Reviewed by Guenther (“Gene”) Haas
As James K. A. Smith notes in the Foreword to this book, the culture of western society has changed so drastically that the traditional language of the transcendent norms of biblical Christianity no longer communicates to the young people of twenty-first century western society, and, in many ways, does not resonate with younger Christians today. Their imaginations have been captured by the notions of fulfilment and flourishing, and the language which embodies these notions in our culture. To communicate effectively to young people – whether Christian believers or non-believers – about human sexuality in the current secular culture so as to draw them to the flourishing sexual life that comes from following Christ, Christian pastors, teachers and leaders must understand the current mindset about sexuality and must develop new ways of proclaiming the fullness of sexual life found only in Christ.
Jonathan Grant’s book attempts to aid in this task. It does so by addressing two aspects of this task: cultural analysis and the church’s task of discipleship. Part 1, “Mapping the Modern Sexual Imaginary,” presents and analyses how our modern culture shapes people’s understanding of the self and sexual relationships. Here, Grant draws upon the work of the Catholic philosopher, Charles Taylor – who has written extensively on the characteristics of modern western secular culture – most notably in his magisterial work, A Secular Age. Grant also draws upon the sociologists, Christian Smith and Mark Regnerus, who have engaged in extensive studies of the thoughts and practices of North American youth.
In Part 2, “Charting a New Course for Christian Formation,” Grant proposes an alternative Christian vision of personal identity as the basis for human formation out of which flows a proper understanding of human sexuality and sexual relationships. This must guide the church’s calling to disciple its people. Here, the major Christian authors upon which Grant draws are the ethicist, Stanley Hauerwas, the Christian philosopher, James K. A. Smith, and the Christian apologist, C. S. Lewis. Grant contends that a key feature of the project is that Christian communities, notably churches, become places where this biblical vision for sexual relationships in light of the new age that Christ has inaugurated is embodied.
The first chapter Grant gives the “lay of the land,” both of modern western society and the western church. When it comes to sexuality our society has the “social imaginary” (to use Charles Taylor’s language) of extreme individualism, where personal identity is based on each one’s freedom to choose his or her own source of meaning and form of life apart from any outside influences. (Echoes of Descartes are ringing here.) Of course, there is considerable naïveté in such individualism in that it fails to see that we are all shaped by our social environment. But typically, when young people reject the guidelines of parents, tradition, and religious communities, they absorb, unthinkingly, the dominant ideas and practices of the culture. The results of such naïve thinking is that the modern young person is allergic to sexual chastity and fidelity, and to long-term committed relationships.
Sadly, this social imaginary has now infiltrated much of the church, with the result that many young people have a practical dichotomy between their view of God and the gospel – preached by the church – and their view of sexuality and relationships, which they absorb from the culture. The result is that there is often not much difference in practice between Christians and non-believers, evident in the sexual confusion, immorality, and marital breakdown found in both groups. Grant argues, rightly in my view, that the Christian response should be neither uncritical acceptance of the cultural imaginary, nor the rigid rejection of all aspects of modern social norms (since some of them are helpful principles which have been corrupted and distorted by modern Enlightenment idols). He challenges the reader to engage in contextualization – the process of discerning what is creationally good in our culture and how this has been twisted by modern idols to become harmful and destructive. Of course, as Grant notes, it is the lens of the gospel that guides us in this contextualizing process.
In the five chapters that constitute Part 1 of the book, Grant proceeds to unfold and analyse the major themes of modern culture that bear upon this modern social imaginary about sexuality. Chapter one unfolds what is perhaps the magisterial theme of the culture – authenticity. The assumptions underlying authenticity are two mutually reinforcing ideas. First, there is the notion that there are no objective norms external to the individual – whether from God, nature or society. Secondly, given this assumption, the individual has no choice but to turn inward and find those personal “truths” that can guide one on the journey to personal fulfillment. These “truths” are specific to each individual, and are typically discovered through personal feelings and intuition. Obviously then, this undermines any acceptance of common or universal truths; each one must discover and travel his or her own path to authentic fulfillment.
In the subsequent chapters of Part 1 Grant unfolds the consequences in modern life of this commanding theme of authenticity – the inwardly experienced self as the only guide to human flourishing in sexuality. Authenticity requires radical freedom to define and pursue one’s (sexual) life as one sees fit (chapter 3). It leads to consumerism as the defining feature of authenticity – as a kind of secular religion – for people’s sexual natures. They acquire numerous sexual partners, consuming sex in the “hook up” culture, and then move on to new partners and practices in anticipation of novel and enhanced sexual experiences (chapter 4). This is evident even in the pattern of serial monogamy, whether in the form of serial common-law relationships, or in consecutive marriages. The new digital reality has become a useful tool for engaging in such successive relationships, especially through online dating and hook-up sites.
