Mostly I have a few books on the go, and dip between them, lose the thread a few times, but eventually get the end of some of them. But then every so often a book comes along that has to be read at every available stage of the day: before bed, over breakfast, right through lunch break and more after dinner. A Better Story: God, sex and human flourishing by Glynn Harrison has gripped me in this way. That is why I am suggesting it here as my first ‘Great Summer Read’, among a selection of books about culture and mission that you really must read this summer if you can.
Glynn Harrison is a former professor of psychiatry at the University of Bristol, and therefore is able to draw on years of research in analysing the sexual revolution. He breaks his book down into three parts, first understanding the sexual revolution from the 1960s to today, then critiquing it from a biblical perspective, before calling us as Christians to shape the ‘better story’ of the title. Though he could have pitched this at a fully academic level, this is a book for everyone who is prepared to think, and is written in lucid, clear and engaging language for everyone. He handles Scripture well, and brings to it the findings of some fascinating studies from the world of modern psychiatry.
His main contention is that the advocates of the sexual revolution have set the narrative for the past fifty years. Beginning with radical individualism, he charts the way a movement spread its ideology and gained so much traction. He is at his most impressive in looking at how much we decide moral decisions, and how much we allow our emotions, our gut reactions, to lead us. This is central to the whole book, and builds on the work of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. People have allowed their gut reactions to be uppermost in guiding their moral decisions, with huge consequences. Christians are not immune to this, and it is our willingness to let our instinctive reactions lead us rather than a clear mind shaped by Scripture that is one reason why we have allowed the pressures of society to shape us so often.
As he charts the progress of the sexual revolution as a movement, he focuses on the power of story-telling used particularly by the LGBT lobby. Most people have come to accept gay lifestyles because somewhere they have heard a human story, most probably through a film or TV drama, and it has appealed to them at an instinctive level that they cannot resist. The LGBT community focused on being a community, and on projecting itself as an oppressed minority, while Christians tried to defend the shrinking concept of ‘Christendom’ by fighting culture wars. Harrison is really frank here. Surviving as a minority means that you need to start acting like one! To me that is the clarion call of the book, and has made me think radically about how I have reacted to the sexual revolution, how too often I am on the back foot and feelings of shame and embarrassment shape too many of my reactions.
Christians have a lot to be ashamed of. We are sinners like everyone else, and those sins include sexual sin. That is clear from the prevalence of divorce in evangelical churches, and the growing use of pornography in secret among Christians. Harrison movingly describes a public interview he did with a Christian who struggles with same-sex attraction, but when everyone clapped at the end, he wondered whether they would have been as easy listening to a heterosexual Christian talking about their struggles with temptation. We are ashamed of our sexuality, and don’t know how to talk about it as Christians. ‘Shame is the cradle of bigotry because it compels us to project our disgust towards ourselves onto others. Orthodox convictions around sexual ethics need to be based in reason and calm analysis, not elephant based gut-responses driven by fear or disgust.’ (P89)
The sexual revolution promised more and better sex, yet Harrison produces research evidence that shows the opposite is happening. The sexual flourishing God intended us to enjoy within marriage is being replaced by something far less satisfying and often by no sex at all! He also charts the sexual revolution’s deep impact on children in dysfunctional families. He also gives some helpful analysis of the gender identity debate that is essential reading for Christians who are all at sea over the transgender phenomenon.
In the final section of the book, a better story, he works out a clear, positive doctrine of human sexuality with clear and sound handling of Scripture. We have to build a better story to convince people of what we believe. And it has to be a story that engages the mind and the heart in an age that learns most through stories. Confronting our body-denying pastoral theology in all matters sexual, he calls us to develop a positive vision of human sexuality within marriage as God intended, and says clearly that marriage cannot be ‘re-engineered’. He tackles singleness compassionately within the life of the local church, and makes a compelling argument that chastity for the single person honours God’s pattern for sexual flourishing just as much as marriage does.
His final chapter gives some practical pointers for how to tell our story as a minority with a compelling story to tell. Here he is passing the baton to others: novelists, film makers, dramatists, journalists, and artists of all varieties, to use their craft to shape a better story. Too much of the last fifty years has been a retreat back to the next ditch, where we fight the next moral battle and lose, because we fail each time to tell a better story, and simply come across to our opponents as hostile, negative and judgemental. We need to do better than that, and Glynn Harrison has started to show us the way.
This is a radical book that has really made me rethink my whole approach to these issues. Every pastor should read it this summer. That’s why it is my first ‘Great summer read’.