Book Review: A Better Story

This book review is of a title published by IVP, who are owned by my present employer, SPCK. I hope that this doesn’t affect the review.

This book is probably the best book I’ve read yet about how and why the church can and should talk about sex. This is not a book about sex in particular or sexuality in general, though these two are in view. Instead, this is a book that takes a serious look at the nature and history of conversation about sex in our culture, and offers some suggestions about what the future holds for Christians who hold to the orthodox, traditional perspective on marriage, sex and human flourishing. Glynn is someone whose opinion I, for one, take very seriously. His previous book, The Big Ego Trip, was a tour de force on identity in our strange culture, and has influenced my thinking in a number of helpful ways.

This book, though, is not what you might expect. It isn’t a book going through what the bible says about God, Sex & Human Flourishing. It isn’t a collection of scientific research, focused on a cold and clinical understanding of humanity. It isn’t a book aloof and apart from real life – the opening story of a distorted view of sex and human flourishing, couched in the name of God, demands that the reader bring their whole self to the book. A Better Story, subjectively, does what it says on the tin. Whether it is successful will depend entirely on whether or not you (As I do) agree in a basic way with the traditional, orthodox Christian position on sex and marriage. From that perspective, this book is a powerful new way to think about the things the book is about. To those outside that conversation, no matter how nearly or neatly, this book might be a helpful way to reorient the conversation, and try to work out why it is that millions of people throughout history and today believe what they believe about sex and spirituality.

This is a positive book. There is critique throughout it, but it is not a fundamentally negative book. This is a book that takes a long and honest look at reality, at the contribution the Church has made to the negative way we live, and how our Christian Culture itself has been flawed and formed. The reflection on, and navigation of, shame culture in and outside the church that Glynn engages in makes this book worth the price of entry for anyone involved in ministry. This is a positive book because, bluntly, the author rightly recognises that the Church has got its approach wrong. We have been much about truth without nearly enough grace. We have been about the what and the who and the when of sex, but very rarely about the why. And so this book is divided into three parts – not because we should give up on God’s good design, but because we need to think again about it – 1) A Better Understanding, 2) A Better Critique, and 3) A Better Story. This is a bold book, not because it has been written now, after the sexual revolution has got its ill-thought-through-tentacles in amongst every fragment of our broken society, but because it tries to paint again the beautiful picture of God, Sex & Human Flourishing that the Bible invites us to consider. As Glynn puts it at the start;

I am going to attempt to convince you, in the face of the challenges posed by the sexual revolution, that the Bible’s teaching is still good news. In fact, I want to aim higher. I want to persuade you that its teaching is life for the world and the only true foundation of human flourishing

See, bold.

I think Glynn is broadly successful in his aim. This isn’t a book to convince someone of the basic cluster of beliefs that he holds to, but it is a powerful drawing together of story, science, scripture and sensitivity that demonstrates the goodness of those beliefs. This is a book that moves beyond easy, lazy Christian engagement with culture to really grapple with the insidious blend of consumerism and individualism that ultimately deprives so many people of joy. The author writes with a lightly-worn but serious set of learning – touching on N. T. Wright and Peter Berger in one chapter, explaining complex ideas like gnosticism in ways that make sense, and more importantly are mapped to present-day realities. This book is written by someone significantly older than me (I’m 26, at the time of reading and writing), but with some serious questions for the ways that my generation and other generations define meaning and success. The book is hard work, but there is humour and hope threaded through the difficult narrative and complex ideas; consider this pivot from one chapter end:

in the next chapter we are going to explore how radical individualism began to affect how we moderns make up our minds about right and wrong by exerting pressure through these non-rational avenues. To do that, we are going to journey further into the world of social psychology and moral psychology. But I promise you, it’s much more interesting than it sounds

This book is not perfect. That should probably go without saying – but I won’t be one of those who champions any one book as the panacea to any one problem or question. There are some interesting examples given, and a couple of instances that I wouldn’t have worded or included in the way the book turned out. But this notion of imperfection is actually crucial to the success of this book. After engaging in sustained examination and constructing an understanding of where we are (part 1), A Better Understanding), Glynn’s brilliant second section starts strongly. It starts with some apt words of Jesus:

“How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:4-5)

Jesus’ words are uncompromising and hard-hitting and leave us with no choice. A better critique of the sexual revolution must start with a better critique of ourselves.
    This needs more than a grudging recognition that critics may have the occasional point here. The history of the church in the sphere of human sexuality is disfigured by shame and hypocrisy. Christendom’s dysfunctional attitudes to sex helped created the discontent that triggered the revolution and propelled it forwards

Glynn’s willingness to be self-critical is what ultimately makes this book so valuable. There is good and honest writing about fear and shame, bigotry and exclusion, as well as the broken promises of the sexual revolution. This is a book that, in light of Jesus’ words and the starting point of the Gospel, takes seriously the charge that All have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God, there is no-one righteous, not even one. By recognising the nature of reality – and where the Church and Christian culture has been complicit in very real and historic brokenness – we start to talk more honestly about the cracks that we all know, in different ways, are there. And it is through the cracks that the light can shine in. As Glynn moves from understanding where we are, through critique, and onto the ongoing thrust of his argument, Christian readers will start to enjoy the anticipation of the Gospel story. And the language here is loaded with sexual desire, and words that make us feel uncomfortable, quite deliberately. Like I said, this isn’t an easy book to read. But it is good.

On the cusp of the climax of this book Glynn sums up some of the fundamental ideas he wants to explore, truths that he hopes will be taken like torches by the next generation of storytellers, preachers, poets, comedians and writers:

In the gospel God restores our identity to us as image-bearing children begin conformed to the image of Christ. The more we live in harmony with this calling, working with the grain of God’s reality rather than against it, the more we begin to flourish as followers of Christ.

The road to flourishing is the way of the cross. Submitting to God – learning to be his creature – is hard, especially in today’s culture of entitlement. But at the cross we see that God is good; we can trust him even when goodness is hard to see. And, enduring to the end, we shall see the face of God.

I could continue this review, but I want to end it there. Partly because I’d rather you read the book and told me what you thought, dear reader. And partly because this book is not the final word. Which is why I like it. Because, rooted in the core story of Christianity are hints and glimpses of God’s good intention in creation, his radical and inclusive embrace of humanity, and directions to the way everlasting.

A Better story is available now from IVP. If you are a church leader, a human, or otherwise interested in anything this review touches on, I’d really recommend getting a copy. If you are a church leader or interested in buying multiple copies, do get in touch with me via Facebook or Twitter.

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