Sunday, September 2, 2012

Sex and the Gospel, Pt. 6: Competing Narratives

Over the past few months, I've heard a lot about the hit series "50 Shades of Grey" and I've talked to a number of women about why they like it. Since I haven't actually read the book and don't want to give an oversimplified synopsis, here's what Wikipedia says about it:   

"An erotic novel...it is the first installment in a 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/discipline, dominance/submission, sadism/masochism."

As a woman who has experienced the true horrors of abuse and its pervasive fall out, I was particularly dismayed by the idea of glorifying and romanticizing that kind of behavior in a relationship. Now I'll admit that some readers of the book told me that the man ends up changing his ways to some extent-- but they also admitted to me that his "dark side" is what attracted them to the story to begin with. In other words, one some level, they are attracted to the abuse dynamic. 

This isn't just a "fictional" phenomenon. When celebrity Chris Brown was indicted for hitting his girlfriend, the public's shocking reactions were all over the news. Everything from comments like "why should we judge if he makes Rhianna happy" to "Rhianna needs to quit complaining. Chris Brown can hit me any time he wants" flooded the internet.

These are real life examples of abuse being normalized, joked about, and even welcomed by people in the name romance and sexuality. But it's one thing to rant and rave about people "out there" making such distorted judgments-- it should be so easy to see and reject, right?-- but it's another thing to admit that the same dynamic has been at work in my own life. 

In part because of the abuse I experienced, and in part because of the narratives that were "normalized" for me, even growing up in a Christian culture, I learned to think along parallel lines with the "abuse" culture.

I'll just give two examples. First, I went to "Christian" school for most of my life. I was brought up in an environment that openly celebrated sex as a beautiful and holy act between husband and wife. But in addition to that (there wasn't much else taught on it other than, "so don't do it until you're married"), my Christian friends and I all listened to rap songs that openly celebrated sex as something very different-- something more along the lines of 50 Shades of Grey-- and nobody really took the time to deeply evaluate the difference. And so these two very different narratives were both accepted and both normalized in my Christian culture. 

Why then, should I have been surprised to find that one of them grew to preeminence in our lives? Especially when that narrative gave us far more information and far more invitation? Why should I have been surprised when my peers and I were truly, actually, confused about sex? On paper, we believed what our Christians teachers taught us. But in our minds, in our affections, in our experience, we believed what the radio taught us. Women are objects. Men are crazed. It's "sexy" to not be married. In fact, it's "sexy" to not even be me, but a stewardess, a librarian, a Catholic school girl. This is stuff we drank like Kool-Aid, whether we were aware of it or not.

My second example is I think a more important and more holistic "fall-out" (which I mentioned earlier) of the first: how this affected our relationships. Again, on paper, we knew we were to hope for husbands who would actually want to be that-- husbands. Committed, loyal, self-sacrificing, tender, shepherding, and loving. We knew-- on paper-- that we were precious daughters of God, made in His image, not sexual objects. On paper, we knew to want men who believed that too. But in reality, that had not been our experience. We'd learned in the school of life that the other narrative at play  was more real than the one our Christian teachers had given us. And so, while we consciously "wanted" respectful, mutually honoring relationships, we subconsciously wanted the abuse. 

You might think I'm just theorizing here, or talking about some weird dysfunction of a few people-- but have you ever heard a "good" guy lament, "every girl just wants to be my friend?" Have you ever scratched your head and asked, "why is she still with him?" These sentiments have become almost comical Western expressions because they are such a widespread phenomenon. The competing narratives about the nature of true love and sexuality have taught us to call bad good. At least some people (like the author of 50 Shades of Grey, for example) are aware of it. I was not. 

Until I read a book called The Wounded Heart. There was nothing special about this book in the sense that it alone corrected my thinking or changed my affections, but it was the catalyst God used to bring the light of the gospel to the hidden lies my heart had clung to. It wasn't a magic wand, but more like a flashlight. It exposed to me patterns and belief systems I'd operated out of-- things that caused me to ask repeatedly, "Why do my relationships not work? Why do I keep ending up in this rut? Why am I attracted (for example), to men who don't fully value or see me? And why am I OK with that? Why do I not feel totally comfortable unless I'm dressed a bit seductively? Why don't my affections actually line up with what I say I believe?"

During that season of my life, there was a man expressing consistent and respectful interest in me. He met all of the alleged "qualifications" I was supposedly "waiting for" as a woman with high standards-- as a woman who "wanted" a good man. But guess what? I just wasn't attracted to him. There was something unexciting, un-sexy, uninteresting about him to me. Sound familiar? 

Well, this guy bought his own copy of the book I was reading because he wanted to know how to best care for be a friend to me during this season. He wanted to understand some of what I was going through and be a help to me. In other words, he knew about my "vulnerability" and chose not to take advantage. Instead, he chose to respect me and love me as a precious daughter of God, before I knew how to treat myself that way. I had only ever known how to be an object, but he refused to interact with me on the basis of that narrative. 

About a year later, things began to change. The effects of the gospel-- that God sees me as His beloved daughter even before I do and that the heinous sin of objectifying me is outrageous, not sexy-- had broken in and shattered those hidden lies I'd lived by. I began to realize that it's not enough to accept the Christian narrative on paper-- it was never meant to be just some box I check at church, nor was it meant to be accepted along with whatever other narrative controlled me. I began to realize that the Christian narrative is meant to transform my own. I began to truly believe for the first time that what God says is actually more real than what the radio, or my peers, or the guy I worshiped in high school, or even my own family says. And so, for the first time, I began to believe Him. 

And guess what? That nice guy who had cared for and respected me and treated me as a person, suddenly became really attractive. But he is not the hero of my story. He was also only a catalyst-- used by God to help model the truth for me and show me what life could be like if I let go of the lies that had defined me. The hero of my story is Jesus, who looked on me with love and gave His very self in order that I may be rescued and brought into a new narrative-- called by a new name, given a new life-- in the midst of my deepest rejection of His love. Even when I called bad good, He called me His own. 

I wrote most of this post before church this morning. On the way to my car, a girl got into the elevator with me who had seemingly been the object of someone's momentary pleasure the night before. She was now letting herself out, alone. I thought of what I had just written and thought about how much more God sees in her than the person who used her last night. I wondered if, after the excitement and passing pleasure of the night before, she was thirsting for something she couldn't even name, but knew to be better. I wondered if she would have the courage to ask, "is this all there is? Is this all I can hope for?" 

Do you have the courage to ask that? To ask how the patterns in your life might reveal what you believe about who you are and how God sees you? And would you have the courage to listen to what He says and believe it's more real than what you've been told by others? It just might change everything. 

After all, that's what the gospel is meant to do.



1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing this. I needed to hear it.
-leah