A Better Story: God, Sex and Human FlourishingWritten by Subby Szterszky
What's inside this article
What if Christians faced up honestly to the church’s subculture of shame?
What if we reimagined what it means to be made sexual in the image of God?
What if we remembered that we flourish when we live in harmony with God’s design?
What if we left behind the broken promises of the sexual revolution to tell a better story of our own?
Those questions lie at the heart of Glynn Harrison’s new book, A Better Story: God, Sex and Human Flourishing (Inter-Varsity Press, 2017). Harrison was formerly Professor and Head of Department of Psychiatry at the University of Bristol in the UK. He writes and speaks about Christian faith in relation to psychology, culture and the human condition.
In his book, Harrison argues that the sexual revolution succeeded because it presented a compelling narrative of freedom and authenticity that appealed to the moral instincts of the culture at large. In order to engage with that narrative, Christians can’t rely solely on facts and arguments. We need to offer a better story of human flourishing and freedom that will win back the hearts and minds of people.
To that end, Harrison lays out a threefold strategy: a better understanding of the ideology behind the sexual revolution; a better critique of it based on Scriptural reasoning rather than visceral response; and a better story that Christians need to inhabit as well as to share.
Part 1: A better understanding
Harrison devotes the opening third of his book to surveying the conditions and beliefs that led to the sexual revolution, as well as the methods used by its advocates to win acceptance in the public mind. Far from being a dry, academic exercise, this is compelling – and essential – groundwork. After all, if Christians are to offer the world a better story of human sexuality, we need to understand the story we’re confronting, beyond facile stereotypes and generalizations.
The roots go back more than half a century, to the years following the Second World War. Social and economic conditions were changing, giving women and minorities new opportunities in the culture and the marketplace. There was a growing sensitivity to the plight of people who were marginalized by the dominant culture simply for being different. The public moral compass was shifting from overarching principles that benefit society to the needs and concerns of individuals. In turn, this individualism gave rise to a form of modern Gnosticism that elevates subjective feelings over physical reality, notably in the area of sexual identity.
However, as Harrison points out, such facts and ideas aren’t enough to move the heart and mind. That’s where the power of story comes in, to distill those facts and ideas into a narrative that ignites the will and sparks the imagination. For decades now, advocates of the sexual revolution have been using popular culture and real-life stories to weave a narrative of heroic resistance against societal oppression. This narrative has promised authentic human flourishing and freedom through sexual expression unencumbered by traditional morals.
The results have been, in a word, revolutionary. Whereas traditional Judeo-Christian moral teaching was at one time the dominant voice in Western society, it has now become barely tolerable, if at all, in the secular public arena. In Harrison’s words, orthodox Christians are increasingly seen as an immoral minority in the eyes of the surrounding culture. From the church’s perspective, it feels like the home team has become the away team.
For its part, the church hasn’t always responded particularly well. Many Christians have retreated into a defensive stance, doubling down on their facts and arguments, focusing more on what they’re against than on what they’re for. But Harrison argues that this will not do. To regain a place at the table – never mind winning back hearts and minds – Christians need to tell (and live) a more engaging, winsome story of flourishing and freedom. Our story must be rooted in Scripture, and be more appealing than anything on offer from the culture of sexual revolution.
Part 2: A better critique
Where to begin such a daunting task? Harrison proposes self-examination as a first step. Too often, the church’s attitude toward sexuality has been marred by a culture of shame and hypocrisy. Honest questions – to say nothing of sexual struggles – have been dismissed with glib answers. “Hot-button” issues such as homosexuality and transgenderism have been treated as worse than other sexual sins. Instead of Biblical wisdom and grace, such issues have often been met with gut-level fear and disgust.
These attitudes within the church contributed to the sexual revolution as surely as the social and philosophical shifts of decades past. Christians today need to own this and repent of it, especially when dealing with individuals who have been hurt in this area. Moreover, Harrison urges honest gratitude to the sexual revolution for highlighting our inconsistencies and forcing us to rethink our approach to sexuality along more Scripturally faithful lines.
Once we’ve removed the beam from our collective eye, we can begin to critique the sexual revolution on its own terms. As Harrison outlines, the revolution promised greater fulfillment through more and better sex. However, those who study such things have discovered the reverse to be true: people on balance are having less sex with a lower degree of satisfaction in their relationships. It appears that commitment-free individualism has diminished rather than enhanced the experience of intimacy for many.
