Sometimes the title of a book can say a lot. But in the case of Divine Sex: A Compelling Vision for Christian Relationships in a Hypersexualized Age by Jonathan Grant, it turns out to be a bit misleading. It was probably conceived as a “shocking” or attention-getting title, something that would catch the eye of the casual consumer. However, this is a much more helpful, challenging and timely book than this silly title would indicate.
This book is a healthy mix of social-science research, case studies and stories, and of practical teaching around the area of human sexuality. Specifically, this book seeks to articulate a vision for a distinctly Christian understanding of sex and sexuality.
In chapter 5, the author gives a succinct and clear working definition for a Christian understanding of sex. He writes, “Christianity views human identity as holistic, in that our sexuality is an essential part of who we are. Despite attempts throughout history to place sexuality at the edge of human personhood, the doctrines of creation, incarnation, and resurrection—as well as the divine blessing of marriage—all affirm our embodied existence, including sexuality as essential and ongoing, although we will express it differently in the age to come.”
This is a great starting point for any discussion of sexuality from a Christian point of view. It affirms the goodness of the body and says that our bodies are not just “things” to consume or please, but are important parts of a larger whole. At the same time, this description doesn’t fall into the Christian trap of overly spiritualizing sex. As if we lived in a Christian fairytale world, where our bodies or desires don’t really matter much, which would be a kind of sexual Docetism.
The author writes that “church leaders have often failed to understand how distinctive the Christian vision of sexuality really is and to articulate this vision as a convincing alternative to secular norms.” What are those secular norms? He suggests that they have to do with two keywords: “acquisition and consumption.” In Chapter 4, the book follows the writing of James K.A. Smith on a tour of the “secular liturgies”that take place in the modern shopping mall. He is describing the way that the context of the mall shapes our thinking and beliefs about what we want, what we desire, what we will pay or sacrifice to get it, and also, ultimately, how disposable it all becomes.
He says, “the mall taps into legitimate human drives such as the quest for happiness, progress, and beauty, but it exploits these desires by creating a sense of insufficiency in our lives that need to be filled… as with all idolatries, consumerism is a corruption of something good.”
This connection between sexuality and consumerism really focuses on those words “acquisition” or what you can get or buy or attain, and then “consumption”, where the purpose of all of this is really just your own satisfaction or enjoyment. These stand in stark contrast to a fully expressed Christian sense of sex.
But what was most striking to me as I read these pages is how familiar it all seems. How right on cue much of the description in this book sounds not only for my community setting, but also for my church, our youth group and young adults, friends my age, and truly, for myself. This book is a helpful resource to understanding what is going on “out there”, but also to trying to apply it “in here”, in the places where I actually live and move.
One application for this reading for me would be to bring some of it to various groups of our church. This exploration of a full Christian understanding of sexuality that goes way beyond the usual thinking of our culture would be important. It would be good for them to hear and know, but also (maybe more importantly), for me to spend the time thinking, preparing, and learning this for myself.
This title is purposefully suggestive and provocative, but it also belies the point that the topic of sex and sexuality is an uncomfortable one to many of us in the church to have in an honest way. It is a major part of people’s lives, but because of the history of shame, guilt, secrecy, and judgment, it is hard to bring it into the light and have good teaching or discussion on this topic.
Sometimes I have an honest conversation with a member of my church who is struggling in some way and some of the chapters in this book would be helpful resources for that. In my context, we are no longer “stuck” in the 1990’s church purity ring/”true love waits” milieu in which I was raised. But the danger is that we are simply soaking in the surrounding cultural attitudes toward sex and not speaking with a zesty, distinctive Christian message.
In the last chapters of this book, especially 8 and 9, Grant offers some practical ideas for how to re-position ourselves for talking about sex in church. He writes, “our pastoral approach should be double-edged, seeking to challenge our culture’s worship of sexual desire and personal fulfillment while offering a different vision of human flourishing. Christian formation involves both resistance and redirection…. Especially within our sexual lives, our hearts must be truly captivated by the goodness of the Christian vision of life, so that our whole self is drawn toward it.”
This is the kind of holistic Christian message that I seek for my church community, as well as for myself and my family. There is much to be learned from this book informationally, but there is also a lot here for those who want to be formed or even transformed by this call toward the higher goals of the Christian life. This includes and takes seriously all the good gifts that God gives. Even divine sex.