When it comes to sexuality, there’s an ever-growing gulf between the way Christians think and the way secular people think. Biblical and cultural perspectives clash, not just on who gets to have sex and when, but on what sex is for, what it means, what it essentially is. Clearly, that poses challenges for the tasks of apologetics and evangelism. But it also frustrates efforts at Christian discipleship and formation.
Simply by living in the modern West, followers of Jesus cannot help imbibing the assumptions, practices, and stories of a culture centered on the pursuit and fulfillment of individual desires. As a result, our efforts at purity and restraint—pledges, rings, annual sex talks, True Love Waits campaigns—are like fighting tanks with peashooters. We need a more comprehensive and compelling vision of sex.
So argues Jonathan Grant, an Anglican pastor in New Zealand, in his book Divine Sex: A Compelling Vision for Christian Relationships in a Hypersexualized Age (Brazos). His basic point is that instructions, exhortations, and doctrines are vitally important but go only so far. Instead, we need to thoroughly reimagine our popular narrative of sexual liberation, with all its implied commitments, desires, and practices.
In Part I, Grant explains why the modern world sees sex the way it does: as an expression of the self, an act of freedom, a consumer choice, and a fundamentally natural (rather than transcendent) activity. Then, in Part II, he offers his response: “a new course for Christian formation,” requiring a new way of thinking about the future, human desires, our shared story, and everyday practices.
How We Got Here
Divine Sex is heavily indebted to the language and approach of the philosopher Charles Taylor. Like A Secular Age—Taylor’s landmark narrative of modern secularism—this book is full of references to “secular liturgies,” “thick practices,” “enchantment,” and “social imaginaries,” reflecting Taylor’s refrain that habits deeply shape our imagination. (James K. A. Smith, whose How (Not) to Be Secular distills Taylor’s work for ordinary readers, writes the foreword.)
Grant is at his best when providing a genealogy of modern sexuality, explaining how we got here and why it matters. On account of several social, philosophical, scientific, and cultural changes, he writes, sex has been “separated from the social contexts that had traditionally given it its essential meaning. Sex has been redefined as a separate, autonomous entity in its own right, an independent commodity that can be reclassified under any category.”
This has occurred in five phases, he argues: the separation of sex from procreation (through contraception), then from marriage (with the rise of cohabitation), then from partnership (as sex becomes temporary and recreational), then from another person (through the explosion of online pornography), and finally from our own bodies (through questioning the very categories of “male” and “female”). In making sex so easy and individualistic, we have cheapened it and thereby emptied it of its power. We tried to make it simpler, and we ended up making it smaller.
Grant has read widely, engaging contemporary thinking about sex wherever it may be found. The book fuses insights from anthropologists, philosophers, sociologists, biblical scholars, ethicists, and neuroscientists. We learn, for instance, why the differences between the infatuation stage and the commitment stage of a relationship are so stark that they show up in brain scans. We see data marshaled to show that marrying later, after frequent cohabitation, actually leads to less satisfying marriages. We see the historical roots of “selfism” in sexual relationships, as even some pastors come to assume that marriages are private, not public. Though this avalanche of ideas, disciplines, and frameworks could prove exhausting, the stimulus it provides—chiefly in confirming how the Christian vision of sexuality is borne out by research in numerous fields—more than compensates.
At the same time, Divine Sex is peppered with vignettes putting a human face on the headier stuff. Some are tales of the rich and famous: John Mayer’s remark that he sometimes sees 300 naked women before getting up in the morning, or Naomi Wolf’s story about a young man asking her, blankly, “Mystery? I don’t know what you’re talking about. Sex has no mystery.” Others, however, come from the pastoral frontlines. Grant writes with a mixture of concern and hope, bringing humanity and warmth to a book that could have suffocated beneath citations, statistics, and occasional jargon.
Divine Sex expertly diagnoses the problem of our “modern sexual imaginary.” But how can we transform it into something better? Although Grant offers helpful insights and prescriptions, in the end they seem slightly inadequate. To be sure, we need to hear God’s kingdom continually proclaimed. We need our hearts to delight in God. We need life-on-life discipleship throughout the church. We need character-shaping and vision-forming habits built into our weekly worship. Yet despite hailing these steps as “a new course for Christian formation,” Grant is essentially listing the very things healthy churches have done for centuries.
Of course, this may well be a virtue. Yet the structure and language of the book lead the reader to expect something fresh, rather than age-old practices packaged in Tayloresque terminology. (A good example is Chapter 10, which urges discipleship by mentors, pastors, and parents, but does so in the language of “narrative formation” and “storied communities.”) Further, the chapters in Part II struggle to show how these basic components of Christian formation can be developed and enhanced amid the mundane practicalities of modern life.
It is not clear whether Grant thinks we are missing something, and if so, what that something is. It may be that he is simply calling for churches to do these things more consistently and intentionally—“keep calm and carry on,” as we English would say. If he is, I agree. In presenting all this as new, however, he creates expectations that can’t quite be fulfilled.
Despite these quibbles, Divine Sex is a fine book. In fact, its most significant contribution to the solution is likely its excellent framing of the problem. By providing such a thoughtful, well-rounded, and compelling account of our society’s view of sex, Grant provides the resources we need to challenge, deconstruct, and ultimately subvert it. After all, if our vision of sexuality gives rise to a parade of horribles—a hypersexualized culture, sexual dissatisfaction, rampant porn use, unhappier marriages, and young men who deny, with a straight face, that sex has any mystery—then why would we keep it?
Andrew Wilson is a CT columnist, an elder at Kings Church in Eastbourne, England, and a PhD candidate in New Testament Studies at King’s College, London.
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