“Divine Sex” at Open Book!

loveIn our second cycle for 2018 (starting Thursday 24th May), we tackle the vexed question of sexuality. Unless you’ve been hiding in a closet since the 1960s, it’s pretty evident that a lot has changed when it comes to sex. All our mores and most every moral has come up for scrutiny, from the taken-for-granted (though rarely practiced) Christian line of no sex before marriage and life-long complementary union “until death do we part”, to the norm of nuclear families purposed for bearing children. We live in the age of no-fault divorce, friends with benefits, sexting in schools and “torture porn” on TV (think “Game of Thrones”), Tinder hook ups, LGBTIQA+ multiplying identities, safe schools and gender education normalising dysphoria, gay pride and homosexual marriage, surrogacy, contraception and over-the-counter abortifacents, partner swapping, and the sexual revolution rolls on.

This is not to prejudge any of these phenomenon. Few issues are as close to home, or as central to our identity, as one’s sexual identity, orientation, and practice. And yet, amidst these swirling currents of change and claims of liberation, what does our Creator think? With the gnostics, do we see matters of the body as irrelevant, given that God is only interested in saving our souls? Or does God have a plan for sex in his divine economy, albeit fractured through cultural idolatry in a broken world, requiring us to participate wisely in his mission with healing action?

iStock-537294788-1024x575What a travesty to treat “sexuality” as a problem, when it was one of God’s foundational gifts to those bearing his likeness. And yet, we must step back, looking with fresh eyes at both the culture and the Scriptures, to discern how God may be at work in this particularly turbulent period where religion is taboo and confined to one’s private quarters, while what was hidden in the bedroom is now public politic.

Our central question for this series calls for a positive exploration of sex … one that discerns a more beautiful and comprehensive purpose in God’s economy for singles, marrieds, divorcees, widows and widowers, gay and straight, young and old and inbetween.

How do we follow Christ and image God as sexual beings?

book coverOur conversation partner is Jonathan Grant (ThM, Regent College, Vancouver), the leader of St. Paul’s Symonds Street, one of the largest Anglican congregations in Australasia, located in the heart of Auckland, New Zealand. Out of his work with young adults, Jonathan pursued this thesis and developed it into a book, to guide a church struggling to speak wisely to young adults disoriented by what he terms a “hypersexualized world”. While many of us at Christ’s Pieces fantasise of returning to our fully functioning twenty-something body, the book is still incredibly relevant as this demographic is facing unprecedented pressures at the centre of sexual storm. Their struggle is an intensification of all our experiences in this brave new sexular age.

Here’s Jonathan’s synopsis (online here, alongside contents):

The digital revolution has ushered in a series of sexual revolutions, all contributing to a perfect storm for modern relationships. Online dating, social media, internet pornography, and the phenomenon of the smartphone generation have created an avalanche of change with far-reaching consequences for sexuality today. The church has struggled to address this new moral ecology because it has focused on clarity of belief rather than quality of formation. The real challenge for spiritual formation lies in addressing the underlying moral intuitions we carry subconsciously, which are shaped by the convictions of our age.

In this book, a fresh new voice offers a persuasive Christian vision of sex and relationships, calling young adults to faithful discipleship in a hypersexualized world. Drawing from his pastoral experience with young people and from cutting-edge research across multiple disciplines, Jonathan Grant helps Christian leaders understand the cultural forces that make the church’s teaching on sex and relationships ineffective in the lives of today’s young adults. He also sets forth pastoral strategies for addressing the underlying fault lines in modern sexuality.

TreeRoots2

We’ve chosen this book for Christ’s Pieces, as it moves beyond the typical treatment of sexuality as a problem to construct a desirable imaginary more compelling and coherent than contemporary alternatives. That said, it draws on the best of philosophy and sociology to get to the root of today’s sexual confusion. It also augments the common emphasis on doctrine and right belief (orthodoxy) with the kind of narrative, imagination and practices necessary to form a community of belief characterised by right loves (orthopathy) and right action (orthopraxy). And by ‘right’ I’m not thinking of some moralistic ‘in or out’ set of rules and boundary markers; rather, I’m talking about wise action that serves the holistic flourishing of all in a pluralistic post-Christendom context where the church doesn’t call the shots, and perhaps our society is better for it.

back coverFor some excellent reviews of Divine Sex (DS)–if the wide-ranging commendations on the back-cover don’t cut it for you–check these out:

