Six Obstacles to Friendship

Friendship is a wonderful gift from God. Over the years I have gratefully enjoyed its fruits, though not without effort and commitment. On occasion I have been asked to teach on the topic, and I have tried to make that material available at Rekindle: defining friendship and its purposes as well as appreciating it as an eternal gift. Recently I was handed the privilege of preaching on the topic, so I took the chance to rework my material and supplement it.

FriendsReflecting on the many obstacles to friendship I realised that friendships must survive in a hostile environment, fraught with threats and challenges. So here are some of the obstacles to friendship that I have experienced in my own life and culture. The list is far from comprehensive and you will very likely think of more, which I hope you will add in the comments. But my intention in listing them here is to make you aware of the obstacles to friendship and encourage you to strive harder for this glorious, satisfying and sanctifying gift.

Friendship is undervalued

Like a sunroof or cupholders, we tend to think of friendship as a ‘nice to have’. We do not consider it essential but an added extra. The result of this thinking is that we have a low estimation of friendship. If you believe something is not necessary you are unlikely to think it is important. But as I argued in a previous post defining friendship biblically, “Friendship involves complete vulnerability, the joining of two people’s souls in a wonderful love that reflects the nature of God.” This should not be undervalued but undertaken with concerted devotion.

Marriage has supplanted friendship

WeddingWhile I affirm that marriage is also a tremendous gift from God I fear that an unhealthy emphasis on it means friendship is overshadowed, and friends are forgotten. We make the mistake of believing that one person (our spouse) will be able to meet all of our relational and emotional needs, as if one single relationship (marriage) removes the need for all others.

Increased mobility

We move around, relocate for work and chase our ambitions into new neighbourhoods and countries. This impermanence is relationally disorienting and probably one of the reasons marriages turn inward and become isolated. Anyone who has relocated will know that finding community and creating new friendships is challenging, and often ends in loneliness. As Rod Dreher writes in The Benedict Option, “If you are going to put down spiritual roots…you need to stay in one place long enough for them to go deep.”

Technology

Following from the previous point, perpetually moving around we convince ourselves that we can remain ‘connected’. I will admit that I am indebted to platforms such as Skype and FaceTime but mediated communication (and friendship) falls short of the true glory of friendship. Despite all the benefits of these tools, which we ought to also praise God for, they are simply no substitute. 1000 friends on Facebook cannot stave my loneliness; nor can a video call provide the physical comfort and presence of a friend when it is desperately needed.

We are suspicious of intimacy

FriendshipIn his book titled Spiritual Friendship, Wesley Hill develops what he calls the “Freudian myth”, the idea that the terminus of intimacy between two people is always romantic or sexual. On once occasion, after speaking to teenagers about friendship some of the guys came up to me and said words like vulnerability, affection and intimacy cannot exist between guys for fear of being perceived as homosexuals. We might easily laugh that off, but most adults probably limit those adjectives to romantic relationships. But when we see two friends visibly loving delighting in each other we assume they desire something more than friendship.

Unbiblical idea of masculinity

Admittedly a generalisation and perhaps this is linked with the previous point, many men I know stick to the shallows in their friendships, revelling in the superficial and bonding over the inane. A lot of people have the strange notion that being a man means independence, strength, apathy and the complete childish avoidance of anything deemed effeminate. This has not resulted in generations of impressive men but boys with serious emotional and social limitations.

So there you have it, a far from comprehensive list of obstacles to friendship in our world today. Please interact with anything I have raised or add your own below. Returning to the first point, until we are convinced that God has given us friendship and imbued it with significant potential we will settle for cheap imitations and shadows.

Reflections on LeFouGate

LeFou - Beauty and the Beast 2017With the release of Beauty and the Beast around the corner and the (completely intentional, as far as I’m concerned) controversy over “LeFouGate,” I have been thinking (again) about the LGBTQ / SSA community and the church. The big question on my mind is one that has been asked many times before: how do we make both compassion and holiness our priorities?

It seems that one the major problems is that the idea of the church and its reality are two very different things. Although we say we are against all sin, what we do stigmatises sexual sin and brushes pride, greed and selfishness under the carpet. We say that the church is a community and that everyone is welcome – in fact we would say we are the best community – but in a small group I attended a gay friend once said the best experience of community that he has had has been outside of the church. I asked him what he meant by “best experience of community” and he explained “where I feel like people care about me and try to understand me.” So yes, once again we can say the church is failing on this front – if you’re reading this and you’re in the LGBTQ / SSA community, sorry for mucking this stuff up for so long!

