Divine Sex, Jonathan Grant. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015.
Summary: Jonathan Grant argues that a powerful “social imaginary” shapes sexual expression even within the Christian community and only communities that live and articulate a “thick” alternative vision can hope to have a formative influence on the lives of Christian disciples.
Often, when I talk with various people in leadership in the Christian community about issues related to sexuality, there is a sense of not knowing what “hit us” and not necessarily liking the result nor knowing how to address it. What I think this important book by Jonathan Grant does is parse out the cultural revolution that has occurred that forms the sexual desires of all of us, and articulates a path forward for the church that goes much farther than the negative messages of “what not to do, when not to do it, and who not to do it with” that has often summarized teaching around sexuality within the church.
Grant draws heavily on the ideas of Charles Taylor and James K. A. Smith. He argues that there is a secular “social imaginary”, a vision of reality, that fundamentally shapes our sexual attitudes, whether we are Christians or not. In particular, and he draws on Smith here, we are desiring creatures, and this social imaginary shapes both what we desire and how we think those desires may be fulfilled. He develops a cultural analysis of this social imaginary in the first part of the book. Its leading characteristic is an expressive individualism committed to radical authenticity in relationships. With regard to sexuality, there is both the longing to find one’s “soul mate” and yet preserve one’s own sense of autonomous individuality. It results in a ‘definitely maybe’ culture where people long for intimacy but struggle with commitment.
He explores the surprising reality that increasing numbers are deciding to “go solo”, living alone, while either engaging in a series of casual relationships, or substituting cyber-porn for real relationships. This leads to a focus on the consumeristic aspect of modern sexuality, where media has created a feminine (and perhaps masculine) ideal, and where, through online dating, there is this myth of infinite choice, where one is always wondering if there is someone more perfect than the one you are with. He chillingly chronicles the rise of cyber-pornography and how it rewires the brain and renders its users less capable of engaging in real relationships that fail to conform to video fantasies. All this leads to a hyper-sexualized self, where, as one person interviewed put it, “sex has no mystery.”
The second half of the book begins to look at what the author thinks the church must do, drawing on his own parish experience. He believes in the development of a Christian social imaginary, a compelling vision of sexuality within the life of a Christian disciple. It is a vision that is eschatological, understanding ourselves as the betrothed of Christ preparing for our union as the Church with him. This situates sexual desire within the framework of being a sign of something so much larger and really good for which we were made. It is a vision that is metaphysical, recognizing that it is as male and female we image God. We do not complete each other, and so singleness can be honored and fulfilling, but the marriage union does image something of the Creator. It is a vision that is formational and missional. It emphasizes faithfulness and service of fulfillment and the autonomous self. All of this focuses around shaping our desire for God, recognizing that our longing for intimacy is met most deeply in God and all other intimacies point us toward, and are meant to reflect that intimacy.
So much of this can happen only in a community that is living out the story of a gospel that calls us into redeemed relationships marked by commitment, service, and self-giving love. Desire is shaped by examples, as friends, singles, and couples, model a new way of living and desiring that spans generations. He concludes with thoughts about various formational practices of such a community including embodied worship, that celebrates our physicality and churches that are courting communities, not in the sense of the singles “meat market” but as a place where men and women can serve and work together and have the chance to explore who the other is in the context of a supportive community.
The book is an elegantly written and thoughtful cultural analysis that avoids the easy nostrums of so many books while putting forth a rich vision of sexuality as both gift of God and harbinger of so much more. He speaks into a culture that has made sexualty little more than a pleasure function, even while so many who have been caught up in the secular social imaginary find themselves asking, “is that all there is?” Grant points the way to a different vision that would suggest that indeed there is so much more.
Recently, this book was named one of Christianity Today’s Books of the Year in the category of Christian Living/Discipleship.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”