Fifty Shades of Grey: The Christian Today review

Universal Pictures

Well this is awkward. The most sexually explicit, most notorious, most morally questionable film of the year so far was released today, and Christian Today sent me to review it. I'd guess a number of readers would question whether it's even right that I saw it at all; I subscribe to the belief that we can't critique culture that we haven't engaged with, that we can't condemn a film that none of us has seen. Besides, this present awkwardness is nothing compared to that which I felt in the queue for Fifty Shades of Grey today. On my own.

There has never before been so much pre-release speculation about the content of a film that didn't feature R2D2. Partly due to their knowledge of the phenomenally successful and abysmally-written novel on which it's based, many (not exclusively religious) people have felt justified in pre-judging it, and warning against its content. In particular, concerns have been raised that the film celebrates – and even incites – violence against women; the book's description of the central couple's dominant-submissive relationship is arguably abusive of main character Ana. The simple message from many groups: we should avoid Fifty Shades because it normalises dangerous, violent behaviour and dysfunctional sex.

Yet despite the warnings, people have tonight paid to see Fifty Shades in their droves. My local multiplex put on a raft of extra screenings; every one a sell-out. In the US, the film has become the fastest selling R-rated movie in decades. Like it or not, Fifty Shades is a thing. So the question is... how bad is it?

Right from the off, Fifty Shades of Grey shocking, but not quite in the way you might expect. A contrived first meeting between the two leads, Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson, reveals an awkward absence of chemistry, and showcases a script which appears to be paying homage to the poorly written source material. Johnson's Ana is supposedly interviewing Dornan's Christian Grey for a college newspaper, and a clunky interaction ensues during which Ana begins to fall for Christian. Before we know it, they're embarking on a relationship, and that soon takes a strange turn due to Christian's unorthodox sexual tastes.

What the first part of the film doesn't include is sex. In fact, it's a good 40 minutes before the two characters finally find their way into bed together, and when they do, it's hardly an unconventional encounter. For the best part of the next hour, their relationship develops; director Sam Taylor-Johnson slowly turning up the heat as first Christian reveals his infamous 'playroom' (fully equipped with whips, handcuffs, ropes and so on), and then asks Ana to sign a contract to enter into a submissive-dominant relationship with him. Still, the sex scenes are brief, and not all that shocking; there's no genitalia on show bar one brief glimpse of Dornan, and nothing on show outstrips the things that Basic Instinct was doing in 1992.

In fact, it appears that the writer and director have made every effort to soften the abusive tone of the novel. The film delicately walks that tightrope throughout, focusing in on Christian's stipulations about safety and consent. The battle for control between the two leads becomes an interesting source of drama in an oddly-improved middle section, and Ana is no pushover, challenging Christian on his motivations and fighting back against his need for dominance. For a moment, I was starting to worry I'd have to fight the film's corner, and I was beginning to enjoy its one saving grace: a fantastic soundtrack.

Then, suddenly, the film loses its footing – both morally and structurally. The finale sees Christian showing his true colours – as a man propelled by the stress of his job to want to hurt and 'punish' the woman who shares his bed, or rather, dungeon. One horrifying scene towards the end, as he administers six lashes to Ana with a belt, is almost impossible to watch. It might sound strange to suggest that this is suddenly jarring; that it feels out of context, but it does. We'd been lulled into believing that this relationship was, while odd, loving and consensual. It's actually deeply dysfunctional, as Ana realises as she turns and runs.

And then, most bizarrely of all, the film just ends. In defiance of traditional screenplay structure, the story just runs out of road, hamstrung by its faithfulness to the source book. So we're left feeling stung by that final, inhuman encounter, and in no rush to watch the inevitable sequels.

I'm not entirely sure, however, that the film glorifies abuse or domestic violence. BDSM (the acronym for this kind of sexual relationship) doesn't necessarily equate with either of those things, and while in the end Christian's actions tip him into an abusive role, neither Ana or the film allow him to get away with it. As she leaves his apartment that final time, we're in no doubt that he's committed an act of villainy; that's hardly glorification.

