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betterstoryGlynn Harrison—formerly Professor and Head of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Bristol, UK, where he was also a practicing Consultant Psychiatrist—is an insightful Christian author on culture, the human condition, and Scripture.

In January 2017 Inter-Varsity Press (UK) published his book A Better Story: God, Sex, and Human Flourishing.

Harrison argues that the architects of the sexual revolution won the popular imagination of Western culture because they knew the power of story. Drawing together radical new ideologies, many of them complex and hard to grasp, and melding them into the simpler structure of story, the sexual-revolutionaries cast narratives that appealed to the moral instincts of ordinary, decent people. This moral vision overwhelmed the church and silenced its faltering apologists.

Christians who still believe they have good news in the sphere of sexual ethics, Harrison argues, have two significant tasks before them: (1) work out what has gone  wrong, both in our understanding and application of what the Bible teaches and the way we have presented our beliefs to the non-churched; and (2) offer a better story, one that fires the imagination with such force that people will say, “I want that to be true.”

This book, then, seeks to offer a confident, biblically rooted moral vision to be shared with prayer and courage.

What follows is a recap of the key points for each chapter of the book.


Part 1

A Better Understanding

1. REVOLUTION IS MY NAME

How radical individualism went mainstream

  • The sexual revolution refers to the overturning and liberalization of long-established social and moral attitudes to sex and marriage. It began in the 1960s and continues to the present day.
  • Big social and cultural changes brought about by post-war prosperity and radical new forms of individualism interacted (“culture and psyche make each other up”) to give birth to this revolution and then drive it forward.
  • The general concept of individualism (the value and responsibility of each individual person) is grounded in Christian tradition. Provided it remains anchored in broader values of community and mutuality, individualism benefits human well-being and flourishing.
  • Today’s radical individualism, however, heightens the sovereignty of the individual over all other sources of authority. This has shifted our culture in favor of individualistic approaches to a wide range of issues, with far-reaching changes to how we think about morality and human identity.

2. THE IDEOLOGY OF THE REVOLUTION

How radical individualism changed the way we think

  • Even though the human mind is easily tricked and susceptible to emotions, ideas still have great power.
  • Radical individualism is a modern form of ancient Gnosticism. Gnosticism is about discovering, and then expressing, the ‘inner you’ hidden beneath layers of cultural and religious control.
  • The new Gnosticism says people act properly – that is, authentically – when they freely express their inner true self. The rejection of external authority and the free expression of sexual interests become a kind of moral good and source of flourishing.
  • This way of thinking laid the foundation for gender ideology, a radical re-imagination of the meaning of bodily sexual differentiation. Gender ideology makes gender something located in people’s inner feelings rather than something grounded in their (untrustworthy) external bodies. In this worldview, being fully human and truly flourishing means going with your inner feelings, rather than following these externally imposed norms.

3. THE MORAL VISION OF THE REVOLUTION

How radical individualism changes the way we think about right and wrong

  • Emotionally charged, instinctive, gut-level reactions play an important role in the way we make up our minds about moral issues.
  • While these gut responses help us to make everyday decisions without getting bogged down in too much analysis, they also support lazy thinking. And they can be dangerously wrong.
  • People on all sides of the debates about sex often hold strong views based on gut reactions that are badly thought through. Christians (and their critics too) need to be more self-aware and prepared to think through their moral convictions.
  • On matters of ethics and morality, radical individualism shifts people’s gut intuitions away from those that uphold general sacred principles (such as the sanctity of life) towards those that respond to individual needs (such as compassion and concern for fairness). As a result, people’s moral concerns often revolve around the needs of the few rather than those of the many.
  • Orthodox Christians need to talk about general moral principles in ways that connect with people’s individualistic concerns for compassion and fairness. In other words, they need to show how their moral convictions bring compassion, justice and fairness for the many, as well as for the few.

4. THE STORYTELLERS OF THE REVOLUTION

How activists used great stories to move people’s moral elephants

  • Stories have the ability to grab people’s attention, connect with their emotions, and open them up to the possibility of change. The change-makers of the sexual revolution understood this. They condensed complex intellectual arguments into memorable bite-size messages, and then wove them together into great stories.
  • Biopics and dramas that portray heroic struggle appeal to today’s individualistic way of moral thinking. By evoking empathy with their principal character, they draw out those moral instincts that care about individual needs, rather than those that appeal to the ‘big’ sacred values underpinning the welfare of the community as a whole.
  • Much of the success of the sexual revolution can be attributed to its use of the entertainment industry as its main weapon of cultural subversion. But real-life stories of costly resistance and selfless compassion had a powerful impact in kindling people’s individualistic moral reactions as well.
  • Christians need to think hard before responding to culture change solely with more argument; they need more (and better) culture that tells its own stories. They must embody ways of life that show how their sacred values and convictions work to serve the needs of the many as well as the few.

