Glynn Harrison’s book “A Better Story; God, Sex and Human Flourishing” seems to have become the “go to” book on sexuality for conservative Christians interested in a conversation that is broader than the debates on same sex relationships. You can read my live-tweets of reading the book HERE. Glynn Harrison is a former Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Bristol, where he was also a consultant psychiatrist. He is a conservative Christian and speaks widely on issues of faith and psychology, mental health and neuroscience. This professional background seems to have increased his credibility amongst Christians, however it is interesting that this book is not primarily focussed on his specialism of psychiatry.
In the book, Harrison explains that his audience is conservative Christians (he defines them as “Orthodox Christians”). Rather than seeking to convert others to his position, he is equipping conservative Christians to respond to the current UK situation around sexuality, which he sees as rooted in the sexual revolution of the 1960s. The book aims to give conservative Christians a better understanding of the sexual revolution (its ideology, moral vision, narrative and “casualties”), offer a better critique of the sexual revolution than the one conservative Christians are currently able to give, and give them a better story about sexuality that will help them articulate their convictions.
Though Harrison states that his focus is on sexuality holistically, within the book his focus is almost solely on same-sex relationships and the erosion of marriage and the nuclear family. I think what makes this book successful amongst conservative Christians is that Harrison acknowledges that Christians should be thankful for the sexual revolution, primarily focussing on the benefits for women and in enabling the discriminated against to stand up for their rights. Many would not see that as particularly radical, but for a group of people with a very rigid view of the sexual revolution as evil, this could be Huge News.
There are some points that I agree with Harrison on (though not wholly):
1. Critiquing liberalism and individualism
Much of Harrison’s critique of liberalism and its development into radical individualism is something that I’m fully onboard with. Whilst many view liberalism positively, I do not. Liberalism is fundamentally selfish; we do not care for others because they are inherently worthy of care, but rather because we ourselves would like to be cared for. It’s transactional. And that impacts everything, including how liberal societies engage with sexuality.
However, I don’t think Harrison’s argument that the sexual revolution was rooted in liberalism is accurate. There were many socialist and Marxist lesbian and gay activists and the movement was generally organised collectively, and not primarily for individual benefit. This was also the case for much of second wave feminism (however, Harrison does not engage with feminism, collapsing the work of feminists into the sexual revolution). It’s been interesting reading the objections of some older gay and lesbian people about how Pride has become a parade where corporate logos abound. Originally gay and lesbian liberation was caught up with a class-analysis and Pride was an anti-capitalist political statement. The array of corporate banners seem representative of a Pride which seems to have de-politicised and de-toothed.
In positing “Orthodox Christians” in opposition to liberals Harrison fails to account for socialist and Marxist organising, and totally ignores the emergence of neoliberalism within UK political Conservativism (and in the US). We find that the biggest actor in moving the UK to individualism was Margaret Thatcher, not the sexual revolution. Whilst I understand that Harrison’s views would be considered “small c” conservative, it’s problematic to see individualism as solely the fault of the sexual revolution.
Alongside this, I find it interesting that whenever Harrison mentions Christian engagement with social justice, he always refers to churches “helping the poor”, not being the poor or being with the poor. Whilst slightly tangential, I think it evidences that Harrison does not envisaging an incarnational Christian community, but one who does for and to the Other that is the poor. I think it is only in moving to incarnational living that we a) live out the Gospel of Jesus and b) eradicate individualism. I am not sure whether conservative Christianity has the capacity for this.
2. Polarisation on social media and the diminishing of intermediate-sized communities
I agree with Harrison that social media has contributed to huge polarisation, and the distance through screens allows for some to behave with great unkindness, on all sides. However, I do think Harrison should try being a woman with an opinion online, it definitely surpasses any abuse that a white conservative man expressing an opinion about same-sex relationships will be subjected to.
Alongside this, I think Harrison’s comments about the diminishing of intermediate-sized communities is accurate. In the micro of close personal relationships, we can often choose to associate with people like us (except within our family of origin of course!), and then in the macro, we can remain distant from those who do not think the same as us. The church functions as an intermediate-sized community and provides opportunities for learning to love people who are different to us. Interestingly though, I’m not sure how many conservative Christian communities function like this. My experience has been that such churches have an expectation of ideological purity. As Harrison states, on Twitter (a liberal and lefty platform) a conservative may be challenged for not affirming same-sex relationships. However, within a conservative church, someone who has less conservative views on sexuality would find themselves marginalised and possibly shunned. A recent conversation with a member of a conservative church was told that as they were having pre-marital sex, they would not be allowed communion. They left the church. I think we could probably argue that being denied communion is of greater significance than a stranger on Twitter telling us we’re homophobic.
