Book review: Divine Sex by Jonathan Grant

Divine Sex book cover

Divine Sex by Jonathan Grant (Brazos 2015)

Review by Tim Johns

‘Christian Faith and secular culture exist in complex interrelationship’… Grant explains the Church’s need to recontextualise a biblical understanding of sex and marriage, in order to regain its authority and effectiveness as a ‘counterformative’ community. He provides a comprehensive framework through Genesis and Aristotle’s relational characteristics of ‘affection, mutual benefit and a shared commitment to the common good’, drawing on the insights of anthropologists, philosophers, sociologists, biblical scholars, ethicists and neuroscientists. He builds on the premise that our imagination and sense of identity are formed by the cultural norms of our age. Our desires and aspirations are not just biological instincts, but are learned and embedded in the cultural patterns which shape us and which construct ‘modern social imagery’. In an accessible way, full of human touches, Grant takes the reader on a compelling journey, mapping the stages of separation which have disembedded sex from its original contexts. He explains how we got to the present situation and why it matters.

In our quest for personal identity, Grant critiques the post-modern phenomena of radical authenticity, expressive individualism and the unconstrained freedom to choose. He recognises the contours of authenticity and how these tap into a legitimate Christian search for truth and transcendence, experiencing things as they really are. However, personal resonance and self-discovery, without deep transformation, are a subtle counterfeit, in a society which urges us to make peace with ourselves, without making peace with God.  Which is the primary text: our lives or the gospel narrative?

Grant displays a gripping use of metaphor, simile and analogy to lay out his arguments and make perceptive diagnoses. Today’s sexual landscape is likened to the temptations of ‘off-piste skiing’ in Whistler, leaving the safe infrastructure of lifts and runs, to ‘follow the prevailing wisdom which says, “Find your own way…”’  Yet these mountains are no place for a creative novice!  He also looks at the science of attraction and infatuation, and the neurotransmitters released, which are as powerful as cocaine.  Love is both a feeling and a choice.

With religion embedded in a social environment, it is influenced by a ‘parade of infinite choice’: our pervasive ‘secular liturgies’ and ‘cathedral-like shopping malls’ fuel a rampant consumerism and offer the false hope of redemption and human flourishing through acquisition, novelty and change; the rising tide of a multi billion-dollar cyberporn industry is far-reaching; there is an over-emphasis on youth and early sexual fulfilment; the proliferation of on-line dating puts our trust in sophisticated algorithms, by-passing the intuitions of romance and traditional filters of friends and family; we seek to solve the human condition through ‘anaesthetics’. Furthermore, given a flat, atomised worldview, we are encouraged to operate in an existential way, seeking fulfilment and free from dependency on others. Transcendence has come to be redefined as reality ‘within ourselves’, not above or beyond, as in God. Sex has been detached from religion, trivialised and emptied of depth and significance, yet it is ‘a sacramental window onto the kingdom of heaven’, reflecting the ‘divine dance’ of the Trinity and a ‘key battleground for Christian formation’.

In exposing the fault lines of modern sexuality, the author shows how the Church has struggled to address this new moral ecology, by focusing on clarity of belief rather than quality of spiritual formation. It has absorbed many of the perspectives on sex and relationships, reflecting the surrounding culture, rather than transforming it. In alerting us to the ‘virtues, vocations and purposes’ of Christian sexuality, Grant asks that, rather than ‘putting out “Do Not Walk on the Grass” signs’, the church helps us to ‘mark out the boundaries of the field so that the game of life can be played well, with conviction and satisfaction.’

Relational reconciliation and personal change are imperatives of the gospel for all. He believes that the ‘vocations of singleness and marriage play complementary harmonies within God’s master score’, both embracing concepts of ‘sacrifice and satisfaction’. Marriage has a ‘centripetal force’, while single people form a broader network to reach out and enlarge the household of God. He also looks at the genetic makeup of the marriage covenant, imaging Jesus’s love. A distinction is made between our ‘physical’ and ‘affective’ sexuality, whereby sexual desire does not equal desire for sex. Christians need to smash the elusive idol of the ‘perfect partner’ too, since the way to the Promised Land will always pass through Sinai.

This is an exceptional book, addressing a largely unspoken aspect of church life, which dominates our daily lives. It is thoroughly readable and charts a new course for action. Within our hyper-sexualised society, attending to people’s sexual and relational lives must be a critical and compelling part of effective discipleship.

The book is available on Amazon here.

Tim Johns is an educationalist who spent 23 years as a Headteacher, was formerly the Chair of the Independent Association of Prep Schools and a Trustee of EXPLORE.

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Category: News and Reviews

May, 2016

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