Fifty Shades of Evangelical Justifications for Patriarchy

Fifty Shades of Evangelical Justifications for Patriarchy February 18, 2015

While researching my previous blog post on Fifty Shades of Grey, I came upon an article by evangelical blogger Owen Strachan titled How “50 Shades of Grey” Harms Women & Jesus Saves Them. I’m going to deconstruct this blog post piece by piece to really dig into the problems with its logic. I should note that Strachan is not a nobody. He’s a professor at Boyce College and president of the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood.

Let’s turn to Strachan’s article:

We commonly hear today, from a secular culture and also from many voices of progressive Christianity (so-called), that the Bible is oppressive to women. Men are called to be heads of their home, goes the line, and women are called to submit, and that makes the Bible hugely problematic. Let me make four quick points here to guide a possible response to this common objection specifically and to 50 Shades of Grey in particular.

What Fifty Shades of Grey has to do with responding to objections to evangelical gender roles (gender roles Strachan never actually questions) I have no idea.

1. This is a sham accusation, of course. Men are called to be heads, but in the image of Christ. They’re called to lay their lives down for their wives (see Eph. 5:22-33). The Bible never enfranchises men treating women anything less than purely and lovingly (1 Pet. 3:7). The man a godly woman submits to is not some goofball with a title he didn’t earn. To the fullest possible extent, with every fiber of his being, he’s supposed to love his wife like Jesus loves his bride. Nothing less than perfection is the standard for masculine conduct and manly headship. High stakes, these.

I have a question for Strachan. Does a “godly woman” still have to submit to a man if he falls short of this standard of “perfection”? I did some googling and was unable to find Strachan answering this question, but I have always always always seen this question answered with a resounding “YES.” So this whole “no no, wifely submission is totes okay because the husband is called to be caring and loving and to put her needs before his own” song and dance is utter bullshit, because wifely submission is never limited to cases where the husband is caring and loving, and puts his wife’s needs first.

Not so with secular culture. There is no extant moral code for men and women. Christianity is outmoded, bygone, and repressive. In its place, the postmodern West has adopted…well…not much of any ethical standard, really. Into the vacuum come cultural fodder like 50 Shades of Grey, based on the best-selling book. In this film and book, a playboy named Christian Grey enters into a relationship with Anastasia Steele. Grey sexually uses and abuses Anastasia, who finds herself drawn to the man despite his roughness.

Ahem. We do have ethical standards. They tend to be based on things like consent and harm reduction. This idea that outside of Christianity there is no ethical standard is utter bunk. It’s made all the more ridiculous by the fact that the Christian ethical standard promoted by men like Strachan boils down to “what God says goes.” I mean good lord, this is an ethical system within which genocide is a-okay if God orders it!

But let me take a step back here. First of all, note that Strachan seems to object just as much to Christian’s “sexual use” of Anastasia as to his abuse of her. And frankly, I suspect that in his mind, BDSM equals abuse. In other words, this isn’t the same critique made by feminists and others who point out that Christian and Anastasia’s relationship is shot through with emotional abuse, or those who engage in BDSM who have objected to giving that title to what is portrayed in the book.  Strachan appears to be objecting to (a) premarital sex and (b) rough sex.

In the Bible, an abusive male sexual predator is an abomination. In secular culture, an abusive male sexual predator is a celebrity. The difference could not be more stark.

Um. No.

Now first of all, no one is arguing that modern secular culture is perfect. But frankly, Strachan is portraying it as some sort of uniform thing when it’s not. Feminists like myself absolutely see problems in modern secular culture—I mean, I frequently blog about them! We believe that many of modern secular culture’s problems when it comes to gender stem from the continuing hold of patriarchal ideas, and we’re working to change that. When abusive male sexual predators are treated as celebrities, we raise a stink.

But second, it is simply false that the Bible treats abusive male sexual predators as “an abomination.” I’ve read the Old Testament laws through several times, and nowhere in there is a prohibition of spousal abuse. What is in there is a law requiring men who rape virgins to marry their victims. Not only is this not a condemnation of a male sexual predator as an “abomination,” it also has the potential to deliver a rape victim into the hands of her rapist. Judges chapter 21 the tribe of Benjamin forcibly obtaining wives first through warfare and then through kidnapping. Nothing is said about asking these women whether they want to marry the men of Benjamin, and there is no prohibition on rape. Come to think of it, the Bible doesn’t condemn marital rape, either.