3. The Zeitgeist of “I identify as”
To some degree, I agree with Harrison that the zeitgeist of our age is “I identify as”, and I’m not entirely sure how this fits with the self-emptying call of kenosis within the Gospel. What Harrison does acknowledge though is that it is impossible to give up our life unless we ownour life in the first place. Whether our life has been owned by others because of their abuse, violence, prejudice or discrimination, the process towards healing and freedom definitely involves a period of regaining ownership of our lives. My experience (as a woman who has been abused by men), is that there is a freedom that can only be found in death to self. I’m not sure how that works out, particularly in contexts of ongoing oppression (especially when that oppression is structural, institutional and/or systemic), but I do think this is something we need to be talking about and grappling with.
4. Christians have caused great harm
Harrison does acknowledge that churches and Christianity have caused great harm. I think this might be news to many conservative Christians, and I’m grateful to Joshua Heyesfor pointing this out (I didn’t think it could be anything other than Very Obvious). Harrison does have one chapter about the harm conservative Christianity has done around sexuality, and he does acknowledge that “Christendom’s dysfunctional attitudes to sex helped create the discontent that triggered the [sexual] revolution and propelled it forward”.
The chapter is nine pages in a two-hundred-page book and offers only intangible, amorphous suggestions of shame, alongside the issue of Christians judging gay and lesbian people without admitting to our own sexual sins. That’s it. To put it in context, he spends seven chapters unpicking the issues with the sexual revolution and five chapters talking about how the Better Story. Some of the things he chooses to ignore about the harm done by Christianity:
- Suicide and suicide attempts by gay and lesbian Christians.
- Preaching and perpetuating the view that men are hypersexual and women are not interested in sex.
- Causing some women to develop vaginismus due to the way they were taught to think about sex.
- Justifying men’s pornography use because “God made men to be visual”.
- Catholic priests raping children and women.
- The harm caused by Christian communities disbelieving and blaming women and children who have been sexually abused by male church leaders and members.Research has found that many of those subjected to abuse found their church’s response more harmful than the original abuse.
- The covering up of men’s sexual abuse of women and children by church establishments.
- Providing young people with a narrative in which all pre-marital sex is bad and all post-marital sex is good, thereby disabling them from differentiating between sexual violence and consensual sexual activity.
- Teaching young women particularly that engaging in sexual activity makes them the same as a jar that numerous people have spat in.
- Young people generally being invited up at Christian events to confess sexual sin, without creating a space for young people who have been sexually sinned against.
- The legitimising of colonialism and slavery which led to the rape and impregnation of countless numbers of black women, and the intentional destruction of black families.
- The ability of white evangelicals to vote in Donald Trump as a self-confessed sexual offender, over a woman.
- Guilting women whose husbands are masturbating to images of women being degraded and abused into prioritising their husband’s feelings.
- Placing young women in Magdalene laundries, forcibly separating them from their children, torturing them and making them do forced labour.
- Inflicting electric shock therapy on gay men and lesbian women and making them drink substances to induce nausea in order to supposedly stop them being gay.
- Judging women for being single, or without children, for working, or for having a career.
- Infantilising men and perpetuating masculinity, male headship and male dominance.
- The Catholic church’s approach to contraception contributing to great harm to women, children, and communities.
- I could go on, but we’d never get to the end of this blog!
Although we Christians have a faith rooted in crucifixion, we are generally uncomfortable with facing pain. Glynn barely pays lip service to the harm Christianity has caused (which admittedly might be more than most of his audience have previously ever considered), and then moves swiftly onto the Better Story. Even in his “resources and further reading”, Harrison limits his suggestions to the titles on “sex and marriage”, “bisexuality and same-sex attraction”, and “identity and transgender”. That’s what he thinks his audience needs to know more about, rather than learning more about the harm done.
5. The existence of positive same-sex relationships and marriages
Throughout the book, Harrison does acknowledge the existence of positive same sex relationships; gay and lesbian couples going through their normal everyday lives, raising kids and having loving, positive relationships. However, that is not the end of the matter, he writes:
“…we find ourselves asking how it can possibly be wrong to support a same-sex sexual relationship that seems to happy and life-giving. These are valid and potent objections. We can point in response to the destruction wreaked on God’s creation by human disobedience and pride; we can point out the we see only part of the picture whereas God see the whole. These are valid and good arguments. But in the end there is a mystery in suffering: our creaturely minds are finite, and there are some things that only God knows and sees.”
Which I don’t think really explains anything much.
