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|Publisher:||Baker Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)|
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A Compelling Vision for Christian Relationships in a Hypersexualized Age
By Jonathan Grant
Brazos PressCopyright © 2015 Jonathan Grant
All rights reserved.
Adjusting Our Vision
Christia n Formation and Relationships in a Sexualized Age
A few years ago, while celebrating our fifteenth wedding anniversary, my wife, Esther, and I stayed at the base of the twin mountains of Whistler and Blackcomb, the mammoth ski resort on Canada's West Coast. Our hotel was right at the foot of the ski fields, so that these huge mountains shot straight up outside our window. The view was spectacular, and it was mesmerizing to watch the many gondolas and chairlifts climb the slopes before passing over vertiginous ridges and out of sight. As the spring sun glistened off the icy slopes, it was easy to forget that this is rugged terrain, exciting and terrifying in equal measure. Deaths are common during the ski season here because of the huge off-piste area and constant avalanche risk.
Looking up at the awe-inspiring scene that morning, I was struck by the parallels between this environment and the state of relationships today, even within the church. Like those imposing mountains, love and romance have become alluring but risky places. Our culture's romantic idealism encourages us to boldly explore the boundless playground of sex and relationships. Yet we quickly succumb to "exposure" when faced with the corrosive elements of our culture's hypersexuality and its fatalism about lasting commitments. This combination of factors has turned romantic relationships from places of adventure and exhilarating risk into crevasses of death and despair.
Having tossed away the map and abandoned the network of chairlifts and gondolas that could orient us and safely guide us in our sexual lives, our culture finds itself lost and desperate in a veritable whiteout. The prevailing wisdom says, "Find your own way," and yet these mountains are no place for the creative novice. The evidence is in, and it's compelling. Our cultural experiment has left a trail of relational wreckage, and it has left us in a state of denial about where we stand.
As a society, we have encouraged powerful sexual scripts that shape the narrative world in which modern relationships unfold. We have, for instance, put our confidence in sex but lost our faith in marriage. Young people are encouraged to delay "settling down" while becoming sexually active at ever-younger ages. Research suggests that for many young people, dating and sex are becoming synonymous — one simply follows from the other. Fully 84 percent of American 18- to 23-year-olds have had premarital sex, while this figure rises to 95 percent for all Americans (of any age) who have had sex outside of marriage. Beyond the realm of real-life relationships, virtual sex — thanks to the wildly successful innovation of online pornography — is flooding into mainstream culture.
All this unfolds against a backdrop of failed marriages that, over several generations, has undermined the imaginative possibility of marriage as a permanent form of relationship. This cultural environment makes the Christian vision of sexuality and marriage seem naive, unreasonable, or at least unworkable as a real-life philosophy — even for many Christians.
And yet in the midst of this cultural fatalism lies the strong hope of the Christian vision of relationships. In our hotel room that morning, I read about the origins of the Whistler ski resort. In its beginnings in the 1960s, critics argued that these mountains were too hostile for a commercial ski resort; they were simply too inaccessible, wild, and unpredictable. But through a massive network of roads, chairlifts, and gondolas, an otherwise impenetrable context has become an exhilarating place to explore and enjoy — even becoming a venue fit for the Winter Olympics. We face a similar challenge in relation to sex and relationships today. With lifelong committed marriages no longer considered "natural," we are tempted by the warmth of the spring sun to get involved and explore — and yet the weather seems to quickly change as we find ourselves getting deeper into uncharted territory.
Tragically, the church has absorbed many of the same perspectives and so has come to reflect the surrounding culture rather than transform it. Yet this need not be our fate. Within this crisis, God's vision of life is a plan for comprehensive human flourishing in all its fullness. Just like those chairlifts and gondolas, it provides orientation, know-how, and momentum for exploring and enjoying the depth, breadth, and glory of God's creation, particularly in our romantic relationships.
