A Better Story:Re-imagining the Biblical Vision for Sex and Marriage

A Better Story:
Re-imagining the Biblical Vision for Sex and Marriage

A scholarly article pleading with believers to have good apologetics ready to answer the sexual revolution.

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Glynn Harrison
Until recently biblical sexual ethics had for centuries played a central role in the formation
of social attitudes to sex, marriage and family. In less than a generation, however, the
Christian moral vision – that human beings flourish when sexual interests are boundaried in
life-long covenant between a man and a woman – has seen a profound loss of cultural
power. Across Western Europe and the US, those who hold to traditional Christian sexual
ethics not only find themselves on the wrong side of popular opinion, but allegedly on the
‘wrong side of history’ too.
It is becoming increasingly difficult for Christians with conservative views on sexual ethics to
navigate the relationship between private and public spheres of faith. It is not my purpose
however to address pressing issues of rights legislation, reasonable accommodation and
freedom of religion here. Instead, I want to take a step back to address the impact of the
sexual revolution on evangelicalism itself. The reality is that traditional biblical ethics have
not only lost cultural power in wider society, but are now seriously weakened within
evangelical communities too.
The sociologist Peter Berger argued1 that unless ‘cognitive minorities’ (those who hold views
dissonant with wider society) take active steps to sustain their internal plausibility
structures (the ideas and hidden social interactions that support their particular way of life),
they are destined to implode. This, I believe, is what is happening in many areas of modern
evangelicalism.
Evangelical leaders seem poorly equipped to deal with the complex ethical, biological and
social questions inherent in conversations about marriage and human sexuality. Despite
their tradition of ‘Christian mind’, with some notable exceptions, they have displayed little
serious academic engagement with these areas. Most important of all, fear of the new
public shame culture seems to have silenced many and, in some parts of the Church, the
shepherds have elected to referee, rather than to lead, their sheep.
This does not bode well for the future. Without a vision the people perish. So in this brief
article I want to ask what needs to be done by evangelicals, for evangelicals. What must be
done to stem if not reverse this tide? Can we better understand the times we live in and
work out together what we must do?

This article is based upon the 2015 Rendle Short Lecture delivered at the annual conference of the Christian
Medical Fellowship.

Understanding the times
A revolution of ideas
Like all revolutions the sexual revolution is rooted in ideas. ‘If you want to change the
world,’ Martin Luther King said, ‘pick up a pen and write’. The ideas that have so effectively
torpedoed traditional Christian morality are remarkable, however, in not only offering new
and radical perspectives on what it means to be human, but in laying claim to the moral
high ground as well. This observation is important because the sexual revolution is often
portrayed as a descent into moral anarchy when what is actually being offered is a new
moral vision about the nature of human flourishing. Indeed, the corollary is that it is the old
traditional Christian moralities that cause harm, not only hindering human flourishing but
promoting beliefs antithetical to it.
There are several strands of thought here. First, in the sphere of radical feminist thought,
the Christian moral vision is seen as diminishing women. Tied to a traditional patriarchy in
which the man brought home the bacon and she cooked it, Christian morality is held to have
spawned a culture that neglected the education of girls, shamed single mothers and
closeted lesbians. In contrast, the sexual revolution offers freedom from the shackles of
patriarchy and a radical new vision of re-invented femininity.
Ancient Gnosticism, which according to theologian Tom Wright2 has surged to become a
‘controlling myth of our time’, is another philosophical strand at work behind the scenes. In
the Gnostic worldview the external worlds of society and religion, and the outer world of
one’s own body, are essentially irrelevant. Indeed, they are deceptive and misleading.
Beneath layers of cultural and religious accretion there lies buried your real, inner, private
‘self’. So dig deep, liberate the authentic you from the bondage of tradition and become the
you that you want to be.
Queer theory, another ideology that drives forward the sexual revolution, is a modern
variant form of Gnosticism. Drawing on the work of philosopher Michael Foucoult and
thinkers such as Judith Butler3, queer theorists construe gender categories as mere social
constructions, cultural inventions perpetuated to serve the power plays of the religious and
cultural elites that stand behind them. In this understanding there are no compelling
biological realities behind these categories, far less any natural, organically embedded
norms in which we are supposed to walk. They are the outer layers that need to be cast-off
in the search for authenticity.
It is ideas such as these – radical feminism, Gnosticism, and Queer theory – that form the
plausibility structures of a new moral order and underpin its vision of human flourishing. We
need to get to grips with them. Christian apologetics needs to be about more than
cosmology and fine-tuning arguments for the existence of God. In the area of human
sexuality we are failing because we are not thinking.

