Some Possibilities for Narratives of Friendship

I loved Wes’s post on writing about friendship, and figured I’d throw some specific examples out there to see what actual novels and movies suggest about the nature of friendship. These are very much first-draft thoughts, as I hope you guys will riff on them.

“The Body” & Stand By Me–friendship as childhood. This heartbreaking Stephen King novella, which was turned into probably the best adaptation of his work for the screen, tells the story of a group of boys who go on a journey to look at a corpse. Friendship is their haven from violence. It’s also their lost idyll. We know from the beginning that they will never again be as close as they were on that summer day long ago. Friendship is a place where you can be known in a way that lovers and spouses–the people you will end up binding yourself to in the adult world–will never know you.

I think a lot of friendship stories are about whether we can know another person. Stories of eros, whether marital or not, often play on the contrast between the physical union of the lovers and their unbridgeable distance from one another. You can “know” her in the Biblical sense, be inside her body, and yet have no idea what she’s thinking. Friendship stories sometimes suggest a deeper, more intimate harmony of minds: almost a shared consciousness. Other times, stories of friendship are about how even the friend remains as unknowable as a lover.

The Glass Bead Game, The Secret History, and like a million other college survivor’s-guilt novels: The “college novel,” of which The Glass Bead Game is the most longing example and The Secret History the most bloodthirsty, is often the story of the death of a friend. (I’ve riffed on death in friendship narratives here & in the rest of that series.) Again friendship is associated with a time before or outside marriage and parenting, outside the normal landscape of adult life. Both TGBG and TSH have this contrast between the social, horizontal love of friendship, and the ecstasy, the escape from everyday social loves, for which the characters long.

Both of these novels also show friendship as the result of a “thing loved in common”: common intellectual interests, although “interests” doesn’t seem like an intense enough noun. Common intellectual thirsts.

Many of these stories, too, are about the impossibility of knowing one’s friends. You learn how to know the world through their friendship and their company, and yet they themselves remain inscrutable to you. Probably the sharpest example I’ve read of that aspect comes in Iris Murdoch’s Book and the Brotherhood.

We Are the Best! and Let the Right One In: Two otherwise very different movies! We Are the Best! might be the best story I know about the formation of friendship: Two middle-school punker chicks in early ’80s Stockholm decide, on a lark, to try to rope their school’s lone outcast Christian chick into their band. Let the Right One In is about a bullied boy who befriends a girl vampire.

What links them is not only the whole “us against the world” thing (which is super common in friendship tales, and provides narrative tension that the harmony between the friends can’t provide) but also the depiction of how people who seem most strange to you can become your closest friends. Theories of friendship often overemphasize similarity between friends, as vs. the sex difference between (heterosexual) lovers. These two movies show how difference, too, can be the seed of friendship. Part of the Christian weirdness is the way the outside and the inside switch places, or act like a Mobius strip: the stranger and even the enemy becomes the friend.

Gilead and Crossing to Safety: Moving from the tween years to adult life, here are two novels about friendship between married couples. The friend (and his family members!) can threaten the marriage, even as his support is indispensable to it. Crossing to Safety is also a powerful portrayal of being friends with a married couple whose marriage you do not envy. Friendship won’t stop you from forming pretty sharp opinions–it isn’t a prophylactic against judgment, but a way of overcoming those judgments. Gilead hits that theme too, and also shows how friendship links families; your chosen friend will lead you into obligations to his kin, which you didn’t choose.

When Sisterhood Was in Flower: Florence King’s glorious satire of ’70s feminism is also one of the best examples I know of the thing Pavel Florensky says about friendships as the “molecules” from which the church is built. The friendship between dizzy right-winger Isabel and authoritarian liberal Polly is the foundation on which a women’s community is built. The narrative arc is provided by the struggle to build and defend a haven for some very weird women. A hilarious, disgusting book (five words: SCRAPPLE IN A BIRTH BUCKET) and also a book very relevant to the conversations here & elsewhere about embedding friendship in community. Friendship grows out of solidarity and also helps solidarity to spread. Like a social disease.

Writing About Friendship

I’m back from the remarkably wonderful Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College where I spoke several times on the theme of (what else?) friendship. One of those times was with the retired English literature professor and author Daniel Taylor, and our topic was “Writing on Friendship”—how it’s been done, how we’ve tried it, how it might go wrong, and so on.

Continue reading

That Deathly Silence

There is a fairly famous quote by cartoonist Lynn Johnston that goes, “The most profound statements are often said in silence.” Silence can be a powerful force. Failure to speak can be a form of speaking.

Today is the Day of Silence, a day where many around the country decide to refrain from speaking in order to stand against bullying of LGBT youth. The event originates with the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN). As our cofounder Ron Belgau said in his post on last year’s Day of Silence, “On most questions related to sexuality, we hold positions very different from theirs. It is unlikely that they would endorse our approach, and we do not endorse theirs.” However, despite our disagreements, we do share a common concern for bullying. And days like today present us with wonderful opportunities to speak Christian compassion and love into the cultural issues of our time.

