The “TBB” in the name of this post means that it is part of The Big Box series. If you’re new to Scarlet Letters, read the introductory post to see what the Big Box is all about.
Hello again, readers! When last we met here in cyberspace, I was dissecting the gender hierarchy lurking behind Doug Phillips’ (in my opinion, needlessly legalistic and gendered) view of friendship. I’ll be wrapping up that topic this week, as well as covering a few things that are only tangentially related to the main thesis of Manly Friendships.
Since we’ve already done the bureaucratic legwork, let’s see if Phillips promotes a relationally healthy view of friendship, beginning with his view of friendship formation (emphasis mine):
Our friendships are transient because they’re meaningless. They’re based on sentimentality and on cookies. They’re based on expediency. They’re based on happenstance. The friendships of our young men are based on the fact that their experiences are video game experiences. We play video games together and that’s the basis of our friendship. … Let me tell you something, friends. Your friendships will only be as noble and as meaningful as their births, as the nature of the conversations which make them, as the experiences that you share. And so most people are shocked when they discover how wimpy their friendships are, because they have not dared great things, dreamed great things, covenanted great things, meant great things, felt great things deeply, a man to another man.
There are many other quotes similar to the above scattered throughout Manly Friendships; Phillips even went so far as to talk about the deep friendships forged between the Marines who fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima. In other words, Phillips seems to be unusually interested in the circumstances surrounding the relationship’s formation; his goal seems to be to contrast them with transitory relationships based upon shared interests, shared workplaces, etc.
Now no one disputes that friendships forged in extreme circumstances, such as Iwo Jima as mentioned above, are often deep and long-lasting. But I’m concerned that a false dichotomy is being set up here, because in general, Phillips paints in black and white in Manly Friendships, and it would easy for the listener to come away with the notion that our only two options are the Marines at Iwo Jima, or two coworkers exchanging meaningless pleasantries over the coffeemaker. In other words, our friendships either have soul-trying and near-cinematically dramatic beginnings (and are thus valid), or they are boring and mundane (and are thus invalid).
I really hope that the above is not what Phillips is actually saying. It would be, frankly, downright baffling to me if it were, because I can’t for the life of me figure out what it would accomplish to set up such a bizarre standard (except to render 99% of friendships that have ever existed “fake”). So for the moment, I’ll cross my fingers and assume that Phillips isn’t teaching something so purposelessly restrictive. Rather, my main worry is that his teaching could cause people to either overthink a functioning friendship, and/or seek out unnecessary drama.
As an example, let’s say John and Scott first met in kindergarten and have been best friends ever since. They’re now both in their 30s, and after being exposed to Phillips’ teaching, begin to wonder about the quality of their friendship. They never “covenanted” their friendship; is that a problem? And they didn’t meet doing street ministry or fighting a war or something exciting like that – they met when they were five years old eating graham crackers and playing in the sandbox. And now that they’re married with children, they’re usually talking not about theology and other “deep” topics, but about soccer practice and deadlines at the office. So is there something wrong with them? Are they conducting their friendship in a less-than-Christian manner? Are they even “real” friends?
Furthermore, what should they do to “improve” their friendship? Clearly something far less pedestrian is needed, since “your friendships will only be as noble and as meaningful as their births, as the nature of the conversations which make them, as the experiences that you share.” Should they go on a missions trip to darkest Africa (even though they both hate traveling)? Talk theology (even though neither of them has any knowledge of or interest in it)? Get into leadership positions together at their church (even though they’re terrible at the available jobs)? But more importantly, would any of these things actually help John and Scott’s friendship, or would they only introduce awkwardness and tension into a perfectly functional relationship?
But in reality, overthinking could be the least of our problems here. I’m even more concerned about how Phillips framed the concept of loyalty:
But I have to say, I wonder what’s more dangerous, the dueling, or the self-inflicted massacres that take place within our families, our friendships and our households because we are afraid to stand up for our friends when they are wrongfully accused. See, the Bible talks about friends as the men that will stand beside you in the day of adversity. That’s what the friend does.
