Book Review: Why Can’t We Be Friends, Part I- Houston, Is There a Problem?

WCWBFWhen one writes a book addressing a specific problem instead of a general overview of a subject they must first prove that the problem exists. For example, if I am writing a general book on how a Christian should approach his vocation,  I might address the Biblical view of work, key passages such as Ephesians 6, some common workplace problems, etc. But if I think there has been a decline in manual labor among Christians and I plan to write a book addressing that decline, I must first prove that such a decline exists, then I must prove that it is a bad thing, and only then can I offer solutions.

Aimee Byrd’s latest book is not general, but specific. She believes there is a problem between men and women in the church. She believes that Christians are being taught by the culture that friendship between men and women is bad. She believes we have adopted the mindset of Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally where we let the threat of sex get in the way of friendship.

When I picked up the book, I assumed that Mrs. Byrd would prove that these problems exist in the church. She would cite texts, studies, data, audio, blogs, books, along with her own experience to show patriarchal types telling men how they are to avoid women because they are temptresses and vixens.  She would demonstrate that there is a problem in the evangelical and/or reformed church that keeps men and women from the friendships she describes.

However, she does not do this. Mrs. Byrd assumes the problem exists, instead of proving that it does. Her “proof” consists primarily of her experience when she got invited to the Mortification of Spin podcast (p. 7-8) and then her experience in getting married and being part of a church plant (p. 22-24). But this hardly constitutes evidence of a sweeping problem in the church as a whole or even a sub-section of the church. If a man writes a book chastising the American church for failing to promote manual labor he had better prove that is  the case. And citing his own experience of never learning to swing an ax  cannot be introduced as the primary evidence. If Mrs. Byrd rebukes the church (and Billy Graham, p. 82 ) for buying into a view of women that is closer to Harry in When Harry Met Sally than Scripture she had better prove that is accusation is true. She doesn’t.

I will let one of Aimee’s advocates prove my point. Amy Mantravadi, in a positive review of the book, agrees that Mrs. Byrd does not prove there is a problem. Here is her reply to a man who asks the same question I am: Is Mrs. Byrd addressing a real problem?

How does one respond to this [man]? It reminds me very much of the debate about racism in the Church. Sure, there are people who disagree over how to talk about or respond to racial/ethnic partiality in churches, but how do you respond to someone who denies that the problem exists? I prefer not to name and shame too much in my writing, but had I been so inclined, I could have trotted out the examples this man sought. However, one wonders if it would have made a difference, since he is inclined to think that sinners don’t blame their sin on something or someone else. Even Adam blamed the woman!

More to the point, arguments that amount to “it’s never happened to me personally” or “it doesn’t seem to exist in my church” are not only logically poor, but they attempt to invalidate the pain of others. “I’m not hurt by this, so you shouldn’t be either,” is no way for us to thoughtfully engage, yet I have experienced this so many times in the past year and a half that I carry an open wound in my soul. Whenever I say, “That hurts!”, there is always someone to tell me I’m overreacting, I’ve misunderstood, it was a joke, etc. But I am not a typical overreacter, and it does hurt…whether you think it should or not.

The fact is that we do have a problem with developing proper brother/sister relationships in the Church. Why wouldn’t we? If we have problems with how we relate to spouses, children, pastors, friends, and co-workers, then why wouldn’t we struggle to relate as brothers and sisters in Christ?

This is like rebuking a man without offering any proof of wrong doing.  “I could trot out evidence, but I am humble enough to accuse them without it.” But if we going to accuse we had better name names, cite sins, and show evidence. Mantravadi does not think Mrs. Byrd needs to do this. She follows up with this guilt trip:

If you don’t see it [that there is a problem] perhaps you have been unwilling to humble yourself and listen to what your sisters (and brothers) are saying. Too often, the warnings are ignored and everyone refuses to see the problem until it blows up spectacularly, as was the case with Paige Patterson.

Well that is a real conversation starter. “The only reason you cannot see the problem is that you are arrogant and of course you patriarchal types are the reason we got Paige Patterson.” Perhaps we are arrogant, but I am guessing there are other options.

Ms. Mantravadi sees what I see: Mrs. Byrd does not prove that there is a problem in the church. The difference is that I think if you are going to accuse a large chunk of the church of being immature, fearful, patriarchal (think misogynistic) , and equal to the Levite who refuses to help the dying Samaritan man (p. 105) then you should back that up with evidence while Ms. Mantravadi does not think the 9th commandment applies.

What is the Problem Between Men and Women? 

