Many of us have had a strange experience lately. We're watching HGTV, observing Joanna Gaines's splendid new backsplash pattern, or we're deep into an epic sports game. It's all harmless and fun. But then the commercials come on, and the movie preview for "50 Shades Freed" plays on our screen.
If our kids are nearby, we parents scramble for the remote, perhaps executing an Olympian dive over the sectional. We furiously try to change the channel before the preview's erotic images flash before their innocent eyes.
In 2018, we're in the oddest of ages. Our culture is simultaneously promoting the "50 Shades" franchise and the #MeToo movement. We are receiving very mixed messages today: it's both bad for a man to use a woman sexually (#MeToo) and it's totally fine for a man to use a woman sexually ("50 Shades"). How confusing!
Many of us are thankful that men who prey upon women are being called to account through the #MeToo phenomenon. Generally speaking, this is a positive development. But we also need to note how schizophrenic our age is. "50 Shades" presents a woman who offers herself to a man who is not her husband for the gratification of his sexual lusts. The question thus comes up for anyone who is paying attention: even if consent is present, is this a good thing for women? Is this what feminine "liberation" and "progress" and "strength"—watchwords of our secular culture—look like for our daughters: to become the sexual plaything of a man?
This much is obvious today: our culture is sending young men and women majorly mixed messages. You could say we're in the "50 Shades" of #MeToo era. Christians have just one shade to offer our world: the purity of Christ. Though our sins are scarlet, we can be washed white as snow (Isaiah 1:18). For this reason, we refuse to support the sexualized womanhood represented by '50 Shades." We know that a woman is "liberated" not when she chooses to let men use her body for their desires, but when she is a slave of Christ (1 Cor. 7:22). We know she is "strong" when she submits to God (James 4:7).
We also have seen a much more beautiful vision of sex than this. Sex is made not for a one-night stand or a torrid affair. It is made by God for one man and one woman united in marriage (Gen. 2:25). Men and women are not supposed to be independent sexual contractors hunting for the next hook-up; if called, we are made for marriage, for a lifelong union that images the shared love of Christ and his church (Eph. 5:22-33). A man is called to be the "head" of his wife, and to use his strength for his wife, not against her; a woman is called to submit to her husband, not because he makes all her wildest fantasies come true, but because God is glorified in this heart-attitude.
Let's be crystal-clear: 50 Shades and our lust-obsessed society are lying about what makes us happy and what makes us human. Our worth and identity, whether single or married, does not depend upon having sex. Our worth comes from God. We bear the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). Happiness does not come from rebelling; it comes from following the Lord (Psalm 16:11).
Supposedly our "sex positive" age means happiness for all. But this is not how things are working out. Men are using women; women seem less liberated than ever before. Thankfully, people all around us are waking up in the wreckage of the sexual revolution. They are seeing that our sexualized culture has not made good on its promises. In times like these, the church can be a counter-culture. We can speak up in love to men and women all around us, and say this: come to Christ. Be washed by his blood. Don't buy the culture's lies. Pursue purity. If called to marriage, pursue marriage.
Above all, pursue Christ.
The problem with our culture's understanding of sex, in the end, is not merely that it is too confusing. It is that it is too small. Sex is not ultimately about us. It's not about a torrid encounter. It's certainly not about consenting to use one another. Sex is about God and his design. This our culture cannot see; this we, the church, can joyfully proclaim.
Owen Strachan is a theology professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and the coauthor of The Grand Design: Male and Female He Made Them. He is on Twitter. He is married to one sweet wife and is the father of three fun-loving children.