The biggest problem with good Christian books about sex… is the lack of them.
I don’t mean that Christians don’t write about sex. We have, and we do. But our writing tends to be thin and simplistic. Christian writers have mostly failed to engage the significant cultural narratives about sexuality and personhood that frame the context for modern thinking. As Jonathan Grant puts it, something about our cultural moment “makes the Christian vision of sexuality seem naïve and unrealistic at best and downright repressive at worst, even to many young Christians.” And THAT’S the problem the church needs to tackle. Generally speaking, we do provide moral instruction. But that moral instruction is often divorced from a coherent narrative framework that makes it meaningful.
That’s the gap Grant seeks to fill with his excellent book Divine Sex (Brazos Press, 2015). It’s a thoughtful book, a meaningful book, even a compelling book (as its subtitle claims). Why? Because Grant deeply understands both the biblical vision of sexuality and the modern cultural context in which we are seeking to live out that vision.
The basic conviction of this book is that Christian faith and secular culture exist in complex interrelationship. This creates both challenges and opportunities for discipleship. The first part of the book considers the following questions: what is the modern self, and how does it approach sexual relationships? How has our cultural moment shaped what we think and do in this area? Having identified the signs of the times and their influence, the second part will propose an alternative Christian vision of personal identity as the basis for a practical model of formation, one that integrates issues relating to sexuality and relationships (Grant, 25).
In other words, Grant is going to place his discussion of sexuality within the larger category of personhood. Sex is something that persons do, and so our vision of sexuality is integrally bound up with our understanding of the self. Set within that context, it becomes clear that a counter-cultural vision of selfhood is crucial to a Christian sexual ethic.
Part One of Grant’s book, titled “Mapping the Modern Sexual Imaginary,” sets out to name the cultural influences that shape the modern self and therefore the modern vision of sexuality. By drawing heavily upon academic sociological research, Grant makes this part of his book almost unassailable – this is just the way things are, and the studies prove it. He focuses on five features of our cultural landscape that shape our thinking about sex:
- Individualism: We live in a “culture of authenticity” which encourages us to create our own beliefs and express our own unique identity. Because we are shaped by individualism, we find ourselves caught between intimacy and autonomy, unable to sustain deep commitments for fear that they will keep us from being “true to ourselves.”
- Freedom: We have been taught to understand freedom as unrestricted, unrestrained personal choice. Because of this (mistaken) thinking, we are caught in the “freedom trap,” desiring total autonomy and self-determination, but cut off from the mentorship and deep friendship that can actually help us grow into full maturity.
- Consumerism: Modern capitalism trains us to acquire, consume, and move on, with novelty as our guiding impulse. Under the influence of consumerism, people and relationships become commodities. “What we do with things, we will inevitably do with people.”
- Hypersexuality: Our culture has reduced sexuality to sex. This causes us to use sex as a “happiness technology,” emptying sex of its deeper meaning and losing our ability for relational intimacy. In a porn-ified world, “We become performers and consumers rather than genuine participants.”
- The Loss of Transcendence: The naturalistic, scientific view of the world as a closed system has undercut our sense of meaning or purpose in the universe. We live with a “low horizon.” Because of this loss of transcendence, we lack a coherent vision for life and for sexuality, and we are left with the narrow utilitarian goal of pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. We see relationships as transactional. “Our bodies become pleasure machines.”
This section of the book isn’t exactly encouraging. The mal-formative sexual influences around us are many and powerful, and Grant describes them cogently. After reading his bleak portrayal, readers will be ready to embrace a deeper, more thoughtful, more holistic strategy for Christian discipleship. And that’s what Grant sets out to provide in Part Two: Charting a New Course for Christian Formation. He wants us to think in terms of counter-formation: not just teaching basic doctrine, but shaping a “Christian social imaginary” that envisions a whole different kind of life.
This second section is the brilliance of Grant’s project. Rather than focusing on simple moral instruction, Grant wants Christians to embrace the thick, coherent vision of human personhood that grounds the biblical sexual ethic and gives it meaning and significance. The Bible gives us a new vision, a new story, a new community, and new practices.
- A New Vision: The biblical sexual ethic is rooted in a comprehensive vision of life which is eschatological (focused on the future kingdom of God), metaphysical (grounded in a vision of ultimate reality that anchors our lives now), and formational (virtue-shaping, not merely rule-following). “The Christian vision of sexuality is less like putting out ‘Do Not Walk on the Grass’ signs and more like marking out the boundaries of a field so that the game of life can be played well and with conviction… Our hearts must be truly captivated by the goodness of the Christian vision of life, so that our whole self is drawn toward it, or our commitment to live in tune with it will be brittle.”
- A New Story: Modern culture is a powerful storyteller. It offers us a steady diet of “sexual scripts” that reinforce a particular narrative of sexuality. In contrast, Christians need to practice “narrative discipleship” – immersing ourselves in the story of the gospel in a way that counteracts our culture’s sexual scripts. “The single most important thing you can do for your family and church community may be… [to] develop a strong common story.”
- A New Community: As ground zero for Christian counter-formation, the church needs to be a thick, deep, formative context, not just a weekly social gathering. God’s family needs to nurture its spiritual children – not just by teaching truth, but by shaping virtue and forming identity. Particularly important in this process is the role of exemplars – mature living examples who embody the faith and can provide a pattern for others to follow.
- New Practices: Evangelical Christianity tends to under-emphasize habits and rituals. Grant quotes Richard Rohr’s quip that we don’t “think ourselves into new ways of living; we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.” Therefore, we need Christian counter-practices that prepare us for alternative ways of imagining and living. Disciplines such as prayer, personal Bible study, immersion in small-group community, embodied worship, and solitude help to train us for life in the kingdom. Rather than just expecting these practices to happen, the church needs to become a laboratory where these habits can be built and explored together.
As helpful as Grant’s overall vision is, the real genius of this book is in the details. A sentence here or a paragraph there will stop the reader cold and provoke an awakening of new insight. The margins of my copy are filled with scribbled exclamations like “Yes!” and “Finally!” and “This is good.” Here are a few examples:
- Whereas contemporary culture thinks about sex mainly as an experience, Scripture and Christian tradition have always thought about it in terms of virtue or character. Christian sexuality is primarily something we are becoming rather than something we do.
- “Chastity” is a deeply misunderstood concept today. We tend to associate it with sexual celibacy, but chastity is a virtue that relates equally to singleness and marriage; it is not directly about sex at all. Chastity is… emotional sincerity or integrity, by which we express our feelings honestly.
- The way we disciple people within the church… sets out clear moral rules, rather than thinking about how we might become the sort of people who actually live by these convictions. The flaw in this cognitive approach is its assumption that everyone is morally mature and has the power to do whatever he or she chooses to do.
Grant’s theological vision of of singleness is beautiful and compelling. His observations about “social or affective sexuality” are amazingly perceptive. And his nuanced distinction between “desire for sex” and “sexual desire” will fuel fresh hope in those seeking to live with sexual integrity.
Last week, one of my friends went to a youth event where the speaker challenged teens toward sexual purity. It was the standard “save sex for marriage” talk. Such messages, though true and necessary, will have less and less persuasive power in the modern social imaginary – which is why we need the excellent resource Jonathan Grant has given us. If you want to talk meaningfully about sex… if you need to redeem your own thinking about sex… if you long to disciple others into a vision of Christian sexuality that’s beautiful and compelling… you need Jonathan Grant’s book on your shelf.