Are you confident about orthodox Christian teaching about sex, sexuality and marriage? Are you happy talking about it, and find it easy to communicate it persuasively in our contemporary culture with its approach to gender identity? Do you understand how Western culture reached its current position, and see both the positives and the problems in that? And are your area, episcopal and denominational leaders in the same position? In which case, read no further.
If, on the other hand, you feel more like most other Christians and Christian leaders—baffled at the bewildering changes in culture, hesitant about making sense of biblical teaching, and confused about connecting what seem to be two very different worlds—then you probably need to read Glynn Harrison’s recent book A Better Story: God, Sex and Human Flourishing. Glynn was formerly Professor and Head of Department of Psychiatry, University of Bristol, UK, where he was also a practising Consultant Psychiatrist, and was for many years a member of the Church of England’s General Synod, so he is well qualified to address this complex area. But the book is very accessible, and Glynn practices what he preaches, by illustrating big ideas through telling some simple but memorable stories.
The first part of the book explores how we have arrived at the position we are in within Western culture. He notes that the changes we now see, which appear on the surface to be sudden and fast-moving, are in fact the working out of a long process of cultural change that goes back to the period following the Second World War. In particular, he identifies the growth of belief in radical individualism as the key social, epistemological and ethical driving force—and does so persuasively, with several attractive features to his argument. First, he does not suggest that there is simply some malignant ideological force at work here, in that he recognises both the power of ideas but also practical social and economic realities which have had an impact, for example on the power balance between men and women. Secondly—and rather strikingly—he does not see these changes as all negative, but recognises the positive aspects of these changes, and refuses to believe that there was some halcyon period of ‘Christian Britain’ to which we must strive to return. (If the book was longer and more detailed, it might here be interesting to explore the dynamic between periods of chaos and unpredictability, usually followed by periods of conformist moralism as a reaction, often then leading to a reaction against these constraints.)
But the most notable feature of this section is Glynn’s use of well researched ideas and the ‘big thinkers’ of history to explain quite directly the practical reality we are in. After mentioning Marx and Nietzsche, drawing insights from C S Lewis and making a valid connection between gnosticism and contemporary attitudes (which some will question), he draws on Jonathan Haidt’s model of the six psychological foundations by which we make moral decisions. Glynn explains this clearly, and illustrates it beautifully through two narrative scenarios—an imagined situation of a traditionalist grandmother who quickly changes her view when her grandson comes out as gay, and a less-than-hypothetical situation of a leading politician who was in the past pressured into an embarrassing induction ritual for a dining society (!). Glynn uses such stories very artfully. He perfectly prepared to argue that an apparently ‘traditional’ ethical position might simply be based on visceral disgust, and if so then it is of little value and, despite appearances, does not in fact find its place in Christian ethical thinking. (Again, in a longer work it would be interesting to explore further the significance of such ‘disgust’ mechanisms within our understanding of human flourishing.) But he also confronts the reader with her or his own reflection on ethical thinking. If we do buy into the individualist framework of ‘it’s fine if it does not harm anyone else’ (which seems so universally persuasive as a moral position) then on what basis do we object to things which have been widely objected to within Christian ethics? The question exposes the shallowness of much contemporary popular Christian ethical thinking.
Glynn goes on to explore other aspects of contemporary culture, including the power of the ‘narrative arc’ of the individual hero which is so prevalent not only in film but in the debates that we have about sexuality and the sexual revolution (if you don’t believe me, consider recent debates in General Synod!). I was also glad to see Glynn make use of the insights of the sociologist Peter Berger and his idea of ‘plausibility structures’ which explains so much about why we buy into certain explanations of reality, and the way pressures to do so are magnified by the growth of social media. (I have been left with a particularly vivid illustration of the dynamics of shame from a simply illustration: in the past, a girl trips up in from of a group of boys, and has a moment of shame to contend with; now, her fall is captured by a phone-camera and circulates in perpetuity.) The story of Peter Tatchell’s protest during a sermon by George Carey on p 62 is particularly powerful, illustrating why so many bishops and other Christian leaders are terrified of being made to look foolish in public on this issue.
