Last time we met up, we were talking about the Love/Life Principles Seminar that I attended as a teenybopper (and brand-new Southern Baptist convert). Though the one-day seminar was ostensibly about how to date the Jesus-approved way, a great deal of the day was devoted to the topic of friendship. Controlling a person’s access to friendship and dictating the kind of friends who were acceptable was very important to this crowd–for several reasons, as we discussed then. Today I’ll show you what they mean by friendship itself: what a friend is and what a friend is responsible for doing. It’s not a pretty picture at all, but then, not much in fundagelical Christianity is once you peel back their veneer of pretty words.
A Listicle of the Kinds of Friends.
At the time, I simply didn’t know enough about friendship–or about people generally–to see that this list was written by someone who didn’t know much more about the topic than I did! The sheer level of misunderstandings right in this list should tell anyone that whoever made this seminar had no idea what he was talking about.
These are breathlessly listed from Level 5, which is “(the stranger) cliche conversation,” to Level 1 “(the intimate friend) true openness and honesty.” Obviously only Level 1 friends are the most valid. All friendships and acquaintanceships are seen as progressing to this ultimate goal of becoming “intimate friends.”
For a start, however, strangers don’t have a relationship or a “level 5 friendship.” That’s beyond weird. And even at a very casual level of acquaintanceship, people talk about their feelings and stuff–which this list insists doesn’t happen until much later. If someone asks me if I’ve seen Such-and-Such Movie yet, and I have, then I’m going to happily talk about what I personally thought of it. If someone asks why I seem so happy then chances are good that I’ll say I just got married or won the lottery or whatever just happened. I’ve comforted near-strangers in parking lots because they were crying; I’ve made small talk with people on public conveyances. I don’t mean the creepy stuff men do to women who commit the crime of being Female in Public; I mean just simple human connection, which the person who wrote this seminar doesn’t have any idea exists. People do indeed voluntarily share their feelings even with strangers, and we do it all the time about all kinds of subjects.
Level 4 is “(the acquaintance): reporting the facts about others.” I don’t even know what to make of that. It sounds like he’s saying that Level 4 friends gossip about others. The writer goes on to say that at that level, friends could say in effect, “I do not share how I feel; only what others say or feel.” I’m really straining to think of a single casual friendship I’ve ever had where people don’t talk about their own opinions–in or out of Christianity–but only rather about other people.
Level 3 is “(the casual friend): sharing my ideas & thoughts.” That’s the level where people finally begin to open up a little bit about themselves–but they are “still cautious, not sharing deepest feelings lest [they] be hurt or rejected.”
Level 2 is “(the close friend): sharing your feelings (emotions).” This is where someone can not only talk about what they think, but also about what they feel. And again, it’s hard to imagine that the seminar writer seriously thinks that this only happens at this point. It’s been happening in little bits ever since Level 5, in actuality.
Level 1 is “(the intimate friend): true openness and honesty.” And that’s where “real communication in friendship is achieved.” He doesn’t explain what further openness and honesty could occur that didn’t already happen in level 2, probably because he couldn’t possibly do that. He just concludes lamely that it’s “a mature friendship of acceptance.”
And then there’s a question at the end about what level a couple should be at, friendship-wise, before they embark on a variety of romantic ventures from dating to marriage. You’ll note that there’s a handwritten “1” in front of each of these.
A Listicle of the Characteristics of Friends.
Then we have many pages about the five characteristics of what I assume are Level 1 friends. I must assume that because none of these pages actually tell us exactly what level we’re working with here.
These characteristics are:
- They are loyal;
- They like you;
- They love you enough to correct you (they are honest with you);
- They love you enough to die for you; and
- They push you and lift you up to your potential.
I wasn’t originally going to scan any of these pages because they are, like 90% of the seminar itself, excruciatingly boring and weird where they’re not alarming. But I think I should show you some of them because there’s a lot to unpack in these short descriptions.
And not one single bit of that unpacked stuff makes Christianity look particularly good.
Page 11 asks an all-important question: “Are you loyal enough to someone to be a friend?” It lists some Bible verses that they insist are about friends and the loyalty of friends. But you’ll see nothing in the two pages about what real-world loyalty looks like. The author tells us that someone can’t be a friend without being able to “love another person enough to stand by him regardless.”
