In my circles, there has been some stir lately over a book, “Free to Love,” by a Facebook friend of mine, Jamal Jivanjee. I didn’t really know much about this book until another friend of mine, Keith Giles, wrote a scathing review of it, which prompted me to hit up Jamal on instant messaging to ask him some concerned questions – questions which really in my mind were not about his book at all, but just about his own heart and life and what his book said about his marriage – that it had ended.
See, I’ve never met Brandie Jivanjee nor spoken to her, but I knew that such a person existed from having been FB friends with Jamal for so long, and finding out that Jamal had gotten divorced via a scathing book review was somewhat shocking. Honestly my initial reaction was to feel that I had been a lousy friend to not know this had happened to Jamal and Brandie, that I hadn’t been reading his page often enough or something to be there in even a small way for this huge trouble in their lives, and all what was generated in me was foremost an empathetic concern – a desire to help, if help at all was still possible. Writing to Jamal however I was met only with defensive irritation and relative coldness – I suppose this was perhaps justly an instance of me feeling my friendship with Jamal was more real to me than maybe he felt it was to him – and he told me he wouldn’t talk to me at all about this aspect of his life until and unless I bought and read a copy of his book.
The iciness was surprising to me, particularly since I knew the book had something to do with the importance of valuing relationships and friendships in the body of Christ (I knew it also had something to do with cross-gender friendships.) More often than not I have been surprised by people whose message is about love or togetherness who put up walls when their message seems to suggest that walls should come down when relationship is at hand. I know it was a sensitive issue, however. My protest was that I didn’t really care about the book, that I cared about him – but he insisted my concern was only because of Keith’s review and therefore that he wasn’t interesting in talking, and that instead I should buy his book.
I did know his advertising efforts – including posting an advertisement for the book on my personal page immediately after our conversation – seemed fairly zealous, to the point of being impersonal. (I mean, he knew I was concerned and then posted an advertisement to my wall?) And Keith, who had written a negative review of the book somewhat reluctantly and apologetically, is an incredibly welcoming person whose household had once treated me with the kindness of Christ in a very dark hour of my life. In a few days after Keith’s review, one of Jamal’s friends had lifted a quote from Keith’s review about the book being “dangerous” and was proudly flaunting it on Jamal’s advertisements on his page.
Jamal in my initial conversation meanwhile insisted that Keith was out to malign him – and when I asked what possible motive Keith would have for such a thing, he replied that “Keith feels he is acting in good faith as all folks do when reacting to having their paradigms challenged.” Ok, this answer could have some merit (although again, I didn’t care about the book, I only wanted to talk to my friend Jamal about what was going on in his life) but then, another friend of mine, Dan Brennan, an author whose book on male-female friendships in the body of Christ I had once recommended to Jamal (did I help create a monster in so-doing?), wrote that he could not recommend Jamal’s book either.
If anyone I know has embraced a “new paradigm” when it comes to the importance of cross-gender friendships in the body of Christ – friendships that challenge many people’s expectations of what is appropriate between men and women outside of the marriage covenant – it would be Dan Brennan. (Dan’s writing style would appeal largely to progressive Christians, while my friend Joshua Jones has also written what I have heard is a fairly brilliant book about cross-gender friendship as well from an evangelical standpoint, although I have yet to read it.)
Thus, a very long preface to why I am writing a review of a book I really wasn’t initially concerned with in all this but which evolved into a thing I was sort of forced to read. And since I have read this book now, and as a moderator of a discussion group where Jamal has been wanting to advertise and embrace controversy about his book, this thing seems to have been placed into my lap whether I wanted it to be or not, so it seems I need to at this point write a review as well.
SO HERE’S MY ACTUAL REVIEW:
Firstly, I’ll say that Jamal is an excellent writer. The book is an easy read, flows along smoothly, and warmly dialogues with the audience. Jamal and I both agree on many things – we have both sought after a true experience of organic church (house church) and ultimately had some disillusioning experiences there – while retaining a passion for true relationship in the body of Christ. Jamal clearly has a passion for the body of Christ to function like a family – for people to experience the kind of relationships that Christ died and rose again to make possible among His people.