The seeds of this book were planted several years ago when Esther and I were pastors at a church in London. The vast majority who attended the church were young, single adults in their twenties and thirties. As we got to know their many different stories over a period of years, we felt a growing sense that addressing the area of relationships and sexuality was one of the biggest challenges we faced. Because of our responsibility to disciple and shepherd this generation within that church, we couldn't ignore their confusion. Relational issues were commonly the most difficult and vexing aspects of their lives. For many, intimate relationships were a major source of confusion, frustration, disappointment, anger, and often despair as they moved through their thirties and into their forties without any "success" in finding love. This often resulted in a crisis of faith: "How could God lead me into this lonely pit when I've followed him and all his rules about sex?" Others seemed to marginalize their Christian faith and sexualize their relationships while not knowing what to do with the guilt that followed. At the same time, we were shocked by the number of friends, Christian and otherwise, whose marriages were splitting apart after only a few years.
In addition, a relatively toxic atmosphere was developing in the church between the sexes. Each side pointed across the divide, blaming the other side for what was going wrong. The men seemed to have all the choices of partners but couldn't commit to one relationship, while the women only wanted to be approached by the "right" guy and treated anyone they perceived as "wrong" with disdain. The likelihood of rejection made guys reluctant to risk themselves by initiating relationships. Couples who subsequently split up found it difficult to be in church together, and so one or both would usually leave.
It was not a universally grim picture, of course. People were still getting together, and the church was an exciting place to be, both spiritually and socially. But we realized that the church's discipleship needed to address this critical issue, or else we were just putting our heads in the sand. We were seeing a disconnect between people's spiritual worlds and their Friday- and Saturday-night lives. They seemed to be getting their view of God from the church and their view of sex and relationships from popular culture.
We also saw that churches across the board were struggling to address this complex issue. It is, I believe, a critical challenge for the church, as this generation of young adults becomes ground zero in the sea change brought about by the modern world and its approach to intimate relationships. We, as the church, need to catch up. We must work to understand the needs of this generation as it deals with the brokenness and fragmentation of modern sexuality.
This recognition was the beginning of a journey for me, both in thought and in ministry, to explore and address some of these issues. There seemed to be courses and information available but not a lot of writing about how to approach this area in a way that might be transformational. Esther and I began by hosting a course focused on relationships — strictly for "non-marrieds," which was loudly cheered when we announced it in church! The course struck a resonant chord within our community and attracted people from other churches, which confirmed to us the hunger that exists in this area of life. More recently, I have sought to understand and answer some key questions: What is it about our cultural moment that has led to such a complex dysfunction in sexual relationships? In what significant ways is our secular context shaping our sexuality? And, in response to this, what is the Christian vision of relationships, and how can Christian leaders give that vision power in people's real lives? This book is an attempt to address these questions.
The importance of this area is confirmed to us almost every week. Recently, my wife and I spent an evening helping a couple prepare for their approaching marriage. Although both appeared to have a mature Christian faith, they described some weighty issues that they were struggling to come to terms with. He had a long-standing addiction to online pornography, and they both were concerned about how this would affect their marriage. In addition, the bride-to-be had suddenly become uncertain whether she was attracted to her fiancé at all. The previous week, we had met with three single friends, all eligible women in their late thirties. Each expressed a deep sadness about the fading reality of their long-held dreams to be married and have a family. The following night, our home-group meeting was dominated by conversation and prayer around issues of relational uncertainty and angst. In light of this widespread neurosis, what is the task at hand, and where do we start?
Come with me on a thought experiment for a moment. Let us assume for the sake of argument that the priority of Christian leaders and pastors is to encourage and bring about, by every means possible, the steady growth, maturity, and integrity of those in their care. Now let's assume that these leaders are also able to categorize and prioritize the obstacles and challenges that these same disciples face in their normal lives. Perhaps they could loosely rank each issue on the basis of its frequency: for instance, "faced every day," "once per week," "once per month," and so on. Perhaps they could further categorize each issue on the grounds of its severity, such as "ability to resist or resolve this issue from 1 to 10." To complete our thought experiment, the leaders might rank how much time and attention they give to each issue within the teaching and discipleship of the church: for instance, "focus by the church from 1 to 10."
