“Mummy porn” book Fifty Shades of Grey is the book everyone is talking about. Once a social taboo not to be broken, E L James’s erotic novel about a woman who becomes sexually dominated by a mysterious man has ended the stigma and blushes that would it once would have stirred.
For Dr Rosalie de Rosset, professor of literature at Moody Bible Institute, the success of books like Fifty Shades and the Twilight series represents a frustrating trend among today’s women towards impoverished pop fiction with “flat” characters – particularly the female characters – and “theologically bankrupt” stories.
Even Christian literature in her view leaves a lot to be desired, consisting mainly of “Jesus fixes everything” scenarios that do not reflect anything like the complexity and depth of real life.
“They are not well written and they are not theological,” she says.
Dr de Rosset has just published a new book, “Unshaken and Unseduced”, that is challenging Christian women to reject “cotton-candy” novels for the more rewarding classics of English literature. Her book is peppered with quotes from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
What is it about these characters Dr de Rosset so admires? The heroines have “dignity”, she enthuses.
“Everywhere I go, Christian and non-Christian women absolutely love Elizabeth Bennett and Jane Eyre. But that stands in such contradiction to their behaviour, to their demeanour, and to what they end up expecting as goals and outcomes of their lives,” she laments.
“It seems to me that what every woman really wants is a Darcy and Rochester, but what they don’t understand is that coming up with men like that involves who you are too.”
She explains further: “It is the very restraint Jane Eyre has and the very ability she has to turn Rochester down when it’s not appropriate for her to be with him. She waits it out. And it’s Elizabeth’s ability to assess Darcy and say ‘there are things I don’t like about you at all’.”
Sadly, whilst many women aspire to be like Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennett, in real life – with all its temptations and distractions – many women just “don’t think it’s doable”, Dr de Rosset says, and they “let their standards slip”.
In addition, bad ‘chick lit’ and even Hollywood rom-coms are causing women to have unrealistic expectations about life – and love. By not reading good quality books, women are missing out on an education that could help them confront their own life challenges and relate to other people in different circumstances, particularly hardship or suffering.
Dr de Rosset explains: “When you look at popular fiction, it is action driven. The question is: what is going to happen next? The question with classic literature is always: why did this happen.
“We cannot experience everything on our own, nor could we know how to deal with what we are experiencing. The [classics] have so many levels of teaching that help us to understand another human being and we can key in and have compassion because we have understood what that was even though it was not our experience.
“For us personally, it gives us gorgeous language to the experience of suffering and makes it meaningful, instead of just an aberration of happily ever after. Because the fairytale is in Heaven, the fairytale is not on Earth.”
What she also admires is the sense of restraint in classic literature and the way in which that can help women today set different standards for themselves in their relationships with men. She points out the unmistakable erotic connection between Jane and Rochester that is conveyed so powerfully without any explicit description of intimacy.
“That is so much more powerful than showing it. It is truly romantic in the heavenly romance sense, not their lips clung together all the time,” she laughs.
“There are teaching moments in great literature and they are very transformative. I tell my students to even go back to the sheet music of the 1940s and compare that to ‘Come on baby, do it to me’.
“Today’s relationships suffer from terrible over exposure and there is confusion of communication. They are talking a lot on the cellphone or always being in each other’s presence technologically with knowing each other and there isn’t the true knowing because there hasn’t been any restraint or waiting.”
Technology has not only transformed the way we communicate and spend our leisure time, it’s also transformed the way we read. While Dr de Rosset is deeply concerned about the impact of technology on the way we relate to each other, she admits there are also things it does very well.
“I still value a book over Kindle but I wish I had had a Kindle when I had a speaking engagement in New Zealand many years ago. Then I could have just taken that instead of two or three books,” she quips.
But for Dr de Rosset, the substance of what is being read is more important than the medium with which it is read and in this aspect she has a bone to pick not only with the quality of Christian literature for women, but the substance of Christian theology or lifestyle books written by women for women.
“We need to forget about these very famous women who have written a shallow book and gotten very successful because some of it is so cosmetic.
“And we need to get away from talking so much about family and children and how a woman needs to minister to her husband.”
She feels women in the church are being “cheated” by the poor quality of women’s ministry and the lack of guidance from the pulpit not only about behaviour, but about reading as a spiritual tool.
“Where do you hear from the pulpit ‘Read well, think discerningly’? No, we hear find a good man,” she says.
“And even Christian bookstores have entered into the conspiracy because the chances of finding Jane Eyre on the shelves of a Christian bookstore are practically zero.
“It’s not talked about from the pulpit, it’s not seen as important. There is this idea that the book has to be explicitly Christian without any attention given to what it says.”
Instead of “shallow booklets with dumb questions”, she wants to see women’s ministries that do actual theological and biblical studies of books and the Bible, and which “believe in the intellect of their women”.
She also wants to see women take greater responsibility for what they are choosing to consume.
“They are more intelligent than [Fifty Shades] but they are not acting like they are,” she says.
“We need almost a complete revision of women’s leadership.”
Dr de Rosset teaches literature and theology classes at Moody. What some of her female students initially feel is that some of the great classic texts are too difficult, but after giving it a go, they are hooked.
“They love the stuff once they see it’s important and they feel horrified that in their lives there wasn’t exposure to this.
“It changes them and they can’t go back.”
If you feel challenged to get stuck into some good quality reading, Dr de Rosset has these recommendations.
1. The Old Testament
2. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre
3. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
4. Alan Paton’s Too Late the Phalarope
5. C S Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia
She concludes: “I’m always so surprised by how many people have read Pride and Prejudice because it is a hard book to read. If you can read Pride and Prejudice you can read almost anything!”
Women are being 'cheated' by Fifty Shades
Fifty Shades and the Twilight series may be some of the most popular books around today but Dr Rosalie de Rosset says they have nothing to offer women
Published 26 August 2012