Today I complete my three-part personal interview with author Dan Brennan about his engaging and controversial book, Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions. I would encourage you to not only read this online interview I’ve posted but to visit Dan’s web site and even sign up for his Facebook page. There you can engage with him more personally and discuss his ideas openly, in a manner that is non-threatening and truly gracious.

One reviewer of Dan’s book recently wrote:

Gendered stereotypes blocking friendship are notions like emotionally intimate, vulnerable friendships are for girls/women or gay men. In evangelical communities where romantic relationships are on a pedestal and friendships are inferior, gendered stereotypes and straitjackets are common.

My questions to Dan concluded with the following dialog.

Wouldn’t “face to face” intimacy in friendship threaten marriages and leave one vulnerable for a sexual fall?

We have to do a little tweaking of the metaphor to get some distance from romantic idealizing or gazing. For centuries prior to Freud intimacy in friendship meant emotional, spiritual intimacy, transparency, vulnerability, delight, and sweet language and affection—all of which we would now describe as characteristic of “face to face.”

“Face to face” in sexuality is as much about having friends as it is having lovers as Ronald Rolheiser says. Why is that? Sexuality is not limited or confined to a contemporary romantic version of love– between men and women where emotional intimacy, companionship, delight, vulnerability, and commitment are only contained within marriage. Sexuality is not about idealizing certain body parts in marriage. Communion in sexuality is more than just experiencing orgasms between married lovers. It is embracing our divine calling to love our neighbor, our cross-gender neighbor as ourselves, and as Christ has loved us.

This has always been a concern in nurturing a face to face friendship with someone of the opposite sex to whom you are not married. In other words, the concern is that face to face leads to sexual intimacy with someone other than your spouse.

This has always been the concern for intimate friendship for the same sex friends or opposite sex friends. This was the concern for some in Saint Aelred’s time when he wrote on intimate platonic friendship. I think we can see where chastity was more complex among many communities in the monastic tradition. Some communities were fearful of “particular friendships” and enforced strict rules. A man could not spend time alone with a male friend.

In other communities, there were numerous stories of dyadic friendships full of mutual tenderness, mutual sweetness, and “heart-to-heart” transparency where sex never happened. Bernard of Clairvaux slept with men in the same bed. He also held hands with men.

In romantic love, face to face intimacy means we don’t impose our agendas on each other; we don’t use each other for our own instrumental purposes. Our care for each other is born out of face to face. Out of goodness and beauty expressed in face to face intimacy between husband and wife, the capacity to love others in face-to-face intimacy is born. Both spouses have to be on the same page or trust in each other as they nurture close bonds with others beyond the marriage. This trust can develop early on in the dating relationship as they discover the important relationships in each other’s lives.

Seeking to love others face to face requires us to address our deepest fears. It challenges our deepest, ingrain cultural stereotypes about relating to each other both in romantic relationship and non-romantic. Most of us (both men and women) in evangelical communities have been trained to act in a stereotypical masculine way toward members of the opposite sex: control, order, superficial emotional connectedness, very limited (if any) physical contact/affection. To move past that means we will have to probably experience some weirdness.

Loving one another face to face in non-romantic friendship transforms lust into healthy and maybe even passionate attraction for the good and beautiful in the other. It dismantles sexism in the relationship and serves as a model for all. Appropriate and healthy responses to embodied beauty in friendship intimacy draw us to a healthy, robust, deep communion.

You reach out to singles in your book and invite them to intimate platonic friendships. You yourself are close to a couple of single women. Can singles find satisfying intimacy in friendship sans sex?

As you know, John, singles are a huge part of our churches and society now. I think intimate cross-gender friendship presents itself as a powerful expression of intimacy for singles. It is possible to enjoy communion with an opposite sex friend while one is single and waiting to marry. In friendship, singles choose to truly open themselves up to the beauty of others in face to face intimacy. Many adult men and women know how to express tenderness and sweetness toward the member of the opposite sex only within a romantic relationship.

But in so much of the evangelical sub-culture singles are discouraged from giving themselves fully, from giving their hearts fully within platonic friendship. Most singles in the evangelical sub-culture are taught to see the opposite sex in two groups: either romantic possibilities or married (off limits or having no friendship currency). They are taught to maintain a guarded distance with their heart with exception of the person they are dating. Is this the only alternative for singles within the evangelical community?