But while the book promotes the value of cross-gender friendships, which I can cheer and appreciate, there’s an entire chapter dedicated to talking about how one spouse can be weighed down with insecurities and thus keep the other spouse from really walking out a life that God wants for them in this realm of oneness with God and others (what Jamal refers to as a “divided marriage”) – and the book hints, sometimes small, sometimes large, of “marriage idolatry” in most chapters. Jamal expresses concern that the institution of marriage seems to be the only relationship that many Christians seem to prioritize and that often other relationships are only viewed in light of how dangerous they may be to the intimacy between a husband and wife.
As someone passionate about the need for the body of Christ to learn to embrace the beauty of friendship between the sexes, both as Biblically valid and incredibly valuable to the body of Christ as a whole, I am still greatly concerned at Jamal’s tone. The problem here I feel is in the distinction of approaching this topic as “both-and” vs. “either-or.” When reading Jamal, I start to perceive that for him, the beauty of cross-gendered friendship is an either-or thing; either one values relationships with the body of Christ, OR one values relationship with a spouse. Jamal leans heavy on verses and arguments that minimize the marriage relationship to create his paradigm. I think that is the overwhelming error in his work, as I think the proper order and balance is one of “both-and”; holding one’s spouse in high priority AND, while honoring and valuing them all along the way, also learning how to have healthy, devoted, and wholesome friendships with both sexes in the body of Christ.
The Book I Wish Jamal Had Written
Despite this, Jamal does make some good points about various spiritual things related to the body of Christ and the innocence and value that cross-gender relationships can have, ideas which many in his circle might not have been ready for [according to Jamal’s presentation of things.] Jamal’s book is rare in that it is one of a very small corpus of reading material on the topic of opposite-sex friendships in the Kingdom, and he tackles the even more rare question of how to view and relate to a spouse who has a different viewpoint not just on that topic, but on kingdom pursuits in a more general sense (in what he terms a “divided” marriage.) But I have to say that the book Jamal has written on this topic still isn’t the book I’d be hoping to read to gain wisdom about these things.
He does a good job of showing what healthy non-marital relationships can look like without becoming sexual. But, rather than reading about how living out the new paradigm of inter-relational oneness in the body of Christ even cost the author his marriage (and the subtle but palpable suggestions that the author is copacetic if costs you your marriage too, because as Jamal reminds us, “Jesus came to bring a sword” into families), I would rather read the book that might have been written about how Jamal and Brandie walked through a difficult time where Jamal had one idea of how to live out these things while Brandie had quite another, and how they learned to appreciate each others’ differing attachment needs both learning to respect each other’s callings, insecurities, giftings and weaknesses.
I wish I could read how they pressed through, humbling themselves to each other, and learned to love one another through the difficult process of hearing God in the midst of their various convictions and concerns to break through as One. But I, and the others alternatively critical of or lauding his book, did not get to read that story, because Jamal and Brandie for one reason or another didn’t get to finish creating it together, but instead ended up divorced. One might suspect from how the book handles issues of disagreement between spouses, that Jamal might have not fully engaged that process, perhaps feeling that investing too much into that process would have been “marriage idolatry” when there were other relationships for him to invest in as well. (Jamal also comes down pretty hard on “needy” spouses, and along the way makes me wonder if he has ever read about adult attachment theory or knows how his own attachment style might influence his preferences in what he views as too “needy” in a spouse.)
I can empathize with Jamal’s concern in the book that a husband who simply acts as a martyr and “dies to self” to serve his spouse’s insecurities may not be walking out the life he is called to – but then again, I’m not sure there are only two choices here – be a doormat for another person’s neediness/fear/insecurity, or resolutely ignore/demean their desire for security or intimacy or attention to walk out a “higher calling.” Jamal is willing to concede that marriage is about meeting each other’s sexual needs, but does not seem to extrapolate from that that emotional needs should be concerned with nor met as well. Jamal never does say exactly what the opposite of giving into a spouse’s emotional neediness looks like in his mind, other than that a spouse shouldn’t need to pander to such things. (I consider the Apostle Paul said sexual needs could be unmet for short times of prayer and fasting but only by mutual consent – as at least a little hint that a wife’s thoughts and feelings and “needs” do indeed count, even when contrasted with spiritual endeavors.)
