Well, this is awkward. An article in Christianity magazine about a piece of highly explicit erotic literature. Already, you may be wondering what on earth we’re thinking. For a while, we felt that this was probably a subject too far for the culture column – especially because I would have to read the book in question. So I was all primed to bring you an article on Jimmy Carr and tax avoidance schemes, when two things happened.

On the train into work one morning, I spotted a lady in her 20s reading a paperback copy of Fifty Shades of Grey, proudly and with no apparent sense of embarrassment. On the same day, a lunchtime supermarket trip revealed a shelf full of the book and its two sequels, occupying the first three spots in their in-house chart.

Massive and Mainstream

Fifty Shades isn’t just massive, it’s mainstream. If we want to reach this culture relevantly with our story – the message of the gospel – then we need to understand this culture; to take time to listen to the stories that are being told, and to consider why they are finding resonance. Like it or not, Fifty Shades is 2012’s biggest literary sensation, and with publishers reportedly gearing up to release a slew of explicit fiction titles in its wake, we need to ask why this is happening.

British author EL James originally wrote the first novel as a piece of Twilight fan fiction. She was taking the characters from Stephanie Meyer’s vampire series, and placing them in another – extremely sexual – setting. James uploaded the story onto fan fiction websites, but removed it after comments about the explicit nature of the work, and published it again on her own site. After rewriting the book completely to remove all the vampiric references, James split it into three parts and published the first as an e-book and print-on-demand paperback. Tens of thousands of authors all around the world are using new technology to get their work ‘published’ in this way; the vast majority sell very few copies. Thanks to viral, word-of-mouth marketing, however, James was one of the lucky ones; at time of writing, the book has sold over 10 million copies, and that number is rising faster than the pulses of its mainly female readers.

According to the publisher’s research, Fifty Shades is proving most popular with 20- and 30-something women (hence it being dubbed ‘Mommy Porn’ by the media), a demographic group that is renowned for its viral marketing potential (and if you think that’s a sexist caricature, I give you one word: Mumsnet). The book is being read and discussed everywhere from Facebook to the school gate. One explanation for the book’s phenomenal success, then, is simply that the mix of titillation and everyone’s-reading-it word of mouth has proved explosive. But these aren’t the only factors at work in James’ journey from fan writer to movie deal negotiator (Universal Pictures have already acquired the rights). Another is the proliferation of e-reading devices, which allow for the discreet – and cheap – download of books that one might not want to be seen reading. Pornography and erotica are always at the forefront of every technological advance, and the growth of the Kindle and its, er...kin has resulted in a predictable increase in sales of such titles. Perhaps the biggest factor, however, and certainly the one which is fuelling the now stratospheric growth of Fifty Shades and its two sequels is simple intrigue, both about the popularity of the book, and its (for want of a better word) plot.

Bad Mills and Boon

Here it is, then: 21-year-old virgin Anastasia Steele meets charismatic billionaire Christian Grey, and falls for him. He’s not just stunningly handsome and rich, he’s also trying to save the world and stop famine. What a hero! Well, except that, thanks to an abusive childhood, he has a severely twisted sexual appetite. Despite this, Ana is drawn into his world, and into his arms, via lots of gasping and swooning – and begins a long-lasting liaison with him. He’s not really capable of a healthy relationship, however, so instead introduces Ana to a world of controlled violence, submission and, of course, lots of (very badly written) sex. Within a few short weeks, Ana goes from repressed virgin to sexual deviant, and despite – or perhaps because of – the violence, falls deeply in love.

This is not a good book. Aside from the tortured prose, the storyline is hackneyed, predictable and ‘nods’ to a host of influences including, most bizarrely, the cinematic rom-com; the 500-plus pages drag like the post-lunch session of a Christian conference. The sex scenes fluctuate between creepy and comical. The whole story is narrated as Ana’s inner monologue, so we’re treated to lots of descriptions that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Mills & Boon novel. Actually, they wouldn’t feel out of place in a Mills & Boon parody.

Here’s what really bothered me, though. I can’t work out whether postmodernism means you can write whatever you like as long as you claim irony. But on the face of it, this appears to be a book about a man who takes a woman as his slave, and tortures and hits her. She submits to him completely, and she likes it. I’m reliably informed that this isn’t just a male fantasy, but a common female one too. Either way, this isn’t a description of healthy sexual behaviour. While the book tries to suggest that it’s an extreme and deviant form of love, it also gives us a protagonist who was abused as a child and then turns abuser. If this is the new romance, then give me the new celibacy.

Sex Sells

If Christians are outraged by Fifty Shades, then, it should not be simply because EL James has made it acceptable to read pornographic stories on the train, but because those stories are, like video porn, teaching and advocating sexual dysfunction. They subtly feed readers a story which feels exciting, but – when fiction becomes experimentation becomes reality – results in an abusive distortion of real love and healthy sex. Rather than decrying those who seek to make money out of sex, we should be modelling a better way. Isn’t that exactly what Jesus did, when, during his time on earth, he spent time with those in the sex industry and led them away from it?

Sex has always sold. There has always been a market for pornography and sexual ‘services’; what’s changed is their accessibility. Inventions such as the home video and the Internet have caused a proliferation of sexual material, and that in turn has led to a gradual erosion of the line between taboo and mainstream. Twenty years ago, hardcore pornography was subject to censoring and could only be bought by adults in licensed shops. Today, children are watching unrestricted video pornography on their home computers and smartphones. And while even liberal commentators agree that the latter example is an unpleasant side-effect of the relaxation of sexual boundaries, it is in this new paradigm that Sainsbury’s consider Fifty Shades an appropriate product for their shelves.

Far More Fulfilling

Still the question remains – and more notable commentators than me are yet to find an answer to it – why has Fifty Shades, a poorly written sex story by an unknown author, become the publishing phenomenon of the year? How come, in an age where gender equality is finally looking achievable, millions of women are turning to a book that seems to suggest that, deep down, they actually want to be oppressed after all?

The questions remain. In the meantime, the Church should be giving serious consideration not to campaigning against books like this, but to standing for something better. It’s why we have the Dear Maggie columnin this magazine. Love and sex by Christian rules means freedom, tenderness and equality. Jesus, teaches us that far from being abusive, healthy relationships involve each putting the other first (John 13:35; Mark 9: 35), not making a choice between dominance or submission. Love and sex shouldn’t be about violence, fear and cheap intrigue. When it comes to sex, the Bible provides a far more fulfilling framework than EL James’ sadistic anti-hero.