Were the 1960s really "ground zero" for the sexual revolution? I'm usually as quick as anyone to point (or waggle) the finger at the baby boomers. The cultural turmoil of the 1960's no doubt marked a significant moment in the west's changing attitudes towards sex and relationships. However, the decade of "free love" turned out to be neither the founding moment, nor the final flowering, of the sexual landscape we now inhabit.
Below I'll share some reflections on four books I've read this year that attempt to come to terms with our culture's current experience of sexuality. (although several of these books go well beyond simply discussing sexuality)
7 Myths About Singleness - Sam Allberry
Sam Allberry's book about "living the single (and celibate) life" is my top recommendation.
This great little book covers a FAR narrower spread of topics than the other three books and, as a result, it is the most readable and practical. The book will minister equally well to those whose singleness is a cause for contentment, grieving, or both. Not only is it one of the best things I have ever read on the topic of "singleness", Sam also manages to reflect with great clarity on the nature and character of marriage. Indeed, the greatest surprise of this book was how much of a blessing it was to me as a married man. The book will undoubtedly help married folk to better love BOTH their spouse and their single friends! I still don't know quite how Sam managed to pull that off!
The book BUSTS the following 7 MYTHS about living the single life:
Sam writes with a delightfully warm tone the whole way through. Thought I found the book challenging, I never felt that I was being targeted for failing my single friends. From now on I think I might buy this book as a present for each couple I know who gets married. It made me want to be a "better man" - not only for my wife and kids, but for my precious single friends as well.
A Better Story - Glynn Harrison
Glynn Harrison argues that in our skirmish with contemporary culture over sexuality the church must learn how to win "hearts and minds" rather than just "arguments". While contemporary culture champions the virtues of compassion and equality, believers are painted as bigoted and uncaring.
Harrison's cultural analysis focusses almost exclusively on the damaging impact of individualism. His insights were certainly helpful, but it is worth remembering that individualism alone is not sufficient to explain recent cultural shifts.
The book helpfully urges Christians to reflect honestly on where our arguments have been offered more in service of self-justification, than in service of God or love of neighbour. Referencing James K.A. Smith, Harrison affirms that we are more fundamentally "desiring", rather than simply "thinking" beings. He suggests that we need to tell a story about human sexuality that clearly answers the deepest longings of our time (Ch7). To do this we must "learn how narrative structures and formulas can be used to make a point of view more compelling and plausible." Harrison goes even further, suggesting that "sexual desire is our inbuilt homing instinct for the divine, a kind of navigation aid showing us the way home" (Ch15).
Harrison is undoubtedly correct that we'll need more than just sound "arguments" if we're to convincingly present the goodness of Christianity's vision for sexuality. However there are two aspects of Harrison's approach to commending a Christian theology of sexuality that left me unconvinced.
1. Humans are undoubtedly affective and desiring creatures. However, even the most moving and plausible narrative structures and formulas will be of little help unless we can also describe the nature of sex and sexuality itself. "A Better Story" gave very little space to describing the nature and purpose of sex and sexuality. Any "story" that can not also easily express what the bible says about the nature and purpose of marriage will make things more difficult for us in the long term.
2. I'm not at all convinced by Harrison's claim that "sexual desire is our inbuilt homing instinct for the divine, a kind of navigation aid showing us the way home [to God]." Harrison gives only the most cursory consideration as to how this may be so. While certainly never denying the physical goodness and created purpose of human sexuality, Harrison ultimately focusses our attention upon a spiritualised vision of sexuality/marriage that sounds a little too much like the gnostic tendencies he earlier rightly critiques. (1)
For the above two reasons I don't think this is quite THE "go-to" book for modelling Christian engagement with unbelievers on issues of sex and sexuality. But it does signal an area of great need that must be addressed. Christopher Ash's "Marriage: sex in the service of God" is still the best descriptive book I've read on the nature of sex and sexuality. I'm still looking for a book that successfully models how to "tell a better story" about sexuality for our time and place!
(1) Referencing N.T. Wright, Harrison argues that modern individualism revolts against the external, bodily, and natural limits of human identity. Instead, subjective individualism seeks to construct an authentic vision of the self that transcends the given limits of bodily existence (much like the ancient heresy of Gnosticism).
Love Thy Body - Nancy R. Pearcey
Compared to Glynn Harrison's "A Better Story", Pearcey's book is much stronger on cultural analysis and commentary, but certainly has a much sharper tone to it. Where "A Better Story" aims to begin the conversation about what tone and goal we should have in promoting a Christian vision of sexuality, "Love Thy Body" aims to expose the way liberal secularism undermines our ability to love our own bodies. It offers up a penetrating critique of the many "self-evident truths" that modern western culture (and many believers) have to quickly embraced.
Its contents page gives a feel for the book's directness:
If you tend to think that Christianity and liberal secularism are really just engaged in a social-moral squabble over what we should do in the privacy of our bedrooms, this book will offer sharp warning: when it comes to Christianity and liberal secularism's view of the human body and sexuality, the differences go far, far deeper than private morality.
However, if you come away from this book thinking "I've gained some great ammunition for my next argument", remember Glynn Harrisons prescient reminder; the church must learn how to win hearts and minds rather than just arguments.
***note: chapter 2 on abortion was confronting. If you are not looking for a bracing read, maybe come back to that chapter when you are ready.
Earthen Vessels: why our bodies matter to our faith -