Now it's time for me to place my poorly concealed cards on the table. Surely we can a"rm the assumptions described above: that the goal of Christian leaders is indeed to pursue growing maturity within their churches, and that they can also understand and rank the issues that Christians are facing in their everyday experiences. My strong suspicion is that issues relating to sexuality and relationships, for young Christians in particular, would appear right at the top of these lists as the most frequent and the most severe. And yet these same issues would most likely rank near the bottom of our lists regarding the amount of focus we give these challenges within the church. Why is that? The answer is complex, but it demands our attention and a response.
The beginning of that answer lies in the fact that we are already deeply formed within our modern cultural context. These issues, we are told, are "private," to be left up to the conscience of each person acting in isolation. The core conviction of this book is that we can only get to the heart of these most important issues and address them effectively by means of a Christian conscience that is freed from the limitations of the modern imagination.
An old Irish joke tells how a tourist in the County of Cork asks a local man how to get to the big city of Dublin. "Ah," responds the local man with a deeply furrowed brow, "I wouldn't be starting from here." There is a temptation in the context of discipleship to make the same mistake, to start with the question, "What is the Christian vision of sexuality and relationships?" and then move directly to the final question, "How do we live that out within our church communities?" Yet this practice avoids the most important aspect of contemporary formation. The question we must first address is contextual: "What is it about our cultural moment that makes the Christian vision of sexuality seem naive and unrealistic at best and downright repressive at worst, even to many young Christians? Why does the church's view of sexuality, with all its 'rules' and 'restrictions,' fail to resonate with so many contemporary believers?"
Only once we have understood the nature of the present challenge can we fully answer the other two questions. Surely we need to know where we stand before we can plan our journey toward the place we want to be. If we think of our pastoral vocation as being akin to that of a spiritual physician, then we can see the importance of making an accurate and insightful diagnosis of the illness so that we can apply the gospel most effectively to the formative cause.
We must guard against two common mistakes in this complex arena. At one extreme, without a critical diagnosis we can too easily accept the way things are, simply absorbing our cultural understanding as our own worldview. The most compelling conviction in this regard is the idea that the quality of love between two people — whoever they are and whatever they do together — should be the only consideration when taking a relationship into the sexual realm. Many Christians have no coherent way of countering this open-ended moral imperative. They either accept it as being self-evident or reject it by proof-texting Scripture.
At the other extreme, without a careful diagnosis of the issues, we can fall into the trap of rejecting all modern cultural norms. A common example is the modern quest for self-fulfillment. If we view this as purely self-centered and problematic, we will be tempted to discard it entirely. Yet the problem is not with self-fulfillment per se but rather with the fact that it has come to be placed above all other priorities. This impulse needs to be rebalanced within the other prerogatives of the Christian life: obedience to Jesus, patience in suffering, and self-giving agape love within the community of faith. The temptation to reject modern culture in all its forms is like prescribing a broad-range antibiotic to treat a specific infection. The patient may be healed, but her immune system will be greatly weakened.
The Formative Power of Context
One of the most influential legacies of modern politics and philosophy is the conviction that personal identity is premised on the individual's freedom to choose his or her own source of meaning and form of life, largely free from outside influences. This conviction has seeped so deeply into Western consciousness that it has become part of the religious landscape. Many Christians, for instance, believe they can simply build their self-identity entirely on Scripture over against, and parallel to, secular culture. Such confidence is deceptive. American sociologist Robert Wuthnow observes, "The basic premise of social science research is that religion is embedded in a social environment and is thus influenced by this environment," so that "broad social trends do define how people think about themselves." James K. A. Smith further suggests that pervasive "secular liturgies" — our regular cultural practices, such as going to the mall or the movies — represent the "affective dynamics of cultural formation," which are shaping the identities of everyone who lives within Western culture, Christians and non-Christians alike. Such secular liturgies, Smith argues, represent a powerful misformation of the self that undermines the gospel.
Excerpted from Divine Sex by Jonathan Grant. Copyright © 2015 Jonathan Grant. Excerpted by permission of Brazos Press.
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