Fifty Shades of Normal?

Predicting future trends is a risky business for anyone who doesn’t possess a good crystal ball.  Nonetheless, on the basis of past experience and history, we may confidently declare that trends and changes which one generation grudgingly allow the next will enthusiastically embrace, especially if these changes involve a downward moral spiral.

Take for example homosexuality.  When I was a child, homosexual practice was still illegal in my native Canada.  Not that I can recall anyone ever being prosecuted for it, but the law did exist as a kind of line drawn in the cultural sand, delineating the moral from the immoral. Then a Prime Minister, pushing Canada in a more secular direction, declared that the government had no place in the bedrooms of the nation (great sound bite, eh?), and removed it from the criminal code (the sweeping bill also decriminalized abortion).  No one at the time much noticed or cared about the decriminalization of homosexuality, since few or none had actually been prosecuted under the law to anyone’s knowledge.  The law’s abrogation was met with no great celebration, but simply with a shrug.  The change of law didn’t seem to change the cultural boundaries, as most people thought that homosexuality was—well, weird.  Not criminal, of course, just—weird.  That was 1969.

As is well known, the next generation enthusiastically embraced, celebrated, and made normative the earlier cultural shift.  The older line in the cultural sand has now not only been permanently erased, but dramatically redrawn someplace else.  Now it is rapidly becoming a criminal offense to publicaly denounce homosexuality.  It is certainly politically suicidal to denounce it, and people now regard the mindset of the previous generation as—well, weird.  It is as if the older view of sexual normalcy was not held recently in 1960, but centuries ago in 1260. It is hard to even imagine that such views predominated less than fifty years ago.  But the shift does illustrate the principle that trends and changes which one generation grudgingly allow the next will enthusiastically embrace.

The question then is:  what change will the next generation embrace?  What is next on the downward moral spiral of our increasingly secularized society?  Which practice is now regarded by many people as morally iffy, which will be regarded as obviously morally legitimate by our grandchildren’s generation?  Sadly, I do not possess a crystal ball myself, but if I may be allowed to play the fool for a moment, I will hazard a guess.  It is BDSM, as celebrated in the best-selling series of novels Fifty Shades of Grey.  In the interest of honesty and full disclosure, I will confess that I have not actually read the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, and that nothing could induce me to do so.  I have not actually read Mein Kampf either, but I more or less get the main idea without reading the volumes through.  Facebook and Google turn out to be good for something.

Reviews of the trilogy are not encouraging.  The author Sir Salman Rushdie for example said of the work, “I’ve never read anything so badly written that got published.  It made Twilight look like War and Peace.”  One imagines that its popularity then has little to do with its literary merits.  But it is popular nonetheless.  A movie based on the books is set to be released by Universal Pictures in 2015.  An Australian game company has created a board game based on it, as well as packs of cards.  (Really, you can’t make this stuff up.)

It is to be hoped that all this will prove to be simply a passing fad, but there are signs that it may not pass as quickly as we would like.  In the television series Forever, starring Ioan Gruffudd and Judd Hirsch, a dominatrix was presented as a sympathetic and compassionate care-giver, one worthy of respect.  Hmm.  In the wake of the trilogy’s success, a documentary was made investigating the BDSM phenomenon, and to some degree legitimizing it.  There is a possibility that what we now tolerate with dubious raised eye-brows may be enthusiastically embraced by the next generation.

Where does all this leave us Orthodox?  It leaves us more or less where we have always been:  at odds with the world.  Christians in the early church knew that the disciples of Jesus inhabited a different moral universe than their pagan neighbours did, and they strove to live counter-culturally.  That was why there were so many exorcisms in the pre-baptismal preparations, and why the candidates renounced the devil and all his works when they were baptized.  A large part of that devilish and secular culture then involved idolatry; a large part of our own day’s secular culture involves sexual deviance.  That does not mean that we should hate our gay neighbours any more than the ancient Christians hated their pagan ones.  But it does mean that we must identify clearly the parts of our secular culture which are incompatible with our faith and conduct ourselves accordingly.  It is no good going on as some liberal Orthodox do about how complicated these issues are, and the need to build bridges, and have dialogue.  The Fathers could have said the same thing about pagan idolatry in the early church, but they did not.  They did not deal with sin by building bridges, but by burning them.  They did not dialogue with idolatry as if it had spiritual merit; they renounced the devil and all his works.  If we would belong to the same Church as them, we need to do the same today, regardless of where the world’s downward spiral takes us.

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Fr. Lawrence Farley

Fr. Lawrence was formerly an Anglican priest, graduating from Wycliffe College in Toronto, Canada in 1979 before serving Anglican parishes in central Canada. He converted to Orthodoxy in 1985 and spent two years at St. Tikhon’s Seminary in South Canaan, Pennsylvania. After ordination he traveled to Surrey, B.C. to begin a new mission under the O.C.A., St. Herman of Alaska Church.

The Church has grown from its original twelve members, and now owns a building in Langley, B.C., where they worship each Sunday. The community has planted a number of ‘daughter churches’, including parishes in Victoria, Comox and Vancouver.

Fr. Lawrence has written a number of books, published by Conciliar Press, including the Bible Study Companion Series, with verse-by-verse commentaries on the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, the Early Epistles, the Prison Epistles, the Pastoral Epistles, the Catholic Epistles, and the Book of Revelation, as well as a volume about how to read the Old Testament , entitled The Christian Old Testament. He has also written a commentary on the Divine Liturgy, entitled, Let Us Attend: A Journey through the Orthodox Divine Liturgy. SVS Press has published his book on Feminism and Tradition, examining such topics as the ordination of women and deaconesses. He has also written a synaxarion (lives of Saints), published by Light and Life, entitled A Daily Calendar of Saints, recently updated and revised and available through his blog. He has also written a series of Akathists, published by Alexander Press, including Akathist to Jesus, Light to Those in Darkness, Akathist to the Most-Holy Theotokos, Daughter of Zion, A New Akathist to St. Herman of Alaska, Akathist: Glory to the God who Works Wonders (a rehearsal of the works of God from Genesis to Revelation). His articles have appeared in the Canadian Orthodox Messenger (the official diocesan publication of the Archdiocese of Canada), as well as in the Orthodox Church (the official publication of the O.C.A.), in The Handmaiden and AGAIN magazine (from Conciliar Press).

Fr. Lawrence has a podcast each weekday on Ancient Faith Radio, the Coffee Cup Commentaries. He has given a number of parish retreats in the U.S. and Canada, as well as being a guest-lecturer yearly at the local Regent College, Vancouver. He can also be found on his personal blog, Straight from the Heart.

Fr. Lawrence lives in Surrey with his wife, Donna. They have two daughters, and three grandchildren.