Book Review: Why Can't We Be Friends? (Danielle Pollock)
Friendship between the sexes is a hot-button topic within and outside the church, whether you're married or single, young or old, male or female. That's why I was excited to read and review Why Can't We Be Friends? by Aimee Byrd.
I came from a church AND social (sort of fundamentalist lite™) background where men and women (if not married to or dating each other) spending any kind of time alone together, even in a public setting, was spoken of as "the appearance of evil," which we are supposed to avoid (1st Thessalonians 5:22). I've always kind of balked at this application of scripture. For one thing, this makes it well-nigh impossible to get to know someone well enough to determine if you COULD date them. For another, if you happen to be same-sex attracted, you would not be entitled ANY friendships or fellowship, since no matter who looks at you, they could assume the worst. Single, straight, and female? You ONLY get to have female friends. Meanwhile: what happens if you ARE dating or married, and someone looks at you and thinks you aren't? Boom. Evil. It's like you'd have to wear a sandwich board announcing your intentions, at all times and in all places, and even then, who are we, the thought police? Believe me when I say my personality type already worries more than I need to about what other people are thinking.
(By the way: 1st Thessalonians 5 contains a lot of verses besides "avoid the appearance of evil." It also exhorts us to "comfort yourselves together, edify one another," "prove all things; hold fast that which is good," "greet all the brethren with a holy kiss"...)
I think a lot about this as a single woman. It has taken me years (and will take more) to de-program from the way I was raised, where friendship was restricted to same-gender relationships. Do you want a male friend? Better get married! But what if ... it doesn't work out that way? Byrd addresses the ridiculous yet widespread concept that whomever you marry must fulfill ALL your needs (Does this sound like the latest rom-com yet?). Yes, if you're married, that person IS going to be the person you turn to for physical fulfillment. But for everything else? There are many dimensions to wellness or wholeness. Putting sole responsibility for all facets of your wellness on your spouse is too heavy a burden to bear.
We are free to develop deep, cross-gender, contextually appropriate friendships, to have mentors, to seek spiritual guidance, to enjoy fellowship, to share a meal. These friendships have no need to be plotted, hidden, or coerced. Married people should have nothing to hide from each other; I have faithful friends who would hold me accountable if one of these friendships was beginning to look like or become something it shouldn't be. I want these relationships to be above reproach. Sometimes that might mean ending one or stepping back from one, and we should be cultivating a sensitivity to the Spirit's leading in this area of our lives exactly as we should be in ALL areas of our lives. But Byrd's point is, if both parties are focused on the good of the other, if we are able to treat each other with holiness, as image-bearers, why deny yourself the God-given good?
Especially as someone who has (despite best efforts) remained single and is more or less okay with staying that way, I NEED the friendship, companionship, encouragement, and support of my brothers in Christ. It is prudent to have multiple friends who can provide insight into different parts of your life, right? That burden cannot fall exclusively to my pastor, my father, my biological brother, or if God chooses to grant me one, my husband. Being single for far longer than anticipated has really driven the point home. And if I find this need in my life, I would think the opposite would be true—there are brothers in Christ I can serve in the same way.
While we all might have different personal or cultural reasons to keep ourselves out of certain specific one-on-one situations, a blanket restriction on all male-female time together leads to a lot of logistical problems. How do you not feel incredibly uncomfortable in professional situations? How do you not feel weird about going to a doctor of the opposite sex? It just gets far more deeply complicated than it needs to be. I realized if I'm more concerned about preserving my "reputation" than about extending friendship and hospitality, then I've made an idol of my reputation, and I'm letting fear, rather than love, dictate my actions. (I'm not advocating a free-for-all, here... just balance! 2nd Timothy 1:7!) You have to ask: how much of our unwillingness to develop strong cross-gender relationships is just a fig leaf, a false modesty? Are we more concerned about what people will say than what God says?
Once I was out of the church I grew up in, and out of my parent's home, I wound up in two more churches where the male leadership practiced the Billy Graham rule. I'm going to assume for the sake of this review that most of you know what it is, or have heard a variant on it (the Pence Rule, etc.). It essentially forbids men and women to be alone together under any but the most extenuating circumstances. I know the heart behind this is well-meaning, but I have to ask if this is not a modern equivalent of the Pharisees "fencing" the law, by tacking on yet another layer of law, so that you might never even approach potential transgression? I mean, we are sinful by nature. Remove all other people, all external circumstances and variables, all tangible temptations, and what do you have? Cloistered monks and nuns, who still have to contend with the sin within them. Guess what? We're going to be contending with sin the rest of our lives. I'd prefer to have some fellowship and some accountability while I do battle, thanks.
But how do you go about restoring years of lost potential friendship and companionship, or worse yet, relationships that are damaged by the attitudes we've absorbed? How do you stop treating each other with hostility and suspicion? This is why I love Byrd's point about working on "table fellowship" in chapter 11—reclaiming the lost art of the shared meal. This has been a character of Christian relationships since the beginning of Christianity. Rosaria Butterfield's book The Gospel Comes with a House Key: Practicing Radical Hospitality in Our Post-Christian World, which I read a few months ago, talked quite a bit about the tight-knit gay community she had been part of, which she missed desperately upon conversion to Christianity. Room and board were shared, even when there wasn't much to share. Needs were ministered to, there was accountability, there was generosity, and it wasn't confined to the nuclear family. Her point, and Byrd's too, is that we MUST develop intimate (or deep, if that word bothers you less) relationships.