But he doesn’t finish that sentence. “Regardless” of what? What situations might test a friendship? When does someone’s friendship become a serious liability? When is it acceptable to cut a friend loose and sever ties? There’s one example listed in the binder: David and King Saul’s son Jonathan, who stuck by David “in the face of his father’s wrath.”
There are a couple of ways I can read this odd choice of an example to use, neither of which are particularly good for the seminar creator. First, most of us won’t ever have to deal with any of our friends facing the wrath of a king, so that’s not a very good example. Even in the case of an authority figure getting angry at our friends, it’d really depend on any laws they broke. I’m definitely not going to maintain a friendship with someone who turns out to be a child molester.
Second, many of us will face (or have faced) parental disapproval over our choices in friends–and the seminar comes down very firmly on the side of always obeying one’s parents and heeding their advice about all matters. So that’s still not a good example.
Second: Acceptance. Kind of. Except Not.
The second trait of a Level 1 friend is that this person “likes you.” But nothing on this page talks about liking anyone. The heading at the top of the page says “a true friend accepts you,” not “likes” you. And the text between those two statements contradicts both of them by being largely about how bad nagging is.
We’re told that “a person who continually points out your bad habits, does not love you.” And that’s when I started thinking that this seminar creator maybe wrote this binder’s pages with a long time between each page or something, because he jumps everywhere in his thinking.
Page 13 begins by telling us that Proverbs 17:9 means that “a friend is loyal enough not to hold your faults up to you repeatedly.” That’s not exactly what I thought loyalty meant, but then we get this: “He may correct you, but he doesn’t nag you.”
If you’re expecting the author to tell you anything about when correction becomes nagging, forget it! Nope, that information goes into the big pile of stuff he will never, ever actually explain or qualify in any way. He sets up a very vague and moving goalpost eventually: “A true friend likes you enough the way you are, and loves you enough to want you to be better than you are.”
Of course, that one sentence is a contradiction in terms. You can’t be accepting someone as they are while also pushing them to become better than they are. That’s not possible–or healthy.
And there’s my entire malfunction in my younger days in a nutshell: I seriously thought, thanks to my indoctrination, that friends and romantic partners are supposed to be constantly trying improve each other. They’re supposed to correct each other. And everyone should expect to be, in turn, corrected by their partners and friends. That’s what love was, in our world. That’s what loving people did.
We never learned what acceptance really was, nor that it’s quite rude and controlling to treat others like DIY fix-it projects. The assumption was always that the victims of our efforts would always recognize that we were correct and of course would wish to make the required changes right away, because who wouldn’t want to improve themselves all the time? And it was always assumed in turn that there’d be constant efforts to correct and improve everyone on both sides of a relationship.
If what I’ve described sounds simply exhausting to think about, imagine living it every single day. Because the reality of the situation was that it wasn’t this easy, ever. We’ll take that notion up next time; I just want to push a pin into this part of the map for us to examine later.
The do you like me mark Yes/No question in the middle makes me laugh today though: it asks if you can “love someone without liking him” and clearly I initially thought that yes, this was possible–before the seminar presenter instructed us to mark the “no” blank instead!
The question about being able to love someone without liking them sounds like it comes out of left field to people who know about healthy boundaries, but it fits into the weird and wacky world of fundagelicalism perfectly, however: you can’t love someone without liking them because that’d be jumping to Level 1 friendship before actually reaching Level 3 yet, and obviously that is always and in every single way impossible in this world. And since obviously all Level 1 friends truly love each other, and love involves correcting and fixing each other, then obviously Level 1 friends will want to fix each other.
But Level 1 friends don’t ever nag, because nagging is bad and totally incompatible with Level 1 friendship. Except nobody knows where correction and improving turns into nagging.
Anyone else getting that feeling of emotional whiplash?
Third: A Bizarre Redefinition of “Honesty.”
Piggybacking on that second requirement of a Level 1 friend, the third requirement is “honesty.” But it’s a very strange form of honesty.
In the Bizarro World that fundagelicals inhabit, “honesty” means correcting your friends when you think they’re wrong about something. Page 15 even tells us that “you can’t be a friend or have a friend without wounding and being wounded” — which is how the seminar creator describes this process of correction and being corrected. It’s “wounding,” but it’s doing it for a good cause: self-improvement.
