Whatever happened to rescuing the princess?

When I was a kid, I grew up playing Super Mario Bros on my first ever games console – the NES. I’ve recently rediscovered it with an online emulator as I’ve been trying to show my daughter a little about what Daddy used to do as a child! It was a fun, albeit frustrating game: every time you completed a level, after defeating the final boss you’d get told: “Thank you Mario! But our princess is in another castle!”

It’s funny, looking back, just how dated it seems. I’m not talking about the 80s graphics and audio quality, I’m talking about the whole concept of rescuing a princess. I think it’s highly unlikely today that you’d find a game which had such a stereotypical view of men and women. These days you’re more likely to find strong female characters – in fact, I think it’s almost obligatory to have strong female role models in just about everything. The main aim seems to be to subvert the stereotype – perhaps a princess rescuing a prince.

It’s funny how things have changed so much since the 80s. These days, just for one example, we have the UK Advertising Watchdog banning gender stereotypes, and some schools are experimenting with essentially eradicating the difference between boys and girls. There is also a growing concern about so-called toxic masculinity (as I wrote about recently).

So what’s the problem? I’m wondering if society has thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Stereotypes are, after all, there for a reason – there is a reality they are based upon: they don’t simply fall out of the air! Men and women do tend to behave in certain ways – even if they don’t always have to behave like that, or there are plenty of counter examples.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is the issue of strength. Strength is traditionally seen as a more masculine thing: men are physically stronger (I saw a study recently which concluded that, on average, Caucasian women had about 1/3 of the upper body strength of men, and Asian women had about 2/3 of the upper body strength of men.) And, simply from observation, I think there is a sense in which men are ‘stronger’ in some senses of personality. (If you want a longer form read on this, you should read Alistair Robert’s blog from a few years ago: Why we should jettison the “Strong Female Character”.)

The Bible does speak a little about these things. One passage which is very ‘un-PC’ is 1 Peter 3:

Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.

1 Peter 3:7

What exactly does Peter mean by ‘the weaker partner’? He doesn’t spell it out – but I think his words do resonate for me as a man who has been married for 12 years now. Even if I can’t describe exactly what that means!

I do think there is a sense, from the Bible, in which men are supposed to use their strength – whatever that may entail (physical or otherwise) in order to protect and care for those who are weaker. The Bible often talks about protection of “the fatherless and the widow” – vulnerable women and children.

I’ve been thinking about this and wondering whether this role has largely disappeared from society, certainly in terms of the way things are portrayed in the media. Are there many strong male characters any more, taking the traditional role of caring for women and children? Do men have positive role models to look up to in this respect?

As I said in my previous post about toxic masculinity – if men don’t have positive role models and examples, if masculinity is not seen in any way to be a positive thing, are we setting ourselves up for a problem? If society doesn’t want to acknowledge some basic facts about men and women, does that give men a licence to abuse because they don’t see anything better? I’m not trying to excuse men from responsibility, but – it strikes me that society may be in the process of shooting itself in the foot (again).

I don’t think there are any easy answers here, but I’d like to suggest a couple of questions to think about. (Answers on a postcard…)

  1. How could we promote a positive vision for masculinity and strength without resorting to ‘rescuing the princess’? Is there a way of portraying masculinity in a modern, positive way without stereotyping?
  2. Friend Zone is about friendship between men and women. How do those understandings of men and women, masculinity and femininity, work themselves out in friendship? Especially when we think about things like strength and weakness?

Love Thy Body by Nancy Pearcey: A very important book

I’ve just finished reading Love Thy Body by Nancy Pearcey. It’s a really excellent book and I would recommend anyone to read it. For me, I think its biggest strength was helping me to ‘join the dots’ with respect to many of the issues we are facing as a society today: it made the case that homosexuality, transgender, and abortion are all manifestations of a deeper underlying belief about our bodies.

I particularly appreciated her explanation of the ‘upper story’ and ‘lower story’: many of the justifications for these things are based on the point that our ‘upper story’, the story in our minds and wills, is more important and that our ‘lower story’ , our bodies, is unimportant. Society see our bodies as basically bags of meat, things which are fairly unimportant compared with our minds and emotions.

