Fifty Shades of Shame

Fifty Shades of Shame

I don’t know what is worse: the fact that Hollywood could somehow drape an “R” rating around its latest disgrace, Fifty Shades of Grey, or that the film would gross over $80 million on its initial weekend.

I love movies but I won’t see Fifty Shades of No Way.  I didn’t see Wolf of Wall Street or the legion of other R-rated skin flicks Hollywood produces that command $13.50 from the voyeurs who seem numb to watching actors and actresses simulate sex.  

These filmmakers are foot soldiers in the culture war that Hollywood leads in its steadfast assault on marriage, children, family values, and most of all, faith.  The stridency of the studio execs matches that of the Taliban and indeed all who ruthlessly and relentlessly seek to indoctrinate others. Theirs is a radical orthodoxy – and make no mistake about it, Hollywood’s secular take on life has its own very specific creed of moral beliefs that are both godless and dangerous.  But now that Fifty Shades of Gross netted a fortune this past weekend, you can be assured of a wave of even worse.  I read Pluggedin.com’s detailed reviews of the film and what the reviewer described used to be considered the fodder of peepers and perverts.  But now it is mainstream cinema?

I was at Hollywood 20 in Naples on Friday to see the movie Still Alice (more about that in a second).  I saw lines of senior citizens at the matinee streaming into Fifty Heads of Grey.  Really?  You’re approaching the end of your life and this is how you spend your time?  What a legacy!  I’ll bet the grandkids are proud of grandma and grandpa!  

If you are wondering how a movie like Fifty Shades of Hades became acceptable entertainment, simply consider the decades of movies by our favorite stars that glamorized sex between the non-married as conventional, normative, desirable.  Their relentless campaign – coupled with the other cultural warriors like Madonna, Lady Gaga, and you-name-the-rap star – has successfully lowered moral standards.

Which brings me to Hollywood’s latest coercive campaign:  support for euthanasia.  

The movie Still Alice tells the story of a 50-something professor at Princeton who gradually realizes that she has early Alzheimer’s disease. No surprise that an atheist, actress Julianne Moore, plays this likeable, lovable victim of the disease (and she’s up for an Oscar for her performance).  In the film she’s happily married to an MD played by Alec Baldwin, has three children, and is at the peak of her national prominence in her field in academia.  And then she begins to slowly awaken to her encroaching confusion and forgetfulness.  

Spoiler alert:  I am going to tell everything so if you want to see the movie, stop here (but please read on after you see it!).

First, the movie was well-done and poignant, which is a problem.  It will move the needle in favor of euthanasia because as Alice became increasingly aware of her disability, she was resolute to have death on her own terms, which of course meant one accelerated through suicide.  So she videotaped instructions to herself on how to locate a specially marked bottle of potent sleeping pills in her chest of drawers in order to consume the entire bottle (and then she instructs herself to go lie down and fall asleep for, you know, the kind of sleep where you don’t wake up). 

The movie proceeds with her movement from a confident and independent woman to a disoriented and dependent one (wetting herself because she couldn’t remember where the bathroom was; forgetting names of those she knows and loves; and so forth).  She was losing what she cherished the most – her intellect, her command of her daily life, her independence.  So when she realized this, she tried to follow her video instructions on killing herself but, alas, botched it.  In the theater there was an audible gasp as her chance to exit life quickly slipped away as the pills fell to the floor and her caretaker arrived.  

While Jesus teaches that we are made in the image and likeness of God and are no less human when we are beset with illness and infirmity (boy did Pope John Paul II’s last years reaffirm that truth!), Hollywood teaches that weakness is a condition to be avoided at all costs.  And sure enough, Alec Baldwin communicates to his now-housebound wife and their adult children that she has become a burden to him, an impediment to his career, and indeed that she is no longer the Alice he married (Alice doesn’t live here anymore!). The movie comes to an ambiguous close and we are left to wonder if her husband and children will care for her or kill her. 

Such a godless take on sickness and dying is becoming more standard in motion pictures.  And as Dostoevsky said in Brothers Karamazov, “If there is no God everything is permitted.”  So yes, even suicide, assisted suicide, and euthanasia can pass as an acceptable response where once compassion and companionship were the answer.  When the focus is on the quality of life as the measurement of what makes you truly human, then it is easy to consider people with disabilities and chronic diseases, and people suffering and dying, as half-human or worse.  So why not cut to the chase? Hollywood’s prevailing moral code dictates that personal autonomy is primary and that there is no God. Everything is permitted.  So if the disabled or senile aren’t really human any more, then it’s not really a killing to send them on their way, but actually something compassionate.  That’s why the Hemlock Society renamed itself “Compassion and Choices.”

By God’s design people are hardwired for life and so there is a stigma about suicide or euthanasia, just as there used to be about casual sex with strangers, having babies out-of-wedlock, or gay marriage.  Hollywood famously accelerated these cultural shifts in a generation’s time.  And now Hollywood is hell-bent on changing our attitude about what to do when a loved one faces serious illness.  Still Alice’s sympathetic treatment of the victim’s desire to end life on her own terms will surely win more converts – and maybe an Oscar, too.

I am fully aware of how difficult it is to care for someone with dementia.  My wife and I moved to Washington to help her mom care for her dad as he became increasingly dependent upon others and difficult to handle.  The demands placed on Mary’s mom and all of us assembled by Pop’s side to assist him were enormous.  For the last season of his life he could not communicate his needs nor help himself.  Without faith – and sufficient financial resources for respite assistance – Pop’s last years might have been vastly different.  Fortunately, after years of debilitating dementia, he went home to God surrounded by a loving family and many friends, and to this day we have grateful memories of him, including in his last years when so much was asked of him and us.  He went home to God in peace.

That sounds like a Hollywood ending, but a modern Hollywood ending would never have people praying for strength to love and serve, people discovering the joy of compassionate care, and people finding meaning in the midst of suffering and illness.  For Christians, there is meaning in suffering; death does not have the final word; and it is not up to us to interfere with the sanctity of life which stretches from the time of conception until natural death.

The Church needs to do more to support families struggling with the care of a loved one who lives at their mercy. Priests should preach about the real challenges and the many graces that come with committed love. Those who sentimentalize such situations and don’t acknowledge the day in and day out demands of caregiving do no one a service.  It is not enough to pronounce theological truths.  There must be pastoral, practical help.  I haven’t heard a parish sermon on this subject in my lifetime. Do we even allow the families of people with Alzheimer’s a privileged place in the sanctuary and honor their sacrifices?  Do we even know who they are?

I am proud that Ave Maria University students regularly visit the nursing homes in Naples where so many there are living lonely lives.  That is counter-cultural and evangelical and more necessary than ever before.  I predict that the battle to legalize assisted suicide and euthanasia will dwarf the one fought since 1973 over abortion.  Compassion and Choices is gearing up in all 50 states, already framing the debate.  The stakes are very high.  The Alices and Pops of the world depend on us.  How will we respond?