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“50 Shades of Grey” and the World’s Script



David Mills - published on 02/11/15

Why we talk so much when we should be quiet

I cringed a bit when I read that the movie version of 50 Shades of Grey was appearing soon, not just in reaction to the further coarsening of our public life with all that follows, but because I knew religious spokesmen would say something. The movie seems to cross a public boundary, and in a way that upsets many different groups and pleases others, particularly the books’ tens of millions of readers, and has thus become a major cultural event.

Not from any artistic worth, as I understand it. The movie gives media desperate for fresh subjects and readers eager for fresh diversions something new. No one wants to write or read about pornography anymore, other than a few conservative groups who speak from a similar position to John’s in the wilderness. That’s the last decade’s controversy. Even cultural conservatives have moved on.

Bondage and submission in a huge bestseller and a mainstream movie, though, that’s a new subject. There are millions of hits to be had and hours to be whiled away, even if you only want to revel in the criticism. A lot of people who will never watch the movie as a matter of principle will read a lot about it.

50 Shades of Grey thus became a thing that matters and must be discussed. It is something every religious person who writes about such things feels Needs A Response. Bishops and their Protestant equivalents, activist groups, Christian pundits, and hosts of bloggers and writers — will jump to offer one. And almost everyone who’s not one of those people will jump to read it, because they like reading about sex, bondage masochism, and cultural decline, especially if they can shake their heads while reading it.

It’s what we do, many of us, writers and readers both. In doing it we’re following the culture’s script, not the Church’s. We think of our response to such things as an act of cultural engagement and pastoral sensitivity, and it is that, to an extent. But it’s also a sign of our own worldliness, that we so quickly and thoughtlessly start speaking by the culture’s script. It provides, for the verbal types, a kind of adrenalin rush. “50 Shades of Grey is all over the web? I have to issue a statement/write an article/knock out a blog! I must. And again tomorrow.”

That’s where our mental treasure is. Yesterday I came across a Catholic website with a lot of very good articles on prayer, the saints, the angels, and a few on the devil and hell, a subject that gets your attention. They were smart, well-written, and challenging. And I thought "I must read them," and then toggled to my email to check the news feeds.

There’s very little about cultural engagement in the Christian spiritual tradition. It’s striking how little there is in the great guides to life about keeping up with the culture and having something to say about it. The general instruction is: You don’t need to pay attention to everything, and you really should stop talking. (He says, as he writes an article.)

Perhaps the Church has a long tradition of quietism and introspection that neglected the world, as some of her critics have claimed, but perhaps not. Perhaps our tradition teaches us to live that way so that we learn to speak by the Church’s script, in order to discern when to speak to the world’s issues (and when not to) and what to say about them. Perhaps there is a closer relation between political insight and praying before the Blessed Sacrament, reading Scripture, and doing the usual acts of charity than the critics without and the activist types within see.

Various Magisterial documents instruct the lay Catholic to take up his public duties, but they assume that he has been deeply formed in and remains active in the life of the Church. They don’t ask for the frenetic always-up-to-date involvement in the culture we expect today of the properly engaged Christian. In any case, I would trust the pastor who has to be dragged to say something about
50 Shades of Grey far more than the one who assumes he ought to say something because everyone’s talking about it.

The effective guidance of the tradition is true especially when the Church acts as a body, so that those who spend their days exploring the Scriptures and the Tradition work with those who spend them studying political matters and working in the culture. Cultural engagement is a collegial activity.

The man who knows the major prophets or the minor epistles backward and forward and has only heard of 50 Shades of Grey is the best man to advise the cultural critic whether he should speak and if so what he should say. He will usually act as a restraint. The cultural critic is the best man to help the biblical scholar see and articulate what the Scriptures have to say to a culture that enjoys such movies. He will usually act as a prod.

About what to say when we ought to speak, I have some thoughts, which I’ll offer next week. Here I want only to say that  when engaging the culture, our default position should be: Stop talking. The world will not be harmed if you do not speak about 50 Shades of Grey. It is not waiting to hear your opinion on the effects of movies that glamorize rich guys dominating submissive young women.

It may be waiting to hear you say something about the Mass, or confession, or the Rosary, or holy cards, or the Miraculous Medal. It’s waiting to hear from someone about Jesus and his Church. Even your simple testimony that “Jesus loves me, this I know,” will likely have more effect than your best cultural analysis of 50 Shades of Grey.

This isn’t to leave the public square. It’s to live in it without getting caught up in its ceaseless movement, and in its frequent excitements and its occasional riots. It’s to know when to address the crowd from a box in the square and when to walk through the crowd talking to a few people or stand off to the side and watch. It’s to know when to go home, and how you might bring others home with you.

David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream and columnist for several Catholic publications. His last book is Discovering Mary.

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