A moral cause
As I noted earlier, the storm troopers of the sexual revolution not only believe they have an
intellectual case, but a moral cause as well. The work of social psychologists such as
Jonathan Haidt4 may assist us here.
Haidt suggests that, faced with moral problems, human beings have evolved to think
intuitively along a limited number of cognitive systems or channels. One such ‘gut level’
system is concerned with care/harm, asking ‘is anybody getting hurt here?’ The other
systems are: concern for fairness; a desire to protect the weak; respect for received wisdom
and tradition (‘what have we always believed about this?’); loyalty to those close to us; and
an instinctive desire to hold to what is sacred for the good of the community (‘we meddle
with this at our cost’).
Haidt has shown that when asked to make moral judgments, human beings differ, often in
predictable ways, in the relative weight they give to these different gut level responses.
Those on the political liberal left, for example, consistently score highly on moral concerns
connected with individual care/harm and equality/fairness. Social conservatives, on the
other hand, score highly in respect for tradition and sense of community sacredness (‘it is no
use meeting the needs of the a sub-set of the bees if in doing so we destroy the whole
hive’).
We experience similar, and entirely predictable, sub-divisions when we debate sexual ethics.
Those adopting a conservative stance tend to emphasise the sanctity of marriage and the
authority of the bible. Those on the liberal side focus on the suffering of the individual and
the need for compassion, fairness and freedom from oppression. And so we talk past one
another, and descend further into animus.
To break out of this dynamic, in which one side emphasises one set of values over and
against those of the other, evangelical leaders who want to make a more effective case
should communicate in terms of the whole spectrum of moral concerns. They must accept
that they are often perceived as hard, excluding, and lacking compassion. They need to
acknowledge and repent of judgmental attitudes that have made it hard for some to find a
home in their families and their fellowships. If they want to gain a hearing, they need to
show that their moral concerns are motivated by the same compassion and desire for
human flourishing as those on the liberal side.
But then with courage and conviction they must also make the case that compassion for the
individual cannot be allowed to trump the wider social goods that hinge upon the defence
of sacred values (such as Christian marriage). In other words, they need to find winsome
language for their convictions that it is no use meeting the needs of a subset of the bees if in
doing so we destroy the whole hive. That is not compassion it is emotionally driven folly and
it is ultimately destructive of human flourishing.

Narrative power
Finally, we need to understand that the sexual revolution has narrative power. According to
the philosopher Charles Taylor, facts woven together in the form of narrative have
additional persuasive power. So in order to counter narratives effectively it is not enough
simply to offer rival evidence and data – you need to tell a different story5.
The sexual revolution is not held in the popular imagination as a list of facts – it is held as a
story. It is a story about the freeing of the human spirit from the stifling shame of Christian
tradition. It contains sub-plots with heroes who had the courage to swim against the tide of
hatred and prejudice, and villains who tried to bring them down. These stories are narrated,
over and over, through sitcoms and romcoms, in documentaries and drama. In response we
have often deployed complicated arguments, or listed the ‘deviances’ and the diseases. This
simply doesn’t work. We have to tell a different story. A better story that appeals to
imagination as well as intellect.
So what must we do?
A better critique
First, we need a better critique, one that starts by addressing the sexual revolution on its
terms, rather than our own. We should be ready to humble ourselves. Where it challenged
Christian shame culture, judgmentalism and hypocrisy, we need to take it on the chin and
show that we are genuinely ready to learn and change. Only then will we gain a hearing
when we ask whether the sexual revolution delivered the freedom, equality and flourishing
that it promised?
For example, what happened to the promise of sexual liberation? In his book ‘Sex by
Numbers’6 the statistician David Spiegelhalter presents compelling evidence that over the
past 30 years sex as a recreational activity has actually been in steady decline. The sexual
revolution promised more sex, but actually delivered less.
More seriously, what has been the impact on children? The sexual revolution promised
fairness and equality but in reality the collapse of marriage has helped to heap structural
injustices and inequalities on the most vulnerable of all – our children.
Marriage – having a mum and a dad bound together by promises of life-long fidelity – is
good for children. Of course some individual marriages are very bad for a child; and some
non-traditional family arrangements (such as adoptive same-sex parents) can be very good
for a child (Totally disagree-JK). But in the round the evidence suggests that the welfare of children is best served
by a culture of strong marriages.
As the sexual revolution got underway divorce rates rocketed in the 1960’s and 1970’s and
it is still the case that 42% of marriages will end in divorce. By the age of 16, only one half of
children are now found living with both their mother and father. Individual studies need to
be interpreted carefully of course, but the evidence is overwhelming – divorce is generally
very bad news for children.

