Book Review: Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions

As a Viral Blogger, I’ve agreed to read advanced copies of new books and blog about them. This is my first month participating in this pretty cool idea. Each month, bloggers get a chance to select one (or more) of 3 titles and review them within 30 days. Last time, selections included NT Wright’s new book, After you Believe, and previously, Brian McLaren’s new A New Kind of Christianity. This month’s selections weren’t quite so exiting, but I chose on called Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Engaging the Mystery of Friendship Between Men and Women, by Dan Brennan.

Brennan’s thesis is quite simple: much of conservative evangelical Christianity has made friendship between sexes, especially post-marriage, nearly a sin. He says that we’ve been told that after marriage, we’re often told that our friendships must be shallow at best, and almost nonexistent with the other sex. It’s expected that one’s spouse will fulfill all of a person’s relational needs. Basically, Brennan says, it is not only possible but necessary and good for women and men to have “cross-sex” friendships (his term) before and after marriage. He spends a portion of the book showing how deep friendship has shaped and formed spiritual heroes and she-roes in the past, and tries to show, using the Bible, that Jesus taught us to have deep friendships as well, and even challenged us that it is possible to have deep, non-romanticized relationships with women.

I came to this book already agreeing with Brennan’s basic thesis, that it is both possible and necessary to have deep friendships, whether or not you’re married, with people of both sexes. I’ve never spent time thinking the opposite was true. If I had, perhaps this book would have had greater appeal to me, but as I read it, I couldn’t help but think: “Did this book really need to be written?”  In fact, I felt very strongly that Brennan not only doesn’t really say anything new, but he doesn’t do a very good job saying it, and may have hurt his own case in writing this book. He seems to spend the entire book arguing against a vauge “conservative” monolith who has condemned not only cross-sex friendship in marriage but friendship in general!

First of all, he uses very sexualized language to describe friendships outside of marriage. In an attempt to widen an understanding of sexuality that separates itself from Freud, Brennan uses language like passion, physical pleasure, and even sexuality to describe friendship. The only major distinction he makes between friendship and marriage is “genital sex” as he calls it. While I don’t fully disagree with this use of terms, I’m not sure he’s helping his cause by using language that most people cannot distinguish from romance.

Second, the book is poorly argued and constructed. For example, in chapter 4, he introduces 12 “themes from Scripture” to help illustrate that “male-female intimacy in friendship is an expression of God’s heart for deepening reconciliation betweenmen and women in Christ” (p 73). Of Brennan’s 12 themes, several of them are themes or arguments from books, sometimes not even referencing Scripture. There are several grammatical errors, awkward sentence structure, and poor reasoning. The endorsements on the back cover prominently display a quote from Mike Morell, formatted differently from the others and just seem to have missed an editor’s pen. Overall, the book itself appears more like a low-budget, self-published book by a not-so-great writer.

I don’t mean to make entirely scathing remarks. The book has some high points, especially the second half of chapter 4. He makes some good statements about “sexual shalom” and the sexual theology of the church, some things that I’ve said myself in another post about agape, eros, and philos, though I think he’s got it backwards. He says everything is an example of eros, whereas I say that everything strives to be agape.

The final problem with this book is that it is an example of poor exegesis. Brennan tries to get Scripture to support his thesis and doesn’t do a good job illuminating what the passages he’s using are actually saying. Amazingly, the entire Bible is about male-female friendships! Who knew?!  Instead of intelligently suggesting that there are things we can draw from Jesus’ interactions with women, he attempts to make the Gospels a story of cross-sex friendship. He makes claims about Jesus’ intent without acknowledging the role of the author or perhaps the narrative function of a lot of the stories he tries to make use of. Many of the passages he use can support his thesis, but he doesn’t do a compelling job showing this to anyone with a critical eye to methodology.

Overall, my major gripe with the book is that it is poorly written as a published thesis. He’s well researched, in a sense, but I’ve never heard of almost all of his sources when it comes to sexuality. I would recommend it to someone who wouldn’t really raise a fuss about writing style like I did, and who didn’t generally agree with the thesis at the beginnning. Not sure this book needed to be written, especially by this author.

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4 comments

  1. Jennifer · June 8, 2010

    Brian,

    I actually grew up in a corner of Christianity where men and women really were not allowed ot be friends. This was in a large-ish California evangelical church. Women and men couldnt ride in a car together if they weren’t married, and male pastors couldnt meet with women alone unless another adult was present. There was a lot of baggage and damage because of this kind of thinking. I’m glad there is a book that takes that stuff head-on.

  2. brianjgorman · June 9, 2010

    Jennifer,
    I agree with you, and with the book, that there still are areas of evangelical (and other) Christianity that promote a very hard line on male-female relationships. Like I said above, I agree overall with what the book has set out to do, I’m just not convinced that this author did it very well. There certainly are redeeming parts of the book, but as I said above, some of the other glaring errors and bad editing made it difficult for me to enjoy the book.

    May I ask, how did you stumble upon my blog?

    Thanks for your comments!
    Brian

  3. Jennifer · June 9, 2010

    Hi Brian,

    I followed you here from the Viral Bloggers site.

    I’ve actually read this book too, and I found it to be fascinating. Sure, there are some editing issues (which is true of almost every book I’ve read from any publisher for the last 10 years – what has happened to editors???), but its stil perfectly readable for anyone who is used to engaging with deeper books or academic books.

    I am grateful for any book on this topic that is willing to go beyond “it’s too dangerous!”

  4. Dan Brennan · June 10, 2010

    Hey Brian,

    I want to sincerely thank you for the time and your serious engagement with SUSP. I can always learn from critiques. And, this being my first book, I make no claim to being a great writer. 🙂 That’s a high standard for anyone to obtain. There are millions of poor, average, and good books published each year that are written by writers below the standard of greatness.

    I do appreciate your authentic response to SUSP.

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