A Better Story: God, Sex & Human Flourishing
The winds of the sexual revolution have been blowing hard across the plains of Western culture since the 1960s, resulting in dramatic shifts in mainstream cultural views regarding sex, marriage, and human sexuality. In a world that is ever more connected, regardless of the continent you call home, the ramifications of that shift are coming (or have already come) to a place near you. This can certainly be said about the place I call home, the capital city of a small republic in Central Asia. Anecdotal reports from multiple Central Asian friends reveal that prostitution is readily accessible, pornography is just as much an issue here as it is in the West, and fewer young people are waiting for marriage to have sex for the first time. I’ve met one openly bisexual individual who is involved in a local LGBT community. On several occasions, men have suggested to my wife that she marry them, even though they know she’s already married. We have been told that many Central Asians view Western women as promiscuous, mostly because of the image of women the West has exported. While all of these behaviors have existed for as long as mankind has been sinful, the sexual revolution that rocked the West has at least played a role in introducing them into the mainstream around the globe.
How did such a revolution succeed in the West and then reach to the heart of Asia? In his book A Better Story: God, Sex & Human Flourishing author Glynn Harrison argues that the most effective tool used by proponents of the sexual revolution to propagate their cause is storytelling. In short, they’ve told a good tale, one that comes across as more attractive than the story Christians are telling about sex, and that tale has won the masses over. Here’s how Harrison summarizes the story that proponents of the sexual revolution are spreading:
“For centuries, traditional morality had us—all of us—in its suffocating grip. Year after year the same old rules, chained to the past, heaped shame on ordinary men and women (and boys and girls) whose only crime was being different. Enemies of the human spirit, these bankrupt ideologies befriended bigots and encouraged the spiteful…. No more. Change is here. We are breaking free from the shackles of bigotry and removing ourselves from under the dead hand of tradition. Our time has come” (51).
It’s hard to argue with such a story. Who would want to be thrown in with bigots and the narrow minded who stomp on the little guy? This story appeals to values such as caring for people as individuals, fairness, and standing up against oppression. As these values have risen in importance in more individualistic societies, stories that appeal to these values increasingly resonate with people. Having caught on in the West, such stories are now racing toward all the places globalization might carry them, as evidenced to me by many of my local friends.
Of course, Harrison’s description of the story of the sexual revolution is not the only alternative narrative regarding sexuality being told around the globe today. Though the sexual revolution in the West has definitely influenced mainstream thinking in Central Asia, other, perhaps “pre-revolution,” narratives still have a grip on many. For example, many believe the story that men and women should be held to different standards regarding their personal fidelity to their marriage vows. Here men are almost expected to come to their wedding night with experience; women, on the other hand, must be virgins. My wife, a nurse, regularly treats women for sexually transmitted diseases that they have gotten from their husbands on account of the husband’s infidelity. A woman’s infidelity is unthinkable while a man’s infidelity is commonplace.
How are Christians to respond to so many competing narratives regarding human sexuality? They could cower and fall silent out of fear. They could rant and rave and shake their fists. They could try to refute the narratives on logical or historical grounds. Or, as Harrison argues, they could set about topping such tales with a story of their own, a story that is more captivating than anything else anyone has ever heard. First, however, Harrison recommends that Christians pause and reflect. How often has the so-called Christian story regarding human sexuality, a story marred by themes of shame and hypocrisy, driven people to embrace contrary narratives that they find more appealing? Harrison concludes, “Where the [sexual] revolution has forced us to face our shame and hypocrisy, we should say ‘thank you’ — and mean it” (89). It’s always best to begin with the removal of the plank in our own eye.
Only then are we in a position to critically analyze the shortcomings of the story that proponents of the sexual revolution are telling, and the shortcomings are many. Harrison cites research from the social sciences revealing that the promises their story makes are not coming true. By and large, Westerners are not having more and better sex and have not found deeper and more satisfying relationships. The promise of self-realization and of discovering a better, self-made identity has also gone unfulfilled. The rise of divorce and cohabitation has taken its toll on children who are more commonly finding themselves in unstable home environments, environments correlated with fewer opportunities for future success.