What happens when it’s tough? What happens when it’s really really hard to stand with that guy? That’s when you know. That’s the only time you really know. That’s the test. What happens when it is tough, tough, tough, tough? You don’t have all the facts, things are looking bad. Do you run for the hills? Do you try to caution your words so you seem reasonable, and not to really be on anybody’s side? Is that what you do, because you’re a follower of Jesus, not of men? Or are you born for adversity? Do you sticketh [sic] closer than a brother?
I do agree with Phillips that it’s commendable to stand by a friend who has been falsely accused and unjustly slandered. The key words here, however, are “falsely” and “unjustly.” And herein lies my concern: the quotes above don’t allow for a situation in which our loyalty may be misplaced, and our friend may actually be guilty as charged. Phillips never explained what to do in that situation, other than an offhand and extremely vague comment that we shouldn’t let our friends get away with crimes. This, however, was buried under mountains of loyalty language, as well as a lot of warnings against “whisperers” because of Proverbs 16:28. An even bigger problem is that Phillips never gave any advice on how to distinguish the lies of whisperers, from valid reports of wrongdoing by victims, witnesses or concerned parties. Thus, the takeaway, at least to this listener, is that we should close our ears to all criticism of our friends (whether justified or not) and stick by them mindlessly no matter what the circumstances.
The real-life consequences of this sort of thinking can, of course, be disastrous, maybe even life-threatening. What if we are told (truthfully) by our friend’s wife that he is battering her behind closed doors? Do we write her off as a “whisperer” and ignore her? If so, what would be sufficient evidence to tip the scales in her favor? An eyewitness? An arrest? A dead body after he murders her?
If that wasn’t frightening enough, try applying Phillips’ advice to a situation in which a child comes to a trusted adult with a report of molestation by a church leader. Should we even investigate such a report, or just assume the child is lying? After all, Deacon So-and-So would never do something so terrible (even though child molesters are often extremely skilled at fooling the adults in a given community in order to get at the children). Once again, what would constitute sufficient evidence to change our minds? Is there any evidence that could change our minds? Or must we wait for such a situation to mushroom into something like this years (or even decades) later?
Before we leave this section, I’d like to expand on one of the similarities between friendship and marriage I looked at last time. If you recall, Phillips stated that Christians should not be “covenanted” friends with unbelievers:
And so I want to tell you that while you can be friends with different people, including unbelievers, the rich, deep, manly relationships which we’re speaking of today will not happen with those that do not share your love of Christ. That’s the bottom line. They should not happen in that sense, the deepest, the richest, the most manly, the most Christ-exalting, cannot happen in that sense. Unbelievers are slaves to sin, Christians are slaves to God.
As I pointed out before, this is identical to Phillips’ basic qualifications for suitors. But the similarities do not stop there. There are apparently levels of agreement even among Christians:
You must walk together and you must have agreement. And the closer you walk and the more agreement that you have, the more likely it is that you will have a meaningful relationship, the potential for a really manly friendship. But you must walk together and you must be in agreement. That’s why I want to tell you, the closer your agreement, the greater the potential for a meaningful relationship, and the closer you walk together, great possibilities. That’s not to say that meaningful relationships cannot emerge where men disagree on some things. Of course, they do all the time. But as to what you are walking through, as to the circumstance that arose that caused your hearts to be knit together – something special brings you together.
Thankfully, Phillips did point out that you don’t have to agree with someone about every little thing in order to be friends with them. But ultimately, this also reads like a “lite” version of Phillips’ suitor qualifications:
Two people with limited convictions can be equally yoked. They don’t have to agree on the issue of eschatology, because they don’t have an opinion on eschatology. The things they have opinions on, they’re equally yoked and maybe they only have ten opinions – I’m being a little bit silly here, but let’s say they only have ten opinions. As to those ten opinions, they’d better be equally yoked, if they’re gonna walk together with unity. Now you take a family committed to covenant at home, a family that has strived for fifteen to twenty-five years to be faithful to the Lord – now you take a family that cares desperately about theology and orthopraxy and, hold on one second – the level of agreement is not just on ten things, now you’ve got lots of stuff that you need to consider.