6. The pornographication of childhood
Harrison raises concerns about the pornographication of childhood. Whilst this is good, his content is not adequate. Focussing solely on pornography itself (and not the pornographication; the influence of pornography on wider media like music videos, adverts, films, songs and children’s clothing and toys). It also doesn’t explicitly lay out what exactly young people are watching (brutality and sexual violence). Harrison states that the ideology of the sexual revolution, “offers little that is capable of resisting [the pornographication of childhood].” I would agree with him. If we see any moral reflection on sexuality as Judgemental and Wrong, how do we help children make good sexual choices, if sex is not part of morality.
At no point within the book does Harrison engage with work done by women. He cites no women at all. This is quite staggering. It is impossible to engage effectively with issues of pornographication or the harm done around sexuality, without engaging with feminism and feminist theory. I think this is a significant element of why Harrison’s project is fatally flawed.
7. God’s love can be erotic
Harrison advocates for seeing God’s love as erotic, explaining “When we [Christians] think about God, we are happy with the idea of platonic (spiritual, emotional) love, or agape (charitable, self-giving, compassionate) love. But erotic love? No thanks.” He points out that the shame attached to sex is a huge aspect of why Christians are so avoidant of the erotic love of God. I am onboard with this bit.
To evidence this, Harrison points to Ezekiel 16 and describes the passage as all about the “tender generosity” of God and the “imagery of faithfulness yoked with passion”. The passage likens God to a man who rescues an abandoned new-born baby girl and cares for her. When the girl reaches puberty, the man finds her sexually attractive and takes her as a wife. She rejects his love, prostitutes herself and kills her children, so the man (who was her foster father and then her husband) beats her. Whilst there’s various passages in the Bible to evidence God’s erotic love, this is a not good example of that.
Within the same vein as this, a couple of chapters later Harrison critiques his previously held view (that he tells us was shared in men’s ministry seminars) about Jesus-is-my-boyfriend songs by quoting James K.A. Smith, “While [these songs] can slide into an emotionalism and a certain kind of domestication of God’s transcendence, there remains a kernel of ‘fittingness’ about such worship.”Male issues with Jesus-is-my-boyfriend songs have littleto do with eroticism and a lot to do with misogyny.
Eroticism is something that heterosexual men do with women. The idea that God could be a woman is completely anathema to men. How could they see a woman as All Powerful? How do they submit to a woman? In the same way, much male homophobia is also rooted in misogyny. Gay men become associated with the Other that is women. The homophobic heterosexual male fear that every gay men is going to try to have sex with them (really, they are not THAT desirable), is based on their view that all male sexuality rapes and takes, and that women are there for their penetration (therefore gay men must view them as for penetration). And so, God must be a man and must not have anything to do with eroticism, for God is power and man is power and sex is something men do to women.
Having established where I partially agree with Harrison, let’s look at what I unambiguously disagree with him on:
1. The foundations of moral reasoning dichotomy
Harrison uses Jonathon Haidt’s work of six intuitive foundations of moral reasoning; care, fairness, oppression, loyalty, authority and sanctity. According to Harrison, liberal Christians lean towards the first three and are focused on the individual. Conservative Christians are more focussed on loyalty, authority and sanctity (which are about big sacred principles). While he’s right that conservative Christians need to make more space for care, fairness and oppression, I’m not convinced that’s possible in the framework that Harrison offers. He believes that only heterosexual marital relationships allow for sexual activity; how does that enable fairness for people in same-sex relationships? In barely scratching the surface on the harm the church has done, how does he enable them to offer valid care? He can’t even include women’s work and scholarship in his writing, how does that engage with oppression? I’d also argue that oppression fits more into the “big sacred principle” of right use of power, rather than the individual framework.
Harrison also doesn’t engage with Sara Ahmed’s seminal work on the cultural politics of emotion (published in 2004, thirteen years before Harrison’s book). Within Ahmed’s analysis, emotions are cultural practices rather than solely psychological states, that lead to the othering of people who do not align with the dominant culture. Particularly as Harrison engages with disgust in his articulation of Christian approaches to same-sex relationships, his lack of engagement with her work on the “performativity of disgust” (even if only to dispute it) seems rather problematic.
2. The destruction of the whole hive
Harrison tells his readers that, “we must try to communicate our conviction that it is no use catering for the needs of a minority of bees if in doing so we destroy the whole hive.” This serious concern about the destruction of the hive is not borne out in the examples he gives of what the sexual revolution has actually done to society. His main evidence of harm to society is that: a) people are having less sex, b) more people are living alone, c) his concern for the “fatherless wastelands of social deprivation.”