Two responses that I don’t think are helping us are (1) saying “love the sinner hate the sin” – this response is definitely on the side of “love them with the truth even if it hurts.” Sure, there’s something to be said for this approach but the problem is that it stops far short of knowing “the sinner” and forgets how core of an issue this is with regards to self-identity. I think if we are going to be compassionate, this solution is going to let us down. (2) Reframing sin in terms of brokenness (which I wrote about that a while ago). Although this helps us to be compassionate by using language that is not condemnatory, it also turns us into victims of our own sin rather than wilful agents. This is actually more of a problem to the heterosexual community which seems to have gravitated toward this language because while sounding generous and loving, it excuses and plays down our own sin.

So what’s the solution? Well if you want a solution to a problem that has been plaguing the church for the last few decades and to which few people even gesture at answers, you’ve come to the right place – if you know me, you know that I don’t hesitate to give definitive answers to life’s difficult questions (*sarcasm people). But to suggest something rather than crash landing this post at this point, I will say two things.
Washed and Waiting - Wesley HillFirst, read (and this, by the way, is the only solutiony type thing I’m going to offer). In his Experiment in Criticism Lewis writes

In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see.

If you’re reading this blog, it’s probably something you already know – reading the words of people we don’t understand helps us sympathise with them. So I will recommend Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting to anyone who still hasn’t read it. Unfortunately nothing else that I’ve read is springing to mind that I want to recommend so highly (if you have suggestions, put them in the comments!).

Second, to loop back to LeFouGate, watching Beauty and the Beast is not going to help you sympathise. The media’s approach to gender identity is going to be to affirm and to normalise which will make us conservative types recoil all the time (until the normalisation takes effect). We need stories about people who are struggling with their own identity because in their stories we learn sympathy. Imitation Game (about Alan Turing breaking Enigma during WWII) is one example I can think of, a more recent one – though not as good an example – is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (the latest in the Harry Potter world) – watch Credence (the adopted son).

Let’s be clear, these movies are normalising identity struggle and I’m confident that their objective is to normalise alternative sexualities but they do also depict the internal struggle that I think Christians all to often fail to appreciate in the people around us – people around us who we are called to love. I think whatever loving means, it’s going to involve some sort of understanding. Whatever you decide to do in response to LeFouGate, let’s remember that Beauty and the Beast is a story in which love transforms the unlovable and our decisions and actions communicate to those around us – what we say and what we do need to correlate.

Brokenness: How We Reframe Sin

Broken WorldPastors and service leaders often tell stories or make reference to a sporting event or news item to connect with the congregation. Recently, however, I have noticed these techniques give way to the sure-fire connection that is made when the person upfront talks about brokenness. At a prayer meeting someone lamented,

We are broken people
Living in a broken world
Breaking things

And on reflection, I wouldn’t argue with it.

I also didn’t argue with it when it was said because we were talking about plenty of truly broken things in people’s lives. Things over which they had no control and that introduced seemingly senseless pain. Brokenness is a word that captures this idea really well and yet, I remember a time when I would have said, “We are fallen people living in a fallen world.” So I’ve been wondering about the difference.

My church did a series on Joel – the minor prophet who spends three chapters finding synonyms for “swarm of locusts.” The locusts come as God’s judgement on Israel. “Why are you telling me this?” you ask. Because somehow we did not talk about judgement in the series: week one: “the power of stories,” week two: “the possibility that pain is for our good,” week three: “the hope for restoration” (my titles). Each week the worship leader would welcome us and talk about how we probably all had rough weeks and that we come together as broken people to be refreshed by the Word and I was being my usual (non-critical) self thinking, “what happened to sin?”

Broken JarThen it dawned on me. Brokenness is something that happens to us. Jars get dropped, balls hit windows, iphones fall out of pockets – they all get broken and they are broken through no fault of their own. Broken things are victims. We are victims.

On the other hand, sin is something that we do. We are the perpetrators: we pull the trigger, we bend the truth, two options are presented and we choose the morally inferior one. Sinners are blameworthy and we haven’t wanted to take the blame since back in the garden.

I’m still not sure what the difference between fallenness and brokenness is but I am pretty confident about the difference between brokenness and sin. And the reason that the worship leader keeps talking about brokenness at the beginning of the service and we keep praying about it in prayer meetings is the same reason that the sermon series on Joel never accused me of being a sinner. I don’t like taking the blame.

Brokenness reframes sin turning us into victims
rather than perpetrators

Don’t misunderstand me. There are broken things and we are broken people. Not every bad thing that happened to you is the result of your own sin. And yet, the reason that I live in a sinful world is as much about me as it is about anyone else. Maybe in a generation that has such apathy to obedience and holiness, it’s time to own up to the part we play in breaking our world.

