It is very noticeable that Valentine’s Day this year is awash with reviews of the film of the EL James novel ” 50 Shades of Grey”.
Plainly the film’s distributors have chosen the time of release to coincide with the ncreasingly less romantic but more secular consumer festival, and the fact that the book has sold over 100 million copies, despite its execrable prose, suggests that as Louis B Meyer once famously observed “Nobody ever went bust underestimating the taste of the general public”.
There are many and various responses.
Some are warning that the 50 Shades story sends all the wrong messages about domestic abuse, and they are right. Whilst there are those whom have assert that “safe” (sic) sado-masochism can be gender equal, the reality is that a book like this, backed with much marketing, drive, publicity and money, will make it easier for some abusers to first cajole and then “pretend-bully” their way to the satisfactions of dominant power.
In a rather more English approach, others just greet it with hilarious disdain, like the fellow at the quiz, who, when asked the name of the author, replied ” EL Wisty” . Anyone who remembers the anarchic humour of the late Peter Cook must surely regret that he is not here to subvert this festival of amateur bondage.
Apparently, midwives are predicting a mini-baby boom in late November: Brother Ivo approves of babies being born. Maybe some good will inadvertently come out of this rather bathetic little novel after all.
Brother Ivo’s brief for his blog is to be interesting, to try to say something original in all this. To do so, he is helped by a recent visit to Venice where he engaged his own private passion – studying and enjoying renaissance art.
He sometimes teases his friends that he only looks at pictures painted before 1605, and Venice indulged him to the full.
He came away from La Serennissima having accidentally encountered a splendid but lesser known collection at the Church of San Polo. There he adored the Vivarini alterpiece but it was the Stations of the Cross by Tiepolo which surprised him. He has not much engaged with this artist before but spent some time entranced by how a master can present a familiar yet challenging story.
It is not disrespectful to either the painter, or the theology of such work to say that objectively speaking, there are some superficial similarities between what pleases Brother Ivo and what engages the 50 Shades audience.
If we were to ask Joe and Jo Public, it is likely that they could “read” the “philosophy” underlying the 50 Shades narrative.
The heroine, Ana is attracted to the billionaire Christian Grey ( is that Christian name significant?). He is apparently emotionally “damaged goods”. She submits to him, and by that self-sacrificial submission ultimately moves towards delivering him from his demons.
It is all rather Mills and Boon: yet that extraction of a “moral” would probably be within the capacity of most who read it, even if they don’t exactly read it for the moral uplift which it impliedly seeks credit for in the chosen happy ending.
Artistically, Christian Grey could have morphed into Fred West: yet that would be too close to real life. In this kind of fiction: there is a very controlled, safe danger. A better author might have redeemed the novel by taking it in that direction.
Now, imagine asking that same readership to “read”/ deconstruct the theology of the Stations of the Cross.
Is it fanciful to suggest that there would be some confusion in a modern viewer, whereas those of past centuries would have “seen” and “read” the painter’s mind easily and accurately?
The graphic portrayal of Christ’s degradation, beating and torture, which lies on the other side of Lent
will be repellant to many in the modern world. This is the real nature of cruelty which grows from detachment from God. The 50 Shades reader may empathise with Christ the victim, but, Brother Ivo suggests that, if asked where God is in the series of pictures, they would instantly identify Him as the malevolent force making the suffering happen.
The theology of the Incarnation is neither easy nor deeply appreciated.
It is extraordinary to Brother Ivo that what was plain to earlier generations will often be missed by the religiously illiterate.
The story of Chist’s passion begins with that incarnation; it is prefigured in the gifts of frankincense and myrrh offered to the new born. It is his destiny, which he accepts.
This generation will need to be taught again that in the superficially familiar story of Easter, God has laid aside his power and entitlement. The only thing he brings to the story of redemption, at that moment is his suffering. It is not a twisted God making the suffering happen, as Stelhen Fry might postulate, but humanity which has taken the freedoms presented by a liberating God, and used them perversely, hurting the One who loves them the most.
Put in the same perverse and superficial terms, the better to make it plain for modern readers, we may have to explain to people that God incarnated in Jesus “is” Ana” not “Christian”. We are “Christian” in Tiepolo’s telling of the story- the cruel damaged goods in need of redemption by love.
Above the Statiions of the Cross, Tiepolo has painted a panel celebrating the denouement of the story, Christ in victory, having transcended the earthly passage of betrayal suffering and death.
The depiction of the risen Christ is breathtakingly audacious. Seen from below, the perspective brilliantly captured, Christ is leaping heavenwards; his body, no longer broken, is young, beautiful and vigorous. The leap put Brother Ivo in mind of someone just taking off into a triumphant cosmic Fosbury Flop.
It was all very exhilarating.
So, we have passed from the ridiculous to the sublime, which is of course, to put things the wrong way round in the eyes of the world, but that, for a true Christian, is precisely what we should be doing,
It is right that the public be cautioned about the abuse of sexual power, and the dangers of tasting forbidden fruit. Instead of denouncing the novel however, we can and should be capable of engaging with it and desrcribing its context and values the better to put a lost people’s aright.
This in itself may upset some who prefer to simply condemn but ” getting alongside, the better to put on the right path is surely the best Christian response to a popular if rather inferior public.
Brother Ivo will forgive you however. if you don’t attempt this at tomorrow’s All Age Service.