By Frank Marangos, D.Min., Ed.D.
“I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
Fifty is a fascinating number. It marks the milestone of a golden anniversary, the sacred Pythagorean Triangle (9 + 16 + 25 = 50), and the atomic designation for tin (Sn). Apart from enjoying celebrity status as the fifth magic number of nuclear physics, it delineates the number of chapters in the ancient Book of Genesis, coincidentally, the longest script of the Bible. Commemorating deliverance from personal and national bondage, fifty also scores the Old Testament Feast of Weeks, Year of Jubilee, and Christian Pentecost. Finally, while the total number of King Arthur’s Knights depends on the literary source consulted, the Round Table of Camelot started with fifty seats.
Unlike its more established conventions, fifty has recently become associated with an erotic best-selling romance novel by the British author E. L. James. Notable for its explicit sexual descriptions of bondage, dominance, submission, and masochism (BDSM), Fifty Shades of Grey (2011) has sold over 100 million copies worldwide. On the eve of Valentine’s Day (2015), Universal Pictures released a film version of the novel. Earning over $563 million worldwide, Fifty Shades of Grey is currently the highest-grossing film of 2015.
Translated into fifty-two languages, the novel is the first in a trilogy of installments tracing the abusive relationship between a young college graduate, Anastasia Steele, and a successful young entrepreneur named Christian Trevelyan Grey. Remarkably, the cult-like series has set a record in the United Kingdom as the fastest-selling paperback of all time!
Fifty Shades of Grey is essentially a relativistic perspective concerning a blurred human interaction, neither black nor white. According to James, because the relationship of Ana (Anastasia) and Christian is contingent on a mutually acceptable arrangement, it cannot be defined by societal rules or evaluated by customary moral standards. It exists in a gray area, somewhere in the middle of a sliding scale of ethical hues. As the human eye can only see 32 shades of gray, Grey’s multifaceted character should not be judged. In so doing, the author reinforces contemporary society’s harmful reluctance to admit the possibility of truth and the necessity of moral standards!
In contrast to Grey’s fifty “shades” of uncertainty, Pentecost, the fiftieth day after Christ’s Resurrection, promotes sacrifice, love, and the verity of interpersonal authenticity. The Old Testament Feast of Pentecost commemorated the reception of the Ten Commandments (Feasts of Weeks). Israel was later commanded by God to declare a Year of Jubilee every fiftieth year (Leviticus 25:8-13) during which those who had broken tenets of the “Law” were forgiven. Most importantly, those who worked as slaves or indentured laborers were to be pardoned and granted freedom.
The New Testament enlarged the older missive of Pentecost to include the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples, whereby a multitude of people miraculously comprehended the primary message of the Christian Gospel. Regardless of their respective linguistic constraints, each understood the essence of God’s “New Law” as mercy, love, and forgiveness. “A new commandment I give to you,” Jesus said, “that you love one another. By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John13: 34-35).
The new dynamic of Pentecost made it possible for humanity to fully express the grand vision of Jubilee. Early historical accounts indicate the remarkable impact of this code of chivalrous love on society, a transformation so evident that even nonbelievers accused the Christian community of “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17: 6). Due to this and its Old Testament liberationist implications, the Christian Feast of Pentecost developed into an annual liturgical celebration of societal assessment and personal rededication. In fact, Pentecost became a pivotal day for the celebrated fifty-seat Table of Camelot.