Therefore – if you feel like you belong in a different body (in particular – gender), than it’s your body which is wrong. Your body is not the ‘real you’, so to speak. She applies this to the other issues as well, showing that most people think our bodies do not define us.

So, what do we do? Christians, in particular, should be affirming the goodness of God’s creation – the goodness of the body and the material world (while at the same time acknowledging its fallenness.) As I have said before, should Christians not be more positive about the body? Should Christians not be setting an example in how to relate to each other in a physical way?

All of this has made me think about friendship. In the past I think I’ve seen friendship largely as a non-physical thing: we relate only on the level of intellect and emotion – not at all on the physical level. The physical level is largely reserved for marriage.

I just wonder whether this is healthy and Biblical. There is a question in my mind: what would ’embodied’ friendship look like? What would it mean to be friends not just on a spiritual / intellectual / emotional level but on a physical level as well? This is partly what I had in mind in the previous post about non-sexual romantic relationships.

Is there a space to explore what it means to be ’embodied’ friends – and yet sexually pure? I think there is, but – as for what exactly that means – I don’t know as yet. Suggestions on a postcard.

In the meantime, if you haven’t read it – do read the book. It’s a great read and very eye-opening and helpful – not just in diagnosing the problem but in helping us to see what Christians should be doing instead!

Non-sexual romantic relationships?

Sam Allberry has been busy recently – not so long ago he recorded a great video about singleness and friendship, now he’s written an article: May SSA Christians Have Non-Sexual Romantic Relationships?

The article kicks off:

When it comes to same-sex relationships and the church, I’ve heard more and more people propose some sort of committed, same-sex, non-sexual romantic friendships for those who want to uphold the Christian sexual ethic.

This, they say, avoids the supposed loneliness of singleness while upholding biblical standards of sexual behavior.

(Much of what Sam says is helpful and you should read the rest of the article).

I’d just like to pick up on one thing, the use of the word romantic. Now, I’m not quite sure who has been proposing ‘romantic’ friendships. I know there are couples like the women who write A Queer Calling, but I’m not sure whether they would describe their relationship as a ‘romantic’ one.

I think one has to be careful in defining things here. Clearly there is more to distinguish between marriage and friendship than simply sex: friendship is a different kind of relationship than marriage. As a married man, I hope I am qualified to say that!

At the same time, I do wonder whether there is some room to explore the concept of friendship further – and I don’t mean in a ‘romantic’ direction.

Sam makes much of the fact that marriage is an exclusive relationship, whereas friendship is not, and gives the example of a hiking holiday where having two friends with him actually made a better trip. The thing is, I think this could apply as much to marriage as it does friendship: I enjoy times with my wife alone as well as other people – everything about friendship applies to marriage. The only thing, virtually by definition, which is exclusive about marriage is sex – and, we might add, romance. But what is romance?

Romance is a pretty broad term, I suggest it might be helpful to think of romance as being things which ultimately are about sex: a romantic dinner date, for example, as preparation for a romantic night. You could call it ‘wooing’ – there’s a word which doesn’t get used often enough.

But a lot of romance is what’s going on in the minds of those involve: two people having a ‘romantic’ dinner will look basically the same as two good friends having dinner – the only difference being what they are thinking, and where they think it’s going to end up.

So, when it comes to friendship, I wonder: if you (rightly) take romance out of the equation, where does that leave you?

I’m not going to offer any answers her per se, other than to say this is what I am working on with this site. I just think there is a space here to develop our understanding of friendship – in a non-romantic way.

So I think the answer to the question, ‘May Christians have non-sexual romantic relationships?’ is a firm ‘no’. Romance, as I’ve defined it, should not play any part in non-marriage relationships. But, on the other hand, I would say the answer to the question ‘Is there a space to develop our understanding of n non-romantic friendship?’ is ‘yes’.

Porn Laid Bare

I saw an article on the BBC earlier – How do your porn habits compare with young people across Britain? It’s based on findings from a survey commissioned for a new BBC 3 documentary called Porn Laid Bare. (The documentary is available on the iPlayer but I haven’t watched it yet – as and when I do I will probably write about it).