What does the virtue of chastity look like for singles in the evangelical sub-culture when most evangelical communities insist that friendship with the opposite sex is inherently sexualized? Margaret Kim Peterson and Dwight Peterson, in their newest book, lament how many young people on the verge of adulthood think that romance/marriage is the only possible relationship in which to experience deep and lasting friendship. What they are observing is how the evangelical community has created its own subculture of sexualizing friendship.

I think evangelicals need to seriously rethink culturally-bound stereotypes of chastity, distance, and fear. Beginning with Jesus the call to love one another is not sex-segregated. Nor is it a call to accept “second-best” options until one finds the “one” in a path of romantic friendship. Al Hsu and others have pointed out that in the New Testament friendship is the highest virtue, not romance.

This is not to reject romance altogether. But the virtue of chastity calls us to love one another and is critically evaluate romantic scripts. I would argue that singles are called to love—and learn to love others for their sake, with their full hearts ready to engage in loving, authentic, life-giving friendship.

Chaste love for singles would not mean leaving their sexuality or their hearts at the door of friendship. Sexuality is a deep, beautiful, good, desire/energy that is expressed in a longing to know and be known by others at intimate levels in marriage and friendship. Friendship is not about repressing our sexuality as we love our friends. How would we do that? How would we define and parse out what parts of us are sexual in friendship and what parts are not? The immediate popular answer in evangelical circles has tended toward a genital-focus with a list of specific behaviors relating to sexual arousal or hopeful outcome of sex (dating).

But can we isolate sexuality in ourselves that way? How healthy is it? I see chastity in the 21st century calling us all—men, women, married and single—to embrace embodied sexuality in marriage, friendship, and community. Is there not a place for fully engaged and fully present emotional and physical tenderness in non-romantic relationships?

I am in agreement with David Benner and others that our embodied sexuality is an ever-present invitation – indeed, a call – to passionate life and love in our relationships beyond the one with whom we share a bed. The biggest issue in sexuality and friendship for singles is the same one married people encounter once the fantasy of romance diminishes: Can we learn to love members of the opposite sex face to face? Are we able to let go of our fears and our culturally-bound romantic stereotypes and evangelical stereotypes to truly learn to receive beauty from the other and to truly give beauty to the other? Face to face intimacy is always powerful, transforming, and life-giving with or without sex.

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  1. Jack October 5, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    Is the example of Billy Graham outdated?
    Posted 5/15/2005 9:58 PM Updated 5/16/2005 6:54 AM
    Graham, a founder of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, was scrupulous about tracking funds long before the televangelism scandals of the 1980s.
    He says he has never been alone in a room with a woman who’s not related to him.

  2. Jennifer October 5, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    Jack, yes it is outdated.

  3. Dan Brennan October 5, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    Hi Jack, great question. For some, his example is not outdated. I would suggest however, with great respect to Graham, that his example is outdated.
    First, during Billy’s prime time (let’s say 50s, 60s, and 70s) the doctine of separate spheres (women stay at home, men work outside the home) was in full force, and therefore the social segregation between the sexes was huge during his ministry.
    Another reason why the Graham model worked back then and is outdated now, is that Hollywood depicted sex or romance to be the main social reason for male-female relationship. Back then, the only reason for men and women to connect and be alone was sex as Hollywood showed in film after film. Although we still have the romantic pair in Hollywood movies, the male-female relationship is much broader and deeper than what Hollywood was portraying in the 50s, 60s, and 70s.
    Sexism. It’s outdated very for few men can assert its viability as a universal norm without stepping into sexist quicksand. Now, at different seasons for different men, this could be a wise thing if being alone with women is going to be a stumbling block for them. It’s almost like saying the norm for all women in society and the church to stay at home, be barefoot, and pregnant. Now, some women may enjoy that and it’s the life they sincerely want. But to press that for all women, is to deny how far society and the church as a whole has changed in their views of women.
    I think it’s ourdate because it assumes the only reason for men and women to be alone is sex. This is such a reductionistic view of a “gospel culture” to use Scot McKnight’s metaphor. Scripture gives us so much “thickness” in male-female relationship beyond sex as the only or primary reason for relating socially.
    Look at Jesus. Here he is, our Leader, our Lord. He himself (knowing the dangers of Proverbs prostitute, and David-Bathsheba) met a woman when no one else was around. Even to this day, it has caused some to think something “else” happened. Of course, I am referring to his meeting with Mary Magdalene in the garden (i.e. the two previous times in Scripture when men women met alone in a “garden” sex was definitely in the background–i.e. Genesis 1-3 and Song of Solomon) according to John when no one else was around. He met alone at the most pivotal point in the Christian story (she was the first to see him according to John). As followers of Christ (first and foremost before Billy Graham)
    I suggest we think through this story much deeper than Mary just being the first witness to the resurrection. This is obviously a woman Jesus knew. She traveled with him. He was familiar with her. She supported his ministry. She obviously had been one of his followers for at least a couple of years if we consider Luke 8. I think we should not pass over too quickly Jesus’ relationships with women in the Gospels.

