we do no such thing as worship sex. It is not hidden, like the car, or spoken of in hushed tones, like the team’s loss, or even surrounded by exacting ritual, such as Bishop Wojtyła described. Sex today is boldly displayed on every magazine and discussed on every talk-show. Sex is not everything to all people, it is hardly much of anything at all. Sexualities’ modern discontents sound too similar to the drug addict to escape our notice. Just as drug addicts will advise each other on how to achieve the highest high, so too do the sex addicts (and their number is legion). This is the publishing philosophy of Cosmo.

Nor do the megaphones of our culture teach that sex gives us everything. All that is sought is the pleasure. The obsessive will not even pay sex the compliment of taking all it offers. Sex offers not only pleasure, but bonding, commitment, a moment of total vulnerability and, above all, the opportunity to create new life. We would think a man had gone soft in the head if all he sought from football was the scream that follows a touchdown. He wants the sadness of a loss. He wants the joy of a grief shared. He wants the beer sipped during a timeout. He wants the comfortable jersey to wear as pajamas. He wants and takes it all.

The obsessive of sex takes only the pleasure and leaves all the rest. It does not matter how the pleasures comes or even by whom, just as long as it is there. The man who overhauled his car knows that cruising with the top down is only joyful because he spent hours tinkering under the hood. The man who loves his wife knows that making love with her is only joyful because they have painstakingly worked through the checkbook and cleaned the baby’s diapers at midnight. For the obsessive, all that is required for the “joy” of an evening with Christian Grey is $8.95.

What then does the obsessive worship? He seems to worship only himself and his empire of desires. His own preferences are sacred, hidden behind altar rails taller and stronger than any Papist invention, and veils denser and deeper than any used by the Israelites. To see the depth of this worship, consider that the trailer for 50 Shades of Grey premiered on a morning talk show, seen by stay-at-home-moms and their kids. These women wouldn’t even hide their infidelity and fancy for porn from their children, because it was what they preferred.

Whatever the cost of this obsession with sex from sea to shining sea, I maintain from what has been said above that our nation would perhaps improve if we treated sex with more of the simple and secretive rituals attending an object of worship. The pagans of old worshiped their gods with admirable reserve and respect. Paganism, in the old sense, was a transitory phase, like being a teenager or making a living as a blogger. I daresay we would be better off if we did worship sex… we may end where paganism ended up… back at Christianity.


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