The statistics are, sadly, becoming par for the course: I’m unsurprised by the fact that 62% of young people have watched porn in the last month. I’m unsurprised even by the fact that the BBC have produced a documentary about it which was on the front page of the iPlayer when I looked at it this evening.

The most stunning statistic is perhaps that 45% of young brits say that porn has been their main source of sex education.

I have talked about the porn problem on this site. It is depressingly and tragically common now – the life of teenagers has become, for want of a better word ‘pornified’ – and it is having a massive effect. My sincere hope and prayer is that young people will discover a better way – otherwise who knows where we are heading as a society?

‘Toxic masculinity’ and Safe At Last

Yesterday I happened upon a review of a Channel 4 Documentary called Safe At Last – ‘Inside a Women’s Refuge’. The review moved me to actually watch the programme last night. It was not an easy watch, to be honest. What got to me most of all was the sheer scale of it all – apparently the national refuge helpline gets over 230 calls every day. It was a real eye-opener, to put it mildly.

It was clear to me that there are no easy solutions. The Guardian review said:

Such a programme shouldn’t be necessary, of course. Fundamentally, because men shouldn’t be isolating, coercing, abusing, beating, strangling, raping and threatening to murder the women they live with. But we know they do, have done and – unless things change in ways greater and more dramatic than perhaps anyone can envision – will continue to do so. Let us accept that as a brutal given.

That abuse happens is a ‘brutal given’. There are no easy answers – but, is there something which could point us in the right direction?

A few weeks ago Gillette launched an advert – ‘the best a man can be’ – which encouraged men to be better when it comes to sexual harassment, i.e. to treat women with respect, and encourage other men to do the same. This resulted in a backlash – which was probably over-the-top, but there was something in it.

I think there is a huge amount of concern at the moment about ‘toxic masculinity’ – the kind of behaviour illuminated by the #MeToo movement, and in the documentary. The problem is, sometimes it seems that all masculinity gets tarred with the same brush. Sometimes the way people discuss it veers close to: “Well, that’s just what men are like… what do you expect from them?” I think you can see that a little bit in the quote above (“Men shouldn’t be…”).

Over the last year or two I’ve seen a number of people say that the solution we really need is more feminism. It seems to me that these two things – toxic masculinity and feminism – are linked. Feminism, in its modern guise, wants to promote women and women’s rights – much of which is to be applauded. But it has little to say positively about masculinity – instead the focus lately is on toxic masculinity. But toxic masculinity – as I understand it – is saying to men “stop it, reign it in, curb your impulses – so you won’t be the monster you really are underneath.” (Interestingly, I don’t think many people have been talking about toxic femininity, although let’s leave that aside for now).

In other words, women are being promoted and lauded, while men are seen as the problem and commanded to do better. Women get a free pass because they are the victims, whereas men are the problem. (I’m sure I’m over-simplifying here, but this is the way it often comes across to me. And I’m certainly not suggesting that women are not victims.)

I think this solution is a recipe for disaster and there are no surprises that it’s not working. Feminism, at least in its modern form, is partly about undermining and eradicating the differences between men and women. ‘What men can do, women can do just as well.’ There is no need for a man to be the breadwinner, there is no need for a man to be the head of the household, etc. The traditional roles of men and women are out of the window.

The problem is, the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater. There was good which came with a traditional masculine role as well as bad. And what is happening is that many men have seized the opportunity to relinquish responsibility – something I see tragically around here in the number of single mothers. I think a lot of young men now live in a sort of perpetual adolescence – they don’t have the need to grow up by taking responsibility for a family (even if they have children…)

Where are the positive role models for men? Where are the voices telling men not just to stop the bad stuff but positively to take responsibility, be a strong man, care for women and children, etc? This is one reason I think Jordan Peterson is so popular – he’s one of the few people who is saying those kind of things.

One of the lessons I’ve learned over the last few years is that you can’t change people simply by telling them to ‘stop it’. You have to give them a better vision, something to aim for. Role models are part of it (surely part of the problem is a growing number of children growing up without fathers). But in general it’s far better to show someone what they should be doing rather than simply telling them what they shouldn’t. Men need to be shown how to be men, rather than told how not to be!

