No Greater Love: a Biblical Vision for Friendship (Part 2)
Book Review (Rebecca McLaughlin)
Part 2 of our review. Read part 1 here.
You could guess from the chapter title that this is about the metaphor of the church as Christ's body, and how friendship plays into this. McL understands the growth of the Body of Christ to be fundamentally (i) growth in depth (i.e. discipleship) and (ii) numbers (i.e. evangelism). Both of which depend about "Christians speaking truth in love". Friendship, then, is a requisite for helping each other to follow Christ, because it is in the investment and development of longitudinal relationships, where we know each other well enough, deeply enough, and have the safety and security to speak honestly to each other, that we can say to someone that they are wrong.
I think this is undoubtedly true. A mark of friendship itself is that (a) we're willing to tell our friends that they're wrong, and (b) we're willing to hear from our friends when they think we are wrong. Both sides of that are acts of love, courageous love, because they involve risking the relationship at some level.
Let me go on a tangent to reflect upon this for a moment. If we're not willing to tell friends when they're wrong, confronting them or otherwise speaking to them in a critical way, then are we really friends to them? It's not loving to watch on silently while our friends choose unwisely, persist in sin, or do things to harm themselves or others. Nor is it friendship, because you have become a doormat or a yes-person. Silence isn't always affirmation, but it can be a tacit acceptance. Friendship is built, in part, on the trust that I can say these things to you, and we'll still be friends.1
McL spends some time in this chapter too discussing envy. I'm not sure this fits in as neatly to her chapter theme, but she makes it work well enough. In essence, envy and jealousy are relational sins, and understanding the body metaphor for church is part of the cure for them, because we ought be glad for others' successes, because they are members of the body just like us, but with different parts to play.
The third strand of this chapter considers how friends and friendships are meant to encourage and edify us towards a more godly life. I worry that this view of friendship is sometimes a little too utilitarian, and I am sure McL would disagree with me, but always and ever subsuming friendship as something that has value because it's instrumental to greater Christian living where the locus of that is overly pietistic, seems to me to rob friendship of some of its beauty. Now, Aristotle would say friendship in virtue is the highest friendship, and McL would probably say, "you saw my caveats, but yes friendship is meant to be directed towards Christian excellence", and here I do agree, "our best friends are directing us to Jesus, not away from Him" (p.101)2 I think my hesitation is that while McL acknowledges the tension of being in a friendship with someone who isn't directing you towards Jesus, she seems to leave unexplored how you live that tension out in seeking to direct them towards Jesus.3 And at its crassest, this becomes, "I cultivate friends who help me live more Christianesely, and cut those that don't", instead of "I extend Christlike love to others seeking to help everyone orient their lives towards the ultimate Good."
7: The Unexplored Self
I suspect this was one of the more difficult chapters for McL to write. She opens with an observation from Russell Moore, drawing upon a therapist Esther Perel, that people have affairs not so much because the opportunity arose to have sex with someone more attractive than their spouse, but that the affair partner offers an experience of an alternative world, in which they are an alternative self, the unexplored self.
And what McL does with this concept is, I think, a stroke of genius. She takes this notion and uses it to explore something of the fundamental difference between marriage (a singular, exclusive relationship), and friendship (a plural, non-exclusive set of relationships), and to explore some of their dysfunctions.
Because friendship involves an ongoing freedom and choice to be friends, it comes with both a different kind of joy, and of risk; the joy of being valued by someone enough that they desire ongoing friendship with you, and the risk that they will not. McL shares vulnerably about her own "friendship insecurity" - the assumption that her friendships are always hanging on by a thread, and that her friends are "one step away" from ditching her.
In my defence, this fear is grounded in experience. I've been through friendship break-ups that have felt at the time just like a straw that broke an unknown camel's back, or when a close friend simply ghosted me. (p.107)
Deep friendship takes great risk. The more we trust and give our heart, the more we risk it being broken. (p.108)
Next we get the Pizza metaphor. I love that McL includes the story of her sharing this metaphor with a friend who then told her not to use it in her book, but McL goes right ahead and uses it anyway. Like pizza, friendships are slices of different sizes, but each slice goes to the centre. But we should have multiple friends, multiple slices. Exclusivity, or over-sized pizza slices, are unhealthy for us because friendship thrives better when we enjoy friends with friends.