I already expressed my concerns about Phillips’ suitor qualifications here; my concerns about his views of friendship are similar. Clearly, the stakes are not as high as marriage – Phillips never talked about “unequal yoking,” and obviously most friends will not be raising children together. But both quotes raise essentially the same question – namely, just how close must agreement between friends be? Clearly agreement on the religion level (i.e., Christianity vs. Buddhism) is required. So what about debatable issues, such as women’s ordination?
Though actually, I have my doubts whether Phillips would consider that particular issue to be debatable. Given his obsession with “Biblical” gender roles and how often he denounces feminists, I can’t imagine him conceding that someone of a more complementarian persuasion could be in a “covenanted” friendship with a confirmed egalitarian. Perhaps he would surprise me, but I doubt it. Which leads directly to my ultimate point: while Phillips does allow for some disagreement in Christian friendships, there are clear unspoken rules as to which topics will catapult someone out of the “agree to disagree” category, and into the “evil liberal compromiser” category. And that’s a shame, because it essentially encourages conversative Christians to treat more liberal Christians with whom they disagree on certain non-essentials, as unbelievers.
Sweating the small stuff
As I said at the beginning of this post, I’ll now highlight a few things that aren’t directly related to friendship and friendship covenants, but still give us a further glimpse of Phillips’ often strange and bizarre thinking. I’d first like to examine his use of Old Testament friendships and what they tell us about his interpretative priorities. That probably sounds a little obscure, so let me flesh it out for you. In the lecture, Phillips’ main illustrations of friendship were David and Jonathan, and Ruth and Naomi. On its own, that’s fine: these are both great examples of friendship in the Bible. But let’s look for a moment at who’s not there. Here’s a hint: they’re not in the Old Testament.
Still stumped? Here’s the relevant material.
Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved. Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask who it was of whom He spoke. Then, leaning back on Jesus’ breast, he said to Him, “Lord, who is it?” (John 13:23-25)
Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:25-27)
Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. Then she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.” Peter therefore went out, and the other disciple, and were going to the tomb. So they both ran together, and the other disciple outran Peter and came to the tomb first. (John 20:1-4)
I’m speaking, of course, of Jesus and John. You’d think that in a lecture on Christian friendships, the way Jesus Himself conducted His closest friendship would be front and center. Phillips, however, never even mentioned Jesus and John – not even in passing! – in the entire 90-minute lecture.
Aside from being a pretty glaring oversight, this tells us a lot about Phillips’ interpretive choices. I know from experience, after listening to 34+ hours of Vision Forum lectures, that Phillips and his associates rarely bring up Jesus; He’s most frequently mentioned when they wish to prove that God the Father “home educated” Jesus and thus Christians are required to homeschool their children, or that He submitted to God the Father and thus wives are required to submit to their husbands. In other words, Jesus is occasionally pulled out as a card against egalitarianism and public school, but other than that He’s largely ignored, and usually fades into the background and is easily forgotten. On a related note, Phillips and company, if given a choice between an Old Testament text and a New Testament one, will almost always opt for the Old Testament choice (especially if it comes from Proverbs or the Pentateuch). So completely ignoring Jesus and John in favor of Old Testament examples of friendship, would pretty much be par for the course at this point. (Personally, I think there’s quite a bit of dissonance and confusion going on when teachers claiming to Christian, almost completely neglect to mention the divine Founder of their own religion.)
Moving on to the assorted gender weirdness we’ve come to expect in Phillips’ lectures, take a look at this little gem:
And seven women wish to take hold of one man, one man, and say, oh please, give me your name, only take away my reproach. Meaning, we can’t find a men, there are no men to marry. The men are gone. There are a bunch of sissy boys out there, there are weak men, but there are no real men. Please, you’re the one real man. Give me your name, and nothing else, because I’m now living in a state of reproach.
Phillips is here referencing Isaiah 4:1:
And in that day seven women shall take hold of one man, saying, “We will eat our own food and wear our own apparel; only let us be called by your name, to take away our reproach.”
