For a couple of years, I’ve had a fixation with the Reddit forum called “r/relationships.” I’ll stay up scrolling on my phone while reading through messy, complicated narratives of other people’s problems. The questions vary in scope, from the incidentals of difficult communication (“How do I tell my fiance that I hate my engagement ring?”) to existential and mostly unanswerable echoes of life’s broken pieces (“I knew my best friend struggled with suicidal thoughts; now he’s gone and I keep blaming myself.”). I love this kind of hypothetical voyaging through the experience of strangers, because the intricacies and challenges of human relationships fascinate me, endlessly. So I expected to love Aimee Byrd’s newest release, Why Can’t We Be Friends?: Avoidance Is Not Purity.
Her fourth full-length book starts an important conversation about both the necessities and difficulties of male and female friendship. While the book spends a significant amount of time establishing a case for healthier friendships between Christian men and women, it’s really a vehicle for examining the theology of friendship, using friendships between the genders as a provocative lens.
Biblical Companion not Constant Temptation
The book is divided into two main sections. Part One discusses the stigmas surrounding friendships between men and women, a sort of “how we got here” post-mortem on how churches became so fearful and discouraging of mixed-gender friendship pairings and where we are as a whole. (Spoiler: The status is grim.) In Part Two, Byrd aims to discuss her bigger point, which is to unpack what an ideal friendship looks like and what friendship is ultimately for, using theological texts and the Bible. She writes, “This is really a case for elevating the status of all of our friendships to that of sibling love.”
Community and honest self-reflection are the cornerstones that, according to Byrd, enable any kind of successful friendship. “True friendship, or spiritual friendship, is not disposable,” she points out. “It is not friendship for friendship’s sake. It is not self-seeking for advancement but involves collaboration for something outside us. We find these friends by being virtuous people who live for truth in community.”
By elevating marriage as the end-all and be-all of relationships between people, we isolate those of us who are not married while simultaneously setting up married people for disappointment. Byrd makes a powerful series of statements demonstrating how harmful this attitude toward marriage can become. “Exclusivity in a marriage relationship does not mean that our spouses will fulfill all our relationship needs,” she concludes. Some readers may find this somewhat obvious, but there are others in Christian circles who will be, I’m certain, scandalized by this sort of revelation.
Byrd also speaks with gentle firmness toward the tendency to gossip and over-generalize about friendships between men and women. She writes, “Let’s be careful not to make blanket judgments that texting or emailing the opposite sex are signs that an affair is imminent.” These kinds of attitudes, she claims, perpetuate a fixation on carnal desire that hurts both men and women. This message is especially prescient in the #MeToo and #ChurchToo era, at a time when the power imbalances between men and women in church congregations has been lit up like lightning. Byrd sums up her point well in statements like this one: “To view the opposite sex as constant temptations to sin and threats to purity merely perpetuates the thinking and behavior of the unredeemed.”
Most interesting to me were Byrd’s reflections on purity culture as a shadow of self-worship. Pointing out the toxicity that results when women and men avoid friendships with each other, she breaks down the layers of narcissism such a viewpoint represents. When we prioritize avoidance over calling ourselves to a higher standard of sibling love between the sexes, “we don’t look at ourselves as servants to our friends; instead, we look at them as threats to our imperial selves.”
Why Can’t We Be Friends makes easy work of some heavier theological concepts in a tone that’s both whip-smart and reader-friendly. Deep, satisfying friendships between men and women are presented as foundational to the early church, and instrumental to any hope the church has of achieving continued relevance in our society. The book insists on the possibility—even the necessity—of honest and selfless relationships that mimic those of siblings. If we don’t find a way to create them, we are ungrateful for the possibilities God has given us in our community. There’s even some practical advice on how to nurture (or at least begin) these kinds of friendships in natural ways, and a bold challenge directed toward all-male church governance.
Trying to Find the Logistics of Protection
While most of Byrd’s target audience may agree with her conclusion, there were moments in my reading when her prescribed route toward this kind of friendship seemed oversimplified to some degree. Men and women, even with the best of intentions, will misread each other. Not only because of differences between the genders, but because that’s what people do.
That’s why r/relationships is full of people asking strangers why their roommate keeps eating their food. (If you’re reading, guy, it’s probably because you never told them not to.) Married people sometimes develop crushes, too. Loving Jesus dearly may inspire greater virtue, but sometimes our will for virtue will fail. For all of the book’s practical concepts, we don’t get close enough to the ground level of why these friendships are scary, and what we risk when we get them wrong.
Engaging personal responsibility over groupthink in male/female friendship is a game-changer, and the concept of “promoting one another’s holiness” is obviously preferable to men running scared from a room with a woman simply because it lacks a glass window. The Billy Graham/Mike Pence rule and purity culture as a whole may be troubling in its stark ideation of women as constant objects of temptation, but the idea that we can rely on our own moral safeguards at all times is also problematic. We can be more open-minded to male and female friendships, Byrd advocates, without dismissing offhand the call to protect one another. Replacing one bad-faith rule with other kinds of bad-faith rules seems counterproductive. But the the logistics of how to protect one another in absence of legalistic regulation isn’t yet clear.
Byrd’s recommended solution is to call ourselves to a higher standard, with consistency and self-awareness, while making allowances for those among us who are more vulnerable to temptation. But finding out that you’re “the weakest link” in a male/female friendship—the one whose marriage is in a hard place; the one feeling lonely and unfulfilled; the one whose longings will muddle even the most honorable and respectful attempts at innocuous dialogue—is bound to happen to more than a few of us. Other than trying to do better and stay free from “temptation,” what then should we do?
Byrd is clearly committed to thinking well about the issues her book has raised. Her extensive use of theological texts, history, Bible passages, and even pop culture demonstrate how wide a lens she’s using in this discussion. And there’s no arguing the necessity for this book, and other books like it. Perhaps it’s unfair, even, to expect one book not only to start the conversation about male/female friendship, but also to solve the whole equation, too. It makes sense that the practical application of Byrd’s work would vary according to personal comfort levels so “practical steps” may be best thought out on an individual level, anyway. In fact, I’d rather an encouragement to think through our own strengths and weaknesses for practical application than an overly prescriptive set of boundaries that inevitably presents problems of its own.
While this book may not land practically enough for some readers, there is a certain satisfaction in an argument made well by a curious and authoritative author. In that regard, Why Can’t We Be Friends is a convincing and important jumpstart to a sorely-needed conversation.
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