The Problem of Romantic Myth

Could it be that modern church culture elevates the romantic experience of falling in love even above religious commitment to Christ? Dan Author Dan Brennan, in his provocative and important book Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions, believes the answer is yes. He believes that we have so emphasized romantic passion as a unique, one-of-a-kind, love that all other love is seen as relatively unimportant in comparison with this amazing love. Almost every marriage seminar that I have ever heard celebrates romantic love in marriage as God’s greatest gift to human beings.

It never seems to dawn on many Christian teachers that the Bible does not clearly support this understanding. Could the myths of our culture have so overwhelmed the radical message of Holy Scripture that we have accepted a profound Freudian influence without realizing it?

Many Christians, especially single Christians, are driven to excessive preoccupation with themselves through such imbalanced teaching. They already feel unloved and unwanted. Then the church gives them this romantic message as if this is the totality of what Scripture says about relational, human, intimate love. Brennan concludes that, “The romantic myth ironically undermines self-esteem and worth among those within romantic relationships, too” (34). As odd as this might seem at first glance I believe he is profoundly correct. In our culture “Love and sexuality are fused together in the ideology of romance” says Kathy Werking, a pioneering scholar in the study of cross-gendered relationships. Brennan concludes: “This is the fruit of romantic idealism, not romantic realism. The notion that one idealized relationship is the be-all, end-all for passion, intimacy, emotional commitment, friendship, happiness, fidelity, and depth has a cluster of powerful myths supporting it within the evangelical community” (35) .Amen Dan!  I believe these myths need to be exposed and then carefully sorted out if we are to embrace a truly  missional theology of community. As odd as it might seem this book has a lot to say about the way Christians are called to live holy lives in a confused world.

Let me be very honest about the nature of the problem here. I have several male friendships of long standing. These involve deep intimacy and profound love with uncommon affection. These relationships could easily prompt someone to assume that I was gay if I shared the depth of these relationships too openly. (By the way, I do not share this openly for a number of reasons, one being love is between those who love, not for everyone to hear out of context!)

Question: Do you ever tell another person, besides a parent, your spouse or a sibling that you really love them? Is this kind of talk and emotional expression dangerous or truly healthy? I suppose I can get away with this depth of friendship with men, so long as others do not hear our private conversations. Most do not consider them to be a threat to my marriage. (The problem here is that more than a few married men have left their wives for a man, including more than a few prominent evangelical preachers whose names some of you would know.) But to suggest that this kind of friendship might grow into deeper godliness between a man and a woman who are married (or not) to someone else is beyond belief in most churches I have been around in my lifetime. Again, keep in mind that I have already said this has to be worked out in a loving way with your spouse. No secrets and no hidden agendas! Brennan is very clear about this in the book.

Brennan lists three myths that he believes lead us to romantic idealism. I want to address each of these briefly. (By now you should get the point that I urging you to read the whole book!)

The first myth is extremely important whether or not you ultimately agree with cross-gender friendship or not. Brennan calls this myth the idea that a “one flesh” relationship can satisfy all our deepest longings for oneness. We are right to affirm the place of passion and fidelity in marriage. But is  our present“one flesh” idea a romanticized idealism that justifies deep friendship only in marriage? Passion in marriage is good, at least from time to time. But we have made passion the norm and then treated it as the highest human good this side of heaven. This myth treats marriage as the one place where the intimacy of union with Christ is supremely enacted in our flesh. (We base this on Ephesians 5 which needs a radical redo on how we have subtly allowed our culture to influence how we interpret this text.) This “totalisation of life” (Brennan’s term) is then passionately taught by well-meaning evangelicals who want to protect marriage from failure. In the process we unwittingly promote an ideal that is simply wrong. This view treats all other relationships as peripheral. One of the great problems with this is that without other friendships, even if they are not cross-gendered friendships, a marriage suffers a kind of unhealthy expectation when this happens. We place all our hope and need in only one other person. We then expect our mate to provide everything that we need emotionally, spiritually and relationally.

Further, this view fails to see that married couples go through various seasons of life and different interpersonal challenges that will never measure up to the mythological dream. Brennan rightly concludes: “Oneness and sexuality have become synonymous” (36). We expect couples to pair off and find total and complete intimacy with each other and with no one else. This expectation can actually cause great harm to marriage. As indicated I believe it puts so much on the other person that it threatens a good marriage.