It's an obvious gag, but Fifty Shades is all marketing mouth, and no trousers. The pre-release buzz would have had us expecting hours of on-screen depravity. In fact we mostly watch Dornan and Johnson, the first woman to compose an acting performance entirely of lip-biting, having conversations. It's a bit dull at times and there are some truly shocking lines: "Most of the fear is in your head" claims Dornan's wonky-accented Christian at one moment, leading us to wonder where else it's possible to contain a mental impulse. Mainly though, it's a triumph of marketing hype.

Ultimately, the advance judgements prove correct: Fifty Shades does promote a warped idea of healthy sex. EL James' misogynistic fantasy of a handsome, rich, violent man who needs control of his 'submissive' is far from a picture of a loving, mutually-respectful relationship, and Christians of all people shouldn't look for reasons to affirm it. Prudishness is no alternative however, and nor is criticism without engagement.

Most articles about the film make reference to some sort of protest among 'religious groups.' The media loves that narrative, and often we hand it to them on a plate. Instead then, I think we should be using the release of Fifty Shades to elevate the conversation around sex and relationships – not squash it. Preachers and leaders need to be brave enough to appropriately tackle the subject; to talk about God's gift of sex, best enjoyed in the context of a loving, committed relationship in which submission and consent are entirely mutual.

The trouble is, that's not the view of sex we're known for. So if we're really going to respond to the furore around Fifty Shades of Grey in a positive, constructive way which is affirming of sex and sexuality then we're going to have to address a few things. Here are just a few steps that might help us begin modelling a positive sexual ethic:

Stop repressing and suppressing sex... let's talk about it

Even when we do talk in church about sex, we do so with an awkward embarrassment which belies our repression of the subject. Sex is a gift from God, not something to be ashamed of, and I see nothing in the Bible that instructs us to stick to the vanilla, missionary, pro-creation-only version of sex. With all the usual caveats in place – be mindful of age groups, don't resort to cheap innuendo and so on – we've got to start talking about it more. One of the reasons why so many Christians struggle with pornography is that the subject is kept in the dark.

Disarm shame

One of the areas in which we have to do better, and especially with young people, is in dealing with people who have 'failed' sexually (and I use that loaded and unhelpful term intentionally). I was at a Christian event a few years ago and had to deal with the fallout of a seminar which had essentially told young people who'd had sex that they were 'damaged goods'. That's not the version of grace that I find in the Bible; Psalm 103 says God has removed our mistakes from us 'as far as the East is from the west.' So we need to be more careful with our terminology about sex, and more thoughtful in our treatment of people.

Replace legalism with idealism

The 'don't do it' message which churches seem to be known for, especially in youth ministry, clearly doesn't work. In a highly sexualised culture, we need to give people more than just a set of rules about sex. So instead, could we focus on painting a picture of healthy sex and relationships, which thrive because they're committed? And if we're going to do that, then every Christian in a relationship would do well to invest more time in it, so creating little beacons of relationship idealism that encourage the people around us. As part of that, can we be brave enough to give people ownership over their own decisions and discipleship? I'd argue that reflects how God engages with the world.

A church that's known for its openness, grace and idealism is far better placed to speak into culture, because it genuinely speaks of a better alternative. It's this version of the church that has every right to decry Fifty Shades of Grey, because it goes on to offer a sexual paradigm that has nothing to do with repression, abuse or male-dominance. It speaks instead of commitment, care, mutual submission and love.

Should you watch the film? That's up to you of course, but I wouldn't recommend it. It's Oscars season, and cinemas are currently full of superb films like Selma. By comparison, Fifty Shades is a gimmick based on a story that would never have been filmed without the tidal wave of notoriety behind it. So the greatest justification for my attendance this evening ends up being this: I've seen it, so you don't have to.

Martin Saunders is the deputy chief executive at Youthscape, and one of the founders of The Youth Work Summit, a UK youth ministry event based on the TED conference model. Follow him on Twitter @martinsaunders.