Dante0097

As I was reflecting on the Day of Silence this past week, I began to ponder the different types of silence that often accompany all things LGBT in the Church, and the messages that these silences speak.

Continue reading

Preston Sprinkle: People to Be…Misunderstood: A Response to the Gospel Coalition

Preston Sprinkle has graciously consented to cross-post his response to Anne Paulk here. To check out his other writings, please visit his Patheos blog

The Gospel Coalition just published a review of my two books, People to Be Loved and Living in a Gray World. The author of the review was Anne Paulk. As a writer, I enjoy good, constructive criticism of my work, and I’m so thankful to have people in my life who give it to me. Since I’m not Jesus, everything I say contains a mixture of truth and error, and I’m on a mission to weed out the latter.

people-to-be-lovedThis is why I rarely respond to critical reviews of my books. It could look rather defensive if you do. Plus, who has the time? It’s tough enough to write a book; to respond to its critics would require that I quit my day-job. But it’s difficult not to respond to Paulk’s review. Again, I’m totally fine if someone represents what I say accurately and then disagrees with what I say—preferably by providing evidence. But misrepresenting someone’s work is never helpful especially when people are reading reviews to get an honest idea about the book’s content.

I knew the review wasn’t going to be very accurate when Paulk began by saying that I live in Spokane, WA. I’ve heard that Spokane is a beautiful this time of year. It has lush forests and breathtaking mountain ranges. But don’t take my word for it. This is all hearsay. I’ve never even visited Spokane.

Continue reading

Lessons from the Journey

A few days ago on Twitter, my friend Mollie Hemingway linked to a piece written by a pastor friend of hers, Todd Peperkorn, on depression—or, more specifically, on lessons he’s learned from a decade of surviving depression. I resonated with it very much and found myself almost immediately making connections between Pastor Peperkorn’s experience and my experience of same-sex desire.

Before I go any further, though, I have a caveat or two. I’m wary of Christian portrayals of same-sex attracted folks as “special cases” who are always prone to depression or excessive lust (or whatever). I worry about the power dynamic in play when straight Christians view gay Christians as charity projects. When Christian leaders write sentences like this, “At the heart of the homosexual condition is a deep loneliness, the natural human hunger for mutual love, a search for identity, and a longing for completeness,” I’m not really satisfied unless they turn around and say the same thing about fallen-heterosexuality-as-we-know-it. We’re all prone to weakness, temptation, and sin, and any Christian talk that implies otherwise needs to relearn the gospel.

Furthermore, I think there are crucial differences between the experience of depression and the experience of same-sex sexual desire. The former is something that tends to isolate the sufferer and hinder engagement with others, whereas the latter—misdirected though traditional Christianity understands it to be—is fundamentally about the longing for love, about the desire to give oneself to another human being made in God’s image.

Caveats aside, though, there are genuine connections for me between my same-sex sexual desire and other Christians’ experiences of various forms of suffering. If there is, as Chris Roberts likes to say, “solidarity amongst the many ways of patiently cultivating chastity,” there is also the more fundamental solidarity of sharing in the same fallen condition. Insofar as my sexual orientation directs me away from the kind of sex God intended to be experienced in marriage, I experience it as a “trial.” And in that way, I feel a real kinship with Pastor Peperkorn and his experience of depression. We’re both trying to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12-13) while contending with what Francis Schaeffer once called our own peculiar mix of the fall.

Continue reading

Desiring God: Homophobia Has No Place in the Church

Over at the Desiring God blog, Nick Roen has a post calling out homophobia in the Church:

Christians—of all people on the planet—must operate not out of fear, but love. We recognize that all people are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and are therefore sacred and worthy of love.

Furthermore, we are called to love with the very love of our Father (Matthew 5:48), which calls us to love even our enemies (Matthew 5:44–48). Such love casts out fear because it no longer fears God’s judgment and therefore is freed to love with lavishness (1 John 4:18).

Therefore, our comfort, our convenience, our safety, or our perception of our country’s values are no longer valid reasons to operate in any way that is opposed to genuine biblical love. And we love this way because this is exactly how Jesus first loved us (1 John 4:19). He wasn’t threatened or repelled by us; he wasn’t afraid to enter a relationship with us, sinners that we were (and still are), and to even graciously speak the truth about our sin. Instead, he loved us so lavishly that he died for us to present us clean and whole before his Father (Romans 5:6–8).

When we love in this manner, we expose homophobia for what it really is: pride. It is an attitude that puts beneath us others whose sins and temptations we deem “more depraved” than our own, as we wickedly proclaim with the Pharisee, “Well, at least I don’t struggle with that” (Luke 18:11).

Read the Whole Post.

Holy Saturday for Gay Christians

One of the first Christian books I ever read (once I started reading books on my own, simply for pleasure, in high school) was Philip Yancey’s The Jesus I Never Knew. It ends like this:

The other two days [besides Holy Saturday] have earned names on the church calendar: Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Yet in a real sense we live on Saturday, the day with no name. What the disciples experienced on a small scale—three days, in grief over one man who had died on a cross—we now live through on a cosmic scale. Human history grinds on, between the time of promise and fulfillment. Can we trust that God can make something holy and beautiful and good out of a world that includes Bosnia and Rwanda, and inner-city ghettoes and jammed prisons in the richest nation on earth? It’s Saturday on planet earth; will Sunday ever come?