But it seems to me that a Savior, embraced by two believers, should be able to see them through these things and often when He does so, often the person who thinks or feels they’ve got the higher road doesn’t always have it as much as they thought they did. This is part of iron-sharpening-iron methinks – that, and that for the most part, when Jesus said a sword would divide families over Him, that he was talking about what would happen when one spouse was a believer and the other a nonbeliever. While that sword can still show up in a marriage to a small degree where a believer has a different sense of how to run after the Kingdom than the other, between believers it seems that there is less room to not work that sort of thing out over time. After all, the same Bible Jamal avidly quotes about marriage not being the be-all of existence surely has a few things to say about God’s feelings on the demise of a marriage, right?
Could we flip the table and say that while marriage idolatry – whatever that truly is – is indeed misguided, that there are other forms of relationship idolatry that one could sanction with spiritual argument and fall into as well? After all, while there are plenty of things written in the Bible about the woefulness of broken relationships in the body of Christ, none are quite so loud and dramatic as the woefulness ascribed to divorce. Why is that particular woe so pronounced scripturally if, as Jamal says, no priority is given to marriage over other relationships? Is a spouse just a sexual outlet and a venue for reproduction, while everyone else in the body of Christ is where real Kingdom relationship is centered? Jamal doesn’t say this exactly, but his presentation of this is so bad this reader was given the impression that this is a definite possibility.
It seems to me to be all in the framing of it. It reminds me of a conversation I recently had with some well-meaning folks in ministry who were talking about their relationship with their children, when I asked if their children were excited about being part of their ministry and, they replied, “When we were children, our parents always put us first. But we realized that that is not what it means to be kingdom oriented, so we are following God and expecting our children to come second to that.” Regrettably, I have seen many parents with this attitude that is sadly considered “spiritual” in some circles raise kids that don’t grow up to share their passion for the Kingdom, or even believe in God.
I contrast that with some other amazing missionary friends of mine, who have uprooted their lives and done many things that traditional thinkers might not have thought were good for their children – but these parents have never said anything along the lines of “we put God, not our children first, when we make decisions.” Instead, as a family, they have patiently and creatively cultivated a deep love in their kids for the things they are passionate about, vision-casting together, and have treated their kids as deeply integrated members of ministry team since they were little, developing a true oneness of purpose in their family – and their kids from a very young age have learned to worship with them, pray for, and receive words from the Lord for the people they all minister to. Even now, the dad often quotes from his 7-year-old’s journal the prophetic realizations she is having about God and their ministry as a family, and how much he learns from his children as they learn from him.
Similar to the child-rearing example above: Do we have to frame things in such a way to say that loving a spouse above all others is the enemy of close relationships with those others? After all, if love for a spouse has no priority, then why IS sex reserved for marriage, anyway? Is it just some arbitrary moral duty be exclusive in one’s sexuality and the sharing of their body, or does any form of exclusive love have something to do with it? Husbands are specifically exhorted to love their wives three times in the New Testament, and despite verses that Jamal quotes about marriage, the body of Christ in all its intimate oneness of fervent devoted relationships is still instructed to hold out a place of honor for marriage.
(I would also add that women were not as highly honored from my vantage point in most of the polygamous examples of the Old Testament as they later were in the more monogamous New Testament – and onward beyond the New Testament. The flavor given to the marital relationship in a culture has some parallel to the value and place given to women in a society in general – something Jamal doesn’t tackle at all in his thinking. However this may be one reason why Moses and Jesus’s feelings on divorce were so highly divergent. Along this line, an obsession with verses that highlight a lesser view of marriage such as “let those who are married be as though they were not” may be comparable to someone who prefers to emphasize verses about women being silent over those where women had a powerful leading role in speaking.)
If Jamal is right about anything, he is right that marriage isn’t everything – married or single, we are created for more. But if Jamal is wrong about something, it is in the way that seems to want to get to the “more” by making marriage – and by extension, one’s spouse – a less honorable, less valuable thing than the place God gives them.
It is in this vein that I agree with Keith Giles’ assessment that the book is dangerous – but not in the “good-dangerous” type of way that Jamal wanted to spin it, promoting his writing as that of just some really “spiritual badass”, one who has taken the veritable “red pill that only the fearless dare to take.”
