A Better Story: God, Sex and Human Flourishing by Glynn Harrison – A Review
It’s fairly easy to hype-up a decent book with inordinate adjectives such as ‘prophetic’ or ‘profound’, but with A Better Story, it seems that such labels might well be due praise. Glynn Harrison has written a compelling and constructive account of how Christians might go about communicating what the Bible has to say on the topic of ‘God, Sex and Human Flourishing,’ and all because he thinks it’s imperative that we take seriously how our cultural moment shapes how we engage.
Consequently, this book is not so much designed to convince you of the traditional Christian sexual ethic (which is the position Glynn holds to), as it is intended to inspire and guide those of us who hold these convictions as we seek to articulate them in a way that better engages with our cultural landscape. In that sense, A Better Story is really a reflection on how we go about living as exiles in a culture that rests upon presuppositions significantly opposed to a traditional Christian framework.
Recognising the Revolution
But why does this even matter? Because a ‘revolution’ has occurred, to use Glynn’s often repeated term. As he puts it later, the home team suddenly feels like the away team, and we’re not quite sure how it happened. And not only do orthodox Christians find themselves in the minority, but they are often cast as an “immoral minority”. As such, we simply can’t keep operating in a way that pretends this isn’t the case, nor is the solution to just shout louder.
Even the events of the past week, in which the Church of England’s House of Bishops have affirmed a traditional understanding of sexuality and marriage and have been generally vilified in response, shows just how ‘far back’ the Church is perceived to be. But Glynn argues the real problem lies not in being a minority, but rather in not recognising that we are a minority, and therefore not acting accordingly. And so he suggests three action steps, which form the main sections of the book: having a better understanding; thinking through a better critique; and then offering a better story (which in turn requires being better storytellers).
Anyone who has read Glynn’s excellent first book, The Big Ego Trip (essentially a Christian approach to the self-esteem movement) will not be surprised by his acute awareness and appreciation of history and culture. This is captured powerfully in his initial section as he unpacks how the gradual shift regarding how sex is considered within the culture has occurred. This is framed within a wider narrative of autonomy. Glynn argues that, if we haven’t already done so, we need to acknowledge that what the revolution offered was for “something better, more inclusive and life-giving than what the Church offered in the past”.
A Legacy Exposed
In his second section he turns to critique, with Glynn modelling both self-awareness and nuance, whilst still also offering a devastating exposure of the state of affairs of society. Take these two snapshot sentences:
“The vision of sexual liberation, supposedly set free from its broader Christian narrative of commitment and responsibility, simply doesn’t have enough ‘beef’, enough intrinsic meaning and purpose, to motivate and sustain sexual interest over the longer term.”
…“The bravado of the sexual revolution… has turned out to be a weak, vulnerable thing needing costly coddling by an army of agony aunts and sex therepists. And because it never quite delivers, people end up tumbling through a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey, or making yet more swipes of the Tinder app, or another visit to a pornography site…”
Telling A Better Story
As we finally turn to application, we get to A Better Story’s raison d’être. This is Glynn at his most passionate and most compelling. The temptation for those who (quite rightly) prize orthodoxy will be to default to articulating ourselves solely in terms of statements and propositions, and thus merely engaging minds (albeit, if those minds are even bothering to listen). Instead we need to speak into the culture in a manner that seeks to cast a compelling narrative that engages hearts. Ultimately stories matter because our identities are often rooted in “the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, an inner narrative that gives a sense of meaning and coherence to our lives.” And so we need to respond to the story of revolution with a ‘better story’.
But this isn’t just about how we speak about sex in the culture ‘out there’. For a start, Glynn is concerned that our lack of substance in this conversation is resulting in a generation of young evangelicals “salami-slicing their convictions about the authority of the Bible”. However there is also the alternative danger of Christians basing their opinions simply on an emotional response to an issue. This is concerning at best, and bigotry at worst. Instead, “orthodox convictions around sexual ethics need to be based in reason and calm analysis, not elephant-based gut response driven by fear and disgust”. Similarly, Glynn is mindful of the ‘double-jeopardy’ being faced by Christian young people already struggling to live distinctly amidst the potent air of the revolution, who are then made to also feel shame from their own Christian culture for just wanting to actually talk about these issues. Either way, saying nothing is just not an option; no story still comes across as a story, just not a very attractive one.
And this isn’t just about pragmatics or packaging. I found A Better Story to be theologically rich; Glynn’s account of the five theological convictions that should shape a Christian account of sexuality were both deep and astute. Likewise, the image of our Christian identity as a two-sided coin, both created and redeemed, was one that has gone straight into my illustration kitbag. There’s a very stimulating chapter on how Christians contribute to a vision of human flourishing, and Glynn also helpfully reflects on the current debate concerning the so-called ‘Benedict Option’ and the ‘Wilberforce Option’, two opposing visions of how Western Christians should position themselves in their culture.
The bottom line is that I’d love for everyone involved in Christian ministry to spend some time marinating in this book. To not think through this issue strikes me as simply remiss. The whole premise of A Better Story is that this isn’t just something for youth workers or student workers to consider (although they certainly should); it is about the water we swim in and the air we breathe.
For that reason, I’d commend it to anyone who’d be willing to read it. I can’t imagine any Christian not getting something from this book. Certainly don’t be put off by the notion that this could be a complicated book. Although the nature of the subject matter requires some significant thought and engagement, Glynn wears his learning lightly. His tone is friendly and each chapter ends with a bullet point summary of its key ideas, allowing the reader to easily track the journey from start to finish.
And for all his perceptive cultural analysis, I think ultimately the book is so brilliant because Glynn has a real gifting to inspire. A Better Story is a book full of hope, ultimately rooted in a confidence that the Christian ‘story’ about sex is one that is neither something to be ashamed of, nor something that is meagre and small. And this humble confidence that the Christian ethic is ‘good news’ oozes from the pages. It’s a great tonic. Whether we’re single or married, the Bible portrays sexual desire as an “inbuilt homing instinct for the Divine, a navigation aid showing us the way home”. (And if that’s left you surprised, then even more reason to pick up a copy.) The point of the book is not to be a final word, but to stir and equip us all to be better at ‘telling this story’, and I think Glynn is going to achieve his aim. The story continues…
You can pick up A Better Story from the publisher here.
Disclaimer: The publisher has sent me a free copy of this book, but I hope this is still a fair and honest review.