Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Book Review

In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis wrote, "When the two people who thus discover that they are on the same secret road are of different sexes, the friendship which arises between them will very easily pass - may pass in the first half-hour - into erotic love.  Indeed, unless they are physically repulsive to each other or unless one or both already loves elsewhere, it is almost certain to do so sooner or later." 

Surely I can't be the only Christian woman who has spent a lot of time thinking about this quote.  I read that book as a teenager, and while there are other parts in the book that suggest that a non-romantic friendship is possible between a man and a woman, this is the passage that stuck with me.  Have other Christian women ever had a conversation including the words, "I don't find you physically repulsive," or is that just me?  

Over the last few years, I have thought more and more about this whole issue of how men and women interact with each other.  It seems that in literature, popular culture, and even in the church, there are two possibilities: romance or danger.  Even in the Bible, I saw women presented as temptresses, luring men into sin.  You could be, one teacher suggested, either a Proverbs 31 woman (superwoman wife) or a Proverbs 7 woman (loose woman).  There wasn't really another way to be with men.

Last fall I read this article that suggested that female professors in Christian colleges are the victims of a kind of "benevolent sexism."  One of the reasons posited for this is that women don't get included in social gatherings of men, largely because the men see the women as dangerous; they are afraid of getting too close to women in a professional context because of the danger of sexual impropriety or infidelity.  (It's certainly possible that this fear goes both ways.)  This wasn't my experience working in a Christian college; I felt accepted and included by my male colleagues and enjoyed professional conversation with them.  (Then again, maybe they just found me physically repulsive!  I never asked!)  However, in other contexts, I have seen this dynamic of men and women being afraid of each other, this idea that men and women can be romantically involved and that's about the only kind of connection they can have.

I encountered this myself when hearing sermons about how men and women shouldn't spend time together, shouldn't ride in cars alone together, shouldn't eat meals alone together, shouldn't talk about deep issues.  Was I wrong, I wondered, to do all these things, with my husband's full knowledge and blessing, with a close male friend?  I talked to my husband about it and he assured me that I had no reason to feel guilty, but hey, when it comes to guilt, I don't need much of a reason.  I grew up evangelical, after all.

From reading Jonalyn Fincher's blogs (The Art of Friendship and Ruby Slippers), I learned about a book called Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Engaging the Mystery of Friendship Between Men and Women, by Dan Brennan.  Brennan has done research on cross-sex friendships throughout Christian history and found that there are many.  A whole chapter details fascinating examples, many between men and women living in monastic communities.  It has not always and everywhere been assumed that men and women can't be friends, as Harry famously tells Sally in "When Harry Met Sally," "because the sex part always gets in the way."  Brennan talks in some detail about how our views of the opposite sex have been warped by a cultural acceptance of Freud's ideas, which sexualize almost every relationship between men and women, even in families.  Even though Freud is not accepted in psychological circles any more, his influence continues.  When men and women say they are "just friends" (and what a phrase, trivializing deep relationships!), they are often told they are kidding themselves; "What's really going on?"

Not only does Brennan, who has been married for more than thirty years and whose wife wrote the foreword to this book, state that this type of friendship can exist, he argues that it ought to exist in the Christian community.  Scripture calls us to view each other as brothers and sisters.  Brennan makes the case that we can and should find love, beauty, and delight in each other, within but also beyond marriage.  He talks about Jesus' treatment of women and His willingness to be counter-cultural in His interactions.  While the sexual relationship in marriage is definitely exclusive, we can love other people without constantly fearing sin.  He talks about what a huge pressure it is on a marriage to meet all of our relational and emotional needs, and how the church's idealization of marriage as the be-all and end-all of life, to the exclusion of other relationships, actually may lead to weaker marriages rather than stronger ones.  (Not to mention the effect it has on single people, who are often treated in the church as though they are just waiting to get married.)

It always helps me to know that others are thinking about some of the same questions that I am, and this book reflected much more of my own positive experience rather than the danger narrative I hear in the Christian world.  While of course men and women can get into trouble, loving one another as close friends (even if we don't find each other physically repulsive), instead of seeing one another purely as possible romantic partners, is surely a step in the right direction.  When we're committed to honesty and fidelity in our marriages and our friendships, we honor God.  I am sure I will continue to think about all of this, and I recommend this book as a conversation-starter on the issue.  It was Book #15 of 2013.


Sarah SSM said...


Jessica Stock said...

Ruth, thank-you for writing the post I wanted to write! Now I can just link to you. I borrowed the same book from the library- I can't remember where I saw it recommended? This has been a irritating issue for me, since getting married one of the losses I still feel is that of male friendships. The gap between the sexes was especially wide in our conservative church, but even now in other circles it seems that men and women are never sure how to be friends. Something is lost I think.

Tricia said...

I remember being annoyed about this relationship in college. Guys in my parachurch group (Crusade) wouldn't "date" me because they knew I had a "boyfriend" out of state. They thought it was pointless. They also wouldn't really hang out with me for the same reason - but they would criticize me for hanging out (doing homework, other platonic things) with a couple of non-Christian guys. I had many discussions about this, and they just wouldn't see my point of view. Come to think of it, most of them (us) had taken the C.S. Lewis class from the religion department - did we read that book? Can't remember for sure, but probably!