He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
— Isaiah 53:7 (NIVUK)
“What has Isaiah chapter 53 got to do with Fifty Shades?” I hear you ask.
Allow me to explain.
Before I begin, some boring but important blurb:
- I’ve written separately on why I write about Fifty Shades and why I write about BDSM.
- I’m not trying to preach, but I am a Christian and Christianity has informed our culture’s understanding of what redemption is; in this post I’m going to talk a bit (OK, a lot) about that.
- CONTENT NOTE: The content of this post is not graphic in its detail. However, if you’re sensitive to the idea of meaningless, non-consensual suffering, it might be not be for you.
The ‘song of the suffering servant’ is a passage in an Old Testament book of the Bible called Isaiah. Christians interpret the passage as referring to Jesus when he was crucified, somewhere between 30 and 33 AD. For the avoidance of doubt, the existence and crucifixion of Jesus is generally accepted as historical fact, not a matter of Christian faith.
However, the interpretation of this prophetic poem is a matter of faith. There are plenty of people who don’t believe it refers to Jesus, or at the very least say it doesn’t just refer to Jesus. The point is though, that those who do believe it refers to Jesus (and I’m one of them), see similarities with the horrific suffering endured by Jesus up to and during his crucifixion. Notably, Jesus didn’t fight back. He didn’t resist his captors. He took it.
Christians believe that, somehow, his dying on the cross and rising from the dead three days later made it possible for the world to be redeemed. The ‘somehow’ of what he did isn’t so important for this post. The result is.
And the result was it became possible for anyone to leave their state of ‘living death’ and become fully alive.
So that’s a brief history of the Jesus story.
Now I’d like you to imagine a different story. In this story, a innocent person (a woman in this case, Roxanne) is sent into a situation by the person they love the most (also a woman, Alex). Roxanne is abused in some of the most horrific ways imaginable and, possibly a bit like the Suffering Servant, she endures it in silence.
And now imagine nothing is achieved by Roxanne’s suffering.
And that her lover, Alex, who sent her into the situation in the first place, is indifferent to her suffering.
And that, when it’s all over, Alex considers cashing in on all that love and devotion and selling Roxanne.
That is the plot of an “eye-wateringly explicit” BDSM erotica called The Calyx of Isis. And it’s what inspired EL James to write Fifty Shades.
My source for saying this is Das Sporking. Before I give you the link to the webpage, I’ll put in a CONTENT NOTE that even their brief summary of the plot is deeply unpleasant. You. Have. Been. Warned. OK, here’s the link. If you search for the word “ducklings”, you’ll find it.
Das Sporking have made the point well enough that this story is non-consensual.
What I want to highlight is how this story’s understanding of true love is utterly antithetical to Christianity’s understanding of Jesus and the cross.
And yes, this should be pretty obvious, but apparently it wasn’t to EL James: she took the control dynamic and tried to make a redemption story out of it. And there are many reasons – some hiding in plain sight – to believe that she is borrowing from Christianity’s model of redemption. For example, Anastasia’s name is Greek for “resurrection”. And Christian’s name is… Christian.
There are four key comparisons I want to make between Ana (as an improvisation on Roxanne in The Calyx of Isis) and Jesus (as a redeemer in fulfilment of the Song of the Suffering Servant).
Redemption is about free choice, not control
‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’
— Luke 22:42 (NIVUK)
In The Calyx of Isis, the dynamic between Alex and Roxanne is one of complete control and being under complete control. It’s important to understand that many people who practice BDSM draw a very sharp distinction between fantasy and reality. Because consent is paramount to them, they might play or act out a non-consensual situation, but they wouldn’t want the non-consent to be real (or indeed, to become real during the scene). As such, they wouldn’t want the events of The Calyx of Isis to happen in real life because, they would be non-consensual and consent matters.
But EL James has taken this extreme control dynamic and tried to put it into a real setting. Let’s leave aside the fact that Ana is clueless about risk and therefore vulnerable to consent violations, this premise is still completely incompatible with a redemption narrative.
Christian calls himself a dominant however, as others have pointed out when commenting on the BDSM contract, what he wants is actually a master-slave relationship. And you know what? Jesus is not a slave.
He is a son.