So, I’m going with a no. The Bible does not portray “an abusive male sexual predator” as “an abomination.” Do you know what does portray him such? Feminism. Which, again, goes back to this idea that modern secular culture is universal and uniform when it’s not.

2. Christianity disciplines abusive men. As I just wrote in a “Three Views” piece for the January 2015 edition of Christianity Today, a man who sexually uses and abuses women will be excommunicated from the church, reported to the police, and opposed with the full force of biblical righteousness. Not so with the culture that promotes 50 Shades of Grey. A man who sexually uses and abuses women is cool, mysterious, and compelling.

I can’t read the piece Strachan references, as it’s available to subscribers only. But it’s simply false that men who abuse women will be excommunicated from the church and reported to the police. I have utterly no idea how Strachan could state it such, like it’s settled fact! He could say that they “should” be excommunicated from the church and reported to the police, but that’s not what he says. As written, he completely ignores the very real abuse coverup problems that have plagued evangelical Christianity. I simply cannot believe that he has never heard of the Sovereign Grace Ministries scandal, for instance.

The idea that abuse must be reported to the police has never been universal within evangelical Christianity. Abuse is often seen as something to be handled internally. Thankfully, this appears to be changing, in part as a result of the amount of attention payed to things like the Sovereign Grace Ministries scandal, and questions over how Christian universities handle reports of sexual assault. Organizations like Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE) have begun pushing back against the longstanding idea that these issues are best handled internally. But again, Strachan doesn’t admit any of this.

Note once again that Strachan has conflated “sexually using” and “sexually abusing,” and that it’s still unclear whether he’s talking about the actually abusive aspects of Christian and Ana’s relationship, or simply BDSM. I suspect that Strachan probably uses the term “sexually using” to describe any premarital sex, in part because of his patriarchal framework—in the evangelical framework, the man tends to be seen as the sexual aggressor and the woman as the sexual receiver.

But to the extent that we’re talking about the abusive aspects of Christian and Ana’s relationship, it’s absolutely true that abuse too often goes either unnoticed or unaddressed in modern secular culture. But I would argue that this, too, is changing, in part as a result of pushback from feminists. There has been increasing attention played to the problems that beset the prosecution of rape, and increasing emphasis put on helping victims out of abusive situations. But again, Strachan does not acknowledge any of this.

Let me speak as strongly as I should here: 50 Shades of Grey is disgusting, despicable, and unerringly awful for women. Don’t view this film as just a film. Know that it is much more. It is representative of the new sexual progressivism and its amoral worldview.

Once again, Strachan does not actually explain his objections. Is he concerned about the themes of emotional abuse and the blowing off of consent? Or is he, as is more likely, concerned about premarital sex and BDSM?

50 Shades of Grey speaks to where things are headed in our culture. We should not expect that postmodernism will protect women. It will do no such thing. We should not expect that it will ennoble men and call them to self-sacrificial responsibility. It will do no such thing. We should not expect that postmodernism will bless children and strengthen the family. It will do no such thing.

Why must anyone—man or woman—be “ennobled”? And why not call all people, men and women, to a balance of self-sacrificial responsibility and personal fulfillment? What about empowering women to protect themselves, and creating a legal system that penalizes those who abuse others regardless of gender? This idea that women should be dependent on men for protection is part of the problem in the first place, and this narrow (and dare I say patriarchal) focus on male violence against women ignores other forms of violence.

Evangelical Christians tend to use the term “postmodernism” in a very particular way. To them, the word entails a rejection of standards and values altogether, in favor of a complete absence of morality and ethics. But that’s absolutely not what I see in modern secular culture. It’s not a rejection of standards and values that I see, it’s a shifting in what those standards and values are. When Strachan speaks of “strengthening the family” he almost certainly means the patriarchal heterosexual family. When he speaks of “blessing children” he probably means elevating childbearing to the most important thing a woman can do. The things he objects to—calling “postmodernism”—are probably things like marriage equality or career women.

Those who work against biblical manhood and womanhood, who fight the Scripture’s teaching as marginalizing, are in fact undermining the last cultural defense that still stands against male predation and sexual suffering.

