Divine Sex: A Compelling Vision for Christian Relationships in a Hypersexualized Age
Reviewed by Brad A. Lau, Student Life, George Fox University
There are few topics more timely and timeless than the intersection of Christian faith and contemporary cultural understandings of human sexuality. In this carefully researched and thoughtful work, Jonathan Grant details the societal challenges that exist while suggesting a practical and convincing Christian vision for human flourishing. He writes, “The Christian vision of sexuality is the gracious provision of a loving God who invites us into a life of flourishing via participation in his own character, the relationships within the Trinity, and the reality of the kingdom of heaven as it takes shape on earth” (126). The holistic and comprehensive framework set forth by Grant embeds the conversation in the nature of God that gives definition, purpose, scope, and meaning to sexuality and relationships.
Before articulating a Christian vision, the author spends the first part of his book painting a portrait of the current cultural landscape with regard to sexual expression – and it is not a very encouraging picture. Using research, he points to a number of problems and their implications for society and relationships. First, he writes that modern society places the highest value on authenticity and personal freedom without moral constraints or limitations imposed by self or others. Thus, it is most important to be “true to oneself” and, in fact, freedom can only be found in expressing what one desires or wants at any given moment. Grant suggests that this way of thinking actually developed over the 20th century as “Sex was no longer something we chose to engage in or abstain from but was now a natural force that was either embraced or denied, leading to either health/wholeness or a repressed/diseased self” (36). The implication is that personal gratification and fulfillment becomes the most important goal so that I feel happy and I am getting what I want. This makes it easier and better to “try it out” before committing to marriage, making the Christian ideal of personal transformation largely irrelevant and unnecessary. Further, avoiding difficulty and pain and the pursuit of personal happiness become much more important than developing a person’s character, courage, and resilience in the face of such difficulty.
The notion of absolute and unbridled freedom also creates a postmodern vision of sexuality and relationships that “emphasizes the importance of embodiment and sexual experience, but at the same time takes away any coherent basis for choosing which experience” (58). There is no moral framework or external truth guiding the individual toward a holistic vision of human flourishing. As Grant notes, “The denial of transcendence (higher reality) and teleology (purposefulness) leaves us with no foundation on which to think about how to engage our sexuality, except for open-ended self-expression which fuels the confusion and destructive dynamics of modern sexual practices” (119). This is even further complicated, Grant argues, by a consumer culture that “trains us to acquire, consume, and move on, with novelty as our guiding impulse” (80). In this movement toward personal gratification, there is a profound loss of empathy toward others played out in the rapid growth of online pornography and online matchmaking, both of which can project an “idealized” self and/or other. The sense of increased isolation and the pursuit of idealized experiences of romance and sexual expression ultimately fail to create rich, relational environments conducive to community and connection.
After detailing the current cultural climate with regard to sexuality and relationships, the author challenges the church by offering a Christian vision that is both formational and vocational. If, indeed, following Christ is the ultimate priority for believers, all other aspects of life should flow out of that primary relationship. From this perspective, Grant observes that there are four elements that are critical to a Christian vision of human sexuality; these elements are eschatological, metaphysical, formational, and missional (143ff). A Christian vision is eschatological in that sexuality is seen within the larger context of creation; it is metaphysical in creating consistency between the way things should be on earth and the reality of heaven; it is formational in guiding us toward what Christ wants us to be and do in terms of values and character; and it is missional in that sexuality should express our living witness in and to this world. Conversely, current societal views of sexuality lead to a fragmentation in human relationships that fails to distinguish true desire from that which is false. This is why discipling and mentoring relationships are so important in the life and witness of the church. Grant concludes by arguing for “embodied worship” that embraces the fullness of the Gospel message and for “displacing modern social practices” by creating a vision for relationships that is qualitatively and powerfully different than that of contemporary culture (226ff).
