Book Review – “Why Can’t We Be Friends”

When I say I’m  “friends” with Aimee Byrd, I should qualify that statement a few different ways. Aimee and I  “met” like so many people do these days, online, some years ago now, connecting over our shared thinking out loud in the blogosphere about the place of women in our collective corner of Reformed Evangelicalism. We have some personal things in common also, which have prompted a few phone conversations as well. But we’ve never met in person, or IRL as the kids say. Not yet, anyway.

But the biggest reason I’d have to qualify the term is because of the most important and essential thing we have in common. We’re both committed Christians. So even though we’ve never met in person, if Aimee ever happened to be in my town and needed anything, she could count on it from me – a meal, a place to stay, a car or an outfit to borrow, even an organ (if I could reasonably spare it and we had compatible blood types). That’s what family does for one another. And in Christ, Aimee is not “just” my friend – she’s my sister.

Not too many Christians would raise an eyebrow too high at my framing our relationship this way because I’m a woman. But if the advance online discussion about her latest book is anything to go by, things might be different if the person writing about their relationship with Aimee his way was a man. That’s the dichotomy Aimee examines in her latest book. 

(Reviewer note – I’m taking the liberty of breaking book review convention and referring to the author by her first name instead of her last name, because see previous paragraphs about our being friends and family. Anything else just feels strange 🙂 )

In her last book, “No Little Women”, Aimee made an appeal for churches to invest more intentionally in the theological equipping of women.   In her latest, “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” she tackles a point of contention her previous book raised – a question that resurfaces with every new #ChurchToo story that emerges. What about the moral hazards created by men and women not married to each other spending too much time in each other’s company?  Aimee views this concern as symptomatic of a fundamental misunderstanding of the way God created His people to relate to one another. “Why Can’t We Be Friends” sets out to correct it.

In the first half of the book, Aimee proposes answers to the question posed by the book’s title- reasons she believes Christians are so reticent to believe that true friendship is possible or right between men and women beyond the bonds of marriage. She begins by considering the different voices we are conditioned to listen to – our family’s, worldly culture and the church – arguing that the church’s perspective is inordinately influenced by the world. She then moves on to consider different aspects of our identity as believers – the totality of our humanness, the mission we’re called to, and the role purity plays in our lives as Christians. In the last two chapters, she argues that our confusion comes from a critical misunderstanding of the true nature of friendship, and of our status as brothers and sisters in Christ.

With reasons for the problem defined, in the second half of the book, Aimee sets out to propose the solutions to them, centered around the idea of living as “sacred siblings”. She first considers the passages of Scripture which point to Jesus’ identity as “firstborn among the brethren” – that he is our spiritual elder brother. She then moves on to describe the implications for us as men and women, or brothers and sisters, as a consequence of our identification with Him in that role. In the final chapters of the book, Aimee considers some of the practices that can promote and nourish these kinds of relationships – cultivating the right church environment, promoting holiness, enjoying table fellowship, and celebrating and suffering together. At the very end of the book is an appendix that surveys sibling relationships in Scripture.

“Why Can’t We Be Friends” is replete with ideas and insights into the truly countercultural nature of our collective identity as a spiritual family in Christ that will challenge your thinking, and even stir your soul. Just some of the ones that resonated with most deeply with me included:

  • The numerous ways we have hidden the dramatically countercultural framing of mens and womens roles in the Bible under a stifling blanket of stereotypes, even as the New Testament repeatedly challenges them (pgs. 41-45)
  • The irony of early church Christians being judged for the perceived excess in their love for one another, while today we are judged for our inordinate reticence (pgs.111-112)
  • The idea of personal purity as an ongoing holistic pursuit of holiness energized by communion with God, not a set of behavioral boundaries we draw around ourselves to promote sexual continence (pgs. 63 and following)
  • The disproportionate weighting of times familial language is employed in the New Testament (amplified by the recently updated Christian Standard Bible, the Bible I’ve adopted as my regular reading Bible and which is referenced throughout the book)
  • The implications of Jesus as our elder brother for our identity as brothers and sisters with Him, and in Him with eachother (pgs. 131 and following)

These two points are the pivotal ones that inform so much of the later chapter regarding how men and women can and should interact in different contexts. They’re the ones that have stuck with me the most, and are the ones that I’ve been referencing in almost every conversation I’ve had about the topic, and about this book since I first read it.

