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!
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’.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Yesterday I watched Louis Theroux’s documentary Altered States: 1. Love Without Limits. It was a fascinating programme and one which is well worth reflecting on. It was documenting the rise of polyamory – that is, people who choose to live in ‘open’ relationships, with more than a single couple involved. It followed about three different groups (I can’t call them couples!) and explored how their relationships worked.
I have a few reflections which I’d like to talk about here, because I think the documentary has some relevance to what Friend Zone is about.
1. Polyamory is desire gone mad
It was painfully obvious, in every single arrangement, that there was at least one person getting the raw end of the deal. No-one came out and said they were unhappy with the polyamorous arrangement, but it didn’t take much reading between the lines to see that was the case.
The phrase ‘have your cake and eat it’ sprang to my mind more than once during the course of the programme. I think in every arrangement, it had originated with someone being unhappy and wanting to add to what they had rather than stop a relationship and start a new one. It was unhindered desire – human lust given licence.
2. One is not enough
One thing which was said repeatedly during the programme was ‘How can one person be enough?’ – i.e, one person is not supposed to fulfil every one of their partner’s needs. This is something I completely agree with – and a big part of the reason why Friend Zone is here.
However, the solution is completely different. Polyamory says – ‘one person can never be enough… therefore you need multiple sexual relationships’. This is the complete antithesis of Friend Zone: this site exists to say ‘one person can never be enough… therefore you need lots of friends.’ Which leads on to the third point.
3. No-one got what they wanted
It really struck me that all the people involved were searching for something, but they never really found it. One of the things I enjoy is being around couples who’ve been together a long time – couples who’ve been through thick and thin together, who are comfortable with each other. I believe that my wife and I, having been married for 12 years, are more comfortable with each other now than we were to start with – and I hope that will continue to grow through the course of our lives. Because marriage is an exclusive relationship, we have a commitment to each other which has grown – and the level of trust and love for each other has grown as well.
What really came home to me watching the polyamory documentary is that, by introducing sex into everything, the polyamorists didn’t get either marriage or friendship. There seemed to be a constant level of tension and unease in the relationships. There was no real commitment.
And it struck me that, in order to have deep friendships, one must be coming from a place of security: in order to relate to someone – especially someone of the opposite sex – you have to have the security of knowing what kind of relationship it is. If every relationship is potentially a sexual relationship, then it’s going to spoil everything from the start.
And this is why I am increasingly of the opinion that the traditional Christian understanding of marriage – as in, the lifelong union of a man and a woman – is good news for the world. It is the bedrock of healthy relationships: sexual intimacy belongs within the confines of marriage, and is safe there. Friendships can flourish when sexual intimacy is taken off the table. However, if sex is loosed from the confines of marriage, it destroys everything – friendship included. As (I believe) Ray Ortlund said: “Sex is like fire: in the fireplace, it keeps you warm. Out of the fireplace, it burns the house down.”
I read an interesting article today about the Strictly ‘curse’. This is a curse which applies to contestants on the TV show Strictly Come Dancing:
As the years have passed, there have been so many relationship break-ups among the show’s contestants, that the phenomenon has become known as the “Strictly curse”. And the latest scandal has been grabbing headlines all week as professional dancer Katya Jones and Comedian Seann Walsh have had their private lives made excruciatingly public.
I hadn’t realised this before now, but apparently there have now been ten couples who have broken up as a result of Strictly. In some ways it’s not surprising:
Jeremy Vine, who himself has a Christian faith and has been married for 16 years said he had feelings he couldn’t explain towards his partner when he was on Strictly: “Suddenly I’m seeing someone who is like a goddess – super human. The power and the strength and grace of that person, and then you are spending eight, nine hours a day within two inches of them.”
I’m not really a fan of Strictly – I’ve watched it on occasion. But I have always wondered how it’s possible for a man and a woman to partner so closely together in such a physical way without there being a sexual element. However, since starting up Friend Zone, it has made me wonder whether I’ve been a bit short sighted.
I think most people would cite the ‘Strictly’ curse as powerful evidence for believing if you get ‘too close’ to a member of the opposite sex, you’ll end up having an affair. There are plenty of examples of this happening, not just on Strictly! But, as discussed on this site, the solution is not simply to avoid those relationships. I often think of Aimee Byrd’s book and its subtitle: Avoidance is not purity.
I wonder whether part of the problem for those dancers on Strictly is that when it comes to relationships between men and women, the only ‘box’ they have to put things in is that of sexual attraction. If you start to have ‘feelings’ for someone else, then it clearly must be sexual. So the only two options are: (1) deny it, and keep the relationship at a superficial level; (2) give in to it.
But, as discussed here before, attraction is not one-dimensional. I think too often attraction is assumed to be sexual because that’s just about the only thing our society knows. It’s easy to confuse them, and of course Christians should expect nothing less given that sin is disordered desire. I explored recently on the blog whether we have lost our ability to see beauty – and I think you can see something of that in Jeremy Vine’s comment. It’s one thing to admire beauty, it’s something else to want that beauty in a sexual way. But that’s not to say that it’s impossible for a man and a woman to be involved in dancing together, have a close relationship, and yet for it to be pure.