 

51kuYQI5OmL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

It’s always a hard call choosing a single book on such a complex topic. Running a very close second was Glynn Harrison’s A Better Story: God, Sex, and Human Flourishing (ably reviewed by Nathan Campbell, St. Eutychus himself, here). Equally winsome is Ryan Messmore’s part theological-philosophical dialogue and part romantic memoir, In Love: The Larger Story of Sex and MarriageIf I was to go with a brutally heavy hitting theological exploration, I would inflict the brilliant work of Cambridge Professor Sarah Coakley on you, especially God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (youtube interview here), followed by The New Asceticism: Sexuality, Gender and the Quest for God(Sarah’s 3 part series with ABC Religion & Ethics on “Rethinking Sex and the Church”–I, II, III–delve down to the fundamental question of desire, love, and the human telos, offering a way forward out of our binary traps and culture wars … well worth a read.)

bed_crop

To these more detailed treatments, I would add 3 grace-filled and yet grounded sermons by Aussie pastor turned creative New York church planter, Jon Tyson, from his Controversial Jesus series on “A Theology of Singleness“, “Sexual Formation“, “Jesus and the Gay Community,” and “Jesus and the Trans Community“. And in terms of my own writing/thinking in this space, check out from Malyon College Module 9 from Worldviews on “Body, Sex & Marriage”, Module 9 from Everyday Theology on “The Body: Discipline and Play”, and Module 11 from Apologetics on “Moral Relativism, Nihilism & Existentialism”. See also the discussion guide for a practical/public theology of (homo)sexuality entitled, “Everything’s Bent,” which developed my two-part blog “Everything’s Bent: Rethinking Normal” here and here.

on the meaning of sex

Whatever your beliefs and practices sexually, it’s clear that we cannot have a meaningful conversation until we pause long enough to dialogue about what sex is for, and who–if anyone, divine or human–has the right to say. (For great wisdom from J. Budziszewski, aka Professor Theophilus, on precisely this point and the meaning of sexual powers, see here, here, and here.) Perhaps, then, all our desires to be “in love” will point back to their transcendent source. So, let the conversation begin.

Details below, and all welcome, whatever your faith commitment, tradition, or none.

+++

Divine+Sex+Pic+2

Over 5 Thursday sessions (May 24 – July 19) at Nik & Dave’s house (152 Tanderra Way, Karana Downs; directions here) we will dialogue with Jonathan Grant and each other, learning how to live in faith-full community as sexual beings who image God and follow Christ as disciples who desire rightly.

Check out the calendar below for key dates, and pick up your paper or kindle version of Divine Sex (DS) here.

We have a soft-start from 6:30pm—feel free to rock up early and eat your dinner or share a cup of tea. (Park up top, on the left-hand side of our circular driveway.) At 7pm sharp we get into the night, finishing each night by 9pm with supper together and an unrushed chat over coffee. OPEN BOOK includes some basic spiritual practices and prayer, before unpacking the pre-reading scheduled for that night.

For each week, it helps to think through how the reading provokes you in 4 ways:

IVPPraxis-mobile1) Questions: what didn’t make sense?

2) Challenges: what did you think was wrong?

3) Implications: if this is true, what does it mean for how we live as sexual beings following Christ in community?

4) Applications: what does it look like for us to live out of this vision, as disciples imaging the loving interpenetration of Father-Son-Spirit (to use heated Trinitarian language of coinherence!)?

OPEN BOOK, THURSDAYS 7PM | Jonathan Grant’s Divine Sex (DS)
(Click session # hyperlink for liturgy/ppnt slides)

May 24 | DS 1, pp. 9-53: Foreword + Ch. 1 “Adjusting Our Vision: Christian Formation and Relationships in a Sexualized Age” + Ch. 2 “Seeking the Truth Within: Love, Sex, and Relationships within the Culture of Authenticity”

June 7 | DS 2, pp. 54-95: Ch. 3 “Three Paths to Freedom on the Road to Nowhere: The Dead End of Modern Liberty” + Ch. 4 “We Are What We Acquire: Consumerism as a Corrupting Dynamic”

June 21 | DS 3, pp. 96-130: Ch. 5 “The Hypersexual Self: Sex and Relationships as Happiness Technologies” + Ch. 6 “Churches without Steeples: The Loss of Transcendence and the Atomistic Worldview”

July 5 |DS 4, pp. 133-187: Ch. 7 “Searching for Truth that Transforms: Introducing a Christian Social Imaginary” + Ch. 8 “Seeing the Good Life and Becoming What We See: The Role of Vision within Sexual Formation” + Ch. 9 “Getting to the Heart of Things: Redeeming Desire and Becoming Our True Selves”

July 19 | DS 5, pp. 188-238:  Ch. 10 “Living the Gospel Story: Narrative Discipleship within the Narrative Community” + Ch. 11 “Becoming What We Do: The Formative Power of Practices” + Epilogue “Melodies of Heaven”

Hope to see you there!

