Responding to the sexual revolution: An interview with Glynn HarrisonWritten by Peter Jon Mitchell
Glynn Harrison’s book, A Better Story: God, Sex and Human Flourishing (Inter-Varsity Press, 2017), grapples with the lessons the sexual revolution has for the Christian community. He challenges Christians to think deeply about pressing questions of identity and human flourishing. As the title suggests, Harrison’s book reflects on what a Christian counter-narrative for human flourishing might have to offer people in the wake of the cultural revolution.
Dr. Harrison was formerly Professor and Head of Department of Psychiatry, University of Bristol, UK, and now speaks on issues at the interface between Christian faith and psychology, neuroscience and psychiatry. Cardus Family recently reached Dr. Harrison by phone in London.
Peter Jon Mitchell: Your book, A Better Story: God, Sex and Human Flourishing, interprets the sexual revolution for Christian communities and proposes an engaging narrative – a better story – that the Christian community can share. There is a sense that the church must share this better story from a posture of humility. What motivated you to write this book at this particular cultural moment?
Glynn Harrison: Yes, my book is written primarily for Christians who want to remain faithful to the tradition that has guided the Christian understanding of sex and marriage for the past two millennia. I was motivated to write A Better Story by three factors.
First, there are still many in the Christian community who have not yet fully grasped the scale of the social and cultural upheaval we are immersed in. Many Christians here in the UK seem to be hoping that if we keep our heads down long enough, it will all go away. But it isn’t going away. And as the revolution continues to unfold, society has already moved on from deconstructing marriage to deconstructing the very idea of sex (male and female) itself. We can’t go on trying to keep our heads down on these major challenges to faith.
Second, we need to understand the real secret of this cultural revolution, which I call “soft power.” Soft power is achieving change by making your ideas attractive to people, as opposed to “hard power,” which achieves change through coercion. Of course the sexual revolutionaries deploy “hard power” to achieve their goals, as well. But the real secret of the revolution is its soft power – attractive new ideas about “being yourself” and a feeling of being involved in a moral crusade for “diversity” and “inclusion.” These cultural developments are not presented as lists of facts, but rather woven into compelling narratives of freedom, escaping oppression and shame, and “being yourself.” This – the revolution’s narrative – more than anything else, I believe is the secret to understanding its power.
Mainstream Christians expected to portray their opponents – those attacking traditional Christian morality – as moral anarchists, sinners. But instead the revolutionaries cast them as immoral – bigoted, small-minded, oppressive. As a result, traditionalist Christians now find ourselves cast as an immoral minority, judged and excluded by society. The home team suddenly feels like the away team. We’ve not been here in recent history, this is an entirely new experience. We need to get our heads around this reality and think about how to respond.
Third, I wrote my book because I believe if we want to survive as a cognitive minority we must take steps first of all to make our beliefs plausible within our own community. We need to tell a better story, yes, but we need to tell that story to ourselves first. If we are to survive in the current climate, we need to inhabit and then live that story in Christian community.
PJM: The sexual revolution has offered a compelling narrative, as you say. Many Christians have failed to engage with the revolution. You suggest there are some lessons Christians can learn from the sexual revolution. What are these lessons?
GH: The sexual revolution has exposed Christian shame culture. That is its greatest gift. Like many people of my generation, the baby boomers, I grew up in a culture of ignorance, fear and shame around my sexuality. Hugh Hefner, who heralded the sexual revolution with Playboy back in the 50s, said the reason he launched that magazine was because of the “hurt and hypocrisy” of his religious upbringing. We need to recognize that the revolution has exposed the inadequacy and oppressive nature of much Christian shame culture around sex and sexuality. We made big promises in terms of what the Christian Gospel offers – freedom and flourishing – but in this huge area of our lives we often delivered silence, ignorance and fear. The sexual revolution has done us a huge favour in driving us back to our own Scriptures, to ask what we really believe about sex, marriage and relationships.
PJM: We are hearing from young leaders that issues around identity, around sexuality, are pressing concerns in their ministries and communities. You sketch out an outline for a better story for the Christian community to tell. What are key elements of the better story?