With the rise of cohabitation the news gets worse still. A smaller percentage of people
married in 2008 than in any year since records began – cohabitation is the new norm8.
According to data from the Marriage foundation9, only one quarter of couples that first
marry and then have children split apart. In contrast, independent of mothers’ age and
education, over one half of those who give birth and then marry split up, and over 2/3 of
those never marrying eventually split up.
The difficulty for the children of these torn relationships is that most will live in lone parent
households, usually without a stable father figure. Men who are not married to the mother
of their children are much less likely to invest financially, practically, and emotionally in
those children’s lives10. And we simply cannot escape the significant associations between
fatherlessness, poverty and low education11.
The simple genius of marriage is that it binds men to their responsibilities for the children
they help to bring into the world. Single mothers do a wonderful job, of course they do. And
many children will be better off with a single mother than a feckless, abusive father. But we
cannot remain silent about the ideal that overall, in the round, kids do best with both a
mother and a father in the home. There, I’ve said it.
Of course these data raise all kinds of methodological questions – not least the question of
causation. Does marriage produce virtues of faithfulness and commitment, or is it simply
the case that people who possess these virtues are more likely to get married? We will
never completely disentangle these questions but it is becoming increasingly clear that
‘both-and’ explanations are needed. It needn’t be one or the other.
There are things that government must do in terms of child support, education, and
reducing income inequalities. And there are things we must all do to promote a strong
marriage culture, especially one that cements expectations that boys and young men
develop the virtues of commitment and faithfulness that will help bind them to their
responsibilities.
We could continue to interrogate the fall-out of the revolution across several other areas,
not least the scandal and tragedy of the pornogaphication and sexualisation of childhood.
But we must conclude by returning to the central question of whether, in the face of these
failings, evangelicals have anything better to offer of their own?
A better story
Those holding to the biblical moral vision for sex and marriage need to tell a better story.
Our culture has a good sense of what we are against, but what are we for? In the biblical
worldview, what is sex is for? What is marriage for? What are families for?
There can be no ‘going backery’, no return to some bucolic moral paradise of the 50’s that
never existed. The challenges of the sexual revolution call for a radical re-imagination of the
biblical narrative about sex, marriage and flourishing. But what might this look like? I can
only sketch the bare bones here, but our narrative needs to be framed with renewedconviction that the gospel really is good news; that it conveys truth about human
flourishing; that it offers life for the world.
First, our vision is that we have not been left alone in the darkness of self-construction. If the
Universe is essentially meaningless, devoid of order or any natural way of things, then
indeed we must self-construct as best we can. And the sexual revolution has furnished us
with a smorgasbord of sexual identities to enrich our choice. You can take your pick and
when you grow tired, simply choose another. But when this freedom turns into a terrifying
hall of mirrors, a treadmill of endless re-invention, then the good news is that God has not
left us alone. In Scripture he not only reveals who he is, he shows us who we are as well: he
speaks our identity to us.
And so, in the Christian narrative, the nurturing of personal identity is cradled in the
knowledge that we have been created, male and female, in the image and likeness of God
himself. As we venture on our unique journeys into the world of relationships and
community, we do so knowing that God has set boundaries around the expression of our
sexual interests, good boundaries necessary for our wellbeing and for the nurture of
children. We can harness data from the social sciences to buttress our case here.
Second, we must be prepared to say that because we live in a broken, fallen world the