2a4c817e839809ad55d6c9fb0653f09b

Open Book: The Benedict Option

cover_150417_landscapeIn our second cycle for 2017 (starting Thursday 27th July), we turn to explore the challenge of a community sustaining its faith in a secular culture toxic to deep commitment:

What practices preserve our witness [& identity] in a post-Christian context?

Dreher920x537Our conversation partner is American conservative and Eastern Orthodox devotee, Rod Dreher. His book, The Benedict Option (BenOp for short), has drawn a lot of attention, especially on the Catholic forum, First Things. It has been identified by New York Times bestseller and cultural critic, David Brooks, as “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.” Facing an increasingly hostile culture, Dreher offers “a strategy for Christians in a post-Christian nation”. As for how wise this strategy is—though at risk of spoiling the surprise and poisoning the well—you might want to check out some of the following reviews:

izunoOkay, the tone of these reviews not-so-subtly communicates that I’ve stopped short of the monastic gates to Mr. Dreher’s Benedictine retreat. I’m not particularly conservative, I detest self-concerned protectionism, and this book is far more right-leaning than most of Open Book’s offerings here-to-fore. So, why bother with this diatribe?

Well, two reasons come to mind, one short and sweet, and the other as complex as statistical analysis.

For one, it records the seismic shifts shaking the western world, and represents what many people (especially conservatives) find to be a compelling vision for a re-imagined church that has fragmented and lost its way. It challenges our individualistic, consumerist and thin spirituality at its core, and turns our attention to corporate and classic practices that enrich our identity. Given that Christ’s Pieces seeks to grapple with what it means to follow Jesus at this post-Christendom juncture, BenOp is sure to provoke rich discussion, wherever we land on Rod’s particular strategy. It will help us form our own “rule of life” that keeps us in Christ, come-what cultural changes may. So, we’ll drop the protectionism, but redouble our efforts to form a communal spirituality for the sake of the world … one that resonates with Jamie Smith’s embodied and imaginative worship project in You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, and Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. Think less Christian conservatism worried about its own survival in a secular state, and more of an outward looking shalom seeking community captured by Mike Frost’s B.E.L.L.S. in his Surprise the World: Five Habits of Highly Missional People (sample here; we’re called to Bless, Eat, Listen, Learn, and be Sent) and David Fitch’s Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission. Our selfie-society needs kingdom citizens who have the virtue and vision necessary to serve the holistic flourishing of all in today’s pluralistic democracy, most especially when hostility is directed to followers of the world’s only saviour.

absAnd for two, it asks questions Aussie Christians must answer. How can we sustain faith in an increasingly secular context—one which corrodes contemporary Christianity faster than an iron ark on a salty sea? Since the Australian Bureau of Statistics released its 2016 Census results, many Christian leaders have been in a spin. While 52% of Aussies still loosely identify as Christian, this is a massive slide from the 88% in 1996 and 74% in 1991. This loss neatly parallels the increase in those shunning any religious identification, up from 0.8% in 1996, 12.9% in 1991, and 19% in 2006, to nearly 1/3 of the population (30%) in 2016. If we compare this demographic to Christian denominations (termed ‘religions’ in the census), then NRI (“No Religious Identification”) is the largest “religious” group, overtaking both Catholicism (22.6%) and Anglicanism (13.3%).

McCrindle2017_Faith-and-Belief-in-Australia-Infographic-page-001The situation is markedly more dire if you delve below the superficial ABS data, and dive into the 2016 NCLS “Australian Communities Study” and especially the 2017 McCrindle “Faith and Belief in Australia” study (faithandbelief.org.au; 4 page infographic + 60 page report). Claiming that roughly half of Aussies are Christian is massively overstated, better reflecting low-commitment “moralistic therapeutic deism” (a distant God just wants me to generally be good and feel good) than a community living under the Lordship of Jesus, which based on regular church connection is closer to 15%. As Stephen McAlpine argues, “sexing up the statistics“only makes us slower to accept our minority status, wherein we do better to become a well-formed counter-culture that can prophetically speak truth to power from society’s margins, without claiming historical privilege.