Where does Friend Zone come into all this? So much of the time, I see and read things which just make me think our society is so lost when it comes to men and women. We all agree there is a problem, but no-one really seems to have the foggiest idea what to do about it. We need to re-learn what it means to be men and women, we need to re-learn the goodness of being made male and female.

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:27

This is a lesson which is hard for our society to hear: it’s not all men’s fault. In fact, part of the problem is a culture which locates the problem primarily with men – some men, at least. We desperately need to recover the Biblical vision for both men and women. And we need a Saviour who is capable of forgiving our failures and restoring in us the image of God which has been marred.

This is where I hope that Friend Zone can play a small part. Over the last few years I’ve come to realise that I don’t simply relate to other people as a person – I relate as a man. I’ve become increasingly aware of the way that sex and gender plays into our relationships. And I’ve also become increasingly amazed at how God has made men and women to complement one another and the joy it can bring when those relationships flourish.

There are deep issues in society, and it may well be the case that abuse is a a tragic ‘brutal fact’ which will always be there to an extent. But perhaps if more men and women can learn to be friends, that would be a small step. And perhaps if we as a society can learn to embrace the realities of the way that God has made us, and encourage men and women to grow into those, it would make a real difference. There are huge challenges – but God is great and there is no end to what he can do.

Among the gods there is none like you, Lord;
no deeds can compare with yours.
All the nations you have made
will come and worship before you, Lord;
they will bring glory to your name.
For you are great and do marvellous deeds;
you alone are God.

Psalm 86:8-10

Sam Allberry on friendship and singleness

I watched this conversation just now and found it fascinating. One of the things Sam said which really struck me was that if the church had been fulfilling its vocation to be a family, we wouldn’t have the same problem that we do now with same-sex attraction.

The church needs to rediscover its vocation to family, friendship, and intimacy (but not sexual intimacy!). The nuclear family is not the be-all and end-all – yet sadly the church has for far too long (perhaps unwittingly) preached the message that it is.

Anyway, I thought this was a great conversation and lots of food for thought there. I hope you enjoy it.

Cultivating deeper friendships

A couple of days ago I saw this video pop up on YouTube. It’s a short but worthwhile watch.

The role of friendship in sanctification – that is, in making us more like the people God wants us to be – is often overlooked. I think too often we see sanctification as something which happens as a sort of ‘just me and the Lord’ affair, and we neglect our brothers and sisters in Christ.

That’s partly the reason why Friend Zone exists. If society’s obsession with sex causes problems with men and women relating, is that a problem that will be solved with a “just me and God” approach? Or do we need each other to help? Perhaps this is a problem which God wants us to solve in friendship with each other. Just a thought!

Responding to #MeToo in the church

The other day I watched a video debate between Natalie Collins and Phil Moore – an egalitarian and complementarian respectively. They were talking about the #MeToo movement and how the church should respond to it. I thought it was a really worthwhile video – both engaged well and made some good points (although it should come as no surprise that I’m with Phil Moore and thought him to be more persuasive).

It made me think once again that #MeToo is really a problem with self-control – sexual harassment is giving in to wrong desires. The solution to this is not a simplistic “men need to pull their socks up”, but rather the gospel in its fullness: that is, as the Spirit bears fruit in our lives we can overcome lustful feelings and instead love one another as God intended. This is what Friend Zone is about.

Do have a watch of the video and I hope you enjoy it!

Review: Drew Hunter “Made for Friendship”

I’ve just finished reading Made for Friendship by Drew Hunter. It is subtitled “The relationship that halves our sorrows and doubles our joys”.

I found it a really helpful book about the benefits of friendship – in particular, I appreciated Drew’s assessment that many people today do not really have deep friendships. In fact, the concept of ‘friendship’ itself has been devalued.

