Within Divine Sex: A Compelling Vision for Christian Relationships in a Hypersexualized Age, Jonathan Grant presents a wide-angled-lens account of Christian sexual ethics within the context of contemporary culture. Rather than focus on discrete questions—he only lightly grazes on some of the fiercest prevailing controversies—Grant’s concern is to expose the nature of the shared cultural matrix from which they arise.
Divine Sex divides into two halves: the first mapping the “modern sexual imaginary,” the second articulating a new vision for Christian formation. The modern sexual self, Grant argues, exists in a culture of authenticity and expressive individualism, with intimate personal relationship being “the place where we can most fully express and actualize ourselves” (30–31). When the culture has been shorn of transcendence, meaning and personal identity are sought in romantic fulfillment and the “authentic” expression of our sexual selves.
Grant insists that “attending to people’s sexual and relational lives is a critical part of [the] journey of discipleship because we are connectional beings” (25). Our relationships and sexual identities color much of our experience and understanding of faith, as we wrestle with God through singleness, marriage, childlessness, or against the backdrop of our sexuality. Our selves are powerfully implicated in our sexuality, and churches that fail to address people at this point fail properly to disciple them.
The modern sexual self is trapped in a series of dilemmas, caught between the desire for authentic intimacy and radical individualism’s quest for autonomy, between the fantasy of romance and the fatalism of realism. Our autonomous individualism denies we have “moral claims on each other’s lives, especially our sexual lives” (54), treating them as a purely private matter. We vacillate between contrasting individualistic visions of freedom represented by utilitarianism’s rational control, expressivism’s following of its heart, and postmodernism’s listless liberty. We value open options, but lack the capacity of wholehearted commitment, succumbing to “the easy rush of pornography, consumerism, uncommitted relationships, the next big experience, and so on” (59). Our false vision of freedom poorly equips us for the challenge of marriage, on account of our resistance to binding ties: we want the gift of marriage, but won’t accept its crisis.
Effects of Consumerism
Grant emphasizes the importance of capitalism and the consumerist habits that form us. We’re trained to invest in things—and people—with the promise of personal fulfillment, yet also to stand aloof, ready to abandon them for a more appealing alternative when the time comes.
The habits of consumerism render us poorly prepared for the productive, committed, and united labor of forging a lasting marriage. Our prioritization of consumerist individualism can be seen in the delay of marriage until “a person’s education is complete and his or her career and financial trajectory are secure” (82). Recent decades have also witnessed the increased “intimatizing” of our technologies and technologizing of our intimacies. Grant discusses such developments as online pornography, “hyperconnected” youth, and the practice of online dating.
The purchase of consumerism on our moral imagination owes much to our detachment of creation from its Creator and our moral nihilism, which reduces the world and people to disenchanted “things,” stripped of their dignity and meaning. Grant exposes the steady disintegration of sex through technological, social, and ideological factors: sex separated from procreation, sex separated from marriage, sex separated from partnership, sex separated from another person—until sex is even separated from our own bodies as the form of our physicality is denied its “orienting force.”
When our lives are so fragmented, scriptural teaching on sexuality can appear as a list of rules, rather than as an integrating vision for healthful life in God’s rich and meaningful creation. In a particularly thought-provoking passage, Grant discusses how a personal encounter with God can radically transform people’s vision and practice of sexuality, puncturing the low horizons of their secular existence and opening them up to the integrating pull of divine transcendence.
Reforming a Christian Vision
The second half of Divine Sex offers a vision for Christian formation and re-formation, one that responds to the prevailing sexual imaginary and our ingrained habits with something more effective than ideas alone. Grant presents a vision of sexuality that is:
- eschatological, relating it to God’s unfolding plan for creation;
- metaphysical, aligning our lives with reality;
- formational, molding character, rather than just expressing personality;
- missional, shaping our behavior as God’s witnesses in his world.
Grant contends this approach is a way in which we can both reflect kingdom realities and image God. Such a sexual vision isn’t exclusive to married persons: “As Christian vocations, singleness and marriage play different harmonies within the master score, thereby reflecting the reality of heaven—the way things really are” (159).
This vision is not a legalistic but a liberating one: the boundaries make possible life-giving practice. It requires of us an education in—and spiritual restoration of—desire. We must learn how to desire more fully and wholeheartedly so we’re protected from either stagnating in cycles of addiction or surrendering ourselves to desire unmindful of its direction. A Christian vision of sex must afford us new “narratives,” models and scripts that free us from the shackles of cultural habit. These must be rooted in the “master narrative” of the gospel itself, a narrative we live out of as communities of disciples.
Divine Sex isn’t a book for teenagers seeking to arrive at healthy sexual selves, although it’s a profoundly helpful book for anyone seeking to pastor such persons.
While practical suggestions are lightly sprinkled throughout, the book is more theoretical in character and pitched at an accessible academic level. Its vision is potent, although its suggestions for communicating the proposed vision are a weaker aspect of an extremely strong book.
In his concluding chapter, Grant outlines some helpful “redeeming practices.” Perhaps my greatest disappointment was that this dimension wasn’t developed further. Grant’s analysis of the contemporary situation is stellar, and his vision lives up to the promise of the subtitle; however, I suspect other readers will share my wish that he’d given more extensive and intensive attention to the practical means by which his proposed vision could be kneaded into our lives and communities.
This is a book I’ve already personally recommended to several friends and acquaintances. I highly encourage you to read it too.