2in5noreligionThe media has seized on these stats, highlighting that this slide away from religion will only accelerate as more-religious older generations shuffle off this mortal coil, and younger less-religious generations take their place, such as Gen Y (those presently 18-34 years old) with 39% distanced from traditional religion. Secularists have renewed calls for the government to “End Australia’s Religious Bias“, damning any public funding and governmental support even for churches contributing to the common good, garnering support through op-eds in leading national newspapers.

Whatever your take on these stats, Aussies Christians have some tough questions to answer, for—as the 2017 Morling College Symposium theme suggests—we are “Not In Kansas Anymore“.

dorothyWhat is the role of God’s people in an increasingly post-christian West? Are we activist exiles or quaint keepers of an ancient flame? Are we to lean in to culture and insist on our right to act as chaplains to a fading Christendom, or should we withdraw and exercise the ‘Benedict option’? What is a creative and biblical strategy for how the church is to be in a context where God’s people feel increasingly marginalised and overlooked.

So, for at least these two reasons, it’s timely for Christ’s Pieces to grapple with The Benedict Option. As Ryan Messmore of the The Millis Institute observes, we are simultaneously called to be both “salt and light“. And this raises two pressing questions:

Question #1. For those promoting engagement with the world, the question is: how can Christians expect to offer their neighbours a different way of thinking and loving if they fully immerse themselves in their neighbours’ ways of speaking and acting? … [and] Question #2. For those promoting a distinct countercultural community, the question is: how will those who live according to a different worldview be able to see the Church’s distinct witness as intelligible and attractive?

Which brings us back to the core question driving this series: “What practices preserve our witness [& identity] in a post-Christian context?” Interested? Then come along, whatever your religious conviction or none.

+++

Over 5 fortnightly Thursday sessions (July 27 – September 21) at Nik & Dave’s house (152 Tanderra Way, Karana Downs; directions here) we will dialogue with Dreher and each other, learning how to sustain our faith in a secular culture toxic to deep commitment.

Check out the calendar below for key dates, and pdf links to carry you through until you get your own copy of the book (purchase asap on Amazon.com).

We have a soft-start from 6:30pm—feel free to rock up early and eat your dinner or share a cup of tea. (Park up top, on the left-hand side of our circular driveway.) At 7pm sharp we get into the night, finishing each night by 9pm with supper together and an unrushed chat over coffee. OPEN BOOK includes some basic spiritual practices and prayer, before unpacking the pre-reading scheduled for that night.

benop

For each week, it helps to think through how the reading provokes you in 4 ways:

1) Questions: what didn’t make sense?

2) Challenges: what did you think was wrong?

3) Implications: if this is true, what does it mean for being the church today?

4) Applications: what does it look like for you to live out of this vision as part of the community of God?

OPEN BOOK, THURSDAYS 7PM | Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option (BenOp)
(Click session # hyperlink for liturgy/ppnt slides)

July 27 | BenOp 1, pp. 1-47: Introduction—The Awakening (1-6), Ch. 1 The Great Flood (7-20), & Ch. 2 The Roots of the Crisis (21-47).

August 10 | BenOp 2, pp. 48-99: Ch. 3 A Rule for Living (48-77) & Ch. 4 A New Kind of Christian Politics (78-99).

August 24 | BenOp 3, pp. 100-143: Ch. 5 A Church for All Seasons (100-121) & Ch. 6 The Idea of a Christian Village (122-143).

September 7 | BenOp 4, pp. 144-194: Ch. 7 Education as Christian Formation (144-175) & Ch. 8 Preparing for Hard Labor (176-194).

September 21 | BenOp 5, pp. 195-246: Ch. 9 Eros and the New Christian Counterculture, Ch. 10 Man and the Machine (218-236), & Conclusion—The Benedict Decision (237-244).

October 19 | Restart for the final series of 2017, exploring Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ for what it means to care for our common creational home (also drawing on “The Uluru Statement” for an Indigenous perspective of our connection to the land).

Hope to see you there!

salt light