In evaluating Grant’s impressive and well-researched work, there are a number of observations that stand out. First, he writes both theologically and pastorally in a way that is helpful in thinking about the significant issues pertaining to human sexuality and practical implications for the church. In doing so, he does not just offer a thoroughly Christian critique of secular society, but also of the evangelical community. For example, he offers strong criticism of the Religious Right’s almost exclusive focus on defending the legal definition of marriage without addressing the underlying causes (some of them within the church) that hasten its demise. Further, Grant faults the church for elevating autonomy, individualism, and consumer-culture and for failing to create a compelling vision for singleness, aging, and sexuality or a context in which to have these important conversations. Grant writes, “our pastoral approach should be double-edged, seeking to challenge our culture’s worship of sexual desire and personal fulfillment while offering a different vision of human flourishing. Christian formation involves both resistance and redirection” (186). There were a few occasions where it would have been helpful for Grant to step out of his pastoral approach to address other critical contexts for spiritual formation. For example, in the foreword, James K. A. Smith points out that the book contains helpful insights for student life divisions at Christian colleges and universities, and it certainly does. However, Grant does not fully address these important contexts in articulating a vision and strategy for addressing singleness, marriage, and Christian formation, even though significant numbers of Christian young adults are being shaped at such institutions.
A second observation builds on what has already been mentioned previously. In offering a compelling vision, it is vital that the church thinks theologically and practically about both singleness and aging. Grant does focus on these often, but it might have been helpful for both of these to be considered along with each of the four elements of Christian vision featured in chapter 8 (eschatological, metaphysical, formational, and missional). Further, while arguing that both singleness and marriage are viable vocations and should be honored and respected within the church, Grant also acknowledges that prolonged singleness can be problematic. This is particularly true if it grows out of a reluctance to commit, a desire to try it out (such as cohabitation), a failure to value difference in another person, or the growing trend of those wanting to live alone. He believes ultimately that the church can “enable an environment in which people can move from singleness into relationship without the others feeling left behind or without the community dividing into separate camps of the ‘loved’ and the ‘lonely lost’” (231).
Grant’s occasional focus on aging as a lost conversation and dynamic in the church is a very important point that he makes. Intergenerational relationships are vital in any environment where formation and discipleship is the ultimate goal. Unfortunately, churches tend to divide congregants into specific niche communities within the church (often according to age) and, in so doing, lose the many advantages that these relationships can have for the church and for society. It also further exacerbates another problem in that, as Grant notes, “Our culture’s idolatry of youth has created a strange reversal within our churches: leaders tend to emulate the young rather than the other way around” (212). Discipleship that asks another to “follow me as I follow Christ” can and does occur with others in one’s own age range, but there are many benefits to be gained from deep relationships with those who have gone before us in their journey with Christ and possess the wisdom and experience that entails. Grant writes:
One of the most effective ways of teaching some young Christians moral skills and discernment is to connect the generations within the church. … As family researchers have found, it is the “intergenerational self” that has the most resilient foundation for personal identity and is best equipped to cope with the external pressures of life. (209)
Yet a third observation is that there are a few occasions where Grant is a little overly simplistic or therapeutic in his approach. For example, he fails to offer adequate research and support in tying addictive behaviors such as masturbation and alcoholism to a person’s desire to fill childhood attachment needs (182). While this may be true in certain situations, there is undoubtedly much more that goes into addiction and the resulting behaviors. Another example of a lack of nuance is when Grant talks about the difference between the heart and the mind. He writes, “It is the heart more than the mind that clings to idols and false loves. The mind can be reeducated with good teaching and consistent preaching, but the heart stubbornly and secretly chooses its own way” (187). However, Scripture seems to indicate that minds also need to be renewed and transformed and not just reeducated (Romans 12:1-2). Finally, when Grant discusses how women and men spend their time, pursue careers, or rear children, he runs a fine line between making a good and valid point and becoming overly prescriptive in suggesting what contemporary family life should look like (220).
I deeply appreciated the fact that throughout the book Grant creates a holistic vision for human sexuality and flourishing that is about much more than sex. He offers a glimpse into a covenant community of connected relationships that frames our own individual stories within a much larger story. It is this sense of community that is counter-culturally life-giving and points to the Gospel and to a dynamically engaging relationship with Jesus Christ as the true source of meaning and purpose. In the sexual realm, relying on willpower alone simply will not work since it relies only on the repression of desire. In fact, Grant affirms C. S. Lewis in noting “that it is not the taming of desire that will set us free but rather the unleashing and enlarging of true desire” (169). And, of course, that “true desire” is found only in the One who truly satisfies every longing of the human soul. Discipleship and formation toward that end is the ultimate vision for human flourishing.