In light of competing narratives, we’re left with a very important question: Do we as Christians actually have a better story regarding sex, marriage, and sexuality? Harrison believes we do. Such a story rings with the theme that true human flourishing doesn’t happen when human beings reject God’s design for sexuality; rather, they flourish only when they embrace it. Those living outside that design are not as free and realized as they think, and that’s a story the world isn’t hearing—not in the West, not in Central Asia, and most likely not where you live. Such flourishing is not merely individualistic in nature. Ripples of the decisions of individuals have positive effects on families, on local churches, and on society as a whole. “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” (179). It is our love for our fellow man and a desire for the good of all that compels us to hold to God’s designs and invite others to do the same.
Harrison argues that the Christian story about sexuality is rooted and grounded in the grand story of the Bible. A good God created a good world, including sexuality. That means he defines it, and we’re not left scrambling to figure it all out on our own. Our identity, too, comes from him and is not something we must invent for ourselves. He’s invited us in to take part in his reality, and only when we live within the constraints of his good designs are we truly free. Though sin has marred all we see and has thus made it difficult to walk according to God’s ways, based on the cross of Christ, we can trust that God really does have our good in mind when calling us to live in certain ways and not in others. In addition, our story is one that includes a purpose since Christians know what sex is ultimately for: to be “a taste and a picture of divine love” (136). Sexual union in marriage is a metaphor for an even deeper, richer, and closer union that will exist between the risen Christ and his people for all eternity, and it is precisely in the depths of our own sexual desire and experience that we begin to understand the intensity, the fullness, and the faithfulness of Christ’s love for his bride. Celibate singles also put God’s faithful love on display by living out the truth that God’s intimacy with his people is based on his exclusive covenant with them alone.
How might the biblical narrative regarding sex, marriage, and sexuality come to bear on a place like Central Asia? How different would the story of a man who willingly gives himself up for the good of his wife out of fierce sacrificial love sound in the face of the local narrative in which, in many cases, a wife’s main duty is to serve her husband? Such truths and actions could be just as shocking and attention grabbing as any story out of the sexual revolution.
In the final pages of the book, Harrison challenges Christians to work on crafting a better narrative through which we can share our worldview of human sexuality. We should do this, he says, by identifying the values that caused the competing story to be so well-embraced in the first place and connect our stories with those values as well. For example, since the value of care of the individual played such an important role in the propagation of the stories told by proponents of the sexual revolution, we would do well to address how our story actually better cares for individuals than theirs does. Objective statements of truth are not enough to alter a person’s most deeply held beliefs. Painting authentic stories while living out the truth of them in one’s singleness or marriage is the way to reach people’s hearts with the good news of a better story.
In the face of our rapidly globalized world, the central thesis treated in A Better Story: God, Sex & Human Flourishing could not be more relevant for Christians across the globe today. The biblical story regarding sexuality is better, and it alone sets out the only conditions under which humans can truly flourish. Harrison’s articulation and defense of this thesis comprised the book’s greatest strengths. Without oversimplifying a complex and expansive topic, Harrison builds a compelling, thought-provoking case while keeping his tone sensitive and even-handed. Though beyond the scope of Harrison’s book, I did find myself wanting his thesis fleshed out for cultures such as the one in which I live, cultures where the sexual revolution is only now beginning to reach, cultures which must now come to terms with this new narrative in light of other equally errant narratives of their own. In addition, it occurred to me that his thesis applies to spheres of life beyond human sexuality, for is not the biblical narrative regarding God’s design for all of life a better story than the one most people have heard? Such examinations easily warrant separate books. May Harrison’s book fuel such further examination, and may it encourage us all to boldly and unashamedly embrace God’s story about human sexuality.