I’m not sure people having less sexcould destroy the whole hive unless everyone stopped having sex altogether. I do think he is right that lifegiving sex is in short supply in a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,but I don’t think that can all be laid at the door of the sexual revolution. What conservative Christians often miss is that the women’s liberation movement, the black liberation movement, the development of the New Left, technological and scientific developments, and the sexual revolution all happened at the same time. They are of course interconnected, interwoven, and in conflict at many and various points, but to simplify what is actually a very complex picture does not help. When Harrison states that the sexual revolution improved women’s lives, he’s collapsing second wave feminism and womanism into the sexual revolution. When he attributes higher rates of either abysmal sex or no sex to the sexual revolution he is collapsing technological developments, capitalism, consumerism, globalisation, Thatcherism, and various other isms and issues into the sexual revolution.
And let’s not pretend that Christians are having better sex. I arrived to speak at a Christian event to be told that a male speaker at a previous seminar in the week had told attendees that “when women are having sex, they’re usually thinking about their shopping lists”. Most Christian teaching on sex (including Harrison’s book) don’t even mention the clitoris. This is crazy. God gave women an organ purely for sexual pleasure and nobody even points that out. I digress.
If we look at Harrison’s evidence that more people are living alone, we find it is based on US research, and perhaps doesn’t account for what we’ve seen in the recession where many fewer adults can actually afford to live alone (he uses research from 2000 in evidence this). But even if more people are living alone, is this the fault of the sexual revolution? I’m not convinced. Isn’t this just as much about people no longer remaining in their town of birth? We can move away, afford cars to travel home, and seek more aspirational careers through the opening of higher education to working class people. Doesn’t it also include developments in healthcare which mean people are living longer, and a culture which venerates youth and demeans its older and infirm citizens?
As for the “fatherless wastelands”, Harrison views co-habitation and easy divorce as the cause of children being raised without fathers. It’s odd because Harrison doesn’t point out that mothers are not leaving their children. It’s men who abandon their children after a relationship fails. Why is that? It’s not primarily about relationship breakdown, but about masculinity and men failing to take responsibility for children. With 30% of women being subjected to abuse by a partner in the UK,a significant proportion of those children raised by single mothers will be much better off without the abusive father’s involvement. It’s also interesting that Harrison’s focus is on separation and divorce, rather than considering that maybe the issue is that the skills to form strong and positive relationships is the issue. Perhaps it’s not that people are divorcing quickly (I don’t know anyone, either Christian or not, who hasn’t agonised over whether to divorce, myself included), but maybe they are conducting relationships without the skills or support to form strong relationships?
3. Victimhood identities and cognitive minorities
Harrison has an issue with the “victimhood identity” of trigger warnings and the like.Whilst I am not a fan of trigger warnings myself, there is an irony in Harrison bemoaning safe spaces on university campuses as projecting an “inherently fragile” self,when earlier in the book he insists that conservative Christians should begin to view themselves as a “cognitive minority”.
“Christians have occupied the cultural mainstream for so long that we find the idea of being a minority difficult to stomach, never mind the thought of acting like one.”
On the one hand, when actual minorities and those who have been subjected to violence or discrimination request spaces to be safe for them, this is a problem. But when conservative Christians (who still dominate Christian discourse, and are the majority within Christianity overall, as those seeking inclusive churches can attest to) feel threatened, they should view themselves as minorities? Minority status is not something to be claimed, however reluctantly. It is conferred as a result of historical, political, and social powerlessness and oppression. People of colour are the majority of humans globally, but they are minorities because of how power, privilege, and colonialism have harmed them and benefitted white people.
4. That no experience should shift theological positions on same-sex sexual relationships
Where Christians have become affirming of same-sex relationships as a result of their relationships with gay and lesbian Christians, Harrison views this as evidence that their theology was clearly flawed. According to him, if their love for their son, daughter, friend, or other person leads them to change their theology, then it wasn’t good theology in the first place. Not only that, but if gay and lesbian people’s relationships begin to convince Christians that same-sex relationships are not wrong, this also is a result of flawed theology. Accordingly, no experience should result in a shift in the conservative position on same-sex relationships. One of the theological arguments I’ve seen to counter this is that when Peter was given the prophetic message of including Gentiles through the vision of the blanket,this was confirmed in him seeing the Holy Spirit fall on Cornelius and the others who were present, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.”
5. The need to give conservative Christians a compelling case for marriage and families
Harrison explains that “Church leaders in the UK rightly call upon governments to do more for children by alleviating child poverty or improving educational opportunities.But in a culture where fully one-half of children reach maturity with only one parent in the home, the most important intervention they could make would be to set out more clearly a compelling case for the social goods of marriage and family.” Apart from Harrison’s statistic being wrong (25% of UK families are single parent),I have yet to find a church which doesn’t think that marriage and family are a social good.