Coincidentally, I started Ed Shaw's Same-Sex Attraction and the Church: The Surprising Plausibility of the Celibate Life at the same time I started this one. He wrote of the grief of not having a biological family and the awareness that he may never get to have one. He and I share that grief, for different reasons: intentional, voluntary celibacy is rough. This kind of suffering (which Byrd addresses in chapter 12) absolutely can and should point us to Christ. But we are given the family of Christ here and now, on earth. Don't cut yourself off from it. Isolation serves no one: not ourselves, not our neighbor. And that's part of what I wanted to get at: I'm a Lutheran. Relating to each other as siblings should be vocation 101. We're supposed to put the best construct on things, we're supposed to serve and defend our neighbors, our family, to seek their best interest over our own. How much have we allowed the Billy Crystal/Billy Graham/Pence Rule to color our perception? Our interpretation of scripture? Our relationships? (The "Billy Crystal" rule, if you didn't read the book, stems from the movie "When Harry Met Sally", and essentially posits that men and women can't be friends, because of the possibility of sex is always between them. I think this is the secular side of the coin, whereas the Graham/Pence rule is the spiritual side of the coin. The Crystal rule says, "I'm not going to invest in this unless there's something in it for me." The Graham/Pence rule says, "I'm not going to invest in this because someone else might point a finger." This isn't the time or place to get into the specifics of power dynamics as they relate to sex—I'm sympathetic to pastors who feel they need to take a little bit of a harder line on this kind of thing than most.)
But we need cross-gender relationships for balance. I think we suffer without it. I don't know how to stress this enough. I've related more easily to men my entire life: I love their company, and yet for most of my formative years, it just wasn't acceptable for a single female to break off of the cluster of girls and women at church or social gatherings and go hang out with the guys. Don't get me wrong, I NOW have some deeply amazing female friends, and they are a complete gift. They have never used my "differentness" as a weapon against me. Learning to develop the same kind of friendship with men has been a learning curve for me. (1st Timothy 5:1 & 2, anybody? Our prime example of how to treat one another is couched in family language: we relate to each other as brothers, sisters, parents, children.)
Moving in those kinds of "fundamentalist/patriarchy lite" circles made me feel like an absolute outsider because I often had nothing in common with the women. I was not married, did not have children, and could only talk about churning buttermilk for so long (you think I'm joking?). And yet, joining the men would not have been kosher, because the boys were being taught the same thing. It is still completely baffling to me how anyone managed to date/court/marry under that kind of system, although now that I think about it, a number of the marriages I knew about were "arranged" by the parents.
Years later, I found to my dismay that the same kind of patterns existed in the broader evangelical and reformed world! Do you want to feel like an outsider? Try being single and female at a theology conference. The "married with children" women are suspicious, because you don't fit in, and they won't talk to you. The men won't talk to you because surely the only reason a woman would act interested in theology is if she is
- there to hunt a husband (well, maybe)
- there to steal someone else's husband (no)
- or wants to be a pastor (also no).
Better be safe and steer clear. (There are, of course, some wonderful exceptions to these rules. But I think we can do better, on the whole.)
In those former churches, where the leadership followed the Billy Graham rule, I remember wondering how I would ever get private pastoral counseling if I needed it. I didn't get to know those pastors very well, and they didn't get to know me very well either. How can you, when you never spend time together? Does your church, Byrd asks in chapter 9, cultivate an environment that supports sacred siblingship? If it doesn't, what changes could be made? At my current church, there is a completely different attitude than what I experience previously, one that far more accurately depicts a family. I've spent time with and worked one-on-one with the pastor, the elders, and many of the men in the congregation, doing cleanup, maintenance, projects, you name it. I have ZERO quibbles with how my church handles this—I just wish some of the other Christians I knew were able to approach it in such a mature and balanced way. No hesitation, never a whiff of eroticism: simply an open, Christ-like care for the good of the other, lived out in kindness (see especially chapter 13 for more on this). Aquinas says:
"On the other hand, love of friendship seeks the friend's good: wherefore, when it is intense, it causes a man to be moved against everything that opposes the friend's good. In this respect, a man is said to be zealous on behalf of his friend, when he makes a point of repelling whatever may be said or done against the friend's good."
This is the second part of the Great Commandment: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Luther's treatment of the ten commandments ties everything to this, to vocation: in each role, we serve others, thereby serving God himself. In each role, we look out for the best interest of the person we are interacting with. And that is what Byrd has written about. Her's is an exhortation to love and serve each other, specifically in the area of male-female friendships, and to view each other in a more holistic manner.
I hope this book is able to help many people see male-female friendships as the God-given gift that they are: an early and unfinished representation (subject to existence in a fallen earth, and participated in by fallen humans with originally sinful natures!) of our eternal relationship as siblings. In this book, Byrd faithfully points us to the image of Christ as our eldest sibling (see particularly chapter 8), whom we should seek to emulate in our relationships with our earthly "siblings."
Suggested further reading:
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.