Perhaps there’s no greater proof of their significance and how Aimee unpacks them than in the way they also serve to call out a few of the book’s weaknesses. The greatest is the cover – both the title and the comic-book style graphic that accompanies it. Aimee writes in a serious and thoughtful but still accessible and personable way about the practical implications of our status as brothers and sisters in Christ – a topic that the church seems to be floundering in as much as the world is. We shouldn’t be throwing out the “friends” term altogether, because the Bible doesn’t. But it’s clear from Scripture, and Aimee’s thoughtful handling of the topic, that the leading definer for the relationship between men and the church shouldn’t be “friends”, but “family”.  It’s a term replete with sacred significance. A much more accurate pop song title that would more accurately summarize the book would be the Pointer Sisters’ “We Are Family”. The subtitle borrows from one narrow, albeit controversial aspect of the conversation. Meanwhile,  the graphic resembles a 1970s era cartoon of a guy and girl stealing nervous glances at each other as they sit at a bar – exactly the kind of tortured, risky scenario naysayers on this topic appeal to to disagree.  If this was all simply a cunning strategy to prompt pre-release buzz, it’s certainly worked. But in my opinion, the net effect both trivializes and misrepresents the content, and it’s disappointing.

Followers of a parallel and very related controversy over the Revoice conference for Christians will likely observe another weakness of the book – the lack of surgical carefulness with which certain critical terms are defined and used. Even though there is an entire chapter devoted to defining friendship, it left me with questions that dogged me whenever the word was referenced in the rest of the book. How does the nature of friendship change between those who are in the faith vs. outside it, married vs unmarried? What is the role of attraction in becoming friends and what are the differences between right attraction and wrong? When is attraction sinful and when is it not?  As another reviewer has noted, one key anecdote Aimee describes involving a friend’s lament over a moment of “attraction” to another man that Aimee dismisses will likely be a target of disagreement, simply because she doesn’t really call out the difference between attraction to someone’s good character, and lust or sinful desire. To borrow an overused but still useful word, there are “trigger words” in these conversations, and some more intentional defining and usage of terms would have added clarity, instead of creating confusion or potential controversy.

These two flaws, together with various places where the line of argument was a little circuitous, and some of the topic transitions a little abrupt, all point to what seems to be the general problem of less editorial stewardship than a topic this weighty and challenging clearly deserved. Had the book been more tightly focused, readers would have been better guided through Aimee’s arguments, and better helped to either be persuaded or not.

The net impression I was left with was akin to several experiences I’ve had hiking with my family. I’m far from a natural outdoorswoman, so smooth paths, clear signs and easily spotted landmarks are necessary blessings that keep me upright and moving in the right direction. One memorable trek to a vista we’d heard wonderful things about involved some ambiguous signage, hard to spot landmarks, and a couple of falls that tempted me to give up more than once. But the glorious scenery we encountered when we arrived, not to mention the time spent sitting and talking, made the trek worth it, to the point that we’re planning a return visit. And when we do, we’ll get there much faster and be able to stay and enjoy it longer.

Reading “Why Can’t We Be Friends” felt much the same – it was an occasionally tricky journey that nevertheless yielded great rewards.

The Mike Pence rule being deployed every time a tragic announcement about a Christian leader’s moral failure occurs is proof of why the topic of being spiritual family matters so much. So is the escalating arguments regarding spiritual friendship as it relates to same-sex friendship and attraction. “Why Can’t We Be Friends” is a less than perfect book about an incredibly important topic, with innumerable insights that will change the way you think about all of the Christian men and women in your life, not just the ones in your nuclear family. It will hopefully change the way you see them, and serve them, for the better. That makes it a book that’s eminently worth your time to read and consider.

