Review: Divine Sex

divine sexDivine 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.

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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.”

Review: Redeeming Sex

Redeeming SexRedeeming Sex, Debra Hirsch. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015

Summary: Hirsch explores how the church ought engage society around issues of sexuality, discussing the connection of spirituality and sexuality, the nature of gender, orientation and our sexuality, and how the church holds in tension the image of God in people and the ethics of various sexual expressions.

We are in a paradoxical place where sexuality is both one of the easiest and hardest things to talk about, particularly in the church. There is lots of conversation, even argument, and yet often we struggle to talk deeply and thoughtfully and redemptively about one of the most basic aspects of what it means to be human. Debra Hirsch writes this book out of a life of dealing with these questions stretching back to her own experiences with lesbian relationships before coming to faith, to her work in pastoral ministry with her husband, caring for people with sexual histories, varying orientations and gender identities.

The book consists of three parts. The first explores the connection between sexuality and spirituality, and particularly our deep and basic longing for relationship. She opens this section asking provocatively, “Imagine if heaven was like endless orgasm” (p. 22). She goes on to explore how our sexuality is actually a signpost of how we were made for deep, intimate relationship with God. She sets out a distinction between genital sexuality and social sexuality–between physical sexual expression and the broader expression of our sexuality in all our relationships. She explores our fearfulness to talk about this basic and powerful part of our humanness and concludes this section by exploring the sexuality of the incarnate Jesus.

The second section explores the nature of our sexuality and what we are learning about orientation and gender identity. She deals honestly with the struggles we have to integrate following Christ and dealing with sexual desire (quoting, for example, one young man who asked, “I have accepted Jesus into my heart but how do I get him into my penis?”[p. 71]). She particularly observes that orientation and gender identity are not binary entities but much more of a continuum and discusses with stark candor the journeys of LGBT people who come to faith and whose orientation and identity do not “change”. She works through the biblical issues around sexuality, respecting those who reach various conclusions while affirming what would for many be a traditional understanding, with a non-traditional approach of “leading with embrace rather than theology”.

The third part of the book begins from this point and lays out an approach to meeting people in ministry that focuses first on the image of God in all persons and only secondarily around issues of sinfulness, that seeks to center on following and moving closer to Jesus, and builds communities that seeking to be welcoming and mutually transforming (rather than affirming). She believes that we need to welcome people in all their wholeness but that no community can affirm all the things people are or do. Rather, a community committed to growing closer to Christ together is mutually transformative.

Such community is messy. Where some may want to focus immediately on issues of orientation and identity, it may be that growing closer to Christ might entail other things first. Likewise, others may object that some choose celibacy or even embrace a heterosexual relationship after having identified as same sex attracted. What Hirsch contends for is that the redemption of our sexuality can only come with the redemption of our spiritual relationship as we experience the rich and costly grace of Christ. For that reason, she articulates an approach that leads with grace, embrace and affirmation of the image of God in all people, and that believes in the power of Jesus to lead people into all he intends for them. At the close of the book she comments on this observation by her husband:

” ‘You really are pushing grace to just about as far as you can take it.’ Which of course raises the question, How far does grace go? And at the end of the day that really is one of the fundamental questions we are all wrestling with” (p 208).

Whether you agree or not with how far Hirsch pushes grace, you will find that this book poses the questions and deals frankly the realities we must all wrestle with if we, as the church, are not to “duck and cover” in addressing the matters of spirituality and sexuality in our day.

Review: To Whom Does Christianity Belong?

To Whom Does Christianty belongTo Whom Does Christianity Belong?, Dyron B. Daughrity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015.

Summary: This book argues that when one speaks of “Christianity” this must be understood in global terms in all of its diversity of expression and not simply in the forms we Westerners are most accustomed to.

I’m still surprised how often in conversations about matters of faith people will categorize Christianity as a Western, Euro-American faith and distinguish it from belief systems in other parts of the world. Not only is this inaccurate as to both the origins and history of Christianity, it is wildly inaccurate in terms of understanding Christianity today, when it can truly be argued that Christianity is a global faith. The Pope is from South America. The most rapidly growing churches are in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Increasingly missions, and migrations, are bringing the message of Christianity back to Europe where a vibrant Christian presence has given way to secularism.

That and more is the contention of this book. The author, in a sweeping, readable survey of Christianity around the world, contends that “Christianity” doesn’t really belong to any single group or part of the world. Some of this has to do with the diverse understandings of what Christianity is. Who gets to define this? Is it the apostolic fathers, the growing house church movement in China, the Dalits of India, or the liberation theologians of Latin America?

