50 Shades Trilogy: The Tim Challies Interview

(This interview was originally published Aug 7, 2012.  We have repubbed today in preparation for the movie’s release this Valentine’s Day weekend.)

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Despite being dubbed “mommy porn” by Publishers Weekly and many other news outlets, E. L. James’s Fifty Shades trilogy has been shattering sales records.  Last I heard, it had sold over 50 million copies and had overtaken Harry Potter in its first four months’ sales.  Most surprisingly to me, it was a top seller at children’s bookstores this summer.  Apparently moms in my own stage of life are eating it up.

CLICK HERE to hear a roundtable podcast of Janie and I with Megan Basham, author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman’s Guide to Having it All and film critic for WORLD Magazine, to talk about the books.  I also hope to post a review soon with talking points for those who want to engage friends or family members without reading the book themselves.  (For the record, unless you just have to, I do not recommend reading the books.)

Today, though, we go first to the gospel with leading evangelical blogger, Tim Challies.  Tim has written a fantastic book called Sexual Detox: A Guide for Guys Who Are Sick of Porn which is not only full of practical wisdom about the dangers of pornography, but also provides Biblical hope for those who feel ensnared by it.   As the title suggests, though, his book is aimed at guys, so I’ve asked him to help us think through a theology of porn and help us sketch out how we can apply that truth to a feminine book phenomenon like 50 Shades.

The Challies Interview

1. Christian guys have spent a lot of time defining what is and isn’t visual pornography and what God thinks about it.  But Christian women may not be too clear on some of the basics.  How should we define pornography?

I am always cautious when defining pornography. Too often the person looking to define the word is a person who is trying to rationalize something he wants to see or read. For this reason I find it helpful to define it by its purpose. Whether through a visual stimulus or through the written word, pornography explicitly displays or describes sexual acts in order to stimulate sexual arousal by someone or something other than your husband or wife. This is the heart of it–sexual arousal that comes from a source other than your spouse.

2.  Pornography is often consumed privately and doesn’t seem to hurt other people.  So what’s the problem?

We always face the temptation to measure life pragmatically, to judge by the results we see rather than by what God tells us to be true. When we look at the world this way, pornography does seem to be a private and harmless sin. Of course we know that there is really no such thing as a private sin; all sin is done in God’s view and is, at heart, an act of rebellion against Him. Not only that, but pornography trains the person consuming it to view the world in one way and not another. The man who spends his days gazing at images of naked women and videos of base sexual acts is training his mind to perceive all women as objects who exist for his pleasure. Pornography is also very powerful in generating discontentment in what you have or have not been given. Any wife appears tired and unwilling compared to the women in the videos; any men appears insensitive and brutish compared to the men in the books. My book Sexual Detox arose from seeing how young men were entering marriage expecting that their wives would perform for them, doing vile things without any hesitation, just like the women in the videos.

3.  Any thoughts on the similarities and differences between visual pornography (i.e. pictures on a website) and pornography that is accessed through the written word, as in the 50 Shades trilogy?

Images are different from the written word. In some ways they are more powerful and in some ways they are less powerful. For our purposes, though, it hardly matters because pornography is very personalized so that each person can find the kind that best stimulates him or her. Those who are drawn to the word can find word-based pornography; those who are drawn to images can find visual pornography.

If we make broad statements about what is generally true about men and what is generally true about women, it will come as no surprise that men tend to be drawn to visual pornography and women to written, imaginative pornography. The men prefer to see acts performed before them while the women prefer to imagine their own place in the scenarios. But at heart it is the same sin of finding sexual arousal outside of marriage, thus declaring discontentment with what God has provided. It has always fascinated me that the pornography men enjoy tends to feature women behaving like men while the pornography women enjoy tends to feature men behaving like women. At heart we all want to rebel against the fact that God has designed us to be different from one another, and that this difference is good.

4.  Do you think sexuality portrayed in an artistic form–sculpture, movies, literature–ought to be weighed differently than “real life”?

Again, let’s go beyond the words or images and look to motive. A medical textbook may describe and display all kinds of explicit material, but the purpose is to allow the doctor to know how the body is meant to work so he can help when it doesn’t work. This is very different from a book that describes sexuality with the intent to arouse. We all do well to probe our hearts to see why we read what we read or why we look at what we look at.

5.  In your book Sexual Detox: A Guide for Guys Who Are Sick of Porn, you offer male readers a way to detox from pornography and a skewed view of sex.  How is the gospel involved in that, and what hope can Christians offer women who have been warped by pornography?