Please bear with me here; I don’t want to get bogged down in theology but there are some essentials about Christianity I need to explain for this to make sense. Christians believe that God is three-persons-in-One: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Jesus is the Son and the person who entered the world in human form. The Father is the person who sent him and Jesus – for lack of a better word – submitted his life to the Father. Therefore, just as Ana and Roxanne get compared to Jesus, Christian Grey and Alex get compared to the Father.
There are some striking differences to observe.
Jesus knew his Father’s business. In The Calyx of Isis, Roxanne doesn’t know Alex is ‘testing’ her. In Fifty Shades Christian keeps Ana in the dark for a long, long time about his true agenda.
Jesus was free to express himself. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he essentially said, ‘Hey, I’m not too keen on being falsely accused, tortured, publicly humiliated and killed – is there another way?’ You know what, I’d be worried if he hadn’t. This is healthy and honest self-expression in the context of the healthy and honest relationship he has with the Father. And the Father responds; it’s not a way out, but Jesus is strengthened enough to find a way through (Luke 22:43). In The Calyx of Isis Roxanne is completely and utterly unable to express herself. In Fifty Shades Ana’s concerns are repeatedly brushed aside – sometimes under threat.
Jesus had free choice. His statement ‘not my will, but yours be done’ is not a denial of his freedom or his free choice. It is him saying that he has priorities other than his feelings at that time – real and weighty though they are. Let’s be clear: he is able to put the Father’s will before his own because he’s in a loving and trusted relationship, but that’s not why he puts the Father’s will before his own. The reason why he puts the Father’s will before his own is because he knows he’s acting as part of a grand plan. A plan which he also has ownership of and which he knows is coming to its crunch point. In The Calyx of Isis and Fifty Shades, Ana and Roxanne do not have free choice; power is forcibly leveraged over them.
Redemption involves solidarity, not suffering
Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
— Isaiah 53:10 (NIVUK)
The first line of this verse is one that often gets people scratching their heads. Does God cause suffering? Did God want Jesus to die on the cross? Did God get some kind of satisfaction from Jesus’ suffering? What’s more, because we have such varied examples of fathers in the world, and people who exercise authority, it’s hard to discern what relationship Jesus exactly has with the Father.
It’s important to bear in mind (and I write this mainly for my Christian readers), is that this passage is poetry; it is not trying to explain the ‘somehow’ of how Jesus’ death and resurrection made it possible for the world to be saved. Also, the plan this verse refers to includes what Jesus’ suffering achieved.
But there is no suggestion that Jesus’ suffering was good in and of itself. Rather, as the theologian Jürgen Moltmann pointed out, Jesus’ suffering is an act of solidarity – it is a protest against suffering. In the cross, Jesus completely identifies with our humanity; he is truly with us. And in a world where suffering is rife, one of the greatest comforts is to have someone present with you.
So let’s be under no doubt: Jesus’ crucifixion was not an act of love on the Father’s part towards the Son. No, it was an act of violence made by the world, because the world hated Jesus. And in it, God experienced the grief of both the fatherless Son, and the sonless Father.
As for The Calyx of Isis, it is Roxanne’s lover Alex who causes her suffering. And in Fifty Shades Christian causes Ana’s suffering. In a very muddled picture, he is both the one Ana tries to redeem and the one to whom she submits.
Moreover, even if we accept that Christian is just traumatised and not malicious, Ana’s comfort to him and presence with him is empty. I say this for two reasons. Firstly, when Ana wants to unlock his world (for example, touch his chest or bring him out of a disengaged state), she prioritises what she wants and pushes his limits. Secondly, if Christian was capable in any way of internalising Ana’s presence, he wouldn’t be so jealous and he wouldn’t be so scared of losing her.
All in all, Ana’s suffering isn’t solidarity. It’s just plain suffering.
Redemption is active, not passive
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
— John 3:16-17 (NIVUK)
In The Calyx of Isis, Roxanne is passive – everything is being done to her. Though Ana in Fifty Shades isn’t in such an extreme situation, she is also fundamentally passive. She doesn’t have a strategy to help Christian. Instead she’s swept along by events; she even falls short of being a steady point of consistency in Christian’s life.
Her plan, such as it is, is to be there as an alternative for Christian. Its success relies on the idea that Christian loves her enough to choose her over his sadism.