According to the English writer Sir Thomas Malory (Le Morte d’Arthur) each year, on the fiftieth day after Easter, King Arthur encouraged his Knights to pray for God’s guidance and swear an oath to chivalry. Over time, the Feast of Pentecost became the guiding force of Camelot’s nobility whose code of chivalry piloted the hearts, minds, and bodies of its leaders through the dark and chaotic days in the centuries following the fall of Rome. According to Malory, Pentecost was observed as follows:
“The king established all his knights. He gave them lands, and charged them never to act outrageously nor murder, and always to flee treason; by no means to be cruel, but to give mercy unto him that asks mercy, upon pain of forfeiture of their worship and lordship of King Arthur for evermore; and to always provide ladies, damsels, and gentlewomen assistance upon pain of death. That no man should battle in a wrongful quarrel over the law, or for worldly goods. Unto this were all the knights sworn of the Table Round, both old and young. And every year were they sworn at the high feast of Pentecost.” (Le Morte d’Arthur)
Lord Alfred Tennyson adds the following dimensions to Malory’s oath: “To ride abroad redressing wrongs, to speak no slander, no, nor listen to it, to honor his own words as if his God’s, to love one maiden only, cleave to her, and worship her by years of noble deeds . . .” (Idylls of the King)
The Fiftieth Day of Pentecost was, therefore, King Arthur’s opportunity to encourage the “renewal” of Camelot’s primary leaders. The Old Testament Feast of Pentecost prayerfully commemorated the reception of the Ten Commandments (Feasts of Weeks) by the Israelites. Drawing a comparison to the gathering of Jesus’ disciples on Pentecost, King Arthur subsequently challenged his own “knights” to submit to a similar posture of humble service to God and humanity. While a framework for good conduct, it should here be noted that chivalry was not a mandate from the powerful to the downtrodden, but actually a set of limitations that leaders unpretentiously set upon themselves. It was a choice by those in authority to think critically and thereby do the right thing, for the right reason, at the right time.
The Legend of King Arthur, and the Knights of the Round Table provide a strong corrective framework to the self-centered insensibilities of the current culture. Unlike Christian Grey, whose contractual enticements personify a master whose stern authority inflicts pain and servitude, Camelot obliges authentic leaders to humbly slay the grey shades of relational abuse with purity, love, and service. Moreover, the code of chivalry promoted principles that controlled the conduct of knights during the various campaigns of the Crusades. As servants of the Church, the knights were called to modify their behavior according to the higher critical thinking standards of: (a) courage, (b) honor, (c) courtesy, (d) justice and, above all, (e) compassion.
In an article entitled, A Crisis in Higher Education(2012), the Pittsburg Quarterly reports that college graduates are questioning the relevance of Higher Education. When asked to provide a listing of key issues facing higher education today, the presidents of the nation’s leading colleges and universities all suggested (a) affordability/access (b) student indebtedness, (b) pedagogy, (c) funding, (d) governance, and (e) online learning. Significantly, the education leaders were nearly unanimous in their assessment that helping students develop higher-order cognitive abilities (critical thinking skills) are the most important educational task of colleges and universities today. Unsurprisingly, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) published a similar set of conclusions.
As discernment and the ability to make prudent judgments underpin a graduate’s perceptions of the world and the consequent decisions they will make, like presidents, university faculty are nearly unanimous in their assessment that the development of students’ higher-order intellectual or cognitive abilities is the most important educational task of colleges and universities. People who think critically have the ability to ask appropriate questions, gather relevant information, sort efficiently and creatively, reason logically, and come to reliable and trustworthy conclusions about material, a problem, and/or situation (van Gelder, 2005). More specifically, critical thinking is central to both personal success and societal health.
The relative popularity of films, music, and literature such as Fifty Shades of Grey attest to the declining state of relational morality in public discourse. Critical thinking is important for a democratic society and, consequently, essential to college graduates who are eager to responsibly deal with the impact of the sliding scale of societal relativism on relational civility. Apart from providing them with the technical skills necessary to succeed in a rapidly changing global economy, dedicated faculty must also develop the critical discernment capacities of the nation’s future citizenry.
Great care should, therefore, be taken to help young college graduates avoid becoming enslaved to carnal pleasures, fanaticism, greed, relativism and false thinking. Because of these and the dangerous BDSM cultic vulnerabilities promoted by writings such as Fifty Shades of Grey, over 900 people went to their untimely deaths by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid at the request of Jim Jones. Apart from the 70 members of David Koresh’s Branch Davidian cult who were killed at the Waco, Texas shootout, the lifeless bodies of 39 Heaven’s Gate cult members were discovered in San Diego after Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles directed them to commit mass suicide in order to reach what they believed was an earth orbiting alien space craft.
Like King Arthur’s chivalrous cavaliers, America’s institutions of Higher Education are in dire need of “knights” that are willing to slay the “shades of grey” that threaten the hearts, minds, and very lives oftomorrow’s citizenry. Today’s colleges and universities require prudent leaders who, unlike Jones, Koresh, Applewhite, and the fictitious though dangerous character Christian Grey, are willing to help their constituents learn how to avoid having their minds, bodies, and souls handcuffed by the “doms” of Hollywood, Billboard, and Wall Street. Without the discerning logic of critically thinking skills, many of these young adults will end up in abusive professional as well as personal relationships due to poor choices.