I’m not sure I’d like to be a contestant on Strictly, to be honest. I think it would be a lot of pressure – and, of course, the times when we are weakest are often times when we are under the most pressure. That said, I think there are a couple of things to say: (1) I wonder if the outcome for those couples would have been different if they had a better understanding of friendship between the sexes. Sometimes a different way of viewing the world makes all the difference. (2) Christians understand that sin does not spring for our external circumstances but from our hearts. We do not sin because we are tempted, we sin because our hearts give in to the temptation. The solution to the Strictly curse is not taking people out of those circumstances, but by changing hearts – something which, ultimately, only Jesus can do.
I read an article this morning which is becoming depressingly familiar – although, worryingly, largely ignored by the media and politicians. The biggest single factor when it comes to child’s mental health is family breakdown. I was particularly struck by this paragraph:
Second, the relationship with the opposite-sex parent matters. On the face of it, having a close relationship with either parent seems to benefit teens equally. But when you throw all these other factors into the mix – parents’ marital status, happiness, relationship quality, use of physical force, education, ethnicity – it’s closeness to mum that matters specifically for boys and closeness to dad that matters specifically for girls.
This is really a no-brainer, and yet it is apparently controversial in this day and age to suggest that a child does best with its mother and father. How else is a boy going to learn how to relate to women than through close family relationships with mother, sister, etc – but especially the mother? How else is a girl going to learn how to relate to men than with a father in particular? When children are deprived of those things – and in its place comes the fake way that men and women relate in pornography – then is it any surprise that they grow up unable to form meaningful relationships with the opposite sex?
Over the past few months I’ve met quite a few new people through baby & toddler groups I help to run. It has really come home to me just how many children are living in situations which a generation or two ago would have been the rarity: many family situations are what we used to call ‘complicated’. What are we creating as a society when this is the new normal?
This is what Friend Zone is about. Friend Zone is a small step to help restore what is broken in the world. Just because someone grew up without a parent doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to form meaningful friendships with the opposite sex. The goal here is to not just show what’s broken, but try to point to a better way. Articles like this simply convince me even further that this is the right path.
Last year, Aisling Bea wrote a moving article about her father, who committed suicide when she was very young. In it she wrote:
My father’s death has given me a lot. It has given me a lifelong love of women, of their grittiness and hardness – traits that we are not supposed to value as feminine. It has also given me a love of men, of their vulnerability and tenderness – traits that we do not foster as masculine or allow ourselves to associate with masculinity.
I’m very grateful to her for bringing this issue up, as it is very often overlooked. Male suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK – 84 take their own lives every week!
So what should we do about it? Aisling occasionally speaks on Twitter about the need for men to open up more about their feelings, to build friendships and support each other. I think she’s right – but I think there’s more to be said.
In particular, too often I think it’s simply assumed that men should open up to other men. Not that there’s anything wrong with opening up to other men, of course – but why should it be restricted to men, and not women?
A few years ago, shortly after university, I had a mixed group of friends who would meet up regularly. Occasionally the girls would have a girls night – and so one of my male friends decided that the boys should have a boys night instead. We had those on a couple of occasions. To be honest with you, I didn’t really like the boys nights so much – we just didn’t really have so much to say to each other. It wasn’t an evening with free flowing conversation, shall we say! Now maybe this is because of our particular personalities (mostly introverts…) – but I don’t think it’s the only reason.
In any social grouping, my preference is always for mixed-sex rather than men-only (obviously I can’t be part of women-only groups…) I just feel it works better. And that’s what we should expect given the differences between men and women. I have different conversations with men than I have with women – which is perfectly natural. I personally have benefited from the friendships I’ve had with both men and women – they each bring out a different side in me. I do generally find it easier to talk about my feelings and ’emotional life’ with women – it would feel quite forced and strange to have a conversation with another man about my emotional state.
I wonder if part of the problem with male suicide at the moment is that men are finding it more difficult to relate to women. In the past men might have been able to talk to a close female family member – a spouse, sister or mother, perhaps – but now good relationships even in the family are harder to find. Men and women need healthy relationships with the opposite sex – the problems cannot all be solved by single-sex friendship.
So what should we do?
I would say to men – don’t neglect friendship of any sort. Many men unfortunately do neglect friendship (especially once they’re in a long-term relationship) – but it doesn’t have to be that way. Keep your friends, keep talking to them, don’t let it slide. However – I would say – don’t neglect friendship with the opposite sex: maybe there are women around who you could talk to, who would love to help.
I would say to women – don’t neglect your male friends. Don’t assume everything is OK with them – men are also vulnerable. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
There is no easy answer to this question – but I am convinced that the problem of male suicide is not just a problem for men to solve but for everyone. I believe this is another example of why Friend Zone is necessary – we need men and women to pull together on this, and many other things.