Page 16 goes on to assure seminar attendees that it’s a tremendously lucky thing to have friends who are “being used to ‘sharpen [their] countenance’ through the positive correction of [their] faults.” (By “being used” they mean that they are the tools of their god, because obviously their god is ultimately the one d0ing everything in the friendship anyway, and their god is the one who authorized the friendship to exist.)
This section makes me flash back to all the asshats I’ve known who insisted that they were “just being honest.” This whole seminar sounds like it was written by someone who wants to have a permission slip to be cruel and controlling toward others.
Fourth: A Freudian Slip about Self-Sacrifice.
The fourth requirement for a Level 1 friend is loving one’s friends enough to die for them if need be. The author of this dreck says that by dying, he means “total identification with the needs of another.” But the word “dying” is how he’s going to describe that level of self-sacrifice and self-negation.
And the end of the section is quite telling. He words it thusly:
The fourth characteristic of a friend is one who loves me enough to Give His life for me.
Yes, this sentence is capitalized in the original document as well as bolded exactly as I’ve quoted here. Yes, he literally does capitalize “His” so that it reads exactly like someone talking about Jesus.
This section’s only one page long. I’m not particularly surprised, either. I’ve never thought that Christians really understood what compassion and kindness were, but there were so so so many ways he could have worded this section to make sense and be emotionally healthy. He chose instead to go straight to a weird hyperbole about being willing to literally die for one’s friends.
Not willing to literally die for your friends? Then obviously you aren’t a Level 1 friend. Poseur.
Fifth: Treating Your Friends Like DIY Projects, Again.
The fifth requirement for being a Level 1 friend is, again, treating one’s friends like DIY fix-it projects, which here is described as being “heavenly sandpaper” to one’s friends to refine them. Attendees to this seminar are told that they must “design projects for your friend that cause him to grow spiritually. You encourage your friend to be a better person.”
This is simply a repeat of the second and third requirements–except for one very key part, which is the part about having to “design projects” to improve one’s friends. A Level 1 friend is always quick to criticize the other person, but they go one step further in literally creating “projects” that will improve their friend.
None of these “projects” will be described. That is left up to the imagination of the attendees.
Nor does the seminar author actually describe gaining the permission of one’s friends to improve them. Permission isn’t required at all. Only the desires of the person doing the correction matter. The person doing the correction is the one who decides what the final, ultimate “potential” is of the other person. The person being the “heavenly sandpaper” is the one whose “honesty” is being tested.
And the person being “honest” is the person who is also simultaneously being told to “accept” the other person while also pushing them “up to [their] potential” and being instructed never to “nag” the other person–while also being told that only a “true friend” “will not allow you to coast through life” and “cares enough to pressure you to do your best.”
Leaving Nothing to Chance.
With instructions like these, there’s no possible way I could ever have been anything but a Level 1 Tedious Git. No wonder I had so much trouble making friends. With this terribad of a recipe, there’s no way that cake was gonna rise!
Attendees got unleashed on the world with instructions to “correct” and “push” their friends for their own good, but without any admonitions at all to honor the other person’s boundaries. In fact, so far in this binder there’s been not one single word about consent. Further in fact, this seminar appeared to be principally concerned with ensuring that teens picked friends who were fundagelical like themselves.
Now that I look at it in retrospect, I suspect that seminar attendees were told to pick only fervent Christian friends because then they’d all be working off of the same faulty instructions about what friends are like and what friends should do.
This whole seminar is like an instruction manual for How to Create Codependents, not how to maintain healthy relationships with other people.
The inevitable result of all these contradictory and disrespectful instructions is going to be where we return next time, as we look at what a stern command to fix each other, all the time actually creates in a relationship.
Shall We Play A Game?
In the comments, make up a “project” that the seminar creator could have listed that a teen could use to improve a friend in Fundagelical-Land. Feel free to get creative. (No illegal or adult stuff kplzthx!)
Mr. Captain: “This guy’s biggest claim to fame is that sometimes people who are much smarter than he is will spend some of their valuable time trying to figure out WTF he was thinking.”
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