That dark, Golgothan Friday can only be called Good because of what happened on Easter Sunday, a day which gives a tantalizing clue to the riddle of the universe. Easter opened up a crack in a universe winding down toward entropy and decay, sealing the promise that someday God will enlarge the miracle of Easter to cosmic scale.

It is a good thing to remember that in the cosmic drama, we live out our days on Saturday, the in-between day with no name. I know a woman whose grandmother lies buried under 150-year-old live oak trees in the cemetery of an Episcopal church in rural Louisiana. In accordance with the grandmother’s instructions, only one word is carved on the tombstone: “Waiting.”

Longtime readers of this blog will know that my entire framework for thinking about my life as a gay, celibate believer is built around that idea of “waiting.” In the midst of ongoing loneliness and struggle, I am “wait[ing]… for the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). And that’s been true for several years now, ever since my early twenties when I was just beginning to work through what my Christian faith meant for my homosexuality.

Continue reading

True Fulfillment

During my conversation with Julie Rodgers at City Church last weekend, the moderator voiced a question that our friend Tim Otto had posed. If people like me are celebrating committed spiritual friendships, is there any good reason to think that that vision couldn’t include sex for gay couples? In other words, if I’m celebrating spiritual friendship so intensely, why not also celebrate the physical consummation of that love in committed same-sex partnerships? Here’s how Tim put it in his review of my book a while ago:

[I]f Wesley is encouraging people of the same sex to “go all the way” in spiritual, emotional, and intellectual ways, why not “go all the way” with the body as well?…

I’m curious as to how Wesley would respond to concerns that by singling out physical intimacy as wrong, his proposal is dualist or even gnostic.

Tim’s question, I think, is in some ways a deepening of Julie’s. Why should “Side B” be a part of what we’re all about here at SF, and, perhaps more poignantly, isn’t “Side B”—i.e., asking gay Christians to refrain from gay sex in faithfulness to Scriptural teaching—potentially curtailing many rich forms of friendship that gay Christians may be called to?

Continue reading

One Brief Thought on the “Architecture” of the Various Christian Callings

This past weekend I visited City Church in San Francisco to have a public conversation with my friend Julie Rodgers about moral disagreement over same-sex marriage in the church. The goal of the conversation was to explore our differences—Julie is “Side A,” which means she believes God blesses same-sex marriages, and I’m “Side B,” believing that marriage is “male and female”—and to talk about what it might look like to find friendship and some kind of common cause in the midst of disagreement.

I won’t go into all of what happened at the event—the audio recording should be posted soon at the church’s website, and you can listen for yourself—but I did want to reflect a bit here on a couple of the points of divergence between Julie and me, in the hope of continuing the conversation…

Continue reading

What is Friendship *For*?

Today over at Catalyst, an online magazine for United Methodist seminarians, I’ve got an essay that tries to play with the idea that friendship isn’t for anything in particular. This idea has a pedigree in Christian reflection, and I’ve been wondering about it for years—wondering in what sense it is and isn’t true.

An excerpt:

One of the centermost doctrines of Christian faith is that God’s love in creation and redemption seeks no return from us in the form of a counter gift. God made the world for the hell of it, as Terry Eagleton once quipped, out of sheer exuberance and aesthetic delight. And God withheld nothing in the mission to save humanity, uniting himself to humanity indissolubly in the Incarnation and giving up his life in death, even the most ignominious and torturous sort of death, and pouring himself out in tongues of fire in Jerusalem at Pentecost. There was, as Eagleton says laconically, “nothing in it for him.” Nothing, that is, other than God’s desire to be in communion with us.

Perhaps this is at the heart of why Christians came to celebrate it. Friendship is a token or participation in that divine lavishness. When I travel overseas to visit a friend, spending more money than I have on plane fare and gifts that I’ve carefully selected in light of the little hobbies and secret interests of my friend that I am lucky enough to know about, I’m doing so not in order to guarantee a specific response or to meet a need. I’m doing these things, rather, because I like my friend, because I hope to go on knowing him and loving him for years to come, because his company gives me pleasure. In friendship, I’m not looking for my friend to achieve something on my behalf or award me with some hoped-for prize, nor am I looking to supply some lack in him. Rather, I’m looking to be in his presence because he is someone whose presence I enjoy. In these ways, among others, friendship is perhaps a vestige or aftershock of the kind of love God displays in Christ.

Over the phone recently, a friend said to me, “Why do you think Jesus said what he said to his disciples in the Gospel of John: ‘I do not call you servants any longer … but I have called you friends’?”

I hesitated, unsure of where he was going.

“Surely it’s because they’re not his underlings; they’re not doing anything for him. They’re his equals. They’re his fellows. He loves them because he loves them.”

You can read the whole thing here.