In this new era where sexuality is detached from committed relationships and enduring norms, sexual desire is reduced to a natural appetite that seeks ever-greater sensory physical pleasure (chapter 5). This opens the flood-gates to the pursuit of all manner of sexual experiences, including those provided by cybersex and pornography. In the pursuit of maximizing pleasure by consuming an ever-greater variety of sexual experiences with real or virtual people, the only prohibition (aside from the condition that sex never be forced or manipulative) is that there should be no prohibitions on sexual expression. The inevitable result is that in a “disenchanted” world” (another of Taylor’s phrases) without a grand story that moves toward any purpose that transcends the subjective goals of autonomous individuals, sex is an atomistic practice which becomes whatever people deem it to be – from an itch that one needs to scratch, to an idol whose intense physical pleasure gives meaning to one’s life (chapter 6).
Throughout this section, Grant demonstrates that, in cutting sexuality free from the context and norms that God has established for it, the result is not only a distortion of the God-given character of sexuality, but also a failure to achieve the satisfaction that moderns hope that it will give them. The drive for authenticity via autonomous freedom moves people toward self-absorption that narrows their social horizons and makes it increasingly difficult to achieve the intimacy that is an integral feature of committed sexual relationships (chapter 3). While consumerism holds out the promise of achieving satisfaction by consuming ever more things and experiences, when sexuality is detached from its essential purpose of sealing the covenant of marriage, the happiness and fulfillment of the true intimacy desired will always be out of reach (chapter 4). The consumeristic mentality that “just around the corner,” or rather, just a click away on the online dating sight, there is a better sexual partner or a better prospective spouse, leads to an inability to commit to any one person in a world of infinite choice. Disassociating sexuality from the broader context of value and meaning such that sexual experiences are simply the enjoyable experiences – with real or virtual persons – that satisfy our natural sexual drives undermines the commitment, intimacy and bonding of marriage in which sexual acts consummate the loving, permanent and exclusive union between a man and a woman (chapter 5). Sexual expression within a worldview of pure immanence where it has no greater meaning than the individual gives it simply fuels the confusion and destructive consequences of modern sexual practices (chapter 6). What Grant shows us, alongside his evaluation of modern sexuality throughout Part 1, is that in adopting many of the sexual attitudes and practices of modern culture Christians also fall prey to the harmful results of a distorted sexuality. At a deeper level, Christians have failed to discern that these attitudes on human sexuality are contrary both to the biblical teaching and to traditional church instruction on the meaning and purpose of sexuality. This is borne out by the evidence, for example, that statistics for things such as consumption of pornography or marital breakdown are not significantly different between Christians and non-Christians.
Part 1 provides the cultural context for Part 2 where Grant attempts “to paint a picture of a Christian social imaginary,” showing how this vision shapes human sexuality and relationships (p. 145). He notes various themes that bear upon the formation of Christian lives. First, in contrast to our culture’s view that individuals shape their own lives, Grant rightly notes that we are shaped by our contexts (chapter 8). Churches must provide environments that provide holistic discipleship for people, within which human sexuality is understood and lived out. Grant argues that such a comprehensive vision of sexuality has 4 essential components. It is eschatological (located within God’s unfolding plan for creation), metaphysical (aligning our lives within the way things are in God’s world), formational (shaping our characters toward maturity into the image of Christ), and missional (using our sexuality to express God’s character, thereby witnessing to his mission in the world). For each of these Grant demonstrates what this means for married life and singleness.
A Christian social imaginary must also grasp the nature of humans as essentially desiring creatures. Desire is not simply about surface appetites – which our culture tends to emphasize – but about the yearnings of the heart. For Christians it is the experience of the grace of God in Christ whereby God moves us to desire his Kingdom and its ultimate consummation in Christ. In chapter 9 Grant unfolds how this gospel-renewed desire directs us to the love of God. This does not happen spontaneously. Christians must be discipled into a way of life whereby they find the fulfillment of their desires, not in the voracious and addictive consumption of a plethora of (sexual) experiences, but rather in the deeply satisfying daily walk as children of God who live out of his grace and love. When Christians live in such a way that they find their identity and fulfillment as children loved by God, then the strong passions of romance and sexuality can be rightly channeled and satisfied in lives of chastity, whether in the calling of singleness or marriage.