He turns to the “theological loci” of the church and here as well notes the distinctives to be found in ideas of the church in different parts of the world, such as the Kimbanguists of Africa, ideas of Jesus, the rise of Pentecostalism and new ideas about the Holy Spirit and teaching about the afterlife. Daughrity gives examples from various Christian movements around the world to illustrate this diversity.

He considers the church in the world looking first at Rome and the changing face of Catholicism and its various expressions throughout the world. He considers the Protestants, continuing to split and express their faith uniquely. He weighs the impact of secularization, for now a movement that has most deeply touched Europe, and wonders whether North America will follow. And he talks about the new face of missions, where as in the beginning of the church, the gospel often goes along paths of people migrations as much as through intentional activity, although now from Europe, Asia, and Latin America to the rest of the world, including the secularizing west.

The last part of the book considers contemporary themes or issues. First there is the contested ground of marriage, gender, and sexuality where the secularizing west is at odds with the majority cultures of the world–and surprisingly, Orthodox eastern Europe and Russia. Similarly, there are diverse understandings of the role of women in the family and the church. Finally, the author considers the emergence of indigenous styles of music and worship where Christians are singing new songs in many tongues.

In the end the author doesn’t answer the question of the book’s title, except to infer that it might belong to those you would not have thought of, and to a far broader swath of humanity than we might credit. The closest he gets to an answer is at the very end where he suggests that it belongs to all, who in their need, and their sufferings for righteousness seek the risen Christ. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

There are some who will object to what might seem a “relativizing” of the Christian message. I would contend that what the author does is to resist the temptation to harmonize the diverse and even divergent strands of Christianity and gives us rather this global mosaic in all of its complexity. I also appreciate the combination of a broad and thoughtful account presented in a highly readable style. I would recommend this for anyone who wants to get a good picture of global Christianity today.

Higher Education Books

Higher education is in a season of change. Rising tuitions, cuts in government subsidies, the impact of new technologies on what is taught and how it is taught, campus social ethics, and more. I read regularly in this area because I work in collegiate ministry. This past year, I have been reading more in this area in preparation for a conference I am directing on “The ‘End’ of Higher Education” for faculty and colleagues in our organization. So I thought I would share the list. The links in the titles are to my full reviews of the books. They are listed in the reverse order of when I read them, most recent first.

1. Peter Brooks (ed.) The Humanities and Public LifeThis is a transcript of the proceedings from a symposium exploring the contribution of the humanities to public life. It features a keynote by Judith Butler.

2. Suzanne Mettler, Degrees of InequalityMettler exposes how the failure to maintain our higher ed funding policies and other change dynamics are putting the dream of a college education out of the reach of many Americans.

degrees

3. Sharon Daloz Parks, Big Questions, Worthy DreamsParks explores how higher education professionals can address the spiritual longings and aspirations of college students.

4. Paul Socken (ed.), The Edge of the PrecipiceSocken and the other essayists explore why read in a digital age and how digital media changes for good or ill the act of reading and how those who teach in the humanities ought pursue their work.

5. Andres T. Tapia, The Inclusion ParadoxTapia argues that “diversity is the mix, and inclusion is making the mix work.” He contends that places that “make the mix work” are not only better for the people but more productive as well.

6. Julie J. Park, When Diversity DropsPark’s book is a case study of a collegiate ministry group in California, the practices they pursued to become more diverse, and how Proposition 209’s “color blind” admissions policies and the subsequent drop in racial diversity affected this group.

diversity

7. John Henry Newman, The Idea of a UniversityNewman’s classic work on what a university is for, from a Catholic Christian perspective.

8. Ellen Schrecker, The Lost Soul of Higher Education.  Schrecker traces the history of the idea of academic freedom and decries the erosion of that freedom in what she calls the “corporatization” of the university.

9. Stanley Fish, Save the World on Your Own TimeFish argues that it is not the job of the university professor to save the world or mobilize students to do the same, but rather to teach course content with excellence.

10. Donna Freitas, The End of SexThis is a follow-up to her book, Sex and the SoulIn The End of Sex she chronicles the hook-up culture prevalent on most campuses, how this undermines real intimacy, and even calls for a recovery of the lost art of dating.

11. Anthony T. Kronman. Education’s End. His subtitle captures the essence of what he explores in the book: “why colleges and universities have given up on the meaning of life.” The book is a well-argued and passionate plea for the importance of discussing the “big questions” in university courses and other university venues.

12. Philip E. Dow. Virtuous MindsThis is not a “higher ed” book per se’ but it explores from a Christian perspective how one develops “intellectual virtues”, actually relevant to Anthony Kronman’s concerns.

