This is kind of a review of two books I read last month. They complemented nicely so I thought I’d take about them both and offer some reflection at the same time. I read both books in succession because I thought this might be the case and I wanted to do some sustained thinking about these topics.
Divine Sex by Jonathan Grant invites readers to reexamine Christian formation in the area of sexuality. I think people walked into my study or wherever I was reading and thought I was reading something quasi-scandalous, but FOR THE RECORD (you dirty people), I was reading about Christian formation, not Cosmo. Grant’s book is neatly divided into two parts. The first part does a sort of cultural analysis of our views of sex and relationships. It’s really well-done and, to be honest, a bit scary. Grant pinpoints that people my age and younger are increasingly being pulled apart by two sets of expectations that are making relationships that conform to Christian ethics seem increasingly impossible.
On one hand, we’re told culturally that sex is a basic and harmless human desire, a biological need that all people should act on. Previously, cultures viewed sex as having a particular function and venue. Now? It’s for pleasure between consenting parties. That’s all. Grant takes time to describe how this idea is fueled by pervasive pornography usage (something that is verifiably and quantifiably bad for people who use it). The interesting competing vision is the idea that committed relationships have a supernatural quality to them. If lifelong relationships are going to be embraced, they have to have this mystical perfection in which the participants have almost this ecstatic union.
Younger generations are finding, though, that these ideas are at odds with one another. Serial sexual relationships (and here Grant dives into data, not just his own ideas) decrease the odds of committed monogamy. Physical intimacy stripped of commitment has a cumulative effect on people. This is happening while, in a sense, the view of lifelong monogamy is elevated. There is an unattainable quality to the view of monogamy so that younger generations are having a harder and harder time entering into committed relationships. Not, as some might think, because they are happy to sleep around endlessly. People are increasingly getting trapped in cycles of loneliness and separation, ill-equipped form commitment.
Grant insists that Christians come at this problem from the wrong angle, by emphasizing rules and mere behavior modification. Grant, in the second part of his book, challenges Christians to expand their vision for vibrant community and to open the doors on marriage to all strata of members of the community. We have increasingly bought the lie from culture that what happens in marriage is the business of the people inside that marriage. But this is an incomplete view of Christian marriage. Christian marriage is within and for the benefit of the community. We have robbed both single and married people of the power of a sort of shared marriage (by which I mean we share about it, not that we have multiple parties within the union).
There is more to Grant’s work that I can’t get into right now. I really enjoyed his work and I highly recommend it, though. I’ll need to go back and reread portions to more fully appreciate his analysis and suggestions.
Some of Grant’s themes, though, bridged nicely into my reading of Spiritual Friendship by Wesley Hill. You’ll find all kinds of praise for Hill’s work in many different end-of-year book lists. This little book made quite an impression on the Christian book community and on me.
Wesley Hill is an Anglican professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry. He writes this book as an openly gay Christian who has responded to the Biblical call to celibacy. Hill’s book is partly his own story of dealing with loneliness and community, and partly a clear and profound call for an elevated view of friendship within the Church.
You rarely read much on the nature of friendship, I’d wager. I know I don’t ready much on the topic. Hill delves into ancient takes on friendship that draws our attention to the fact that for much of history, there has been more to friendship than mere affinity and shared time. There have been Christian conceptions of friendships that involve much more commitment and sharing of lives. What we often accept as friendship these days is far beneath these ideals.
Hill’s call for deeper friendship is accented by his own commitment to refrain from acting on his natural sexual attraction. I hope that people in the church read this book, if for no other reason, than to lend their ear to gay voices within the Church. I’ve talked to people who breeze past the high cost that we ask gay people to bear if we hold (as I do) to the traditional sexual ethic (that sex is for heterosexual marriage). I think that there are too many people in the church that still do not see this special segment of people in the church who are crying out for more empathy and understanding and are receiving calloused silence instead. To be honest, I think it makes people in the Church uncomfortable to talk about people who experience same sex attraction through no choice of their own. “Just choose something else” or “God will heal you” is really not a careful or Christian enough response. It is a sorrowful pleasure to read Wesley Hill’s agony. It’s incredibly brave of him to expose his own interior heart ache to the Church when he must know that many people have no time or space for his story. To hear Hill’s story alone, this book is worth your time.
But I think there is more to offer than just the story of one gay man in the Church. There is something here in the treasure chest of friendship that many of our communities lack. How many of our single members (gay or straight) are drifting alongside community rather than fully embedded? We see them at church and they seem fine, but as Wesley points out, sometimes people want to have what you have in marriage, not sexually, but relationally. They just want someone to call and check to make sure they made their flight or got home from the store ok. I was moved by how moved Wesley was to be asked to go on vacation with a family. Do you think about vacations and holidays for your single friends? I know I often don’t. Hill says that many of these needs/blessings could be found within the storehouse of friendship, but churches are often unprepared to offer those kinds of relationships.
I read and so thoroughly enjoyed both of these books for different and similar reasons. Just before reading them, I watched Netflix’s “Master of None,” a comedy developed by Aziz Ansari (whom you might/should know from Parks and Recreation). So many of the themes in the books interwove with this little show about life in New York City for singles looking for love. The impossibility of committed monogamy, the longing for real relationship rather than just sex, the loneliness of modern society with our screens in our faces, all of these themes blended together in my mind and I was stirred.
For one, I was stirred in gratitude. I’m thankful that my church, little and inept at many things though it may be, does community really well. Not perfectly. There are cracks and fissures where people can fall through or be missed. We know that. But people share their lives in our church. And I’m grateful that I can speak of my loneliness and my pain both from the pulpit and across a table and I won’t receive judgment. I’ll get embraced. I know the kind of community we have at Isight is not normal and it’s something I hope we fight for.
But I was also stirred to long for better. I want Isight to do better and be better not just for ourselves, but for the sake of our larger community. I think we can often stop at what’s shallow, easy, and comfortable. But deep friendships and a compelling vision for marriage are things that we culturally long for. We are primed to want very good things but many people in my generation have no real relational tools to access them. There is a hopelessness that hovers right around the edges of our purported freedoms. I truly believe that the Church is not the curse that brings restriction to people, but can actually deliver real antidote, a happy alternative for many people.
Sex and friendship are not side issues. They are issues that define and shape people now as much as or more than any time in history. But the vision of the whole person, drawn into the life of God is better than the vision many of our friends live with. I think we in the Church at large often fail to to cast this larger vision and invite people into the real life of God that we access together.
I’m more grateful than ever for the Communion table. To gather around the feast of Christ and feed on more than I could muster for myself. But I am aching for my friends who are outside the party, hungry. My prayer is that Bride of Christ would look outside herself more and more to find ways to feed the hungry. I’m not depressed that the world has such a different vision for sexuality and relationships. That makes sense that we would disagree. I just hope that we can be moved by charity to make the lonely a part of our families, the orphan part of our homes. These books do well to point us towards that larger vision.
My apologies for being absent from this space so long. Holidays! I’ll be back at least once a week, as usual.