Evangelical ministers and authors continually talk about  having your “private little castle.” By this deep Christian friendships are discouraged, even with the same sex as in my deep male friendships mentioned above. Through such stories we then baptize the romantic myth and use Christian texts to support it. But if you peal this myth back far enough you will soon discover Freud lurking in the shadows of these ideas. The language of desire was not always associated so closely to sexual intercourse in past ages.

Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan in the fourth century, extols a different idea, one that is prominent throughout the history of the church. “What is a friend, but a partner in love? You unite your innermost being to his, you join so thoroughly with him that your aim is to be no longer two, but one” (38). Admittedly, Ambrose was not writing about cross-gender friendship but modern Christians I know have little or no place for this kind of language or practice in any way other than in marriage. We begin to think about “sex” as soon as we read such a statement.

Brennan rightly asks if the “perfect soulmate” dream of so many Christians is not actually a harm to real love. Marriage cannot carry the weight of this myth day-in and day-out. And in an a culture that has overly sexualized all human emotion and satisfaction we have turned intimacy into the language and practice of sexual union alone. Brennan thus writes: “All intimacy has been primarily eroticized . . . therefore the relationship of ‘one flesh’ is able to enter the wild depths of passionate communion” (42). Sexual formation, in a post-Freudian culture, is primarily about genital sex and the experience of sexual pleasure found in this arena of love. This observation leads Brennan to state his second myth in this way: “One flesh” can satisfy our deepest yearnings for sexuality. Christian history has a troubled history when it comes to dealing with sexuality in a healthy way but one has to seriously wonder if the pendulum has now swung too far in the other way in the modern era.

The last myth that Brennan cites is: “One flesh” can satisfy our yearnings for deep friendship. He rightly argues that since Freud friendship has suffered untold harm because of our association of sex with the meaning of friendship. This leads to an expectation that our spouse becomes everything that we need emotionally and spiritually. All other friendships become unimportant, or they are at least way down the list. In fact, if you have deep friendships outside of your wife or husband, it is seen as the greatest threat to total trust in your mate possible. If you do not have this trust in your marriage, then it cannot survive. Are we, once again, expecting too much of one person?

Quoting my friend Rodney Clapp, Brennan suggests that the most important question to ask after decades of marriage is not “Am I still in love?” The better question is: “Are we stronger, deeper, continuing Christian friends?” After forty years of a very good and solid marriage I could not agree more. My friendship with Anita is deeper and stronger than ever before. And we continue to grow into a deeper and deeper experience of real friendship. No one is a better friend to me. We delight in one another, take comfort from one another and trust one another like never before. God alone gets the glory in this relationship. I believe we have found a mature love, not in the romanticized mythology that much of the church taught us in our early days as a couple, but in moving into something far better and more mature. For me personally I believe that I hurt my wife by often expecting more from her than she could ever give to me. Indeed, I expected of her things that God never promised to me or to her. Sadly, the church fed this expectation.

Dan Brennan dedicates his book to his own best friend, his wife Sheila. Knowing Dan and Sheila I believe this is true of their life and love. They celebrate friendship with others while they deeply share life together as husband and wife. Dan’s book will trouble many Christians. The problem is that too few will understand why it does. It is time for the church to begin a serious conversation about intimacy, friendship and human sexuality. Surely anyone with their eyes open understands the need to correct our false ideas as expressed in these three myths.

I fear this book will create opposition, but not for the right reasons. I found myself conversing with Dan as I read. I kept saying, “I am not sure I would say it that way,” or, “You should be more careful in how you present this application.” At the same time his handling of Scripture, tradition and friendship never failed me, not once. I believe he has spoken a needed prophetic word to the whole church. I hope thoughtful Christian leaders will read him and seriously engage with his thesis. It is time to begin a new conversation about friendship, a conversation that does not run straight to the dangers of temptation and lust that result in a new list of man-made rules. I believe this conversation is needed for many important reasons. One is that it will actually help us curb the very sins that we talk about so much regarding the breakdown of marriage. This may seem counterintuitive but it is right.

Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions ought to be read and talked about by Christians who care about truth and love. I fear it will take years for people to really hear what Dan Brennan is saying but anything this important requires us to at least begin the conversation sooner than later. Let it begin and let it grow!

Tomorrow: Aren’t You Playing with Fire?