5. THE NARRATIVE OF THE REVOLUTION

How the revolution hooked our inner hero and promised abundant life

  • The core narrative of the sexual revolution has a broadly three-part structure: heroic individualism; a redemptive trajectory; a clear moral vision.
  • This narrative connects strongly with ordinary people because of its appeal to the heart through the moral instincts of compassion and the defeat of oppression.
  • Orthodox Christians must rediscover a narrative that appeals to the heart as well as the head. They will need to find a way of confronting the appeal of individualism while offering a convincing redemptive trajectory of their own.

6. THE WARRIORS OF THE REVOLUTION

How activists played a key role in making the revolution happen

  • Activists and advocacy organizations have played an important role in the success of the sexual revolution, sometimes using insights from the social sciences to develop techniques of persuasion.
  • Advocacy groups paid careful attention to building a sense of pride and ownership of their beliefs within their own communities. This not only sustained their convictions in the face of opposition, but also underpinned the development of authentic stories of what this way of life can actually look like.
  • The new shame culture of social media offered added traction to the ability of activists to portray their opponents as morally deficient. At the same time they offered a strong moral alternative as a face-saving formula for falling into line.
  • As these activities are likely to continue, orthodox Christians need to think about how to strengthen their own beliefs and the cohesion of their own communities. They could start by learning from the activists who have opposed them so successfully.

7. THE CASUALTIES OF THE REVOLUTION

Why surviving as a minority means you need to start acting like one

  • Human beings are dangerous conformists who find it hard to swim against the flow. The experience of being an immoral, as well as a cognitive, minority creates an overwhelming social pressure to conform.
  • The most vulnerable individuals are the more empathic and those whose views are less well formed intellectually. Cognitive minorities who fail actively to sustain and nurture the plausibility of their ideas put their members at serious risk. Those individuals who are most empathic will be the first to depart, leaving a remnant inclined to ‘black-and-white’ thinking and authoritarian diktat.
  • In today’s culture Christians face a double jeopardy of shame from their own internal shame structures and their experience as an immoral minority in wider society. Young people are especially susceptible and are likely to vote with their feet.
  • These dynamics underscore the need for orthodox Christians to begin to act like a minority. Convictions and distinctive modes of life must be actively nurtured and sustained. This involves empathic opinion leaders capable of winning hearts and minds in a robust defence of their convictions. It also requires that minority beliefs are made plausible and real in the lived experience of creative and internally supportive communities.

Part 2

A Better Critique

8. THE PLANK IN YOUR OWN EYE

A Christian critique of the sexual revolution must begin with honest self-examination

  • A Christian response to the sexual revolution needs to begin with honest self-examination. The fear and shame that has marked much Christian culture in the area of sex and relationships isn’t just harmful and repressive, it is unbiblical. And these attitudes, in part, helped lay the foundations of the revolution.
  • Orthodox Christians often draw a line in the sand at the so-called hot-button moral issues (such as same-sex attraction) while turning a blind eye to bigger problems of divorce and separation and the prevalence of sex outside marriage in their own ranks.
  • We need to be sensitive to our motives when we critique the sexual revolution, and ensure that our moral stance is grounded in a clear understanding of the biblical narrative rather than gut reactions fuelled by shame and fear.
  • There can be no “going-backery” to some bucolic paradise of the 1950s that never actually existed. The sexual revolution is forcing us to rethink our grasp of the biblical moral vision. It is an opportunity rather than a problem, and we should be ready to seize it.

9. SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY

The revolution promised more and better sex, but failed to deliver

  • It is difficult to measure what is really going on in people’s sex lives, so we need to treat media claims with caution and look carefully at what the data actually say.
  • Surveys provide a consistent picture that rather than having more and better sex, the reverse is actually the case. Nobody knows why this is happening, but clearly the sexual revolution is failing to deliver on one of its central promises.
  • Although more people are living alone, there is little evidence to suggest that they live happier, more fulfilling lives. Our modern preference for ‘bowling alone’ undermines community, civic society and wider human flourishing. And the consequences are eternal.

