On Monday of this week, I posted a book review of Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions, a book that I believe is of a revolutionary caliber. Although this book is not for the faint of heart, I’m convinced this book should be thoughtfully and honestly considered by anyone who is serious about experiencing authentic New Testament community. The title of Monday’s book review is:
If you haven’t yet read this review, please give that post a read before you read further here. Because of the controversial nature of the subject of this book, I asked author Dan Brennan to come on the blog today to answer some questions about his book Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions. He has graciously agreed. Without further adue, let’s jump into the conversation.
Dan, thank you very much for coming on the blog today. It is truly an honor to have you here.
- Dan, you begin the book by stating that, in your own life, you have close friendships with three women: A single woman, a married woman, and your wife. You state that these close relationships with the opposite sex have plunged you into the mystery and depths of love, sexuality, and divine friendship. In the evangelical world, ‘passionate’ relationships with the opposite sex are reserved for spouses only. Throughout the book, however, you talk openly about the benefits of having ‘passionate’ relationships in general, including with members of the opposite sex. In your book, you site several examples of this from the life of Christ. This is quite a break from the religious norm. Obviously, you are not advocating having erotic or romantic relationships with others whom we are not married to. In light of this, can you describe for us what it does mean to have ‘passionate’ relationships within the context of friendship that does not involve sex or romance?
Thank you, Jamal. I’m honored to be on your blog. In the Bible we do see some passionate friendships. The friendship between Ruth and Naomi could be described as passionate. Ruth expressed a deep commitment of attachment and closeness to Naomi and we see that unfold in Ruth’s story even after she marries Boaz.
We also see a passionate friendship between David and Jonathan. We read in 1 Samuel 18:1 that they were “bound” to each other. There is no other language to describe a closer nonsexual bond than this. Jonathan loved David as much as he loved his own soul. As the narrative unfolds, we read that Jonathan had a great delight in David. It’s clear from the story that Jonathan had an abiding passion for David. Passionate friendship involves an emotional, relational, spiritual bond which has a distinctive intensity, commitment, vulnerability, and enduring chaste intimacy.
- What is the distinction between sexuality and sex? Why is this distinction important in regards to intimate relationships with members of the opposite sex that do not involve or lead to sex?
I think evangelicals will be exploring this distinction more in the twenty-first century. If we cannot grasp the distinction, Christians will never be open to intimate friendships between men and women unless there is a romantic trajectory. If we are able to make that important distinction between the two, closeness between a man and woman (two sexual beings) can be a chaste, nonromantic closeness.
However, there are a number of Christians across various traditions who see an important distinction between genital sexuality and what we might call relational sexuality. It’s impossible to be asexual. Men and women notice the immediate difference of the opposite sex when they are in each other’s presence. That difference is far deeper than their difference in biological parts. Genital sexuality is a significant dimension to sexuality. But there is so much more to sexuality than the genital. Sexuality “embraces” a wide ranging world of relating to the opposite sex including nonromantic warmth, compassion, tenderness, trust, and embodied physical affection. As brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, grandfathers, grandmothers, we already understand closeness with members of the opposite sex without genital focus. This is relational sexuality filled with love.
- Dan, in your opinion, why are brothers and sisters in Christ from a religious background uncomfortable being in close relationships with one another? Can you describe how Sigmund Freud has had more influence in shaping evangelical ideas / fears about relationships than the scriptures themselves?
There is no denying Freud had a significant impact on closeness. To this day scholars debate what Freud meant, early Freud vs. late Freud, and so on. But there is no denying popular Freudianism on the street. If one scratches the surface in relationships, there are sexual issues underlying all our engagements with another. Popular Freudianism has genitalized every aspect of closeness: tenderness, warmth, vulnerability, delight, play, desire, intimacy and on and on. If we accept Freud or read the Bible through a Freudian lens, it’s all about genital focus whether or not we know it.
So then we drastically limit the power, depth, richness, beauty, and intensity of any connection between men and women who are brothers and sisters in Christ. Most nonromantic relationships between Christian men and women do not even come near to resembling the intimate trust, depth, and richness that close healthy adult sibling bonds have achieved through the centuries. To nurture any kind of closeness is to be out of touch with the Freudian drive supposedly lurking under the surface.
- The evangelical notion that the marital relationship is the ‘be-all, end-all’ for passion, intimacy, friendship, happiness, fidelity, and depth is wrong in your opinion. Why? Can you define the concept of ‘romantic idealism’ and how this plays into the misguided evangelical understanding of marriage?
Romantic idealism occurs when we invest all that we mean by relational depth (intimacy, passion, vulnerability, deep trust, tenderness, fidelity) into the one couple – under the rubric of “one flesh” – to the exclusion of any other relationships. This glorification of the couple comports with the sexualizing of all intimacy (popular Freud). It’s the only alternative left standing. Romantic love is the only love, the only place for “true love.”