Managing Technology

TechnologyIn Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis grumbled about how modern transport has annihilated space, “one of the most glorious gifts we have been given. It is a vile inflation which lowers the value of distance, so that a modern boy travels a hundred miles with less sense of liberation than his grandfather got from travelling ten.” The point of this series of blog posts has not been to denounce technology, pine after a bygone era, or deny the many benefits of the digital age. Rather I have hoped to convince readers that we are often blind to what technology takes from us. If you are like me, then Lewis’ reflection is striking, since you never considered how modern transport might deprive travellers the joy of a journey. It is a silly example, but it reiterates how we have been trained to receive new technology with open hands and tightly shut eyes. In this final post I want to suggest a few ways we might better manage technology.

I will start with a point made in an older post on technology. Etymologically the word technology means ‘skill’ or ‘craft’, but – as I suggested in that post – humanity has a tendency to bow down to what it has made; “technology that was once held in our hands, now has many lying prostrate at its feet.” We cannot imagine life without our devices, we become despondent when we lose connectivity, and we check into on our digital worlds and profiles obsessively. So must ask to what extent we are in control? Does technology serve you, or is it slowly enslaving you? Let me state that technology is a wonderful gift, endowed by our Creator to further equip us for the task of subduing the created world. We should therefore receive technology gratefully and put it to work, assisting and serving us in most areas of life, but we must guard against being controlled by it. Each of us needs to carefully consider the status technology has earned in our own lives, for while its functions will vary, the human propensity to worship the created world rather than the Creator is always present.

I will now briefly comment on the remaining points raised in my posts, having dealt with freedom above:

Attention: adapting something Donald Whitney wrote, I think that if we spent money as readily as we do our attention people would call us reckless. Surely there are times when uninterrupted focus is necessary. Multi-tasking – which Michael Horton says is often just a euphemism for distraction – is not always the most productive or beneficial use of our time. I know these suggestions are unthinkable, but you can turn your devices onto ‘do not disturb’ and block your internet connection in order to give undivided attention and time where it is required, be that people or tasks.

TechnologyThoughtfulness and introspection: please forgive my use of this abused, potentially misattributed, dictum from Socrates: The unexamined life is not worth living. Regardless of who said it, the sentiment is an urgently true one today. We need to move away from consuming information to contemplating knowledge. We need to recognise that the first hit on a Google search is not necessarily the most accurate or formative article on a subject. We need to put effort into reading and reflecting on – even studying – ideas and concepts. We could all use more quiet time and solitude, away from the invasive presence of our devices and demanding digital platforms.

Memory: I have heard it said that our brains have many similarities to muscles; that is, when exercised they are healthy, but left unused they atrophy. The outsourcing of our memories and immediately accessible information means that while we have answers quickly we rarely have our own answers, nor do we see any need to furnish our minds. The result of this is weakening of our ability to retain information and ideas. I am not talking about what Mega Memory can offer you, as useful as being able to recall the order of two packs of playing cards might be, but rather a mind that is sharpened and in shape. The ways to achieve this are endless: learning a language; slowing down to consider a point in an article, book, or film; trying to remember a piece of information before Googling it; learning quotes and sayings off by heart; and so on.

TechnologyValues: this was the final point made in More Ways Technology Takes and, for lack of a better heading, I argued that today we are inundated with information and easy entertainment that warps our values and thrives off of undiscerning consumerism. This is well illustrated in an exchange between Hermoine Granger and Rita Skeeter, in Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix. Hermoine is entreating Rita to write the truth about Harry and the return of You-Know-Who, but Rita tells her that the Daily Prophet cannot run stories that will unsettle the comfortable wizarding world. Then Hermoine scathingly asks, “So the Daily Prophet exists to tell people what they want to hear, does it?” And Rita retorts, “The Prophet exists to sell itself, you silly girl.” We need to be deliberate about the data and dramas we greedily ingest. Work hard in discerning what you read and view, its purpose and bias. Remember that just because something is being broadcast or receiving masses of media attention that does not necessarily mean it is significant. Lastly, it is undeniable that we are subtly shaped, even if only slightly, by what we consume.

Let me leave you with three concluding points for reflection: firstly, technology is a wonderful tool, given by God, but let us be wary of the human inclination to worship the creation; secondly, though technology is almost always morally neutral, our use of it is often not; thirdly, managing our technology means more than benefiting from its many positives, we must be alert to its many drawbacks.