Moreover, for all intents and purposes, Ana works alone. Yes, I know Christian has a therapist and I know his adoptive mother sides with Christian against his childhood abuser. But they are desperately under-developed characters who serve the plot of Ana&Christian more than anything else. Christian’s therapist even breaks ethical boundaries and loads the weight of Christian’s healing squarely onto Ana’s shoulders. But hey. She shrugs and bears it because she thinks redeemers work alone.
In the gospel narrative, the Father sends the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. All three persons of the Trinity are making an active intervention into creation, into history. They don’t rely on the world one day ‘waking up’ or ‘coming round’ to the idea that it needs saving from suffering and death. They work in the world, not just to pave the way to salvation, but also pointing to it and calling from it.
Redemption is about changing the redeemed person, not the redeemer
Jesus answered, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’
When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
— Matthew 19:21-22 (NIVUK)
In The Calyx of Isis, the biggest change is for Roxanne to be utterly spent. That’s why Alex half jokes about selling her at the end – because Roxanne’s devotion “has got to run out of steam eventually”. Alex doesn’t change.
In Fifty Shades the situation is a little more complex. Christian does change his BDSM habits. However, when it comes to his profligate use of money and sense of entitlement, he doesn’t change at all. Instead, he changes Ana.
Sure, she acts with tokenism towards her former life, buying a €5 anklet because, in her own words, “I don’t ever want to lose touch with the girl who likes this, ever.” But her protests and discomfort against Christian buying her a $540 bikini, or a €5,000 painting, or a €30,000 bracelet, fall flat and empty. Commentators familiar with The Twilight Saga, which is also source material for Fifty Shades, have observed that the equivalent of vampirism in Fifty Shades is not BDSM, but wealth. And just as Bella Swann becomes a vampire, so Ana Steele becomes Mrs Grey in her mission to save Christian.
In contrast, Jesus became poor. It’s almost as if entitlement and control are things you need to turn away from if you want to enter the kingdom of heaven.
And you know what? As much as I’ve hated two-dimensional sermons on Bible passages like the one I quoted above, where church goers are told to give away more than they can afford, when I ask myself what change in Christian Grey would really like, I can’t help but think he needs to give up his wealth. Yes, he supposedly has a passion to end world hunger, but his aspirations fall flat. Any celebrity can do charity tokenism. Humility is much, much more than that.
Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.’
— John 11:25 (NIVUK)
This is the point where I apologise to readers for making this post the longest one so far in this series comparing Fifty Shades with Beauty and the Beast. And where I make up for the complete absence of Belle and Beast so far.
The reason for this absence is that Beauty and the Beast does not have a sequence of suffering in it that Christians would call a ‘passion narrative’ (passion in this context meaning ‘suffering’). Yes, Belle is distressed in the tower when she loses her father, when Gaston sets out to kill Beast, and when Beast lies dying on the castle balcony – but none of these equate to a Suffering Servant passion narrative, either individually or in aggregate.
And there’s a simple reason why.
Jesus’ passion was about how the door to salvation was opened. Beauty and the Beast is about stepping over the threshold before the door is shut.
It is no wonder that the enchanted rose petals count down the remaining time Beast has. But as for the possibility of Beast’s redemption, that is set up right at the start, in the very same enchantment that acts as a curse over Beast.
Now, at this point I’d like to amend a comment I made in my previous post. This is what I said:
If Beast had died on the balcony, it would have been a heart-wrenching ending, but we would have known his heart and character had been redeemed. Beast’s redemption was not about being with Belle at the end. It was about change within himself.
What I meant by this statement was this:
If Beast had died and stayed dead on the balcony, it would have been a heart-wrenching ending, but we would have known his heart and character had been changed. Beast’s journey towards redemption was not about happily ever after with Belle at the end. It was about change within himself.
What I had failed to realise until after I blogged last week, is that Beast does die on the balcony. His hand falls, his head drops back and his eyes roll. I just thought he was resuscitated when he got up again.
(And I blame my inner Plato that I thought this for the last 25 years of my life.)
You see, in the Christian understanding of hope, a person can look forward to a future even in the face of death. Not because death is kind or a friend. It isn’t. Rather, because even when death’s door has closed in on us, we know there is one who will call us out of the grave and raise us into the glory of a resurrection life.
And in this, the makers of Beauty and the Beast got it just right.
BELLE: I love you.
— Beauty and the Beast (1991)
This is the eleventh post in a series on redemption, comparing Beauty and the Beast with Fifty Shades. You can find an index of all the posts here.