13. Jose A. Bowen, Teaching NakedThis provocatively titled book is part of a trend advocating “flipping” the classroom, where technology is moved out of the classroom to students outside personal and group work, while the professor focuses on what can best happen inside the classroom, the interaction of professor and student engaging the course content.

College

14. Mark Edmundson, Why Read? Edmundson pursues a similar question to that in Edge of the Precipice but argues far more hopefully for the power of great works to engage the great questions and to exercise a transformative influence in the lives of students through the power of words.

15. Andrew Delbanco, College: What it Was, Is, and Should BeThe book follows the plan of its title, surveying the history of the university, particularly in America, which unavoidably includes its Christian roots, the current state of higher education, including the challenges mentioned at the beginning of this post, and his call for universities to continue to pursue “color blind” and ‘class blind” admissions and to be centers where the great questions are explored.

16. Lawrence W. Levine, The Opening of the American MindThis is an older book that serves as a spirited argument in reply to Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. He defends ethnic, gender, and cultural studies as a corrective endeavors to the biased majority culture’s marginalization of the non-white and those not in power.

17. P. Felton, H.D.L. Bauman, A. Kheriaty, and E. Taylor, Transformative ConversationsThe book explores how one might go about developing formational mentoring communities among colleagues in the higher education setting. These are communities that honestly and without judgment pursue the large questions of vocation and purpose that continue to be important throughout life, and that rarely can be explored in a work setting.

18. Joe R. Feagin, The Agony of Education. This work, from 1996, explores the unique challenges faced by black students in the higher education setting.

These are by no means the only or even the best books on various aspects of higher education. They are those for which I have reviews online, going back to 2012.

What books have been helpful to you in understanding higher education? What books would you add to this list?

On Fathers

I’ve been thinking today of what it is we honor in remembering fathers on Fathers Day. What it strikes me what we do not honor is simply the ability to become a father. There are lots of males who have impregnated women who never step up to the plate and act as a father. And there are the real men who sometimes cannot fulfill this biological function who so live and act that they are truly worthy of being honored as fathers. So what are we honoring on this day?

Dad and Me on a ride in Mill Creek Park, Fall 2011

Dad and Me on a ride in Mill Creek Park, Fall 2011

We honor those who fully share responsibility with a woman in making a home, in providing for the livelihood of that household, and caring for the children of that union. They not only help provide for children, they help with the vital work of being present with children, from those first diaper changes, through nights awake with a sick child, through school projects, through family outings and vacations, through the changes of adolescence, driving lessons, and going off to college. They continue as trusted mentors through adult life. I don’t think of any of these as particularly “male” tasks and many single parents manage these well. But the fathers we particularly honor are those who are “all in” in sharing the work, and the joys of being present to their sons and daughters in this way.

We honor men on this day who model respect for every woman in their lives–their spouses, mothers, daughters, friends, and colleagues. Their maleness is never an excuse for verbal or physical violence against a woman. Their sexuality is never a license to force sex on a woman (even one’s wife) without her consent or a child ever. I would go so far as to say that the honoring of women extends to how we look at women, either in the real or virtual worlds. Women are not an assemblage of body parts–they are persons. Perhaps the test is to ask, would you ever want someone else looking at your wife, or mother, or sister,or girlfriend, or daughter in that way? Those people are real persons in our lives. Do we extend that to seeing all women as real persons? And these men teach their sons to define real manhood in this way by saying, “do as I do.”

We honor men on this day who keep their commitments to love and cherish, for better or worse, in sickness and health as long as the two live. My father incarnated this. He was holding my mother’s hand when she took her last breath. He kept faith with her and loved her through nearly 69 years of marriage.  He was a one woman man. It wasn’t all a walk in the park. There were times of separation because of war and employment. There were tough financial times, illness, aging parents and more. But he didn’t walk away. He kept showing up.

We honor men who do all they can to teach their children all they have learned about life–from how to love God to how to fix a toilet. Perhaps most crucially, we teach our children how to live wisely–to act with integrity, to learn to work hard and finish a job, to use money wisely without inordinately loving it, to be considerate of and empathize with others.

These are some of the things I believe we honor with this holiday called Fathers Day. These are the things I remember about my own father and have aspired to in my life. I hope these things are what I’ve passed along to my son and those of his generation. Thank you, dad for all that you taught me, and all that you were in my life!

Review: The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy

The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy
The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy by Donna Freitas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There is a paradox here. On the one hand, Donna Freitas sees a pervasive hook-up culture of casual, impersonal sex, and at the same time an end of “good sex” and meaningful relationships. The title gives some clues to resolving this paradox and the early chapters help us see very quickly that hookup culture–the casual sexual encounter between usually highly inebriated students with little or no communication and (supposedly) no emotional connection is in fact a barrier to deeply satisfying relationships and sexual experience.