  4. Duncan October 6, 2011 at 7:29 am

    I have been busy this week and therefore have only done a cursory review of this three-part series. I feel that I still need to ponder the points — so this is an excellent blog, since it gives me pause to reconsider my thoughts.
    That said (and whether or not the Graham example is outdated) (and whether or not there are appeals to history like Clairvaux / Ailred — which are somehow less outdated?), I feel a nasty slippery-slope coming on. A slippery-slope that, like so many others, leverages a feel-good notion that man, once enlightened, is basically able to manage his sin. This slope might not cause the early-adherents to slide — but it seems capable of luring others onto a water-park monstrosity.
    The Bible is clear that marriage is a metaphor for our relationship with God (cf. Paul’s “and I am talking about Christ and the Church” and John Piper’s delightful “This Momentary Marriage”). Adultery is not strictly a sexual act. Fascination with any alternate idols is sin. And maybe spouses ought to be strong and courageous, but one ignores the realities of the [insecure] human condition when one says “but she is just a friend, are you so un-Christian to prevent me from befriending and encouraging her?”
    (BTW – I am not comfortable with the notion that sexual union is “embracing our divine calling to love our neighbor, our cross-gender neighbor as ourselves, and as Christ has loved us.” Brennan has put the Christ/Church metaphor as being secondary to loving our neighbor. Biblically, husband and wife are ONE, not neighbors. Christ, our bridegroom, is not my neighbor. This misrepresentation seems emblematic of misunderstanding the practical and biblical realities of how alternate intimacy can become a slippery slope.)
    Marriages are falling apart and in many cases never even commencing at least in part because of rationalized self-interest. I have been friends to many men and women — just as we are called to love our GOD and our neighbor. But, I will go out of my way for the rest of my natural life to ensure that my wife appreciates that I have no false idols — there might be temptation but is NO competition. (Just as sin makes law & grace clear, with fidelity, the temptation reinforces the reality of the commitment.) This is the metaphor that God calls us to for Him. BECAUSE of our primary love, we are able to love and serve others. But, serving others is not the same as becoming similarly intimate — this is polytheism, and our God is a jealous God. Let us not tinker too much at the edge of the slope.
    All of that said, I appreciate the challenge to re-evaluate the degree to which we are balancing our relationships wisely. Thank you again for an excellent blog.

  5. Jennifer October 6, 2011 at 2:54 pm

    I agree with you that marriage is a central metaphor for our relationship with God. But I dont want to forget that Jesus called us “friends”. Somehow that has to be an important metaphor too, right?

  6. Duncan October 6, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    Yes, Jesus’ use of “friends” (esp. e.g., John 15:13-15) is an important metaphor as well. Note, though, that while we hear about Jesus’ use of the term for His disciples from Luke and John, we find very little ‘friend’ language in Matthew, Mark, and Paul. I am not denying the importance, just highlighting that we don’t find a whole lot of emphasis on Jesus being a friend to His bride nor of a husband being a friend to his wife. This is likely because even though it is right and good for spouses to be friends, there is a deep relationship that includes friendship and much more as well. (It is also likely because the contemporary view of friend is not necessarily identical to the 1st century view, which might carry more of a ‘beloved and trusted’ (lay down your life) quality, rather than a ‘let’s go bowling and talk’ quality.) And, moreover, being a friend to one’s spouse might not directly translate to how one is a friend to one’s neighbor.