10. WAR ON THE WEAK

How kids pay the price of their parents’ freedoms

  • Access to the key resources that foster the development and well-being of children—cohesive communities, great schools and strong families—is unequal and unfair, and the situation is deteriorating fast.
  • While several factors are responsible for this injustice, the retreat from marriage over recent decades has played a critical role. A stable home life, built on a committed relationship of two biological parents, is associated with a range of better life chances for kids.
  • Divorce isn’t the biggest threat for kids today, but rather the seemingly unstoppable rise of cohabitation. Cohabiting relationships are much less stable, and instability damages the social and emotional health of children.
  • While it is impossible to prove conclusively, there is evidence that marriage has a ‘magic’ of its own in helping to build stronger families. Marriage creates a culture that binds men to their responsibilities for the children they help to bring into the world; it fosters expectations that boys and men will develop virtues of commitment and faithfulness.
  • The pornographication of childhood is almost symbolic of the revolution’s inability to provide a moral framework robust enough for true human flourishing. The revolution has a clear idea of what it is against, but what is it for? Beyond vague notions of inclusion and diversity, the revolution seems to have little that is positive to say about the true nature and meaning of sex and sexuality.

11. WHO AM I TODAY?

The treadmill of self-identification

  • Identity refers to a sense of having an inner core that allows us to move between different roles while retaining a sense of being the same person. It is the inner story that gives meaning and coherence to our lives.
  • Major cultural and technological changes mean that it is increasingly difficult to form and sustain this inner coherence, and radical individualism is making it harder than ever. What makes the present moment so unique, however, is the convergence of fast-moving changes that blur the boundaries of reality with a radical individualism that attempts to redefine it.
  • The resulting confusion heightens risks to mental health and social cohesion. It underpins victimhood identities and growing confusion about our bodies and gender fluidity. These risks may be especially dangerous for young people and children in the most formative years of their lives.

Part 3

A Better Story

12. LIVING IN GOD’S REALITY

Our story begins when we are welcomed into God’s reality

  • A good narrative puts information and ideas together in ways the mind finds interesting and memorable. So telling a better story about sex and relationships needs to start by gathering together the relevant biblical truths and ideas.
  • The biblical understanding of sex and relationships is built upon five foundational pillars:
    • God has spoken, and we don’t need to figure it out for ourselves.
    • His Word, revealed in the book of nature, and more fully in the revelation of Scripture, welcomes us into his reality, and we flourish as we live with the grain of his reality.
    • For the Christian, identity is not discovered within or self-constructed, but revealed by God and lived out in his reality.
    • And finally, whatever happens, God is good. Building our vision on these foundations puts us on the road to flourishing.
  • In the gospel God restores our identity to us as image-bearing children being conformed to the image of Christ. The more we live in harmony with this calling, working with the grain of God’s reality rather than against it, the more we begin to flourish as followers of Christ.
  • The road to flourishing is the way of the cross. Submitting to God – learning to be his creature – is hard, especially in today’s culture of entitlement. But at the cross we see that God is good; we can trust him even when goodness is hard to see. And, enduring to the end, we shall see the face of God.

13. THE END OF LONGING

How our sexual desires connect us with heaven

14. THE END OF SHAME

How the biblical vision of sex confronts shame and puts the gospel on display

  • The Bible does not teach that there will be no marriage in heaven. Rather, it teaches there will be one marriage in heaven – between Christ and his bride, the church.
  • When we “look into” our sexual desires, we see the passionate nature of God’s love for us. And when we “look along” them, they point us to the reality that one day all our longings, all our desires, will be fulfilled in the consummation of the marriage between Christ and his church.
  • The biblical vision of sex breaks open three pivotal truths about God’s love: it is passionate, always faithful, and ultimately fruitful.
  • As we allow the gospel to shape and discipline sexual desire, our lived bodily experience puts these truths on display. Just as passion and faithfulness go together in heaven, that’s how it works here on earth too.
  • Remaining chaste if we are single (whether for a part of, or all, our lives), and faithful to our vows if we are married, bears witness to the faithful character of God’s love. Single people are not asexual. In their self-denial they too put God’s faithful love on display in their body life. Single people also portray the truth that we shall all be single again one day as, finally, we are drawn into the ultimate consummation that takes place between Christ and his bride, the church.

