Jonathan Grant, Divine Sex: A Compelling Vision for Christian Relationships in a Hypersexualized Age (Brazos, 2015)
Despite what its title might suggest, Divine Sex, by Jonathan Grant, isn’t a manual for how to have a transcendent sexual experience. Rather, as the subtitle explains, it is a book seeking to give ‘A compelling vision for Christian relationships in a hypersexualized age.’
Aimed at leaders in pastoral ministry, its strength lies in the clear, thoughtful way it helps them understand what their congregations have been and are being trained to believe about sex and relationships. Unfortunately, despite its promise, I felt it was weaker when it came to painting an equally powerful picture of Christianity’s better story.
The cultural vision of human flourishing
In the first half of the book, Grant identifies some of the gods of this age and how thoroughly they have us in their thrall. Authenticity, liberty, consumerism, individualism, self-determination, choice and more mingle with our God-given nature as ‘desiring creatures’ (in Augustine’s phrase), to create a cultural ‘imaginary’ that is as appealing as it is pervasive. ‘Indeed,’ he says, ‘even most Christian thinking about ethics, including sexual ethics, operates unquestioningly within’ this cultural vision of human flourishing (p.59). We understand ourselves as free, autonomous beings, for whom ‘the good life’ means following our hearts, being true to ourselves and freely expressing our true identities. It sites this truth inside of us, and hence sees ‘feeling, sensuality, and intuition as the deepest and most important parts of human identity, the places where we experience real meaning’ (p.30).
Tragically, while this drives us to seek deep, intimate relationships, where two authentic selves commune together on a profound level, the other cultural drivers in play actively work against our ability to form such relationships. We are trained, for example, ‘to seek the most features for the lowest price, as well as to hold open all future options’ (p.81). Meanwhile, sex is not seen as the ultimate gateway to that mysterious and wonderful world of intimate union. Rather, it is considered just a recreational activity, a ‘happiness technology’ (p.60) that we pleasure-seekers activate whenever we want it, with whoever our desires point us to. It would be inauthentic not to.
In the Church, where there is still some inkling that the goal is marriage and that marriage is meant to be forever, these competing forces can lead to a crippling paralysis. We have to find ‘the one’, our soul mate, our perfect match, but how could we ever narrow down the field to just one? What if we pick the wrong one? What if someone better comes along?
Page after page after page, Grant built a picture of the titanic forces shaping hearts and minds and, in the case of pornography, burning neural pathways of addiction that are almost impossible to resist, let alone overcome, and that need to be fed by ever more extreme experiences in order to deliver the required dopamine hit.
The Church has its work cut out to paint a compelling picture of biblical relationships that can compete with these many, voracious false gods. What might that picture look like?
Joy in the journey?
This is what I was coming to this book to find out. How can I convince the lonely, hungry, desperately-wrestling-to-be-faithful people I minister to that God’s design for relationships – both for singles and for married people – is an adventure worth pursuing, a choice worth making?
Sadly, Grant was much weaker in this section. He talked about the kind of diverse, loving, committed family the New Testament writers envisaged. He said that both marriage and singleness are vocations of equal value in the church. But he also talked – several times – about the pursuit of these relationships being a ‘long and difficult’ or ‘difficult and necessary’ road. He quoted a letter of C.S. Lewis that identified that, ‘We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be’ (p.187), but offered no hope of joy in the journey and little vision of the reward awaiting the faithful.
This hope can be provided, he said, through strong ‘narrative communities’ that help their members understand the story they are part of and learn from those who have gone before. Ultimately, though, I didn’t feel he ever conveyed that story, that ‘compelling vision’ his subtitle promised.
As a single who often pastors singles, particularly those for whom the clock is ticking and God doesn’t seem to be ‘coming through’, what are the stories I am supposed to be telling them to help them override a lifetime’s conditioning that to be happy they must follow their hearts, be independent, be young and beautiful and successful and sexually active? How do I entice them to reject their ‘right’ to go online and find a partner, to go to a clinic and commission a child?
Grant talks about singleness being a vocation, but the only example he seems able to give is because singles will be better able to reach outside the community and draw others in. In fact, one of the ways he envisions New Testament-style narrative communities serving singles well, is that they can host speed-dating-type events, perhaps with other local churches, to help singles meet other singles (often with a view to helping them find the spouse they crave).
Where are the stories of single women remaining faithful, pressing into God, and discovering that he meets their needs more fully than their own plans for their life? The stories of those whose desire to be parents has been met through ministering to spiritual ‘children’, who they love with a depth they would never have thought possible? The stories of the families who have ‘adopted’ those whose children – if they have them – live far away, involving them in the life of the household in all its messiness, and caring for them with the love and commitment of a child when they are sick or elderly? Where, in fact, are the Bible verses, assuring celibate men, barren women, those who have given up families, property and opportunity that God will bless them hundreds of times over both in the age to come and, importantly, in this life?
I came away feeling I understood more clearly the different cultural pressures and allures, but no more confident that I could articulate the joy or beauty of the Christian vision in a way that had the power to combat the enemy’s lies. For that, I point the reader towards Born Again This Way by Rachel Gilson. She tells the stories that Grant says we need, and presents them in a way that sounds like a challenge worth facing, an adventure worth pursuing – which of course it absolutely is.