Intended For Counternarrative: a book review

It is always a dangerous thing reading a friend’s sex book. I learned this when my wife and I got married. I confessed to a friend that there was a lot about sex I didn’t know about ands he lent me one of those Christian ‘sex books’ that he and his wife had used after their nuptial vows. We took it on our honeymoon and when we opened it we discovered it was annotated, highlighted and smiley faces drawn in the margins. We closed the book and tried to forget what we saw.

Divine SexDivine Sex is vastly different from my first experience of a Christian sex book. Written (not annotated!) by a friend, it does explore the mechanics and techniques of sex. I knew Jonathan Grant when we were both students together at Regent College and daughters in preschool together and I would often catch up with him at the local coffee shop while we waited to pick them up.  He would be sitting with a stack of books–Charles Taylor, Robert Bellah, or whomever. His book Divine Sex is an exploration of how our contemporary context has shaped our attitudes toward sex (and how to recover a compelling Christian vision for sexuality as an alternative to our increasingly hypersexualized culture.

Grant divides this book into two sections. In part one, he explores how our contemporary context shapes our understanding of relationships and sexuality. Chapter two describes how our desire for authenticity and autonomy has caused us to customize our entire lives, including sexual choices, despite what Scripture or spiritual authorities tell us (34). Grant also looks at how through the sexualization of our personal identities, sex became more than something we engage in or abstain from, but the ‘sun around everything else revolved’ (36).  The emphasis on independence, and emotional fulfillment has weakened the bonds of marriage and made multiple sexual partners the norm and sex without long term commitment more normative.

Chapter three explores further how radical individualism impacts our sexuality and relationships. Chapters four critiques the corrupting dynamic of consumerism and how it has bred unreal expectations of sex. Chapter five examines how our hypersexualized age has robbed sex of its mystery and caused it to be seen merely as a legitimate pleasure to be enjoyed, without shame, between consenting adults with no outside moral standard or constraint placed upon it (99). In this hypersexualized age females are sexualized at young ages (100-103) and pornography has become ubiquitous (104). Porn increasingly provides ‘sex education,’ transforming the expectations of (largely) men in their relationship. This all has a major impact on modern relationships with a disproportionate impact on young people because of the way exposure of cyber-porn is processed by those still developing sexually. Finally, Chapter six explores more in-depth how the atomizing of human relationships and loss of transcendence in contemporary culture has impacted relationships inside the Church.

In Part Two, Grant proposes an alternative Christian Social Imaginary (chapter seven). Chapter eight explores the way Christian eschatology, metaphysics, formation and mission provide a vision for Christian sexuality which embodies hope, ethics, spirituality, character, faithfulness, and Christian witness. Chapter nine describes the role of divine desire in Christian formation. Chapter ten explores how living a life that is contrary to the modern script of sexuality helps Christians and the church embody the gospel story for a watching world.

Chapter eleven exhorts us to counter the impact of the wider culture through Formative spiritual practices. Grant summarizes the impact of our hypersexualized culture on the church:

The consumerist mind-set has (. . .) been wheeled in like a Trojan-horse into the sanctuary of our personal relationships. Social media, online dating, and cyberpornography encourage us to be hyperconnected, but these interactions are almost invariably one-sided–we enter into them only as long as they satisfy our “needs.” They offer connection without intimacy, commitment without risk, and companionship without mess. The Online world all too often offers ties that preoccupy us rather than one that binds us to each other (215-216).

 

Against this mindset, Grant suggests alternative practices which will enable us to not be conformed to our contemporary contexts and cultural understanding of sexuality. These include embodied public worship and the displacing modern social practices by providing a place for singleness as a Christian vocation, courting, encouraging signs of life, communal support and utilizing marriage preparation as counter-formation.

A book like this is long overdue. Grant offers insights into how much we have bought in to a romanticized version of sex. Focus on our own autonomous pleasure and emotional fulfillment has had a negative impact on our marital commitments and relationships. When married people don’t feel in love anymore, divorce has become inevitable. We also dissolve other relationships and friendships when people fail to meet our needs.  The value we place on autonomy, personal fulfillment and our choices have supplanted biblical sexuality, weakening all our relational bonds.

Grant doesn’t deny the power of our sexuality or our longings for relational connection; rather he calls us back to a scriptural understanding of covenantal relationship. Grant draws on the insights of thinkers like Taylor and Bellah, as well as theologians and biblical scholars. The gift of this book is that Grant thinks through the influence of our social context on sexuality from a Christian perspective in a comprehensive way. I can’t point to another book that does this, this well.

Too often Christian premarital counseling presents a biblical standard of sexuality without giving us a compelling vision of how our beliefs about God, desire, sex, relationships constitute a counter-narrative to our cultural script. Sex is more meaningful, relationships are more wonderful, desire is greater, and love is deeper than our contemporary context allows for. Grant showcases a biblical vision of sexuality which is formational and missional, helping Christians live compelling lives characterized by committed relationships.

I came away from reading this book with a deeper understanding of the way our cultural milieu contributes to our relational and sexual malformation. Romanticism, individualism, moral relativism is the water we are swimming in and that has impacted our understanding of sex. The blurring of sex with personal identity has produced an ‘anything goes’ approach to sex and relationships. The Christian story provides the narrative of resistance. As Christians pursue relational commitment, honoring both celibate singleness and marriage, we are able to offer a compelling alternative to meaningless sex, the using of others, and personal isolation. The Christian vision for sex gives us something worth championing. I give this five stars: ★★★★★

Note: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Thanks Johnny!

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