Back to McL's vulnerability as she shares being on both sides of friendships that have veered towards the unhealthy. McL uses the term co-dependency, and I don't know I fully agree with this choice. Co-dependency is a fairly clinical term, and I'm not sure what she's describing always reaches that level, or I wonder if this conversation could have been framed with less clinical language about unhealthy dysfunctions in friendships. The crux here is the problem that arises when a friendship begins to turn entirely inwards, like a black-hole consuming the light, meeting all one's emotional needs, or trying to. Co-dependency really is terribly destructive, whether in friendships or other relationships. Healthy friendship patterns cannot be singular.
And then we return full-circle in the chapter, to how friendships help marriage. Precisely because different friends bring out different aspects of us, different 'alternative selves', they can allow a safe and healthy scope for the unexplored self.
No single human is equipped to draw us out in all the good ways we could be drawn (p.113)
I definitely think that some people so idolise marriage as the one relationship to fulfil all relational needs, that friendships become unnecessary. And I definitely think that's wrong. Spouses are not supposed to fulfil all your relational needs, that's co-dependency just within marriage. Friends, healthily, expand who we are and help us flourish, and the network of friends in turns helps marriages flourish.
8: Brothers and Sisters
Oh boy. We have some discussing to do. So this chapter's topic is friendships between men and women, and McL brings a particular angle to this discussion because she's (as she describes herself) same-sex attracted. And she opens with a discussion of the "Billy Graham" rule, which Graham formulated as one of four rules to protect their ministry; the other three have to do with money, the local church, and fame, but the BG rule is "never to travel, meet or eat alone with a woman other than [one's] wife".
I'm going to return to McL's particular argument in a minute, but let me throw in two rather large logs to the fire. McL is aware that the BG rule has been strongly criticised; Zachary Wagner in his book Non-Toxic Masculinity4 discusses the way that the BGR functions within Purity Culture, especially when it's seen not only as a means to guard against false perceptions and accusations, but to guard against temptation and sin itself. The BGR in that light communicates (a) that women are a sexual threat to men, and exist primarily as sexual objects, (b) that men are governed by sexual desires so strongly that if alone with a woman, they'll end up having sex. I think you can see why those are deeply problematic ideas.
There is a not-uncommon view, reasonably prevalent among a certain kind of conservative Christianity, that sees woman as primarily potential wives or unavailable wives. Either they are people you could marry, or people who will tempt you into illicit sex. So why on earth would you be friends with one? I think this is an appalling view of human beings. It dehumanises women and reduces them to (potential) sexual partners. Put this together with the BG rule, and Wagner's critique is spot-on, "A pastor who... needs the Billy Graham rule to avoid sexualizing interactions with women is, quite simply, not fit to be a pastor".5
McL moves from the discussion of BGR to Paul, showing that Paul values women immensely as gospel-partners. McL is also prepared, she says, to give these kinds of critiques of the BG rule their 'due weight', but she also thinks that, in time and place, the BG rule was a good idea for Graham. I 80% agree - I have no particular criticism of Billy Graham's choice to make that a rule for himself. I do have a problem with the way Purity Culture made this a blanket rule. It smacks to me of the useless asceticism Paul criticises in Colossians 2:20-23. If a person so cannot trust themselves to be around members of the opposite (or same) sex without committing sexual sins, they have far bigger problems than the BG rule can solve, and they need to address them.
McL has what I think is a mostly reasonable approach. She thinks "we need to figure out a set of principles that help us run far and fast from sexual sin while robbing none of us of the good things that God might have for us in friendship". I think that's right, we need and in fact to some extent ought to have, robust healthy non-sexual relationships with both sexes, appropriately relating with regard to marital status, age, cultural factors, and so on.