These sections will not only open your eyes to what has been going on around us, but also opens our eyes to the way that we collude with this, and the forces which are really shaping our outlook and convictions.
The middle section of the book is quite short, but it does a couple of important things. First, it points to the failure of past expressions of Christian ‘traditional’ sexual ethics, noting both the unhelpful focus on shame as well as the ineffectiveness in practice of much of what was said and done. But it also points to the way that the sexual revolution has failed—and is failing more and more—children in our society as they grow up, and how we are investing in problems for the future as a society. He also touches on the problems of self-identification in relation to self-esteem—though that is really the focus of his previous book, The Big Ego Trip.
The final section is where Glynn does some positive theology on the question of sex, sexual desire and Christian ethics. He connects the importance of relationships with the relational nature of God as Trinity—and I think manages to steer clear of the mistake of making the Trinity our social programme. He also picks up on the work of James A K Smith and the theological significance of human desire as ultimately an expression of our desire for God. (I would always like this language to be highly qualified, in part because of the negative view of ‘desire’ in the NT, and the way it expresses such longings using quite different language—and because contemporary discussion of this sometimes fails to match NT dispositions on sexual ethics.) Glynn gives away his own ‘conservative’ position at a number of points, and particularly in the statement on p 161, that ‘Human flourishing is tied to human obedience and the law of consequences’ which some readers might question—but which is hard to escape when reading the story of God’s dealings with his people in Scripture. His final chapter offers a summary of the key aspects of what the ‘good story’ of the biblical vision of human sexuality as it might engage with contemporary issues, and he offers his own narrative of the task of engagement as a reply to his earlier characterisation of the narrative of the sexual revolution. It includes these paragraphs:
The huge changes wrought by the sexual revolution over the past few decades have made us think long and hard about what we really believe. We realise that we had often allowed a deficient, sub-Christian view of sex to dominate our communities and shape our attitudes. This made us look harsh and judgemental, and many people felt diminished and excluded…
Sexual revolution has been a wake-up call for us, and we want to turn back from these failures. The revolution has challenged us to acknowledge, and deal with, shame we feel about her sexuality, and we owe it a debt of gratitude. But as time passes by, it’s becoming ever more clear that the sexual revolution has failed as well…
Faced with these realities, we have rediscovered our vision for sex and marriage, a vision rooted in the big story of God’s love for the world. As Christians today, we come in all shapes and sizes, different sexualities and from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds. But our real story begins with our name – Christians. For us, identity isn’t something we discovered within ourselves, or something shaped by our ever-changing culture; it is something that God has given us…
We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past. While we can’t stop advocating for ways of life we believe bring flourishing, we won’t try to impose them again, because people must be free to make their own choices. Instead, regardless of circumstances or background, we want to invite anyone and everyone to join us in this adventure and prove it for themselves.
So this is a hopeful book, but it will take you on a journey of facing some harsh realities of where we are as a culture, and the challenge that we face in making a plausible case for the biblical vision of human sexuality that leads to genuine human flourishing. Glynn is confident that it can be done, but is also aware of what it will demand. And, in any case, what is the alternative? He begins the book (p xv) with a poignant but accurate depiction of the situation we are in, particular those in Christian leadership who avoid the issue:
You have to sympathise with them. High-profile Christian leaders and evangelists don’t want their entire ministry hijacked by a slip of the tongue that brings down the wrath of the Twitter mob shouting ‘hate-filled!’ But if this is how the shepherds behave, think about how the sheep must feel. They smell their leaders’ fear. Confused and ashamed, some young evangelicals have already begun salami-slicing their convictions about the authority of the Bible. Others, like their leaders, are keeping their heads down, hoping and praying that the whole dreadful business will somehow go away. But it won’t. It just keeps on coming.
If that rings any bells with you, then it is time to buy and read this book!
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