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Commentary

Christian festish

Agnostics anonymous

The deep kinkiness of humanity's relationship with God is a theme that has endured down the ages. The word 'religion' comes from the same Latin root as 'ligature' suggesting binding or bondage. God in the Latin Church was Dominus, 'Master'. Submitting to the bondage of this master was to enter into a sado-masochistic relationship. So John Donne implored God: 'Take me to you, imprison me, for I, / Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, /Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me'.  

God-the-ravisher is a familiar figure in antiquity, many of the classical myths involving Zeus' sexual plunder. Another patriarch god, Jehovah, settled into a monogamous relationship with the Jews, and 'was a husband unto them' (Jeremiah 31). It wasn't a cosy set-up though: the Prophets dwell rather on the bride's repeated 'whoring after strange gods' and subsequent chastisements.
Jesus softened the image of God-the-bridegroom. But glance over the torments of the martyrs as lovingly reproduced in any Catholic cathedral and the centrality of erotic violence to the Christian imagination is obvious. Eight centuries before Mel Gibson, the Christian passion was made pornographic and explicit, the agonies of the body rendered in enthralled detail.

For suicide bombers slaughtering their way to a paradise of houri, religion remains pretty hot stuff. But looking at British Christians, you can't help but feel that the spark has gone. It's all safe words and no sizzle. The need to talk endlessly about your relationship, whether with a god or person, should set alarm bells ringing. Analysing and agonising it, or loudly insisting that it's strong, happy and fulfilling, isn't a promising sign.

Meanwhile, Fifty Shades of Grey is now the best-selling book in British history. It made headlines when a hotel owner replaced his Bibles with the E.L. James tome, drawing a predictable denunciation from his vicar. But Christianity only has itself to blame for being superseded in this way.

Like other recent bestsellers, Fifty Shades speaks to the emotional needs that were once satisfied by religion. The Da Vinci Code gave Christianity's esoteric mystery back to the people. Harry Potter gave them the apocalyptic confrontation of Good vs Evil (with additional redemptive sacrifice). And now Fifty Shades revives the figure of the masterful, dominant alpha-and-omega male, in the form of the 'divinely formed' sadist 'Christian Grey'.

All this in a novel that began as an amateur tribute to the Twilight series. Though again, this isn't an area where Christians ought to cast the first stone. A loose collection of sequels, glosses and retellings ... what is the New Testament if not a trove of first-century fanfic?