Christian call to discipleship is never easy but it is always good. Our dislocation from God has
taken its toll in our physical, intellectual and emotional natures; in disordered appetites and
desires; and for some in the deeply painful dissonance of gender confusion. But the good
news is that we are equally welcome in the big-tent hospitality of the Grace of God.
God’s grace always accepts us as we are but never leaves us as we are. That is why the
radical demands of Christian discipleship are always good. The journey may be long, slow
and painful, but the Gospel casts the vision that one day we will truly come home. And
those who persevere to the end will not be only saved, but in holy flesh they will see the
face of God himself.
This narrative needs to populated with heroes as well– those who have the courage to swim
against the tide of the zeitgeist; those inspired by the gospel to discover for themselves the
blessings of obedience and submission. Brave young people with the guts to stand up to
consumerist sex and stand out against today’s identity politics.
And finally, we must be ready to fire people’s imagination. The bible tells us that these holy
ways of living are vivid allegories of the Gospel that stands behind them. They are signposts,
images, and gateways to the Gospel. In the book of Ephesians, for example, the Apostle Paul
tells us12 that in the faithful coming together of male and female as ‘one flesh’, married
couples are made signposts to the mystery of God’s life-giving, covenantal love for us in
Christ. In other words, God has etched the story of His love for His people into the shape of
their most intimate physical relationships.
When we live out these faithful, covenanted ways of life we tell the story of God’s love in
our own flesh – over and over again. And those who heroically embrace chastity so long as
they remain single also bear witness to the greater reality that God’s passionate love is
always covenantal. And so we not only tell the story of the Gospel with our words, but in
our relationships we put it on display.
We must never abandon the public square because the goods of the Christian moral vision
are for everybody and not just for ourselves. But first it needs to be re-vitalised in our own
hearts and lives, in our churches, in the work of pastors and teachers, and youth groups and
house groups. And there is much work to be done in challenging the compromises of the
past, not least in attitudes to divorce and the scandal of our casual approach to extramarital
sex.
A daunting task? We have been here before. Two thousand years ago the belief that Jesus
of Nazareth had been raised from the dead inspired Christians to create a culture – the way
they treated women, children, the sexually exploited, slaves and the poor – so attractive to
Pagans that by the fourth century A.D. an entire empire was on the edge of faith.
Of course there are many questions. And there are good ways and there are bad ways of
making our case. We shall need wisdom as well as courage. But for the sake of our children,
for the sake of the Gospel, for the life of the world, the biblical moral vision is a story we
must now be prepared to tell all over again.
1
Berger, P (1968) A Rumour of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural. Doubleday
and Co.
2
Wright, T (2013) Creation, Power and Truth. SPCK.
3
Sanlon, P (2010) Plastic People: How Queer Theory Is Changing Us. Latimer studies.
4
Haidt, J (2013) The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Penguin books
5
Smith, James, K.A (2014) How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Eerdmans
6
Spiegelhalter, D (2015) Sex by Numbers. Wellcome
7
http://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/UserStorage/pdf/Pdf%20reports/CSJ_Fractured_Families_Report_W
EB_13.06.13.pdf
8
http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2010/feb/11/marriage-rates-uk-data#data
9
Benson, H (2015) Get Married before you have Children. Marriage Foundation.
http://www.marriagefoundation.org.uk/Shared/Uploads/Products/15035_MF%20paper%20%20Get%20married%20before%20children.pdf
10
Pew Research Center, Social and Demographic Trends: http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2011/06/15/a-taleof-two-fathers/
11
http://centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/channel-4-dispatches
12
Ephesians 5:32

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