The gospel is the power for all spiritual advance. Our very first transformation–the miracle of the new birth–comes when we grasp and believe the gospel. The gospel is also the power for every other transformation, every other act of putting sin to death. The work of Christ is no less important in sanctification than in regeneration. Our hope lies not in our desire to change or in our own willpower, but in Christ who destroyed the power of sin over us. The Christian life is a long, slow process of becoming who we are in him, of taking hold of the power of Christ through the Holy Spirit and doing battle with sin. A woman’s hope is in a Savior who loved her enough to die for her; if he was willing to do that, won’t he also be willing to help her grow in holiness?

Thanks, Tim!  I really appreciate these answers, and I think they are a great way to jump into discussing the impact of these books.  Be sure to check back Wednesday for our podcast discussion of the books, as well as the upcoming book review and resource suggestions.

For more edifying books for young women, check out our YA book review section.  Or our interview with Alan Jacobs on raising readers.

QUESTION: I’m also curious whether you guys are reading these books?  Any thoughts on how Christians should deal with them?



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  1. Check out | HeadHeartHand Blog on August 8, 2012 at 5:32 am

    […] 50 Shades Trilogy: Tim Challies Interview The review team at Redeemed Reader begin a series on 50 Shades by interviewing Tim Challies about pornography. […]

  2. Brent on August 8, 2012 at 7:22 am

    Sexual Detox is a wonderful book…succinct and convincing. Tim Challies is an excellent communicator on such important issues. He does a great job here of sticking to the heart of the problem with the Shades of Grey books.

  3. Heather on August 8, 2012 at 8:04 am

    I have not read the books and do not plan on reading them. But, I find it interesting that every week they are the top sellers in the e-book category of best sellers, yet do not even show up on the hard back list of best sellers. Are women embarrassed to buy them in a store, but will download them onto their e-readers? Just an observation.

    • Emily on August 8, 2012 at 8:13 am

      Heather, good question! I do think they have sold more ebook versions than many other books, so there may be some of that going on. Ebooks are often quoted by pro-porn advocates (yes, they do exist) as giving women greater access to porn in the privacy of their own home. But the books are at the top of the NYT paperback list, too, so apparently women aren’t too embarrassed.

  4. Patricia Grochowski on August 8, 2012 at 8:21 am

    I thought, well, I need to be informed about this book before I condemn it to others, knowing what I was getting into, I borrowed a set of the novels from a person and after reading into it for about 40 pages, I threw the book across the room right into a garbage can. My heart was broken, about the content of this book. I was glad to only have read a few pages into it enough to say, stay away from this book. Now for a bit of background of me, I came to Christ in my mid 20’s after making serious wrong choices in life, so I am not a shrinking violet or a person who lived a protected life. Not much shocks me. That being said the transformation Christ made in me gave me a heightened sensitivity to cursing. So the content of this book wasn’t foreign to me, but because of my heart for Jesus, I felt a burning in my hands when I came to the part in the book that was detrimental to my cleansed heart.
    For those of you who like me wanted to know what the draw is and for those of you who want to know is in this book here is it, this book is damaging because of the content, it contains acts of sexual violence. Consensual on both parties, which makes me even more disappointed for the human condition. Depravity at it’s highest.

    • Emily on August 9, 2012 at 7:16 am

      Love it, Patricia. Thanks for the personal testimony.

  5. Casey on August 11, 2012 at 8:50 am

    Hey! I found this article thought provoking. I read fifty shades before all the craziness began. It was actually suggested to me by another lady in my church. I will be honest (but I do not long for any condemnation) I LOVED the fifty shades triology. I even want to reread them. But it has nothing to do with the EXTREMELY hardcore porn which it parts it most definitely is. Beyond the porn, there is the most beautiful love story of a woman who through gasp SUBMISSION saves a man who is horrible broken and depraved. I skipped a lot of the porn parts because frankly it was just too much and kind of ridiculous BUT without at least the beginning having these violent sexual acts I don’t think that you would realize the true depth of the main male’s depravity. They really are very good books once you get beyond the porn. I am an avid reader and love a good book. This trilogy was great I couldn’t put it down but I don’t think they are for every Christian. Thank you for the article. It was enlightening.

    • Janie on August 11, 2012 at 3:20 pm

      Casey: Thanks for stopping by! Just a couple of things: first, however you regard the hardcore aspect, that seems to be the main thing on the general reader’s mind, to judge by the TEN THOUSAND reader reviews on Amazon (no, I didn’t read them all) and interviews with E. L. James. It’s safe to say that the porn totally obscured any Redemptive themes.
      Second, you seem to be putting Anastasia forth as a kind of Christ figure, who through submission and pain “saves” Christian. I wonder what Christ himself would think of that? Impressionable young women who are too easily convinced that they can help or even save some bad dude end up in destructive relationships all the time. Even without the porn, that’s a sex fantasy that doesn’t need to be fed.

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