15. FOR THE LIFE OF THE WORLD

How the biblical vision for sex and relationships opens the road to flourishing

  • In the Christian worldview flourishing is about realizing our potential as human beings made in the image of God. It’s about becoming fruitful, creative and relational human beings, alongside the development of Christlike character.
  • Moral obedience and human flourishing are bound together by the biblical law of consequences. Given our limited perspective in a fallen world, at an individual level the link isn’t always visible. In the long run, however, the principle is clear. We need to recover our confidence in God’s promise that obedience leads to abundant life. Obedience and self-sacrifice do not diminish us, but rather open the road to true freedom.
  • Human flourishing is served by God’s gifts of the institutions of the extended family and the local church. These two institutions carry the knowledge of God’s ways down through the generations, and everybody—single and married, young, and old—has a stake in supporting and nurturing them.
  • Children have paid the price massively for the failed promise of the sexual revolution, and these institutions are especially powerful in serving their needs and protecting their interests.
  • The institutions of the family and the local church must never become self-serving and inward-looking. They have a crucial role in fulfilling the Christian vocation of bringing life to the whole world.

16. OUR BETTER STORY

Crafting a narrative for hearts as well as minds

1. Identity and learning to be God’s creatures and image-bearers

  • The Christian vision for sex and relationships is grounded in the foundational truth that human beings are creatures made in the image of God. Our identity is defined by this reality. It isn’t something that we have discovered within ourselves or constructed for ourselves – our Creator revealed it to us.
  • Although sin has disfigured and distorted the image of God in human beings, Christ’s death and resurrection have made possible its full restoration. As we trust in him, and live and work towards the final restoration of all things in him, the process of renovation is already well under way.
  • Living out our God-given identity as divine image- bearers puts us on the road to a flourishing that involves fruitful, creative endeavour and a transformation of our relationships—including our sexual relationships.

2. Sex and the divine image

  • Sexual feelings and bodily desires are an important part of what it means to bear God’s image, and we flourish as we bring them into harmony with our God-given identity. Our sexual longings are a homing instinct for the Divine, pointing us to the only intimate union that fully satisfies—the one with God himself.
  • As divine image-bearers, we are called to love in the same way that God loves. Because God’s intimate love for us is bound up with faithfulness and fruitfulness, that is how we express our most intimate level of love for each other as well—in a relationship of faithfulness and fruitfulness called marriage. This form of bodily expression of our sexuality also puts the story of God’s love on display to the world.
  • Marriage is a gift from God—a sacred covenant between one man and one woman that paints a vivid picture of Christ’s love for his church. Both the married (by their faithfulness) and the unmarried (by their chastity) play their different roles in upholding the biblical concept of marriage as the only God-given context for intimate sexual love.

3. Flourishing as God’s image-bearers

  • For Christians, true human flourishing isn’t found in the pursuit of self-fulfillment, but in living in harmony with our true identity. It involves playing our part in the bigger story of the break-in of God’s rule; we flourish when we look outwards, serving others and working for a good greater than ourselves.
  • Two God-given institutions—the family and the local church—play a central role in nourishing this big, inclusive vision of human flourishing, and strong marriages have an integral part in both. These relational networks provide mutual support, help build and develop character, and ensure stable and protective environments for children.
  • All Christians, regardless of age, marital state, gender or sexuality, by living faithfully in harmony with
    their identity in Christ, are called to play their part in supporting these two life-giving institutions. The biblical vision for sex is a holistic one in which everybody lives self-sacrificially for the common good.
  • Making sacrifices for this greater good is tough in today’s culture of entitlement. Living in harmony with your Christian identity is especially challenging for those struggling in unhappy marriages or those experiencing bisexual or same-sex attraction. We remain firm in our convictions, however, because, in the long run, this Christian vision brings flourishing for the many as well as the few.
  • Nobody has ever kept these ideals of marriage, sex and family as they should. Christian communities are places of sin, failure and struggle, as well as of hope and grace. And so Christians are called to work to build accepting communities that offer support and compassion to all, regardless of background or circumstance.
  • We believe that these ways of life, rooted in our Christian identity, are not only good for us, but that they are good for everybody. They help build stronger communities and protect the most vulnerable of all—our children and the poor.

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One thought on “A Better Story: God, Sex, and Human Flourishing”

  1. steve hays says:

    Promoting promiscuity is an easy sell because sex is tempting. Self-restraint cuts against the grain. The libertine apologists have it easy. Virtue is hard.

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Justin Taylor, PhD


Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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