She chronicles the rituals of hookup culture on campuses including theme parties that all are variants of “pimps and hos” that require women to dress up in skimpy and skanky outfits that play to men’s pornographic sexual fantasies. (She wonders at points if this was what women like Gloria Steinem went to the barricades to fight for!) And through her interviews with both women and men, she discovers that many (not all, however) are ambivalent or deeply dissatisfied by this culture while feeling trapped in a “this is the way the game is played” world. A few escape either through a series of hookups with the same person that lead into a relationship, through opting out by some temporary or longer form of abstinence, or even through the discovery of the lost art of dating.

This last was stunning to me. On some campuses, the author describes either herself or student life personnel teaching students how to have a date, including asking the person out, who pays, what to do, where to go, refraining from alcohol, or physical interaction more than an “A frame hug”. She actually encourages parents and other adults to talk about their own dating lives, arguing that there are many in the campus culture that are actually clueless about all this–there is either “hanging out” or “hookups” but little else according to her.

I do not doubt the existence of the things she describes. At the same time (and perhaps it’s the circles I run in), I wonder if this is quite as prevalent as the author contends. Perhaps it depends to some degree on the campus and the particular options available to students. At very least, it seems there are plenty of alternatives and social opportunities for students dissatisfied with this form of interaction.

Freitas, without moralizing, is trying to initiate a serious conversation about sexuality on campus that goes beyond the “safe sex” and “no means no” conversations that typify much of the sexual guidance college students received that basically assumes hookup culture. While she assumes that many will engage in sexual intimacy outside the traditional structures of marriage, she contends for sexuality that is meaningful in relationships as the context for the best sex. What she does want is for students to be empowered to make their own decisions about their sexuality apart from the party, hookup culture that many feel compelled to participate in or be marginalized. At the same time she uses the language of virginity and abstinence, albeit at times redefined, in the context of strategies of “opting out”. She even asks (without spelling out her own views) questions about the meaning of sexuality–is there something that makes sexual intimacy “special”? If her project succeeds one wonders if some will even find their way back to a sexual ethic deemed traditional, prudish, and ethical, but one that allows relationships to flourish and even sexuality to flourish in the safest context of all, committed, covenantal relationships?

Stranger things have happened…

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Why Do We Do This to Each Other?

Freitas“Sexual freedom” is not a new thing on university campuses. At least since the 1960s and likely before, campuses were hardly celibate enclaves. What is a newer development is the “hookup” culture. Donna Freitas has been chronicling this first in Sex and the Soul and now in The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About IntimacyI’m currently reading the latter book. Working on a campus, I’m well aware of most of what she writes, but I still find her narrative extremely disturbing.

Two chapters in the middle of the book have been especially so, because of the misbegotten ways women and men are trying to conform to their perception of social expectations. She chronicles how women are accessing the internet porn men watch in order to present themselves in the ways they think men want them–basically as whores who exist to satisfy male sexual whims. By the same token, interviews with men reveal many are deeply ambivalent about “hookup” culture, doing “it” often as much to impress other men as out of any real sexual desire.

Freitas contends that in this hyper-pressurized world of social expectations, neither sex is able to connect these experiences with sexual desire or intimacy. It’s all about not feeling (which accounts for the role alcohol plays in this culture). The thing I wonder is why so many surrender their real longings and identity to satisfying what they think are the perceptions of others? I can understand this in high school, but why has this become such a powerful force at the university level? Is it the ubiquitous character of social media in which people tweet and post about their experiences and about others?

The serious business of this has to do with safety–physical and emotional. When not feeling and not communicating (which are the primary “rules” of hook up sex) govern relationships, where is the line between consent and rape? Where is protection from sexually transmitted diseases? And where is the protection of the heart, when so often one person really does want more from this? Campus campaigns for “safe sex” and “no means no” go out the window in this climate.

There is the hope that in reflective moments students might ask “why do I put myself and others at risk for what, in my most honest moments, isn’t actually that pleasurable?” An even deeper question is “what kind of person do I want to be and are my sexual choices consistent with that kind of person?” An even harder question is “what do I do when I fail to live up to my moral aspirations?” Of course, the challenge is unplugging from the steady stream of input from our smartphones, computers, and, oh yes, classes, long enough to engage in that kind of reflection.

What are your thoughts about campus hook up culture? Is the picture as negative as Freitas paints it? And how do we understand what drives it?