The issue I have encountered in conservative churches is not the devaluing of families and marriage, but the idolising of them. If ever a statement were preaching to the choir, this is it. Conservative Christians do not have an issue being compelling on family and marriage. They have a huge problem making single parents and single people feel welcome and included. Mother’s Day services which insensitively ignore miscarriage, infertility. Father’s Day services which ignore abandonment and abuse. Women pushed to stay with abusive husbands. Single mothers left to feel like second class citizens (I speak from personal experience). These are the pressing issues for Conservative churches, not a doubling down into some compelling vision of what they already advocate for.
6. The threat of liberal elites
Harrison insists that, “Even as they undermine its importance for everybody else today’s liberal elites seem to know something about marriage that they are keeping for themselves.” He doesn’t explain exactly how the liberal elites are stopping poor people getting married or how liberal elites are in charge of the sexual revolution. Looking at the history of marriage (Harrison doesn’t), we find that marriage was all about keeping property safe once people began accumulating it. It was always about liberal elites!
7. A lack of practical suggestions
Harrison uses a lot of flowery language to offer the Better Story, but his practical suggestions are pretty sparse. They include:
- Celebrate singleness.
- View singleness as a vocation.
- Have community homes where married people, families and single people live together.
- Honour and celebrate marital commitments more publicly.
- Employ matchmakers like Orthodox Jews to facilitate voluntary introductions (yes really).
- Make weddings more profound celebrations of commitment.
- Make marriage preparation one of the first and most important pastoral skills acquired during ministerial training.
- Churches should provide marriage and parenting courses, if they’re a small church, they should partner with other local churches. This suggestion alone seems rather unrealistic! Churches, working together?!
Harrison doesn’t tell us how he squares the circle that is the ratio of Christian men to Christian women in Christian culture. Where do all the women find husbands? How do the men learn how to be good husbands, when they’re bred in contexts of huge male entitlement? He doesn’t mention the issue with patriarchal understandings of men and women that are rife in conservative Christian culture. Or how we heal from the damage that has wrecked lives, marriages, sexuality.
Having looking at Harrison’s views, what do I think should be our approach to sexuality? These are some of my primary principles (and are a work in progress!):
- Sex is the most beautiful and most harmful element of human interaction.
- Patriarchy is a spiritual principality and power, and sex is one of the places it operates most clearly. The specific impact on women and men of this must be articulated in any conversations about sexuality.
- In heterosexual relationships, most sexual encounters have the possibility for a new human to be created. The sexually dimorphic nature of humans means that in heterosexual sexual activity, females risk (or hope for) becoming pregnant. Whilst contraception and access to abortion has diminished the risk of this, it has not eradicated it. This impacts hugely impacts heterosexual power dynamics. The risks of sex for females are biologically significantly greater than for males. One of the biggest issues with the sexual revolution is how, in ignoring this power differential, much harm has been done to women and girls. I know this point will be very controversial to some.
- The ideal context for a new human to exist is one in which their parents are committed to each other, have a shared value system, are on the same trajectory in terms of life goals, and where both parents contribute to the other’s greatest flourishing. Marriage can provide such a context (it mostly doesn’t).
- Very few humans historically, currently and globally (including most of those mentioned in the Bible) are born into such a context. Yet as humans we seem to muddle through.
- UK societal approaches to sex are hugely flawed and greatly harm many, perpetuating the myth that sex only has whatever meaning you choose to give it. Which is odd, given that these same people view sexual harassment and abuse as deeply harmful.
- Christian constructs of sex are just as flawed as the wider UK societal approaches. The desire to double down on these constructs as a response to wider society is just going to more deeply harm everyone.
- The UK church needs a season of lament and repentance, where we individually and corporately speak our pain, sorrow and guilt for harming so many and for the harm that has been done to us. This should not be only one service or sermon, but an ongoing posture of repentance. We must put to death our idolatry of the nuclear family and marriage. As that seed dies, we must await what emerges from a posture of sorrow and repentance. The MeToo movement is a prophetic foreshadowing of what we need to be doing within the church; listening to the voices of those who have been hurt and broken by our messed up-ness. We must be careful not to rush onto the next stage, instead awaiting God’s work in our hearts and minds.
- It is tempting to offer what the next stage could involve, but I don’t think we’re there yet. I know that’s not satisfactory, but until we become comfortable with the pain of crucifixion, we cannot expect to discover what the other side of resurrection looks like, even though we can be sure that it is indeed a Better Story.
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. (John 12:20-26)
Gail Dines’ book “Pornland” discusses this.