Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Review :: Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions :: Dan Brennan

Lately I've been thinking about love, beauty, and limits. We know that there is no limit to beauty (God is unendingly beautiful). But beauty, as always a manifestation of love, exists because of limits, within limits. My life is beautiful not when I can escape from my workaday schedule, not when I ignore the demands of friends and lovers, not only when I attempt the superhuman. In other days I might call the interplay of beauty and limits balance (that is, before the term was emptied of meaning by the abuse of pop psychology).

There's another theory of beauty: beauty as excess, beauty as transgression. Sometimes this aesthetics claims a corner on the market for beauty as transcendent, but I won't buy into this monopoly. Beauty is what we make of our limitations, not just our escape from them. Phrased differently, we see beauty when we see the truth of our limitations, see them in a different light, see them in light of the resurrection.

One way of describing Dan Brennan's Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Engaging the Mystery of Friendship between Men and Women is to say it locates friendship (specifically cross-sex friendships) within these competing dynamics of beauty.  On the first page Brennan writes,
This book makes a simple claim: stories of paired cross-sex friendship love are journeys toward communion with God and our neighbor in the Christian story. In the new creation, men and women are not limited to stark contrasts where we must choose between romantic passion in marriage or inappropriate sex/infidelity. Chaste, but powerfully close friendships between the sexes stir our curiosity and resist formulaic gender roles in marriage, friendship, and society.
Beautiful cross-sex relationships, he argues, should not be bounded by the aesthetic ideology of excess. Relational beauty, it turns out, is a matter of balance, not sheerly of orgasm or roses and candy hearts.

Brennan points to Freud as marking the tipping point where sexuality became utterly genitalized and the romantic myth gained decisive ascendancy in Western culture. The romantic myth, Brennan asserts, is the consequence of "idealizing romantic passion as the unique, one-and-only, exclusive form of love between a man and woman." Every relationship is on a trajectory toward nookie, and only in a sustained and actively sexual relationship can a human person hope to find true fulfilment.

Evangelical churches uphold this metanarrative, even if in mirror reverse of wider culture. Through staff policies enforcing strict boundaries on mingling with the opposite sex and church singles mixers--even through battles for a constitutional definition of marriage--Evangelicaldom enshrines the paired and exclusive romantic male-female relationship as constitutive of Christian blessedness. In large part, the book as a whole emerges as a reaction and response to these narrow parameters of "appropriate behaviour."

If Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions remained only a theoretical/theological reflection on friendship in what strikes me as a Cappadocian key, it would be a decent book. Brennan's blog, Faith Dance, would lead me to expect nothing less than this from him. But where this book shines most is in its extended discussions of cross-sex friendships throughout church history and of Jesus' example in cross-sex relationships.

As I read the first forty or fifty pages, I nodded along with Brennan's critique of the culture's and the church's reduction of cross-sex relationship to parts and hormones, their exclusion of legitimate friendships. But hints and comments about tracing the church's history--its other history--of cross-sex friendships left me eager for chapters to come. They were well worth the wait.

Highlights: a long meditation on Jesus' friendship with Mary Magdalene and the significance of the first resurrection appearance in John 20; a similarly lengthy chunk of text devoted to the woman who anoints and kisses Jesus' feet in Luke 7. The book may be worth reading if only for these two discussions (though the whole is well worth a read).

Brennan makes a provocative case for Jesus as a forerunner in deep, embodied, and chastely sexual cross-sex friendships. This option has been suppressed in church history and named repressed by contemporary church and culture, but we can still find beautiful female-male friendships among those who follow Jesus' example.

I am praising Brennan's Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions pretty highly, but I have my critiques. I'll voice two:

1) While Brennan's argument is compelling, it is poorly strung together. The book could have used a bit more editing, time spent shaping a succession of brilliant paragraphs and strings of citations into the clear and concise development of an unfolding thesis. There were more than a few moments when I had to re-read a page to puzzle out its contribution to the book's thesis. This said, I would not hesitate to assign this text for a reflection essay in a seminary course on pastoral practice or Christian discipleship. If the argument is hard to trace, it remains well worth the energy expended to do so.

2) Brennan leaves wholly unaddressed questions and implications for friendship in a cultural space of diverse sexual orientations. What does it mean for me to be close friends with someone identifying as gay? How should those within the LGBTQ community understand same-sex and cross-sex friendships? Surely we can't just invert the book, substituting same-sex for cross-sex where the romantic metanarrative is told differently. But how do we locate faithful friendship and subversive cultural praxis in our cultural and ecclesial moment?

Perhaps Brennan felt this book would already make enough waves in Evangelical circles, that opening to a discussion of sexuality as such might capsize the vessel. Perhaps. It's not good manners to criticize a book for what it fails to do. However, there are times when a fault of omission speaks nearly as loudly as one of commission. This is one such instance.

In Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions, Dan Brennan opens a space for regarding cross-sex friendships as masterpieces of balance rather than as moments in a work of romantic excess. By doing so, the field is cleared for cross-sex friendship as an end-in-itself (or, we might say, cross-sex friendship's own meaning in the truth of the resurrection).

I like this. It neither chucks the Christian system of sexual ethics as a whole (by writing friendship as a field of excess) nor capitulates to a reductive field for friendship (by demarcating its limits with rules and policies).

To say this differently: On my kitchen table I have this week's yield from a local CSA. There is zucchni and new potatoes and something I thought was celery but that a friend informed was swiss chard. Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions is like community-supported agriculture. It does not give up the fight for a more just food system, resigning itself to push the cart through the big-box grocery store's "Fresh Produce" section. Yet, unlike some of my anarcho-primitivist friends, it does not demand a secession from contemporary society and reversion to hunting and gathering. Instead it opts for a third way: close, deep, embodied and spiritual, sexual yet chaste cross-sex friendships. That is beautiful.


  1. Josh,

    I am deeply blessed by your review of SUSP! You not only "review" the book, you clearly engage it. I appreciated your highlighting the theme of relational beauty and cross-sex friendship in SUSP.

    I thought your two critical points were fair and good challenges. Thank you for such an engaging review!

  2. Love the connection between the cross-sex friendship conversation and CSA. Might have to write a post on that one. Good stuff.

  3. Josh,

    That sounds like a great book and I would love to borrow it when there is a chance. I wonder, do you think it's a bit idealistic? I thought about this subject quite a bit while at Cedarville, as my attempts to live out quality cross-sex friendships didn't always pan out that way.

    Maybe hormones were the problem, maybe the cedar-culture marriage machine was the problem, maybe something else entirely. But I always wished that it was possible.


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