There has never been a time in human history where non-related men and women have interacted so freely, openly, and with such frequency.  Stephen Clark makes this point in his book Man and Woman in Christ, which was written in 1980. Since then interaction has only increased. From kindergarten on men and boys are with women and girls almost all the time; at school, in clubs, in their college classroom (even classes intended for only pastors), in their jobs, in politics, etc.  Even typically male-only  situations such as physical sports (hockey and football), Boy Scouts, coaching men’s sports have an increased number of women in them. Any group that excludes women is now considered sexist even by many Christians who encourage elders to bring women to their session meetings to give advice and counsel . Then of course there is easy access to the opposite sex on social media and the Internet. The problem is not lack of interaction or opportunities for men and women to be friends. You would be hard pressed to find any area of life, secular or sacred, where men and women are kept separate.

I have been a Baptist pastor, a PCA ruling elder, and I am currently a CREC pastor, which is probably the most patriarchal denomination in the country, and yet I have only rarely seen what Mrs. Byrd describes. At meetings and in church men and women interact freely.  We talk to the women, discuss things with them in parking lot, they interact in Bible studies, etc. Do I invite other men’s wives out for coffee? No. They would probably punch me. (More on this later.) Are there some folks more stringent than others in male/female interaction? Sure. But on the whole I have not seen what Mrs. Byrd describes. I am friends with numerous pastors in my community, from various denominations, and none of their churches interact the way Mrs. Byrd describes. Danielle Pollock in another positive review, says she was in the kind of church were men and women did not interact without condemnation.  I do not doubt they exist. But are they the norm, majority, or even a potential problem? I doubt it.

Looking at the fact of the coed workplace, coed church office, coed bible studies, coed sports leagues, coed seminaries, coed city councils, coed road trips, coed swimming pools, coed military, coed police, coed everything, it is hard to see that there is a problem with men and women interacting or developing friendships. My own limited experience backs this up. For most of us it is not self-evident that one of the great problems in the evangelical church is men and women do not know how or have the opportunity to be friends. Mrs. Byrd should have proven the problem she is addressing is widespread before offering solutions.

Objection

Here one might raise an objection. They might say that Mrs. Byrd’s point is not the amount of interaction, but the type of interaction. One could agree that men and women interact at a frequency unknown in human history. But that does not mean they interact in a way that honors God.  How should we respond?

First, Mrs. Byrd does not acknowledge the high level of interaction between men and women that exists in our age and the shift that is  from previous generations. It would have added weight to her critique if she had shown an awareness of this sociological shift over the last 50-100 years.  I think this increased interaction is a negative, but even if she saw it as a positive she needs to at least show she has considered it. The book does not indicate an understanding of the dramatic increase in the amount of interaction between men and women.

Second, assuming she did  factor in the  increased coed interaction, she must prove that the problem in our culture is that men and women are interacting poorly and not that they are interacting more. In other words, if Mrs. Byrd and her critics  agree that interaction between men and women is at an all time high and therefore opportunities for coed friendships are at an all time high, she would need to prove that the increase in interaction is not the source of the problems between men and women. Why take this approach? It shows an awareness of the position of her opponents. What is that you ask? I (and I think others as well) would argue that the problems we see with the high level of sexual immorality in our age, including pastors committing adultery, sexual abuse, fornication,  sodomy, and other types of sexual deviancy, as well as less dramatic relationship problems between men and women, come not from too little interaction between the sexes or too little friendship, but from too much. Therefore we think the Pence rule and other rules like it are wise though not stringently required by all in all situations. Throughout the book Mrs. Byrd assumes her point is valid without refuting her critics or frankly even quoting them.  There are critics of Mrs. Byrd and her soft-complementarian thinking. But she seems unaware of what those critics are saying. Therefore instead of the book being a pointed and clear critique of a position that someone holds and problems that arise from that position, it reads likes an opinion piece on a problem she thinks exists in the church somewhere.

Summary

I would agree that relationships between men and women, whether married, unmarried, previously married, in the church or outside of her, are often troubled in our age.  But that self-evident truth does not prove Mrs. Byrd’s point that the reason for the trouble is that men and women in the church do not know how to be friends, nor that the church has bought into the world’s sexual ethic on this point and allowed “sex” to get in the way of true friendships nor that the answer is closer relationships between men and women who are not married to each other. Do we have a problem? Yes. But it is not the one Mrs. Byrd assumes. The problem is in an different direction. And if you assume the fire is going out but it is burning hot your solution will only make things worse.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s