 

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Book Review – “Humble Roots – How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul”

For the last sixteen years, San Jose, California – otherwise known as Silicon Valley, the technology capital of the world – has been my home. I moved here after an introduction via mutual coworker friends at the computer hardware company where I worked turned into marriage. My husband is a third generation Bay Area native who likes to regale me with memories of what San Jose used to look like when he was young. In those distant days, the sun shone through of rows of fruit trees growing in the orchards and farms that were so plentiful the area was known as “The Valley of Heart’s Delight”. Today, the orchards have been largely replaced by high tech office buildings, lined up alongside gridlocked thoroughfares and freeways, the morning sun glinting on recognizable logos like Ebay, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and a thousand startups that aspire to be them. These companies are where my neighbors, my kids’ school friends’ parents, and both my husband and I, all work, designing the hardware, software and Internet infrastructure on which much of the world now runs.

The dominant value that drives Silicon Valley culture is living life without limits. From laptops, mobile phones and apps, to the infrastructure that keeps everything “always on”, Silicon Valley technology companies create and sell the ability to be anywhere, do anything, buy anything, and know everything, all the time. Got a problem? There’s an app for that. Got a question? Just Google it. Need something right away? Amazon can get it to your doorstep by tomorrow (and after their drone service launches, they’ll have delivery time down to 30 minutes).

The more the world buys in to the “anything anytime” way of life technology offers, the more pressure the companies who profit from selling it place on their people to deliver it. Can’t be in meetings at two places at once? Log in to a robot and be there virtually . Are meal breaks cutting into your productivity? Try Soylent. Need to optimize your efficiency? Hack your brain with fasting and “nootropic supplements.” Workforce demands for costly benefits like time off and overtime dragging down profits and production rates? Just replace your people with robots. For all Silicon Valley talks about work/life balance, the reality is that many people in my city teeter continually on the edge of burnout from the relentless pressure.

Christians like me who work in the high tech industry are only just beginning to wrestle with what it looks like to live as faithful followers of Christ in the digital world we are helping to build; all Christians are wrestling with how to live in it. Several years ago, Hannah Anderson offered one answer in a book called “Made For More”. In it, she argued that we will struggle with the various roles and vocations to which God calls us unless they are grounded in our most fundamental identity as human beings made in the image of God. While primarily written for Christian women struggling to separate cultural expectations about womanhood from genuinely biblical ones, “Made For More’s” argument about the centrality of the doctrine of the imago dei to our identity and purpose, directly counters contemporary Silicon Valley dogma that human beings are simply sophisticated iPhone apps to be deployed, consumed, enhanced, then deleted when no longer of use.

In her latest book, “Humble Roots – How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Our Souls”, Anderson extends the conversation about the centrality of “imago dei” by examining one of its most important and transformative implications for everyday life. In her introduction she states, “…looking like God does not mean that we are God. We are made in God’s image, but we are made nonetheless.” (p. 11) Anderson’s assertion is that the key to productive and peaceful Christian living is found, not in fighting our limitations, as the modern titans of technology would insist, but in embracing them, and entrusting ourselves to the One who truly is limitless, not just in power, but in love. Ostensibly a book of lessons in humility gleaned from life in rural Appalachia, the central theme of “Humble Roots” offers a compelling, and profoundly countercultural, vision for what it truly looks like to live as imago dei, in an increasingly imago apparatus world.

The unifying Scripture passage for the book is Matthew 6:25-34, in which Jesus encourages His followers to “consider the lilies” – to look at the natural world and see how it testifies to God’s provision for His children who are made in His image. In “Humble Roots”, Anderson writes a series of meditations on lessons learned living amongst the fields and flowers of rural Appalachia, as the wife of a fulltime pastor who is also a gifted gardener and hobby farmer. Through stories of plowing in winter and sun-ripened tomato harvesting in summer, herbs and local honey, Anderson takes Jesus’ words to heart to look at the natural world and see what God is saying to her, and to us, about the sources of our everyday worries and anxieties, and how to put them to rest.