In context, this is describing the desperate circumstances surrounding God’s judgment on Judah. In fact, the meaning of Isaiah 4:1 is clearly explained in the last few verses of the previous chapter:
And so it shall be: instead of a sweet smell there will be a stench; instead of a sash, a rope; instead of well-set hair, baldness; instead of a rich robe, a girding of sackcloth; and branding instead of beauty. Your men shall fall by the sword, and your mighty in the war. Her gates shall lament and mourn, and she being desolate shall sit on the ground. (Isaiah 3:24-26)
Phillips is right to say that the seven women in Isaiah 4:1 can’t find a husband, but it’s not because all the men in their society are too sissified to be marriageable – it’s because all them have been killed in a war!
(As an aside, this isn’t the first wonky interpretation of Isaiah 4:1 I’ve seen. A certain polygamist gentleman – and no, he’s not Mormon – uses it at his website to prove that polygamy is acceptable for Christians today. Also, bonus points for hilariously bad cover art!)
Next up is this disturbing aside, made in the midst of the discussion of David and Jonathan:
Jonathan’s heart is to the Lord, and because Jonathan’s heart is to the Lord, his heart is to the Lord’s anointed. Do you see that? I wonder about men that claim that their heart is to the Lord, but they hate the anointed of God. I wonder about that. Oh, I love God, but I hate my father. I hate my shepherd. Or they don’t put it that way, do they, they’re just the more subtle about it. If your heart is turned towards God, your heart should be turned to your dad. The anointed of the Lord.
Those who followed Scarlet Letters’ extensive coverage of the Botkin sisters and stay-at-home daughterhood (SAHD), will remember that I coined the term “patriolatry” to describe Vision Forum’s view of fathers. The above quote only reinforces how fitting that term is. Not only are fathers “high priests” of their homes – not only can daughters blaspheme their father and take his name in vain, because he is God’s “earthly representative” – but now fathers are apparently God’s “anointed” as well. This is, of course, a load of horse manure and nowhere stated in the Bible. (I also don’t like the overtones of pastor-worship in the above quote, but since that’s beside my point today and I’m rapidly running out of space, I’ll leave it be.)
Finally I’d like to draw attention yet again to Phillips’ apparent fixation on gossip and “whisperers”:
The problem, the reason why we need to discuss these things today is because dishonor has become virtue in modern America. Dishonor has become virtue in evangelical Christianity. People with no sense of honor rise up, speak ill, gossip, et cetera, and believe they’re doing the work of the Lord, and they are dishonorable men. But they consider it virtuous. And knowing the difference between standing for Christ and saying the right thing on the one hand, versus despising authorities on the other hand, is the difference between true men and frauds.
Phillips, tellingly, doesn’t give much detail in the above quote, and thus we remain trapped in the same sticky wicket I outlined earlier, in which we are have no way to distinguish gossip from genuine reports of wrongdoing and criminal activity. Phillips doesn’t even define “gossip,” which you’d think would be important when the term is so central to the discussion. The overall impression, then, is that anything negative we might say about other people (and especially authority figures), is automatically “gossip” or “slander” and must not be said – even if it involves reporting criminal activity such as abuse.
I also have to wonder if there’s not a personal element behind this. For years before Phillips publicly disgraced himself, reports had been circulating of his bad behavior in his own congregation*, and of abuse within patriarchal homes and churches in general. Given that Phillips has also made a point of denouncing blogs critical of patriarchal homeschooling, it sounds to me like he wanted to dissuade his audience from listening to those who were pointing out that his system often led to harm and abuse. This is more than a little ironic now that many of the “rumors” about Phillips’ own behavior, have largely turned out to be true (see here, here and here).
Of course, if Phillips were really interested in stopping the bad reports, he should have worked to fix the elements of patriarchy that were causing the problems, rather than heavy-handedly attempting to shut down the discussion by calling his critics dishonorable slanderers and gossipmongers. It might work for a little while, but if there’s a body under the living room floor, it’s only a matter of time before it starts to stink. Phillips, unfortunately, chose to find that out the hard way. The question now, is whether his fellow patriocentrists will do the same when the mausoleum’s worth of bodies that is patriarchy starts to stink again.
Personally, given that the only solution to those problems is basically to shut down patriarchy, I’m not holding out much hope.
*This link NOT intended to be an endorsement of everything written at Jen’s Gems.