His contention is that we need to see friendship as the truly valuable thing that God made it to be – perhaps most significantly, Jesus himself called us his friends (John 15:13-15). Perhaps Christians do not appreciate what it means to be friends with God because the whole concept of friendship has become devalued:

The thought of friendship with God rings hollow today because we’ve already hollowed out the idea of friendship in general. How highly (or lowly) we esteem friendship with God will correlate with how highly (or lowly) we esteem friendship in general – and that is currently at a low point. (Page 26)

It is no small thing to be called a friend of God, and our experience of friendship with him should flow out into our friendship with others. However, because of this ‘hollowing out’ of friendship we do not see it as highly as we ought. Drew goes on:

Most of what we call friendship is little more than acquaintanceship. But acquaintanceship is to friendship what snorkeling is to deep-sea diving. Snorkeling is fine, but skimming along the surface isn’t exploring the deep. We often float on the surface of our conversations, sharing little more than the most general details of our lives. We note our plans for the day, share a few interesting (or uninteresting) details about our week, offer a few sports or political opinions. But we don’t share the climate of our souls. We don’t share our struggles with sin. We don’t share our experiences of spiritual renewal or admit that we’re sitting in a season of darkness. No one knows when our soul feels spiritually chilly. Nor are most of us adept at drawing out others in these ways.

I’m sure I am not alone in finding that these words hit the mark. In the church today, so much of the time it seems that we ‘skim the surface’ of relationships. The church has lost its vocation to be a family – we prefer superficial relationships which don’t demand too much. By contrast, God calls us to deep relationships with each other, not least because that is simply how we are made – made for friendship. We cannot fulfill our purpose as human beings without those kind of relationships!

We are living in a time when loneliness is on the rise, people are being driven apart for all sorts of reasons, and technology encourages a superficial approach to friendship. Now, more than ever, we need to understand the depths of friendship and companionship we are called to.

In the rest of the book Drew makes some helpful comments about friendship – particularly highlights for me were the last sections on cultivating friendship and a Biblical theology of friendship. In particular, I’d never thought about friendship in the way outlined in the final chapter – through the lens of our friendship with God. This is a valuable book about friendship and I would recommend it to anyone.

However, from the perspective of Friend Zone, I would say one thing – there was nothing really about friendship between the sexes (or between members of the same sex where they experience same-sex attraction). This is a good general book about friendship, but I think there is much more to say – and I would recommend reading this book in companion with others to flesh out what friendship means.


Site update: One thing which reading the book did make me realise is that I needed to be a bit more explicit in explaining why Friend Zone is about male-female friendship, rather than simply friendship in general – hence I created this page.

Review: David Bennett “A War of Loves”

I’ve just finished reading David Bennett’s new book “A War of Loves“, subtitle “The unexpected story of a gay activist discovering Jesus”.

I’ve found it to be a really excellent book. If you want to read a review with lots of quotes from the book to see what I mean, have a look at David Robertson’s review.

I don’t really want to review the book per se, but given that this is Friend Zone I wanted to make a brief comment about what the book says about friendship.

This site originated largely as a result of same-sex attracted / gay Christians who have helped the church rediscover the value in friendship. I read people like Wesley Hill on Spiritual Friendship, Ed Shaw in The Plausibility Problem and Vaughan Roberts in True Friendship. What I think these people have rediscovered of late is that friendship is so much more than what society – not to mention the church – thinks it is.

When the church makes an idol of marriage and family, rather than showing the world what the body of Christ should be, then it’s small wonder that people who can’t enter into traditional families for various reasons feel excluded. (Kevin DeYoung recently had some helpful comments about idolising the family).

One of the things I took from this book is that the church has actually failed to live up to its calling to be the body of Christ – too often the biological family has been held up and friendship sidelined. It is for this reason that I think it’s so important to be embracing friendship: if the church can’t show the world that sex and romance is not god, then who can?

What would it be like if everyone in the church – both single and married – started seeing the world a bit different, started seeing marriage as a good thing but not the ultimate thing? What if we started opening up to friendship with others – to love one another deeply, from the heart (1 Peter 1:22)? What if we asked the Spirit to so transform us that we could really show the world what life could be without the idol of sex and romance in the way?

So many things in David’s book were helpful on this, and I think it’s a really helpful read from his perspective. I highly recommend reading it and I hope it will give to the church a much needed perspective on friendship.

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