I recently finished Jonathan Grant’s book Divine Sex: A Compelling Vision for Christian Relationships in a Hypersexualized Age (Baker, 2015) and I must say that I’m tempted to buy a new pack of highlighters and send Jonathan the receipt. His book cost me a lot of yellow and orange (and sometimes green) ink. Looking back over my copy of his book, I wonder if it would have been more efficient to highlight the few portions that I wasn’t particularly challenged by and just let the rest of his prose lie untouched. This certainly would have saved me some money.
Okay, let’s ditch the colorful hyperbole (see what I did there?). Put simply: Jonathan’s book is gold, pure gold. It should be read 2-3 times by every pastor and Christian leader. It’s incredibly relevant, insightful, pastoral, and clear. I’ve read few books that blend rich theological and philosophical thinking with pastoral concerns, all packaged with engaging and accessible prose. Jonathan’s book is a must read.
I want to write a few blogs (not sure how many yet) summarizing, explaining, and interacting with Divine Sex (killer title, by the way). Part of my motivation is that writing a multi-blog review will force me to go back through his book to synthesize and summarize his main points. If you’re anything like me, it’s super easy to blow through a great book, only to forget what you read 2 weeks later. This is why it’s always good to interact with a book through writing and dialogue to help solidify the content in your own heart and head.
As I interact with Grant’s book, I will quote extensively from the book. I normally don’t like to write with long blocks of quotes scattered throughout, but I wanted to let Grant speak directly as much as I can. Also, for the record, my own summary of Grant's arguments will appear to be in full agreement. But it isn't necessarily. I always say that the best way to understand an author is to inhabit their argument; swish it around and savor it, before you digest it. So my voice in the following blogs is my attempt to understand and tease out Grant's voice. But yeah, like a good glass of wine, I doubt I'll spit much out at the end.
So here goes. My review of Divine Sex, take 1.
Grant’s book draws on the work of Charles Taylor, Christian Smith, Mark Regnerus, and James K. A. Smith (who wrote the forward) and applies it to contemporary Christian sexual ethics. As Smith says in his forward, “We are creatures of habits, and such habits are formed in us by the rhythms and rituals we are immersed in, even (indeed, even more so) if we don’t realize it” (p. 10). And “our loves and longings and desires—including our sexual longings—are not just biological instincts; they are learned” (p. 10). The question isn’t whether our view of sex, sexuality, marriage, and relationships have been shaped by our culture, but how much. Grant’s book “helps us understand how and why the world that forms us has changed—and hence what effective Christian counterformation would look like” (p. 11). In Grant’s own words: “this book is an attempt to describe the significant ways in which our cultural lens is shaping our identity and relationships and how we can refocus the church’s vision through the lens of the gospel” (p. 24).
Both Smith (in his forward and in other works) and Grant point out just how much the church’s recent sexual ethic is almost indistinguishable from our post-sexual-revolution secular culture, and how far it has strayed from a truly Christian, countercultural vision for human flourishing. Grant isn’t an alarmist; at least not in the end-times-prophesy-preacher sort of well. But he does highlight (or maybe I highlighted…) the obvious point that the church has pretty much dropped the ball nurturing a Christian sexual ethic among its people. Even though humans are affected by sex, sexual desires, sexual relationships, sexual longings, sexual temptations, sexual pain, and sexual frustrations almost every hour of every day, the church’s focus on sex and sexuality is usually limited to a one-off sermon or sermon series here and there with no room for congregational response, dialogue, or dispute. The yawning gap between how much time humans spend being affected by sex and sexuality, and how much time the church spends addressing it, is astounding (see p. 18-19).
Moreover, when the church does address sexuality, it’s usually limited to monological teaching, which may shape our beliefs but often leaves our desires untouched. Rather than just teaching, the church needs to adopt and model a Christian vision for human flourishing and invite people to participate in—and desire—this vision. We need to present, through teaching but not just through teaching, a holistic vision for sexual wholeness that’s different from, and counter to—and more beautiful than—the dominant cultural script that most people habitually absorb every day. We cannot just rely on “God says this and God says that” Bible verses; we need to cultivate a countercultural set of affections and desires that are oriented toward new creation, yet still living in the suffering of the old creation. (A distinctively Christian vision for human flourishing includes suffering as part of its script; in this way, it’s profoundly different from a secular vision for flourishing that avoids suffering at all cost.) We need to create communities that celebrate a subversive sexual zeitgeist, one that clearly resists a secular sexual ethic, yet invites others to participate in the resistance.
Back to his main point about the power of cultural formation. “Many Christians,” Grant argues, “believe they can simply build their self-identity entirely on Scripture over against, and parallel to, secular culture. Such confidence is deceptive” (p. 21). The “Christian faith and secular culture exist in complex interrelationship” (p. 25). According to sociologist Robert Wuthnow:
The basic premise of social science research is that religion is embedded in a social environment and is thus influenced by this environment [so that] broad social trends do define how people think about themselves (p. 21).
This is something that Charles Taylor and, more recently, Jamie Smith have proven over and over. Again, it’s not whether our beliefs and desires are shaped by culture, but how much.
The “desire” component is important. Sure, many Christians say they believe this and that about sex and relationships, but our behavior proves otherwise. It’s one thing to believe the truth; it’s another to desire it. Grant points out that even though most young evangelicals believe sex outside of marriage is wrong, “fully 69% of unmarried evangelicals…said they have had sex with at least one partner during the previous 12 months” (p. 22). Grant concludes:
The common approach of teaching people to live according to Scripture, without giving due attention to the formative influence of our cultural context, unwittingly and ironically succumbs to the modern illusion that we can choose our own reality, largely free from external influences (p. 23).
Any Christian formation that draws on Scripture without the corollary counterformation of the culture is doomed to failure. Even though the church has largely been silent in cultivating a sexual ethic, the world hasn’t.
So what is this cultural boogey man saying about sex? And do we really need to be that resistant to it? After all, not everything in cultural is intrinsically opposed to Christian values. For instance, the people who constitute “secular” culture often care more for the poor and oppose racism with more vigor than Christians do. The doctrine of general revelation allows us to see sparks of the divine will embedded in every person and throughout every culture. That’s why each cultural value should be weighed against the Christian narrative to see if there’s correlation or opposition. While there may be some aspects of a secular sexual ethic that resonates with some aspects of the Christian story (e.g. consensuality), there is much more divergence than agreement.
Over the next couple blogs, I’ll discuss some of the cultural sexual values that Grant examines. The first one is: expressive individualism. We’ll tease this out in the next post.