More Ways Technology Takes

Two weeks back I posted on some of technology’s drawbacks. Reiterating a point made by Tim Challies, I started by arguing that our eyes are only open to the positive benefits of technology, meaning we blindly embrace the latest apps, devices, and digital advances without considering what their negative effects might be. After making that point I highlighted three areas where technology is adversely impacting human life: fragmented and interrupted attention, unhealthily increased dependence on tending towards enslavement to technologies, and the loss of critical engagement or thoughtfulness due to the superficial nature of technology. In this short post I want to point to three more ways I think that technology is having an adverse effect on human life.

Memory

Technology‘I know this…hang on…um…alright, Google it.’ How often is that the answer to a question, and if you are honest: your own answer. In his now famous article, Is Google making us stupid?, Nicholas Carr writes, “For all that’s been written about the Net, there’s been little consideration of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us.” In the article Carr makes numerous prickly points, from the commodification of information to the way the web discourages contemplation in favour of amassing data, but central to his article is the observation that we are outsourcing our memory and mental capacity. Carr says, “The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.” Admitting that he might just be a “worrywart” or Luddite, Carr acknowledges that – in the same way the technology of bound books “would serve to spread information, spur fresh ideas, and expand human knowledge (if not wisdom)” – the internet may result in a “golden age of intellectual discovery and universal wisdom.” Yet he remains sceptical, as do I. The easy access to endless amounts of information means we retain less, find it hard to recall what we have read, and see no need for growing in knowledge. Surely, that is not progress. 

Introspection

In his lecture on private prayer, Charles Spurgeon lamented how an inward poverty means that many people find silence unbearable; the corollary of this is that we cannot stand undistracted solitude. When I was in high school, Shakespearian soliloquys struck me as highly odd and obviously theatrical, but today I think they are a haunting visage of something we are no longer capable of: internal dialogue and introspection. In the outstanding collection of essays Stop What You’re Doing and Read This, Jane Davis challenges our preference for the comfortable shallows of human life, and I firmly believe that much of our technology enables or even encourages such superficiality. Davis strongly posits, “Consistently ignoring the inner life has put depression and anxiety high amongst the world’s most serious epidemics…Despite our desire to amass, consume, and be mindless, the ‘unspeakable desire’ to know ‘our buried life’ is ancient and implacable.” We use social media to express invented and pliable versions of who we want to be, yet hardly know ourselves. We impulsively comment on blogs remonstrating others, but find it impossible to internalise thoughts and ideas. We peruse infinitely scrolling feeds for hours on end – liking, retweeting, and pinning – only when we come away from them we are none the richer. Constant connectivity leaves little time for careful contemplation. As Malcom Gladwell has said, today we are experientially wealthy and theoretically impoverished.

Values

TelevisionIn my previous post I admitted the potential of being melodramatic, so I might as well run the risk of sounding like a crank. In Marilynne Robinson’s masterpiece, Home, Old Boughton is discussing the news and asserts that, “In six months nobody will remember one thing about it,” for, “It’s television that makes things seem important whether they are or not.” What comes to us through our screens is very rarely weighed or thoughtfully evaluated. According to my news feeds and Facebook, the death of Cecil, a protected lion, is the most significant event from the last couple of weeks. Worse than that is the grossly unhealthy celebrity culture, which considers Kim Kardashian’s baby bump more newsworthy than a massacre in Kenya. As D. A. Carson notes, in Basics for Believers, TV is the dominant reference point or moral ‘bottom line,’ for many people, resulting in grossly warped values. Carson points out how parents are anxiously concerned that their children have the right kinds of friends and role models, for all of us learn by a kind of existential mimicry, only we naïvely overlook the vicarious friendship provided by TV. With the average person spending over 3 hours in front of one TV daily, the results are undeniable: “We no longer have authentic heroes. People are celebrated for extravagant behaviour or conspicuous consumption, not for their value to society. Wealth is preferred to worth, glamour to virtue. There are many ‘personalities’, but few show evidence of character” (Edward Donnelly). Not everything that appears on our screens is significant, but the TV industry, click bait, and social media sites thrive off of our woeful discernment, and from confusing our values. 

Conclusion

Living in the world of technology is unavoidable. But being aware of how technology shapes us is a crucial step away from being dominated by it. We have seen that outsourcing our memories incapacitates our minds, the digital world discourages introspection, and how confusing presentation of information on our screens erodes values. Since I have not read anything better on the impact technology has had than The Next Story I will let Tim Challies have the last word: “So here we sit today, surveying the landscape after the digital explosion. We live in the glare of screens; we outsource our memories to bits and bytes; we experience some of our deepest and most important relationships through the ethereal networks powered by electricity and computer hardware. We are a digital people-a digital generation, dependent on our devices.”