In the first section of the book, Anderson works to uncovers the root, as it were, of the stress and overwork that plagues so many of us. She locates it in our efforts to pursue productivity and peace on our own terms, and in our own strength. While a “bright red anemone can dance beside a gun’s turret” without a care, we run around in endless circles of business and stress, behaving as though each day’s outcomes is entirely dependent on us, but stymied by the evidence of how little is actually in our control. Jesus’ words in Matthew 6 challenge us to acknowledge this reality, instead of fighting it, and to look to Him for the rest all of our work is failing to accomplish. “In chapter 2, “Breaking Ground”, Anderson shows how the weight of the burdens of expectations and effort that we place on ourselves can be compared to the heavy yokes oxen would wear in the agrarian culture of Jesus’ day. When Jesus exhorts his listeners to “take My yoke upon you…for My yoke is easy and my burden is light”, He is not calling us to take on yet one more burden, but to exchange the heavy ones of our own work for the lightness of submission to him. When we set aside the heavy yoke of our confidence in our to live life under our own strength and on our own terms, and submit to the yoke of Jesus, He gives us rest.

As Anderson notes, many Christians approach the pursuit of this needed humble submission the way they approach other aspects of sanctification – as a matter of sheer will. In chapter 3, “Returning to Our Roots”, Anderson shows that the best our self-derived efforts at humility will produce is the nefarious “humblebrag” (pg. 49). In big ways and small, our self-derived efforts to achieve humility through more control, continual self-denial, or a “let it go” mentality, just becomes yet one more burdensome yoke to bear. Just as the vintners tending Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello vineyard only succeeded in growing wine when they grafted vine cuttings from a foreign country onto their rootstock, we need a source of humility that isn’t derived from us, or our efforts. We need Jesus’ humility, the humility that caused Him to set aside His limitless glory and live as a dependent, limited human man on our behalf. “Through His life, death, and resurrection, Jesus shows us our true identity as people dependent on God for life. And through His life, death, and resurrection, He imparts this humble life to us once again.” (pg. 57) True humility begins when we acknowledge that even our ability to be humble is limited, and we look to Jesus to lay down our efforts, and rest in His.

With this foundation laid, the rest of the book considers how this kind of humility, grounded in equal measures of honest acknowledgement of our limits, and confident faith in God’s provision for them through Christ, “grounds and nourishes our souls”, as the subtitle states. In the second section of the book, Anderson considers the effects this kind of humility can have on ourselves as individuals – on our perception of our bodies, our handling of our emotions, and the relative trust (or distrust) we should have in our own intellect and abilities. In the final section of the book, she looks at how humility can transform the way we move through the world – how we use our gifts and pursue our desires, how we think about suffering (our own as well as what we observe in the world), and how to look at the ultimate symbols of our finitude – sleep and death.

Anderson doesn’t try to cover every possible aspect of life humility can transform, but the areas on which she does focus are ones to which every reader will relate. Indeed, there is an entire cottage industry of books dedicated to helping women overcome their body image issues, or find contentment or so forth. I’ve certainly read my share of them. “Humble Roots” exposes why so many of them failed to have the intended effect. Too often, they encourage us to simply pull at the stems and leaves of an issue, while leaving its roots behind, permitting the toxic growth to begin all again. “Humble Roots” shows how to wield humility like a trowel, to dig under the pride that is at the root of so many of the issues that rob us of joy and cause anxiety, and cast those sins aside for good.