  7. Jennifer October 6, 2011 at 7:54 pm

    Yes, very helpful. Thanks.
    My experience is that marriage is a very important union in my life, but it is not the only union that I take part in.
    My son and I have a deep union. So much so that he used to live inside my body. When he was born, I used my body to sustain his life for many many months. That’s a deep union, but its no idoltary.
    I also have a profound union with the bishop who ordained me. I knelt in front of him and promised to obey him and follow his leadership. We bound ourselves to each other in front of many of my friends and family. It is a union, but in no way does it compete with the union I share with my husband. Its a different kind of union.
    I have a union too with a handful of friends that I am close to. They know me and pray with me. They’ve seen my very worst behavior, and called out the very best in me. Friendship is a union for sure…a deep one…but it does not compete with my marriage.

  8. Dan Brennan October 6, 2011 at 8:48 pm

    Thank you so much for your pushback and cogent reply. I sincerely appreciate your thoughtful response.
    First, I hear you about the slippery slope. No question that this might appear to be a slippery slope. I do not want to deny that. I want to hold that fear as a serious possibility. As you so clearly state, we all know of instances where the slope was pretty slippery for married men and women. But you may surmise, although we agree to there being a problem in marriage today–I would part company with you and say that our evangelical sub-culture may be contributing to the very thing it wants to prevent–divorce.
    Could it possibly be that the evangelical sub-culture itself contributes to the slippery slope?I would strongly argue that evangelicals tend to sleep in the same bed as Hollywood idealism when it comes to contemporary romance and this itself creates unrealistic expectations for marriage.
    You are right about the metaphor of marriage. However, we must not be selective and pick and choose which metaphors we like and prefer over others. The challenge is there for us at several levels. First, marriage is not the *only* metaphor for relationship with God. There are multiple metaphors. Stanley Grenz observes it is not even the primary metaphor. There are other metaphors, too. And, to pushback with gentleness toward you, perhaps the major reason why it is not the *only* metaphor is our own possibly of making a cultural expression of marriage, an idol.
    Which view of marriage are you willing to protect and guard? Martin Luther’s view? Are you going to uphold popular best-selling evangelical author the 1970s, Marabel Morgan’s view which essentially presented eroticized wives??? Perhaps you are going to protect and guard John R.Rice’s view of marriage and his book published in 1941, *Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives and Women Preachers*? Christians, even Protestant Christians have not held any consistent view of what marital love looks like for the man and the woman.
    Second, I would suggest the metaphor of “one” must be seriously taken into consideration when we consider relationships within the Body and marriage. Christ has prayed that we all might be one (John 17) not just husbands and wives. The church in Jerusalem was of one and that included sharing material goods in koinonia (Acts 4). There are a number of relational passages peppered through and through in the pastoral epistles about being “one” in Christ. And, there are scores of deep Christian friendship stories throughout the ages that have looked to those metaphors of oneness in Christ as deep spiritual intimacy with no competition in marriage.
    Somehow though, moving past oneness metaphors in application to friendship, we have think seriously aboput the deep relational metaphors of intimacy beginning with brothers and sisters in Christ. It is well documented by conservative and liberal scholars that the most intimate male-female relationship in ancient history–including Christ’ own time was the biological brother-sister relationship. Emotional intimacy between husband and wife in Christ’s own culture was not considered to be necessary. What does though the brother-sister metaphor mean for the Body of Christ? I know many biological brothers and sisters who would trust each other to be alone, who would enjoy each other’s company in bowling, canoeing, tennis, etc.
    You quote me as stating that “sexual union” is embracing our divine calling. But I didn’t say that. I said our sexuality. That’s part of the issue. I think too many of us equate sex and sexuality–then we wonder why John Doe Christian falls in love and has sex with Jane Smith. We have to separate sex from sexuality.
    I am with you when you observe that “adultery is not strictly a sexual act.” I concur. But on what grounds are you are going to proceed on from there? Hollywood’s romanticized couple? Are you going to support Marabel Morgan’s view? And how are you going to flesh out deep emotional intimacy between brothers and sisters in Christ? It’s pretty apparent if you read of female friendship stories among evangelical women that many of them admit that they have deeper emotional intimacy with other women than they do their own husbands. Are they guilty of sin? How are you going to parse out the deep emotional intimacy with siblings who are married?
    And, then, how does that relate to all the kinship metaphors where we are supposed to be experiencing deep kindship-like love for those who are next to us in Christ (male or female?).
    Throughout the 1700s and 1800s there is a vast amount of letters revealing deep love between spouses and deep, emotional love with friends and siblings? That’s why I quoted William Wirt in this first part who was by all indications a faithful Christian, happily married, who had an intimate brotherly relationship with a friend.
    I am reminded of John Frame’s discussion on evangelicals and the slippery slope fallacy in one of his books on the doctrine of God. I think we have to be cautious about our relationships with our brothers and sisters but I also think we have to think more deeply about slippery slope fallacies. I think this is a complex issue and respectfully, there are some things we have to reconsider.