GH: Christian apologetics works when it starts by connecting with the questions people are asking rather than delivering the answers we think they need. Remember when the Apostle Peter steps out at Pentecost to share the Good News of the Resurrection – he starts by connecting with the questions people are asking: “What is going on here? Are you people drunk?” He gets to the Resurrection but he starts where people are. We need to do the same. The sexual revolution promises freedom, flourishing and fairness, and we need to connect with that vision.
Our culture says “be who you are.” Christians can say “yes, be yourself,” but in our story, “being who we really are” isn’t found by looking within ourselves, but looking beyond ourselves to the God who names us – creatures made in His own image and glory. Our story is about the freedom that comes from living in harmony with our design and learning to become God’s creature again.
We need to connect with our culture’s desire for fairness, too, because justice is a non-negotiable of Christian faith. Our God cares about injustice. But in our story, fairness isn’t only about my rights, but our duties to one another – our duties to support marriage which is a bedrock of the kind of stable families we know bring justice and flourishing to children. The sexual revolution has visited structural injustice and unfairness on huge numbers of children who come from unstable families and social disarray. We need to find the language that says we pursue fairness not by claiming our rights but by stepping up to our duties. That is our story – people who have discovered who we truly are in God’s sight seeking to flourish as we live in His image.
PJM: Cardus is very interested in the renewal of social institutions. You define institutions as persisting patterns of organized human behaviour. What is the role of institutions in telling a better story?
GH: Social institutions enable human flourishing by preserving patterns of life that have been well proven. Of course there is a dark side to institutions as they fail to be responsive to social changes, or when they harbour corruption and inefficiency. But in our legitimate concerns about the dark side of institutions, we have lost sight of their positive role. One of the greatest institutions is the gift of the family, rooted in the lifelong commitments of marriage. When we inhabit institutions, we don’t need to reinvent ourselves every day. Institutions carry good and life-giving wisdom from one generation into the next. We need to make the case for that institutional life as part of our better story.
The problem with today’s obsession with the autonomous self is that it consigns us to a project of endless, and ultimately groundless, self-making. But too much choice is a burden. In my book, I talk about a rare brain disorder which removes the emotion from decision-making so that everything becomes hyper logical. People with this disorder make worse decisions and are less rational because they are continuously analyzing multiple possibilities, almost frozen in their ability to make choices. We have all experienced the indecision that flows from having too many choices. Institutions free us from the burden of endlessly reinventing ourselves; they offer us ways of life that bring some degree of stability and lessen the range of choices. In my view the family, based on a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman, for all its flaws, has been tried and tested; it is one of God’s greatest gifts of life to the world because of the stability it offers to the psychological development of children.
PJM: The Christian community must begin to engage in internal thinking and dialogue. There is also external cultural engagement. The church has not always been both gracious and truthful in matters of sexuality. Does the church still possess the moral authority to speak in the public square about issues of sexuality today?
GH: Well that’s a good question. In terms of what we believe to be revealed by God, of course we possess that moral authority because its moral claims are rooted in God’s holiness, not our own. So yes, in the sense that we have God’s Word, Christians have the moral authority. But are we perceived as such? Largely for the reasons I’ve identified, we are perceived as people who dislike those who are different, who exclude the outliers that don’t fit our prescribed patterns. I think we need to face that public perception, own our own history, and seek to remedy it.
I always begin with three words: “sorry, thank you, please.” I’m sorry where Christians have acted in a bigoted way. I have heard of some dreadful stories of judgmental behaviour on the part of Christians. I want to say that I would never want to speak that way, and as a Christian I’m sorry for what other Christians did. I want to say thank you, too, for some of the things the sexual revolution is challenging us with. Then I say “please” – please let me share my vision, let me tell my story. It’s a story about freedom, flourishing and fairness. But in a culture that perceives us as having lost the authority to cast this renewed vision, perhaps before we tell it, we need to show it – in the support we offer families and marriage, and the life-giving communities that we build together.
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