FIFTY SHADES OF DEPRAVITY: Box Office Numbers Shine a Light On a Centuries-Old Dilemma

Written by Steve Pauwels on February 19, 2015

No denying it, this past Valentine’s Day weekend Fifty Shades of Grey (FSoG) ravished the box office. The chick-flick/soft-core-porn mash-up, based on the first installment of  E.L. James’ “erotic romance” novels trilogy, mustered an astonishing $85 million over the three-day stretch, ironically eclipsing Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (TPotC) for the richest February opening ever. Pervasively abysmal reviews, moreover — one Australian critic called it “the worst movie” she had ever seen — couldn’t keep FSoG from, additionally, shouldering aside Gibson’s 2004 biblical drama to claim the slot for the fourth highest-opening R-rated film ever. 

Comments on an atheist website were smirking over the S&M-fixated flick’s money-making triumph over Passion, but the God-haters’ snottiness actually stumbled onto something. The earnings reports for these wildly dissimilar films are lavishly revelatory on a number of fronts: Fifty Shades of Grey versus The Passion of the Christ reflects a primeval, existential situation: mankind’s noxious debauchery jostling against his undying yearning for something greater, something better. 

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s blockbuster, for those not in the loop, combines what have become our licentious day’s twin causes célèbres: an obsession with sex and the mainstreaming of perversion. Stroll through a shopping mall in 2015, watch an hour of prime time television, listen to any contemporary smattering on the FM dial, spend an evening at the local movie theater — you’ll have a tough time sidestepping Western Civilization’s addiction to all things libidinous. For those who take their personal cues chiefly from today’s pop culture, the orgasmic experience is the summa of existence — worth living for and, evidently — as the AIDS and STD plagues illustrate — worth dying for. 

Couple that preoccupation with the more recent mania for transgressive sexual activity — the more bizarre and aberrant the better! What Chesterton crystallized as ” “the modern and morbid habit of always sacrificing the normal to the abnormal” — and you’ve got quite the trendy brew percolating. Having brusquely eased God out of vast swatches of 21st-century existence, not a few of this era’s movers-and-shakers have replaced His way of doing things with an appetite-centered approach; an ersatz religion dripping with bodily fluids.

Maybe Irish singer-songwriter Hozier is one of their prophets? His ubiquitous radio single “Take Me to Church” implies as much with it’s pilfering of spiritual language to elevate lust for his “lover” : “I should’ve worshipped her sooner/ If the heavens ever did speak/She’s the last true mouthpiece …My Church offers no absolutes/ She tells me, ‘Worship in the bedroom.’/ The only heaven I’ll be sent to/ Is when I’m alone with you.”

Perhaps to keep from giving any impression the song is flacking anything as pedestrian as a heterosexual union, its accompanying music video graphically transforms “Take Me to Church” into an anthem to homosexual relationships. It’s rather inexplicable, really, since in the composition’s actual lyrics Hozier plainly is crooning about a woman. 

But never-mind. Whatever orifice is your preference, used in whatever manner you like! — that’s this generation’s ringing slogan. 

When it comes to what people choose to do with their genitals, society still permits us to crinkle our noses at a few options — but, as Hozier,  Fifty Shades of Grey and so much else graphically attest,  that list is shrinking. 

One thing at which lots of fashionable people did ostentatiously crinkle their noses a few years back was The Passion of the Christ — a movie, after all, which startlingly focused on One who roundly condemned so much esteemed by this squalid age. That’s right, Jesus wouldn’t be a fan of “Take Me to Church”. He’d doubtless frown even more disapprovingly on its sodomy-endorsing video.

And Fifty Shades of Grey? Definitely, two big thumbs down from the Son of God on that one, as well. 

Not that He’d be surprised human beings have dredged up such cinematic effluence. 

For, make no mistake, the ticket-selling duel being waged currently between FSoG and TPotC embodies a more fundamental and alarming contrast which was revealed centuries ago in the Hebrew/Christian Scriptures. God’s original intention for humanity? Towering dignity, righteous conduct, purposeful living. The problem that erupted early on in that same creation? Disobedience to the Divine Lawgiver’s incomparable ways, rebellion, depravity. Man, fashioned in God’s very image and likeness (the imago Dei), became thoroughly curdled and compromised by his own short-sighted, carnal-minded choices. 

It’s a devastating tension that has prevailed tenaciously through the millenia, and persists holding sway today. Man’s majesty and awesome potential unwearingly crashing against his shortcomings and deviancy. Individuals, in spite of themselves, accomplishing stupefying feats. The same individuals and others, because of themselves, abasing themselves in the most repellant ways. 

So, an infirm, hearing-impaired Beethoven bequeaths to the ages symphonies and sonatas of the sublimest sort. A sightless, deaf, mute Helen Keller surmounts her disabilities to become a much in-demand author, activist and lecturer.  A native Kentuckian named Lincoln, enduring a challenging upbringing and chequered political career, and lacking formal education, steps up as America’s sixteenth president to hold together his nation during a voracious Civil War; in the mix, loosing millions from slavery’s chains. 

We’ve seen flawed men build pyramids, raise cities, achieve highways, bridges and dams, reach distant planets, contrive technologies of gob-smacking capability and intricacy. Then there are the glorious paintings, literature of dizzying beauty and profundity and mesmerizing musical works produced by the unlikeliest of candidates. 

And all of the above, too often, have been predictably abused and misused for evil ends. We’re familiar with the term “evil genius”? Genuinely talented, but to-the-kidneys malevolent individuals who apply their appreciable abilities  toward debauched purposes? History has been bursting with them: The Internet transmogrified into porn-central and a petri dish of computer viruses and malware; nations’ formidable manufacturing capacities hijacked by power-mad tyrants’ predatory designs; the medicine which ameliorates one man’s agonizing condition becoming a poison which addicts and destroys his neighbor; gangsta rap; Fifty Shades of Grey.

The story detailed by Fifty Shades offers one of but numberless possible examples — albeit a particularly lurid one — of the fallout from mankind’s spiritual disorder. Curiously, the story rendered so unforgettably in Gibson’s Passion relay’s a compassionate Creator’s self-sacrificing remedy for that very same disorder. The substance of the former’s plot-line discloses, in part, why the substance of the latter’s is necessary. 

Hozier warbles (tongue-in-cheek I’m assuming): “‘We were born sick”. The Apostle Paul forlornly agrees: “There is none righteous, no, not one … For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” 

The Gaelic Grammy-nominee’s response to this predicament? “I was born sick/ But I love it”. The New Testament writer’s? “[T]he law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.”

This past weekend’s box-office champion reminds us: the  manifestations of humanity’s lostness come in every variety of shades, shapes and sizes – a whole lot more than fifty, for sure. Happily, another, quite different film, that similarly broke earnings records of its own a decade ago, reminds us of something else: a glimmer of hope for those hungering for more than crotch-satisfaction, for more than a Fifty-Shades-of-Grey kind of life.



Steve Pauwels is pastor of Church of the King, Londonderry, NH and host of Striker Radio with Steve Pauwels on the Red State Talk Radio Network. He's also husband to the lovely Maureen and proud father of three fine sons: Mike, Sam and Jake.