Technology Takes

Shabolovka MoscowMost Christians have at some point sung along to Matt Redman’s chorus “You give and take away,” ad nauseam, in a church service or coming from your first generation iPod. But forgetting that song, and holding onto the words of the refrain, I want to discuss a few of the ways in which technology has taken from us, impoverished our lives. In his must-read book on the topic, The Next Story, Tim Challies reminds us “that a technology tends to wear its benefits on its sleeve–while the drawbacks are buried deep within. The opportunities are obvious and apparent, while the risks are revealed only after close scrutiny and the slow march of time and experience.” Have you considered the consequences and impact of technology and the digital revolution? Most of us blindly and uncritically use whatever technology we can afford, so in this short post I want to address some of the areas of life where I believe technology is depriving us. Sure, technology gives, but it also takes.

Attention

The first point I want to highlight was prompted by reading Alan Jacob’s 79 Theses on Technology for Disputation. In his 5th and 6th disputations he speaks about attention as a resource, hence the term ‘pay attention.’ If this is true then we should view our attention as an economic exercise. Where we invest our attention, which Jacobs says is not an infinitely renewable resource, should therefore be carefully evaluated and planned; we should steward it wisely and not wastefully. I do not think it is an overstatement to say that much of our technology demands attention and also frequently disrupts it. Our attention is nearly always divided and we fail to discern where to primarily invest it. In our unyielding efforts to be connected at all times, our attention is scattered in so many directions that we are barely focused and fully present in any of them. As Jacobs suggests, quite strikingly, we must assess the investment of attention at least as carefully as we do our money.

Freedom

ambrojordiart@blogspot.comI admit this heading sounds dramatic, but I am firmly convinced that technology enslaves many people today, not in the same sense that AI sets out to subjugate humanity in Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot (or Skynet, from the Terminator franchise) but in a more beguiling way. Technology promises to improve our lives at almost every turn – helping us become more connected, efficient and productive – and we wholeheartedly believe it, entrusting ourselves to technology. In a previous post I wrote, “Many of us fall into the trap of ascribing a godlike attribute of unassailability to technology…we begin to worship the created rather than the Creator.” Alan Jacobs puts it better in his 42nd disputation, “Our current electronic technologies make competent servants, annoyingly capricious masters, and tragically incompetent gods.” Devices and apps meant to serve us tend to take more than they can give, eventually controlling and in the worst cases enslaving us to their service. This process is both subtle and an undeniable threat, making our devices and technology much more dangerous than Asimov’s fictional U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc.

Thoughtfulness

Finally, I fear that the superficiality of the digital age is diminishing our capacity and desire to examine life and the arts. When I reflect on my own conversations I regret how many of them revolve around the latest TV series and Hollywood blockbusters. I guess this would distress me less if those discussions dissected narratives, weighing character development and exploring themes (not that Hollywood really achieves this) but they are for the most part vapid or shallow. I think a reason for this is that, as C. S. Lewis said, we are obsessed with event – to the point that event has become synonymous with story – and have unwittingly surrendered the ability to wrestle with concepts, ideas, and meaning. We are tragically content to discuss what happened, the twists and turns of a series or the spectacular events in the latest Marvel film adaption but are uninterested in what might be taking place beneath the surface. Book critic David Ulin has written, “Today, it seems it is not contemplation we seek but an odd sort of distraction masquerading as being in the know.” Sure we have lots to talk about, endless information and inane entertainment is never more than a glowing screen and mouse click away. But, at the risk of sounding portentous, I think we waste countless hours talking about nothing. I have written elsewhere about our fear of deep engagement, suggesting that we possess a consumerist preference for passive entertainment, such as film, but I am seeing more and more how the superficial nature of the digital age has impoverished our ability to critically engage. We strain our attention onto events not ideas, meaning the arts rarely pass our eyes and life is left unexamined.

Conclusion

TechnologyTony Reinke has given five foundational principles, taken from The Pastor as Public Theologian, concerning the use of technology, based on Genesis 1-11. I will conclude using his final point: “Technology is inherently dangerous because it is the product of purposive human activity, and we need help from God in limiting its use.” Reinke (like Challies) believes that we find this statement exceptionally hard to grasp, since we think all technology is progress. Yet, as I have tried to argue: technology often distracts us, slowly enslaves us, and can weaken critical engagement. So we should be slower to buy into technology, considerate of its impact on how we behave, and weary of its relentless march into all of life.