McL has particular wisdom to share for same-sex relations for same-sex attracted people. That's not me, but in this section I found two things thoughtful. Firstly, that it's not enough to be confident that one won't take the initiative in turning a friendship sexual, you also have to consider how you would respond if the other person took the initiative. Secondly, that starving ourselves of friendship makes us more vulnerable to sexual entanglements, and that it's actually rich and robust friendships that strengthen us.
9: Loving Neighbors
Honestly, I didn't find this chapter that engaging. It's topic is essentially "being friends with non-Christians", and I agree with everything in here. That is, (i) yes, you can and should be friends with non-Christians! (ii) that ought to look like genuine love for them, (iii) genuine love for them means being open about your beliefs and practices, and seeking to persuade them to Jesus. If you believe Christianity is true, it would be unloving and disrespectful not to engage others in discussions of the ultimate questions of life, and the answers you yourself are committed to.
10: Life Together
In this chapter, kicking off with Bonhoeffer (of course), McL discusses forgiveness in friendship: how, because of our sin and brokenness, we need gracious generosity and generous grace. She begins with the minor, e.g. bearing with differences, before moving through some practical wisdom on difficulties6, before considering how Matt 18 might apply to dealing with significant hurt, conflict, and sin in friendship. Through all this, we're reminded that without Jesus' help, friendship fails or turns to vice. But with Jesus' abundant grace, we are forgiven and healed, and can and should extend that grace in friendship.
This book wasn't the book I wanted it to be, which is fine because McL clearly just didn't write the book that I wanted. I think I wanted something more philosophical, that actually provided an account of what friendship is. That's actually kind of missing from this book. And, while there was lots in here that I found wise, practical, biblically grounded, I'm not sure that I was that surprised by its contents. Not that I needed this book to be some other book, e.g. Austin's book. I'm not entirely sure what I'm trying to articulate here, because the range of books on "friendship" is quite scarce, and I did enjoy this book and think it had lots of good content.
Cha sheas càirdeas air a’ leth-chois.
- Friendship won’t stand on one leg
And yet, the more I have thought about some aspects of the book, the more I also find to disagree with. That’s particularly true when I think about chapters 2 and 5 in relation to each other. Here’s my issue: McL’s solution to feeling friendless or lonely or isolated boils down to “stop thinking about your needs and go and love others, especially the needy and marginalised”. And, I do think there’s something to that. But it’s not well-tempered. What happens when you keep working at loving and befriending others, and don’t “feel the love of friends who know and love you deeply”? What happens when you keep finding yourself alone or excluded? Is McL’s solution workable then? Isn’t this advice that veers into “you are the problem, so it’s up to you to fix it?” Maybe we shouldn’t, in fact, be telling the outcast that the solution to their social isolation is to stop being so outcast.
Dare I put one of the problems this way - I think the book is too biblical without being theological enough? This is why (well, one reason why) the likes of C.S. Lewis looked to Aristotle and Cicero for classical philosophical reflections on friendship. They had a substance to them, a level of depth, that sometimes lacks in this book.
Okay, I’ve probably criticised enough. Because I still like this book. And so if there's a single take-away from this book that I'd point you to, it's to circle right back to the start. Jesus' love and Jesus-like love calls us into love-relationships, friendships, which are formed on the basis of, and modelled on the pattern of, Jesus' love. Let's do friendship like that.
I have a class reading Cicero on friendship, and he has some great stuff along these lines: “we must despair of the safety of the person whose ears are so closed to truth that he cannot hear what is true from a friend”; “it is characteristic of true friendship both to give and to receive advice and, on the one hand, to give it with all freedom of speech, but without harshness, and on the other hand, to receive it patiently, but without resentment.”
Are we back to capitalising pronouns for God?
What does Cicero say about this? Basically, choose your friends wisely, but if you find you chose someone unvirtuous, to a certain extent you need to stick with them precisely because you're already in that friendship. He also says that you should both (a) test out whether people will make good friends, but (b) you can’t test people out as friends without actually being friends, so you’re going to get stuck anyway.
Zachary Wagner, Non-Toxic Masculinity. I have a review of it coming soon too, so hold on for that.
Wagner, Non-Toxic Masculinity, p.155.