I see something different in the Bible. Go back and read all the relational depth and range in verses, passages, and stories which are nonromantic. This includes nonromantic texts which romantic idealism has ransacked for romantic intensity and endurance in wedding ceremonies such as Ruth 1:16-17, and 1 Cor. 13:4-7. Then read all there is in the New Testament about the Spirit, putting on Christ, overcoming evil by doing good, loving one another, clinging to what is good, and so on.
Also read all that Jesus said regarding marriage (which wasn’t much). Then read all the stories in which Jesus interacted with women. When Jesus mentioned the brother-sister metaphor of closeness between men and women, there was clearly more relational depth intended than just friendliness. There exists a deep bond between men and women who follow Jesus.
- Dan, In your book you make the argument that ‘oneness’ & ‘communion’ are not completely fulfilled in marriage. Can you elaborate on this a bit more?
I love this. Once I came to this understanding, there was no turning back! There is a whole world of intimate humanity in the Bible beyond the romantic twosome. Within the contemporary evangelical worldview, the intimacy of “one flesh” is the unique focus of all intimacy, depth, and passion. But in the ancient world, a classic definition for friendship (not romantic lover) is “one soul, two bodies.” Evangelicals are beginning to come around to this understanding of deep oneness in nonromantic relationships.
Jesus didn’t pray for all of us to have sex or be married. However, he did pray in John 17 for all of us to experience the richness of oneness which exists between the Father and the Son. We are all called (not just husbands and wives) to an eschatological union in the here-and-now which respects marriage but also reflects the deep inner love of the Trinity.
- What would you say to those who feel your message is dangerous and degrading toward marriages and traditional families?
All authentic, engaging, vulnerable love is risky and not safe. There is the real possibility of date rape in dating. Current statistics show that physical violence occurs in twenty-five percent of dating relationships. Domestic violence in marriages is an ongoing problem. The latest statistics show that thirty percent of female victims in the United States die from either a past or present romantic partner. Current statistics on infidelity come close to the statistics on romantic danger. Twenty-two percent of married men commit adultery.
So what makes romantic love such a glorious risk (danger minimized among evangelicals) and intimate friendships beyond marriage as “dangerous?” That’s the question that shines a powerful light on romantic idealism as a drug. You rarely hear in popular evangelical culture the fear-based logic that dating and marriage are dangerous, therefore don’t get involved in romantic love.
What do you hear? Well, you hear that if you follow Jesus and yield to the Spirit you are going to overcome date rape, violence, and oppression. If you do this, according the romantic myth accepted unexamined by many Christians, there is a greater, utopian payoff in an idealized version of love, a payoff that trumps any risk. But there is a powerful element of truth there—not just for healthy romantic relationships but for all male-female relationships! We can learn how to be near each other, we can learn how to love each other, and we can learn to be in the presence of each other intimately, overcoming lust, sexism, and manipulation.
There is a strong argument to be made that if we nurtured healthy friendships—spousal friendships and friendships beyond marriage we would reduce divorce and infidelity. That seems counterintuitive—but only when juxtaposed against the notion of idealized romantic love.
- Dan, why do you think a breakthrough in relationships, especially cross-sex relationships, is vital in regards to building authentic Christian community?
This is what it means to be Christian men and women in the 21st century living in between Jesus’ resurrection and his return. Intimacy is not just for those in romance. Healthy friendships empowered by the Spirit overcome lust, sexism, date rape, domestic violence, and alienation between the sexes. As new creations in Christ, the spiritual realities of Christ (Colossians 2, 3, Phil. 2, Eph. 4-6), the Holy Spirit (Romans 8, Gal. 5:22-23), of grace and the newness of life (Romans 6), of the kingdom (Matt. 13), of discipleship (Mark 3:31-35), of love (Romans 12 & 1 Corinthians 13) are all made to apply to marriage relationships.
But they are general.
All these realities are present in this age to aid us, to assist us, to empower us to live as Christians in the immediate presence of the opposite sex—in romantic and nonromantic intimacies.
Yes, there are dangers. Yes, we can be out-of-touch with our perceptions regarding our spouses and our friends. But putting on Christ one step at a time, seeking to be intentional to not hurt or manipulate our spouses or our friends, we can nurture a deep chaste love and trust in our marriages and in our communities.
- Dan, thank you so very much for this rich and insightful conversation. I appreciate your time very much.
Closing thoughts for our readers…
Thank you very much for taking part in this conversation with us. I greatly appreciate the ability of the readers of this blog to discuss difficult subjects with maturity and grace. If Monday’s book review, and today’s interview have stirred your desire for deeper intimacy with your brothers and sisters in Christ, let me strongly encourage you to get a copy of Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions. My prayer is that this book will enrich your life as much as it has enriched mine.
With that said, I’d like to give you a heads up about something. I have discovered something important in my life. The books that critics attempt to discredit by either attacking the author personally, or evaluating the content of the book before they have read the book, have actually turned out to be the most impactful books in my life. This book is certainly in that catageory. Let me caution you to not fall into those traps. This book deserves honest, informed consideration based on the substance of this book alone. I truly hope you will give this book a thoughtful read with an open mind.
With His love,