REVIEWED BY GAVIN MATTHEWS
Glynn Harrison who was until recently Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Bristol, is also a Christian with orthodox/conservative Christian views about sexual ethics, family life and so forth. This unusual combination of expertise and convictions come together in his rather unusual book: A Better Story.
It is important to grasp who this book is aimed at, in order to appreciate the contribution it makes to these discussions; and understand what this book is not, as well as what it is. Beginning with the ‘what it is not’ then, A Better Story is not a detailed biblical or theological argument as to why Christians should continue to maintain their traditional ethics. Neither is it a defence of the procedure of deferring to the Bible, as the final authority for a Christian or a church’s faith and practise. So, if you are looking for a book which engages with liberal theology (which seeks to move the ethical debate beyond the Bible), or with the ‘evangelical left’, (and radically revisionist readings of scripture); this is not the book for you. Rather, in these pages, Harrison writes for people who have reached broadly similar conclusions to himself about these foundational matters; but who struggle to relate these to the contemporary world.
Harrison manages to achieve these aims with great skill, combining serious academic rigour with remarkably accessible language; while also coupling orthodoxy with pastoral sensitivity. This makes the book worth reading in itself; however there is more. A Better Story isn’t a church rule book, or a blue-print as to handle awkward ethical dilemmas in the life of the church. In fact, in his discussion of matters such as the case of a polygamous family who became Christians and sought to join a church; he demonstrates just how difficult these matters are. But this book is not a short-cut, which will offer a church a series of answers with which to avoid thinking; rather it is an invitation to think long and hard about what it means to be a biblical church in the particular circumstances in which we now find ourselves.
The book is divided into three sections, and within these, each chapter comes with a helpful summary at the end. These are especially useful for reminding the reader of the main points of earlier chapters, when the book moves so rapidly from one area to the next.
Section One explains the so-called ‘sexual revolution’ not just in terms of social history, but also in philosophical and theological categories – including the re-emergence of Gnosticism, and the triumph of hyper-individualism, how moral systems are constructed and propagated, and the effects these changes have had on society and individuals. A particularly fascinating chapter explains to the church how to adjust to being a ‘cognitive minority’; who need to spend more effort in maintaining group ethos, than a previous generation of Christians who generally swam in cultural waters moving in the same direction as themselves.
Section Two begins with a critique of the church’s dealing with sexual matters in the light of the sexual revolution he mapped out in section one. Interestingly, Harrison is not entirely negative in his assessment of all the changes brought about by the sexual revolution, noting that prior to it, the linking of sex with shame and secrecy was as unbiblical as what replaced it – and that the church was frequently complicit in this error. Then Harrison turns his attention to the effects of the sexual revolution revealing some interesting research which suggests that “the sexual revolution promised more and better sex, but failed to deliver”. While sex might be more visible in the media, and all over social media, and society has become increasingly porn saturated; surveys suggest that the amount actual sex taking place, and people reporting sexual satisfaction is dropping. The value of, and decline in the institution of marriage is examined next, with an array of studies cited demonstrating the correlation of marriage with a whole host of benefits (without assuming crass cause and effects where they can’t be demonstrated). One finding is of particular significance. Harrison notes that while the middle and upper-classes have led the liberal assault on the primacy of the marriage relationship and its historic definition; they continue to have higher rates of marital stability. On the other hand, the more vulnerable socio-economic groups have embraced this cultural shift, and failed to capitalise on all the demonstrable social goods that flow from the institution. Finally, in this section, Harrison turns his attention to the nature of identity – as it is today located in radically individualistic terms; and where the search for ‘authenticity’ is seen as a turning inwards to one’s individual perception of their true-self; as opposed to an outward view in which external verification is sought, from biology, society, or God.
Section Three is where Harrison turns his attention to the distinctive Christian response to these issues; where the three subjects of the book’s subtitle (God, Sex, Human Flourishing) come together. He develops several lines of argument, all of which are rich with ideas, insights and wisdom. His first task is to start with the basic Christian message, and to demonstrate the way in which the gospel provides a context and meaning for the whole of life; a big story of which the issues at hand are but a part. The concept of human flourishing which emerges here is that of redemption by Christ, and growth into his image, secure in his identity. Harrison then addresses how human sexuality is an important part of that flourishing, both as expressed in the covenant of marriage, and equally in the single life. Both, he demonstrates equally reflect different aspects of the gospel narrative, and the nature of God. As such, sexual desire should be shorn of any shame, and singleness of any social awkwardness, because both are important parts of what God planned for us, and things with which we glorify him. He moves on to look at the importance of marriage, family and church community as medium-level institutions, in which human flourishing is promoted. These are the opposite of the echo-chambers of social media where people mix in circles of people just like them; but where long-term relationships are forged with people we might not always choose! Then, he takes the church to task for failing to address this radically positive view of sexuality in the Christian life, (in other words only being known for what we are against), and states that every church should have a programme supporting marriage and parenting!
A thread running through all this material is that of the importance “story”, of narratives which define the argument, which have more power than just facts in moving and persuading people. By this, he doesn’t just mean individual stories (important though they are), but also the narratives which are used to define debates, and interpret cultures. A dominant narrative today might be that we have finally thrown off the shackles of Christian guilt and can enjoy and explore sex more fully than previous generations. This is the sort of narrative that Harrison is challenging in this book; but he is anxious to tell us that we cannot do so just by quoting reports, and statistics alone – but that we need to construct and tell “a better story”. On pages 180-182, he maps out what this better story might look like. It begins like this:
And continues, mapping out what a Christian and biblical view of human sexuality and flourishing looks like today, concluding with a repudiation of ‘Christendom’ style models of imposing our morality on others, in favour of a more gracious invitation to all to join us on this path.
For people and churches who share Harrison’s core convictions, “A Better Story”, is essential reading, as it is insightful, wise, scholarly, accessible, stirring to read and challenging the church both to faithfulness to its message and to repentance for its errors. It gives unusually clear access to complex areas of discussion and social analysis, without dumbing these issues down. It also gives orthodox Christians a great guide for beginning to think more engagingly and creatively about these difficult subjects. Christian morality will no doubt continue to be accused of being limiting, oppressive and harmful; but Harrison believes that it is enriching, and good for us all. For those who do not share Harrison’s starting point, he provides a suggested reading list under various headings which explore these ideas in greater detail. This book deserves to be widely read – not least by revisionists who wish to move Christian ethics away from its biblical roots, and towards contemporary norms. Engaging with Harrison would be a helpful way for such folks to at least understand their opponents! The book also deserves to be widely read by those in broad agreement with Harrison; not least because doing so will help to prevent them either avoiding these issues and handing the ground by default to the wider culture, with all the problems that involves; but also because Harrison is a wise-guide in helping to ensure that such engagement will not be crass, controlling, or involve resurrecting the shame-culture of a bygone age.
Glynn Harrison was Professor and Head of the Department of Psychiatry, University of Bristol, where he was also a Consultant Psychiatrist. He now researches and writes about the relationship between Christian faith and psychology, neuroscience and psychiatry.