Chapter 10 deals with the key role that the church community plays in shaping Christ-centered lives of chastity. Young people require mentors and models, not merely to work patterns of the gospel into their lives, but also to resist the deceptive myths that our culture promotes about sexuality. The power of these myths comes from the seemingly universal practices of people around us, and from the ostensible inevitability of such behaviour. The gospel fixes our hearts on the reality of God’s kingdom which will be fully realized at Christ’s return. This kingdom must be embodied in some measure in the Christian community – the church – in which believers need to participate to reinforce to one another the truth of the coming, progress and consummation of God’s kingdom. When Christians fail to live up to their callings, the church must allow for confession, forgiveness and recommitment to faithful obedience to Christ. Essential aspects of this process of growth into maturity as part of the body of Christ are mutual mentoring and accountability, especially by older mature believers for younger ones.
In the final chapter Grant emphasizes the importance of the formative practices of Scripture-directed lives. The Bible must not merely inform our beliefs about Christian faithfulness; it must play a decisive role in the regular habits of our lives. Here again, it is the church community as a family that plays an important role in fostering healthy relationships – sexual or otherwise. This certainly involves disciplinary structures that nurture good habits, practices and rituals. But these disciplines must be infused with the vision of the Kingdom of God so that they are always directed to the goal of the mission of God. While this does not mean a total rejection of the technologies of our age, it does mean transformed lives where we do not conform to the pattern of receiving the relentless barrage of messages and information on our smartphones and other electronic devices. And it also involves not conforming to the cultural attitudes and practices which are unthinkingly embraced as normative by so many. The church as a place of cultural resistance and positive discipleship is God’s chosen community to aid believers in the living out of their sexuality – whether single or married – as God-given vocations. These vocations can, by the power of the Spirit, be the means whereby God is glorified, people find true fulfilment, and the mission of the church is advanced.
This is a very helpful resource for teachers, pastors and youth leaders. Part 1 is an excellent analysis of the assumptions about sexuality in modern secular culture, and the ideas and practices that flow from this. Christian leaders can draw upon Grant’s exposition and evaluation to better address the god-ordained nature of sexuality in the classroom, youth group, and church congregation. Grant provides helpful guidance into the vocabulary to use, and the entry points, for a discussion of sexuality today. Often, teachers and pastors are not addressing the mindset that is characteristic of young people. Even if children are raised in the church, the pervasive impact of modern media leaves them influenced by contemporary ideas on sexuality. Grant’s book can aid in effectively addressing and analysing modern notions and practices. In other words, one must go beyond simply saying, “Such practices are wrong.” One must show why and how they are hollow and harmful. Grant’s evaluation provides guidance in showing how modern practices fail to fulfill human sexual desire, even on their own terms. To refute the idols of our day, one needs to know what they are, and to show why it is that they fail to provide what they promise. Grant’s book is a valuable tool in overthrowing these idols of sexuality.
The four chapters of Part 2 are good reminders of what the church as a community of discipleship can and must do to form a people who live in way that is not conforming to the spirit of our age, but to the calling and vision of the gospel. In one sense, what Grant calls the church to do is nothing new, for these patterns of discipleship, mentoring and accountability have been the calling to the church throughout its history. And yet, the church of the West has been compromised, often in its superficial attempts to be contextual and missional. So then, these themes in Part 2 are an exhortation to the church to embrace its traditional practices as the community of faith, and to resist the assumptions and patterns of this age. The gospel must be contextualized in every setting, but in such a way as to remain faithful to the biblical teaching and to be practiced in a community of humility and mutual submission. In other words, the church must be faithful to its calling to be the church.
In conclusion, I highly recommend this book. It is a very helpful aid for teachers, youth leaders and pastors who want help to address the matter of sexuality in their classrooms and congregations in fresh, relevant and biblical ways. It also serves as a reminder for leaders to continue to exhort their people to engage in the community practices which the church has practiced for centuries to instruct and encourage believers to live faithful sexual lives before God and each other. Given the sexual confusion and damage that litters the current social landscape, the beauty of living out God’s pattern for sexual chastity can be a powerful witness by the church to our society. And it most certainly is the path of joy and the fullness of life for God’s people.
Guenther (“Gene”) Haas, Professor of Religion & Theology, Redeemer University College
Buy the books
Divine Sex: A Compelling Vision for Christian Relationships in a Hypersexualized Age