Fifty Shades of Gray is not a wedding gown fairytale but a dark tragedy of sexual assault. Upon closer inspection, Fifty Shades of Grey depicts a deeply abusive relationship that encourages violence against women. More disquieting is the fact that the victim does not realize the risks associated with her acquiescence. Far from “empowering,” the novel seeks to glamorize the elimination of personal freedom. In fact, while the film is branded as “an incredible fairytale love story” its movie poster urges women viewers to “lose control,” and enjoy the flirtatious “romance” of violence and sexual abuse.
To the outside world, Christian Grey appears as a young, handsome, and successfully charming entrepreneur. Anastasia, on the other hand, represents a segment of college graduates who are academically successful, yet broken and bleeding on the inside. Coincidence does not adequately explain the character development of this impressionable student. On the contrary, it is this writer’s opinion that James intentionally starts his trilogy with a Washington State English-Lit major with a 4.0 GPA who is simultaneously highly insecure and considers herself a “misfit.”
A 1972 study of 40,000 faculty members by the American Council on Education found that 97% of the respondents indicated the most important goal of undergraduate education is to foster students’ ability to think critically. According to the 1983 National Commission of Excellence in Education Report, the United States is a “nation at risk” because of a failure to provide education that fosters critical thinking. As a result, the U.S. National Education Goals Panel (1991) urged America’s educators to strive to increase strong critical thinking skills in their students by the year 2000. Although the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) has listed “inquiry, critical and creative thinking” important skills that should be fostered by higher education, recent studies continue to indicate a learning deficit among graduates.
According to the landmark Delphi Report (1990), the ideal critical thinker is “habitually inquisitive, well-informed, trustful of reason, open-minded, honest in facing personal biases, and prudent when making judgments.” In the final analysis, if America’s institutions of higher education genuinely desire to help their graduates avoid Christian Grey-like entanglements, they must then develop and advance curricula and robust learning experiences that promote such competencies.
Like the Delphi Report (1990), Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, a 2011 study of 24 U.S. colleges and universities, thousands of college students graduate each year without knowing how to sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event. Forty-five percent (45%) of students made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college. Even more disquieting is that fact that after four years, 36% showed no significant gains in so-called “higher order” thinking skills.
While business, education, social work and communications graduates showed the least gains in learning, the study showed that students who majored in the traditional liberal arts showed significantly greater gains over time than other students in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills. Howard Gardner, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education known for his theory of multiple intelligences, said the study underscores the need for higher education to push students harder. “I think that higher education in general is not demanding enough of students,” said Gardner. “I hope the data will encourage colleges and universities to look within for ways to improve teaching and learning.”
The Orthodox Christian icon of Pentecost depicts the Twelve Apostles seated in a semicircle with the Holy Spirit, in the form of tongues of fire alighting upon each of them. Kosmos, an allegorical figure symbolizing the world, is often painted at the bottom of the scene, crowned and clothed in earthly glory. Significantly, while he holds twelve elegant scrolls containing the life-giving message of Pentecost in his lap, Kosmos, nonetheless, sits alone and in darkness, a victim of his ignorance and rejection of God’s truths.
The cultivation of critical thinking is one of the most urgent responsibilities of the contemporary Knight of Higher Education. The ability to assess, scrutinize and appropriately discern the shades of professional, moral, and spiritual threats will be expected of tomorrow’s leader. Unfortunately, the posture of Kosmos is often the experience of the contemporary college graduate! Like Anastasia, whose name literally means “resurrection,” and a recipient of humanity’s generational knowledge, today’s young graduates lacks the discernment required to make wise choices. As a consequence, many will indeed fall prey to the “Mr. Greys” that stalk society’s spiritual, political, and entrepreneurial byways, seeking submissive followers to dominate and abuse!
The menace of Fifty Shades of Grey is its ability to blur the difference between love and exploitation . . . truth and fiction. Unfortunately, the impressionable will leave the movie thinking, “What is normal? There are so many shades of grey… I’m just not sure!”
In the final analysis, seen in the Light of Pentecost, Fifty Shades of Grey is all black!
(NOTE: Part 2 will discuss the theory of Followership and value of linking it with the leadership development programs currently advanced by institutions of Higher Education.)