For example, on body image she says this:

“Simply learning to ‘love your body’ will not free you from shame because, at times, your body will feel very unlovable. What will free you from shame is…accepting that you are not and were never meant to be divine.”(pg.89)

On pursuing goals and plans she writes,

“It is precisely through the process of learning to plan that we learn to depend on the God who makes our plans happen. Pride, on the other hand, demands to know God’s will before it will act.” (pg.159)

and

“Part of humility means trusting God with our plans and submitting to the possibility that they will not be fulfilled. But part of humility also means trusting God with our plans and submitting to the possibiility that they will be fulfilled in ways we cannot imagine…the humble also understand that the possibility of failure is no reason not to work.” (pg. 167)

And on pursuing a godly perspective on our differing gifts and privilege, she notes (with a gentle dig at the premise of a famous best selling book for women on gratitude)

“When we consider our resources, it is not simply enough to count our one thousand gifts. Our one thousand gifts are actually one thousand opportunities: the very means by which God intends to seed His world.”(pg. 149)

With the beautiful prose and thoughtful turns of phrases that are her trademark, “Humble Roots” establishes Anderson as a writer and thinker who communicates theologically deep and culturally subversive ideas in a deceptively simple and beautiful way. As with “Made For More”, supporting quotes and anecdotes from popular works of literature like “Pride and Prejudice” and ”The Fellowship of the Ring”, as well as more scholarly works by Anne Marie Slaughter, Isaac Watts, and others, are sprinkled throughout the book. The stories she tells about her failed efforts to grow pole beans, or her struggles to understand her husband’s expensive enthusiasm for heirloom apples, are refreshingly self-deprecating (as perhaps is appropriate for a book on humility!). And you shouldn’t read the final chapter until you have some Kleenex and a quiet spot to compose yourself after you ugly-cry.

Many examples in the book reference church ministry as a context where the battle of pride vs. humility is constantly waged and frequently lost, which is understandable, given Anderson’s role as pastor’s wife. Consequently, I couldn’t help contemplating the benefits to the church if this book were to makes its way onto the required reading list for people preparing to enter full time ministry. I say “people”, because although Anderson writes to and for women, the insights in this book, as well as her previous one, have universal application. There is a long unchallenged adage that women will gladly read books written by men, but men are reluctant to do the same. Because of the way “Humble Roots” frames humility as a posture of acknowledgement of our boundaries and limits as human beings, I’ve never a read a book with more potential to help men, as well as women, contemplate the ways gender itself is a form of human limitation. A humble willingness to look to, and learn from, the uniqueness of the imago dei through our differences as male and female, would be a beautiful expression of God’s original design in the very first garden He gave His creatures to tend.

A few readers may find some of Anderson’s stories from nature overly lengthy, relative to the spiritual applications she draws from them. And her frequent use of couplets and triplets to emphasize her points may read as somewhat repetitive, at least to pragmatic readers like me, who are most often helped best when an author makes a point once, then moves on. But chapter 7 challenged me to question my impatience. In “Vine Ripened” Anderson compares our preference for fast answers, and neat and tidy solutions to the problems of the Christian life, to a tomato that has been artificially ripened in a greenhouse – red, plump and shiny on the outside, but inside, a “mealy, flavorless mouthful of regret.” The best tomatoes are the ones who have been tended and nourished by months of cycles of sunlight and darkness, and continual pruning and tending. “Humility predisposes us to believe that we always have something to learn.”(pg. 121) In the weeks since I first read “Humble Roots” hardly a day has gone by that I haven’t been brought up short by a new awareness of the pride behind a casual thought or an impatient word, and I’ve been compelled to rehearse what I thought didn’t need repeating.

Therein is the profundity of “Humble Roots”. It calls us to acknowledge our weaknesses, and in heeding its words offers a path to true strength and real rest. A book by a country pastor’s wife from Appalachian hill country offers a better and truer vision for life than a thousand Steve Jobs or Bill Gates ever can. A book that hearkens to Silicon Valley’s own rural past, serves as an invitation to a more beautiful, lasting future, and offers the tools that could build it, if we would but have the humility to accept them, and lay our own useless ones down.

I can’t recommend it highly enough.