From the beginning, the moral vision of the revolution was bound up with justice for the marginalized and oppressed, and especially for women. While admirable in itself, this has also played out in the opposite direction from what was intended. In every culture, marriage serves to bind men to their responsibilities to care for a wife and children. Consequently, the decline in traditional marriage has merely given men greater freedom to avoid those responsibilities. The social inequality is even more pronounced among the poor, who are less likely to marry, and whose children thus face worse outcomes in terms of their health, education and job prospects.
The story of the sexual revolution has been a quest for identity, to be discovered within oneself or constructed for oneself. But such a subjective enterprise, driven along by constant cultural pressure to reinvent oneself via social media, has led to a fragmentation of identity, a weakening of personal and social relationships. It has given rise to the culture of victimhood, in which the slightest disagreement with one’s beliefs is seen as a personal attack. And it has paved the way for gender ideology, a social experiment devoid of objective facts, foisted on children from an early age with potentially dire consequences for their future health.
Part 3: A better story
Having explored the narrative of the sexual revolution and its failure to deliver on its promises, Harrison devotes the final section of his book to the better story Christians have for the life of the world. As with every effective story, this one has to present its ideas in a memorable way that’s designed to capture the imagination of its audience. Harrison summarizes these ideas as the five pillars of the Biblical view of sexuality and relationships.
First, God has spoken and revealed reality, so that we don’t need to figure it out for ourselves. Second, God welcomes us into His reality, which He has revealed through nature and more perfectly through Scripture, and ultimately through His Son, Jesus Christ. Third, as God’s creatures, we flourish when we go with, rather than against, the grain of His reality. Fourth, our identity is not to be discovered within ourselves, or constructed by us, but rather it is revealed to us by God. Fifth, whatever happens in our fallen world, including sin, suffering and difficulties, God is still good.
The Gospel narrative unfolds within this framework, redeeming God’s creation, reconciling us to Him and changing us into the image of His Son. From this perspective, human flourishing is the restoration of God’s image in us, fruitful, creative, relational and reflecting Christ’s character. It’s also the way of the Cross, as we submit to God and relearn how to be His image-bearing creatures, to His glory.
God exists as a Trinity, whose members have enjoyed a perfect, intimate, loving relationship for all eternity. In turn, He has wired us for that same kind of intimate relationship with Himself, and our sexuality was designed to reflect something of that. As Harrison puts it, our sexual desires serve as a homing beacon that shows us something of God’s passionate affection for us, and also points us toward that ultimate, perfect union we’ll enjoy with Him in the new heaven and the new earth.
Harrison recognizes that this kind of talk about sex makes many Christians uncomfortable. But he also points out that God uses this type of language about His relationship to His people throughout the Scriptures, culminating in the marriage in heaven between Christ and His Bride, the Church. Of course, this passionate relationship is never divorced from faithfulness and fruitfulness, which is why human sexual expression is only appropriate within the bonds of the marriage commitment between one man and one woman.
How do we tell such a story effectively? Harrison suggests that first of all, we tell it to ourselves. We immerse ourselves in Scripture, we ponder the beauties of Christ and the extent of God’s commitment to our flourishing, in all of its astounding implications. We embody our story and live it out in our families and churches, embracing it with passion because we find it beautiful, not because we’re supposed to find it beautiful. Then we engage our culture with it, meeting people where they are, speaking the language of compassion and social justice as well as of eternal principles. We seek the flourishing of the many as well as the few. And we tell our story through artists as well as apologists, who will not only speak the truth in love, but also celebrate its beauty and grace.
Harrison isn’t naïve about the reception our story might receive from a culture steeped in individualism and entitlement. And yet he urges us to tell it anyway, for the life of the world and the glory of God.
Far too much of the discourse around the sexual revolution has been saturated with negativity: defensiveness, straw man arguments, retrenching of positions. But Glynn Harrison’s book points the way to a more positive, winsome approach. Rather than wearing down our opponents with more facts and information, let’s engage them with a story that offers a more compelling vision of freedom and flourishing. Rather than trying to win an argument, let’s focus on winning their hearts and minds. We might only get them as far as wishing our story to be true. But when it comes right down to it, that’s where all true change begins.
© 2017 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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