This is simply not true! In fact, it’s so not true as to be ludicrous. The Bible is not the only thing that stands in the way of “male predation and sexual suffering.” In fact, I would argue that Bible, in Strachan’s interpretation, promotes male predation and sexual suffering. Wives are ordered to submit, whether or not their husbands are “worthy” of their submission, and are warned against withholding sex from their husbands. When an evangelical man cheats on his wife, his fellow evangelicals are quick to ask whether his wife was “giving” him sufficient sex at home to keep him from straying. I would argue that a consent-based culture that values healthy relationship skills and equality is a much more effective defense against “male predation and sexual suffering.”

3. 50 Shades of Grey may seem exciting, enticing, and alluring. It is in truth nihilistic, degrading, and devastating. Any woman who has been sexually abused will be very clear that there is nothing romantic, fun, and satisfying in the experience. It’s unthinkable–but true–that this is the vision of the good life being offered to–and received by–many, many women today. Abuse of women is evil to the very core of what evil represents. Yet our double-minded culture sometimes decries “rape culture” and then–in a spasm of confusion–sometimes turns around and extols what it just condemned.

Does Strachan honestly think the people who decry rape culture are the ones flocking to see Fifty Shades of Grey? If so, he is very much confused. Both the book and the movie have been widely condemned in the feminist world, by the very same people raising the banner against rape culture.

And again, I’m still not sure whether Strachan is talking about abuse or BDSM. Part of the reason I’m so unsure is that most of the abuse in Fifty Shades of Grey was either emotional or physical, not sexual. Strachan doesn’t seem to get this.

Another note I really need to make is that there is a difference between having sexual fantasies on the one hand, and arguing that real-life relationship patterns should be built on those fantasies on the other. As I’ve written before, my sexual fantasies tend to be nonconsensual. I believe this is partly because of the sexual repression I experienced growing up in evangelical culture. When I became sexually active as an adult, I’d been so conditioned against sexual agency that the only way for me to relax and enjoy sexual pleasure was to entertain nonconsensual fantasies in my mind, while, of course, having what was in fact completely consensual sex.

Why do I mention this? Quite simply, because there is a difference between enjoying erotica that features villains and sexual violation on the one hand, and arguing that the villains are actually heroes and that sexual violation is not actually sexual violation on the other. My concern with Fifty Shades of Grey—and the concern of many other feminists—is not that women are enjoying nonconsensual and abusive erotica, but rather that too many readers don’t recognize the lack of consent or the abuse, and have made the villain a hero and elevated the book to a model for real-life relationships.

Think about how confusing sexual mores are today for young men and women. There is effectively no standard of sexual conduct on many secular college campuses, for example, outside of mutual consent. But media like 50 Shades of Grey shout at young men to sexually abuse women, and exhort young women to engage in harmful sexual practices. Honestly, what kind of twisted, deviant culture is this?

Wait wait wait. There is “no standard” “outside of mutual consent”? How is mutual consent not a standard, and a damn good one at that? And frankly, given this paragraph, I’m inclined to think Strachan has a problem with Fifty Shades of Grey’s purported use of BDSM, not with the actual abuse that occurred in the book, which had to do with a lack of respect for consent and heavy doses of both emotional manipulation and physical threats. Lovely.

The church must be clear against the backdrop of such confusion. No system of thought more dignifies women than biblical Christianity. Our culture, and our world, desperately needs it. But in a world turned upside down by the fall, many people–including professing Christians–make gospel faith out to be the problem. They try to present biblical complementarianism as evil. This is a lie. We must not believe it.

I put that sentence in bold for emphasis. To the extent that biblical Christianity “dignifies” women, it does so by telling them that their are especially nurturing, that their place is as mothers in the home, and that they shouldn’t have to worry their sweet little heads over the big decisions or responsibilities in life, which are left to the men. To me, this is not dignifying. This is infantilizing. I realize that this world can be a difficult place, but I would much rather face those hardships side by side with my husband than stand behind him.

Biblical complementarianism, as Strachan himself has discussed it in this very article, includes wifely submission. I would indeed describe any philosophy that requires one party to continually submit to the other party “evil.” Strachan can go on and on about the high standards complementarianism calls men to, but when he does, I’m simply reminded of those who defended antebellum slavery by arguing that slaveowners carried the great burden of caring for their slaves, and that it was the slaves who got the best end of the bargain. Nope.

There is evil in every human heart; no church is perfect. Abuse can and does happen even in Christian homes and churches, but we must remember that when it does, no gospel-loving church celebrates it. No movie is made to sell it. Such sin is condemned and opposed and reported to authorities and then dealt with in the household of God. No, it is not the Scripture that harms women and subjugates them. It is a sexualized culture that has loosed men from their role as Christlike heads, and encouraged them to gratify their lusts with women without recourse.