It is dangerous because it seems to promote pursuing spirituality without empathy nor patience for one’s spouse if they have different perspectives or viewpoints or needs than you, and in all the verses that Jamal quotes that are harsh on marriage, I would wish to include the one that speaks to husbands who consider their wives to be lacking something compared to themselves, to “live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered.” (1 Peter 3:7)
Living the “Dream”
Instead, he shares stories of women who were showing some sort of Jamal-identified spiritual weakness (needing financial security, needing spousal attention, etc) in a way that invites husbands to dismiss them as mere impediments to the grand call on their lives. I’ve sadly seen this in action before: it is the same reasoning I heard from the prosperity-wealth-preaching friend of mine as to why he needed to buy a Hummer while his family was impoverished and his wife was mortified – to prove that he was learning to live in God’s provision and not her concerns about financial security. It is similar to the argument I just heard yesterday from one of my non-believing best friend’s husbands about why he needs to be free to spend all night away from her every day of the week to smoke pot with his buddies, claiming she is being “controlling” by wanting time with him herself (although he did invite her to come smoke with him, but she doesn’t want to.) I’m sure Jamal will protest that he’s not advocating lavish spending nor drug abusing, but the same glorification of the dismissal of one’s wife’s concerns and needs are present in this book as in my other experiences of those who turn a selfish and sometimes spiritualized deaf ear to the emotional concerns and pain of their spouse.
And while emotional neediness or spiritual weakness can be found in men as well, Jamal never shares a story of a husband holding his wife back from pursuing a greater calling, thus making me wonder if ultimately the real genre this book belongs to is the unfortunate category of “a cold-hearted book written by a hyperspiritual spouse parsing out why he was right and his wife was wrong” about the ideas that led to the dissolution of their marriage.
We do not know what Brandie truly asked for or thought because he does not tell us, but we do know in this book that he leaves little room for a spouse who is not tracking completely with their spouse’s desire for opposite sex friendships (or ministry, or travel, or other various lifestyle decisions) to be given much consideration or weight. (Moreover, he never remotely suggests that one way an opposite-sex friend helps keep a friendship pure is by standing resolutely for the health of their friend’s marital relationship.) Positively, he does say that even in a divided marriage, where one person is pursuing “the Kingdom” in Jamal-terms and the other isn’t, that the Kingdom spouse still should love the other and not walk away.
But I voice my concerns because Jamal, by writing that the ideas of this book were hard won at the cost of his marriage, implies whether he intends to or not that Brandie must have been a very worldly woman for his marriage to have ended over the things in this book – he the wise and spiritual one compared to her more petty or earthly values whatever they may have been, and leaves no room for her to have any legitimate concerns or voice in any of this. There is no category in Jamal’s description of divided marriages where both spouses are getting some things right spiritually while both are also having blind spots where they both need to learn from each other – it’s just a totally “one is on target, and one is not,” sort of thing.
It also seems inappropriate to me that in the midst of whatever heartache and disaster Brandie and he have gone through in this, is now something that Jamal hopes to use to bolster his own name and ministry by writing a best-seller about the ideas that were destructive to his marriage. As nice as Jamal is, truly there seems to be something narcissistic or even abusive about that. Indeed, almost every chapter of this book on friendship and “oneness” has some mention of how marriage can be improperly viewed and become an impediment to a truly loving life in the Kingdom of Oneness, but sadly there is no “oneness” of which Jamal is so fond of speaking remaining for Jamal and Brandie to share in together.
So that’s where I will leave this. If you want a copy of this book, contact me on FB and I might be able to find someone who will pass along one that has already been read, so that you don’t have to drive up ratings on something nor provide blood money to a book birthed from a couple’s divorce.
I hope and pray that my words might in any way help any and all that are involved to find a way towards restoring this marriage, rebuilt on better principles than the dogmatism in this book (and anything outside this book) which led to its demise. I do hope, that now that this thing has been brought out onto a larger stage than the original circle of friends and loved ones who were unfortunately not able to help Jamal and Brandi avoid this outcome, that in my idealized hope for them they would be able to find fresh resources, skilled counselors, and impartial help to come to a place of restoration. It is in that hope, as well as a concern for others influenced by some of Jamal’s ideas, that I write this post with as much care and diligence as I am able.