  9. Duncan October 7, 2011 at 1:07 pm

    Thank you for taking the time to reply. Your comments are helpful as I ponder this more.
    Maybe I am too defensive, or maybe I just want to be clear: I am not invoking a slippery slope fallacy. I am not suggesting that the slippery slope renders the concepts invalid or even inadvisable. I am suggesting that, as can often be the case, the apparent slippery slope serves as a warning sign that we should be diligent as we evaluate both the wisdom of the direction as well as the method of implementation. Slippery slopes can require supplemental actions to mitigate risk. Oftentimes, these supplemental actions highlight important constituents and perspectives that we glossed over in the first place. In other words, the existence of a slippery slope CAN imply that our solution was not sufficiently comprehensive yet.
    I am not sure that I can respond to all of your very good points. Let me answer one question: I am willing to guard the biblical view of marriage. The husband loves the wife and the wife respects the husband. I am not advocating nor defending any particular post-biblical model. They will each have strengths and weaknesses and pros and cons in different instances (individuals, times, places, cultures). They must each be compared against what we can discern from scripture. So, I would advocate and defend the model that I currently have in place for me and my wife — for us. And, for any specific friends of mine, I would likely advocate something similar with necessary adjustments for them. What I would not advocate (at this second) is a view for all others that presumes that intimate cross-gender relationships are healthy. (I am not suggesting that this is your approach, but I currently reject if it is and look forward to studying your work and views more carefully so that I can be more confident in my discernment.)
    I am confused about one of your clarifications: “You quote me as stating that “sexual union” is embracing our divine calling. But I didn’t say that. I said our sexuality.” You then suggest that maybe I, like others, confuse sex and sexuality. Perhaps I was confused about who typed what, but I read in the main article: “Communion in sexuality is more than just experiencing orgasms between married lovers. It is embracing our divine calling to love our neighbor, our cross-gender neighbor as ourselves, and as Christ has loved us.” I interpreted your use of the pronoun “it” to refer to the “communion in sexuality” antecedent in the sentence immediately prior. I understand from your clarification that you must have meant for it to refer to the “sexuality” in the sentence before that one. Otherwise, maybe you have something else in mind for “communion in sexuality” other than “sexual union”. If so, I am intrigued — perhaps “communion regarding sexuality”?

  10. Dan Brennan October 7, 2011 at 6:32 pm

    Hey Duncan,
    Second time around: Please to meet you. 🙂 I used “communion in sexuality” to encompass both sexual union *and* communion in friendship between sexes (i.e., “it is much more than just experiencing orgasms between lovers”). There is a difference between sex and sexuality. Certainly sex is very much a part of sexuality but we tend to focus on the genitalia in sexuality.
    But our post-Freudian culture (including well-meaning Christians) has sexualized communion. We have tended to think in evangelical circles that sex and communion are synonyms–we think physical sex is the same thing as communion.
    In contemporary pop books, evangelicals typically sexualize communion and therefore it typically refers to sex between husband and wife. One has to read about communion between sexes in Catholic material. In Catholic sexuality, there is the union between man and woman in marriage. But there is also “spiritual” communion in friendship between sexes which can be very deep and profound.
    So my intention in that paragraph was to do a sort of shorthand statement of my book which is entitled Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions. This covers what I consider to be the Biblical range of union, communion, oneness for there is more to union in the Bible than just “one flesh.” Although “one flesh” is a profound relationship, the Bible also embraces the range of oneness that encompasses deep intimacy in friendship.

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