This would seem to be an admission that abuse can occur in the church, but if you read the full paragraph it’s honest it’s not. Strachan says that no “gospel-loving” church celebrates abuse. No true Scotsman much? He then turns around and says that abuse in Christian environments is “condemned and opposed and reported to authorities and then dealt with.” Someone needs to tell that to Bill Gothard’s young female victims, because I’m pretty sure they’re unaware that their abuse was condemned and opposed and reported and dealt with. Strachan is sabotaging his own position by continually insisting that evangelical Christianity deals with matters of sexual abuse perfectly, when we know for a fact that it doesn’t.

Strachan states that modern culture has “loosed men from their role as Christlike heads” and “encouraged them to gratify their lusts with women without recourse.” In this context, “without recourse” means “without liability.” The idea is that within the “biblical” system, men are required to give something to get sex—generally, they have to give protection and provision. When they give those things to a woman by marrying her, she is then his for the taking. It’s an ownership sort of thing, an exchange or transaction. The man gets sex, the woman is protected and provided for.

Modern secular culture has done a fair bit to break down this form of marriage and relationship, moving toward a system where men and women approach relationships and marriages as life partners rather than approaching it as a sort of commodity exchange. Strachan has a problem with this, perhaps because he thinks so little of men that he assumes that they would rather go around getting “free sex” than enter into equal partnerships with women. In other words, in Strachan’s view, a man will only commit to a longterm relationship if that is the only way he can obtain sex. And to that I say bullshit. Strachan has a far lower view of men than I do.

4. There is one, and exactly, one source of hope for man-woman relationships today. It is the gospel of Jesus Christ. This gospel, the message of Christ crucified and raised for sinners like us, takes predatory men and fallen women and turns them into trophies of grace. This is not a limited redemption. The worst of the worst can be saved. The abusive, the predatory, the abused, the hopeless–all alike find everlasting salvation in the cross of Jesus as they turn from this world and run into the strong and safe arms of Christ.

While I like redemption narratives as much as the next person, this narrative has actually created a bit of a problem in evangelical culture. I’ve heard of cases where a child sexual predator is welcomed back into Christian community on the basis of repentance, and then again given access to children. Evangelical Christianity goes far too easy on abusers. Evangelical Christianity offers abusers a clean slate for the simple price of verbal repentance—and verbal repentance comes easy to abusers used to manipulating those around them and saying whatever they have to say to get what they want. Not only is a repentant abuser accepted back into the fold, but bringing up their past transgressions in any form is considered unChristian.

Note also the dualistic language—this idea that both the abuser and the abused need redemption and saving through Jesus Christ. Note too that both groups are included under the phrasing “the worst of the worst.” I mean, good lord, note that Strachan speaks of “predatory men and fallen women,” putting both in the same category. The abuser needs saving—and so does the abused. This framing is incredibly unhelpful.

Remember these words when 50 Shades of Grey is lauded in coming days. You’re not witnessing something beautiful and hopeful. You’re seeing something diabolical and twisted, a force so strong that only one man can undo it: Jesus Christ, the self-sacrificing savior of his wandering, unfaithful bride, the church.

Well then.

I’m honestly not sure what can be done for men like Strachan. He so obviously misunderstands every part of this issue, but fancies himself well informed. He is completely unaware of the abuse coverup problems that have plagued evangelical Christianity and oblivious to the way his own theology sabotages attempts to help victims. At the same time, his inability to understand feminist or secular perspectives on sex and relationships leaves him grappling with a strawman. Did I mention that Strachan is the president of the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood? He’s not a nobody. He has a microphone!

And unfortunately, Strachan’s article will likely be very persuasive to those within evangelical Christianity. In my experience, many (if not most) evangelical Christians really do believe that their beliefs and lifestyle are the most effective at protecting women and offering them fulfillment and happiness. I badly want to find a way to cut through the misunderstandings and communicate with these individuals. What they know of other frameworks is frequently filtered through an evangelical lens that portrays books like Fifty Shades of Grey as the best feminism or the secular world has to offer. As a result, their understanding of the world beyond evangelical Christianity is littered with rape statistics but bereft of positive stories of healthy egalitarian relationships.

And that, my friends, makes me profoundly, profoundly sad.

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