I’m not an expert on adolescent development psychology, though I did take a class in it during college many years ago. I was, however, a teenage boy once, and I have raised a son who has gone through adolescence and is moving into young adulthood. My expertise, therefore, isn’t academic – it’s personal and lived. When the folks at WJK Press sent me this book I wasn’t sure what to do with it. It stood outside my expertise, but with time I realized that it might be a book to peruse and consider. And so I read it and found it to be illuminating.
The authors of this book are all seminary professors focusing on the areas of pastoral care and pastoral theology. They bring psychology, sociology, and theology into conversation with a focus on adolescent friendships. This is their second collaboration, the first being entitled: Losers, Loners, and Rebels: The Spiritual Struggles of Boys, (WJK, 2007). Although I’ve not read the aforementioned book, the focus of this book would seem to have connections with the first. Indeed, in the introduction the authors note that in this book they make use of the images of loser, loner, and rebel, but add to these images, that of friend. They don’t mean this to be a separate category to the previous three, but the word friend has a more inspiring dimension to it than these other three terms. What is important to note is that whatever these persons might be, Jesus didn’t hesitate to befriend them – then or now. This is, then, a book about the struggles of boys to cope with the process of moving from childhood to adulthood, and the role that friendship with other males plays in that process, especially the spiritual dimensions of that process.
As I read through the book I found myself looking back at my own adolescence. I thought back to the struggles I had finding myself, making friends, and developing a deeper sense of relationship with God. I resonated with stories about struggles with athletics, something shared by many adolescent boys. I also resonated with the difficulties encountered with making true intimate friendships – along the lines of those pictured in the biblical stories of Jonathan and David.
The book is divided into three parts, each one authored by a different writer. Part I, written by Alan Hugh Cole, Jr., focuses on “Faithful Friendships.” Part II, from the pen of Robert Dykstra is entitled Subversive Friendships. The third section, written by Donald Capps, is entitled “Close Friendships.” Each of the sections of the book brings together the insights of psychology and theology. There is an assumption held by the authors that there is a spiritual dimension to adolescence that can be nurtured, but often isn’t. It’s a dimension that is often hindered by what Alan Cole calls the “Boy Code.” This code can be defined in terms of four stereotypes: “(1) males should be independent, strong, invulnerable, and stoic; (2) males are naturally macho and full of bravado and are daring, high-energy, aggressive, and even violent; (3) males must achieve power and status and simultaneously avoid shame at all costs; and (4) males do not express thoughts, feelings, or ideals that are ‘feminine,’ including dependence, warmth and empathy.” (p. 12-13). If you’re male, you probably recognize these stereotypes and the challenges they place on adolescent boys and even adult males to live up to the code. You can see too how these stereotypes would challenge spiritual development. Friendship and the need to believe in others and one’s self is all part of the growth in identity.
Whereas Cole wrote of developing a sense of faithfulness to one’s self and to others (including God), Dykstra speaks of the subversive nature of friendship. In the course of his discussion he focuses on the development of same-gender intimacy. That is, the ability to draw close to another who is of the same gender, a need that is compounded by attitudes toward sexual identity and orientation. Because many men tend to fear anything that would make them seem effeminate or homosexual, there is a tendency to place boundaries to going deeper in friendships. But, despite the challenges, there are possibilities of developing these relationships, and this involves becoming what he calls “curators of funny emotions” -- those fears and feelings that males experience and yet share with others like themselves, such as the fear of being unable to control one’s body or fear of vulnerability with other males. One antidote to these fears is humor, which is why there is so much male-oriented body-parts humor. It’s natural because it reveals those natural fears, and humor dissipates feelings of humiliation we so often feel.
In the third section, written by Donald Capps, we go a step deeper into those closest of friendships, the ones that are the most difficult to develop and which we treasure most. Whether we call such a person our “best friend” or close friend, such a friendship is different from any other. If broken, especially by betrayal, the results can be traumatic. Why is this? The reason is that while we’ll develop many friendships over a lifetime, only a few will develop along the lines of that experienced by Jonathan and David. Such friendships are not easy to develop or maintain, and our mobile society makes them even more difficult to maintain.
I have tried to give a brief overview of this book that I think merits the attention not only of persons working with adolescent males – such as youth ministers – or fathers of adolescents, but I think it might be a fruitful read for adult males in general, for I think this reflection on adolescence and the way it expresses itself in both friendships in general and spirituality, including friendship with God, can be illuminating. Developing intimate friendships is, I think, a life-long process and we can learn much from these reflections. But, those working with adolescent males, and those raising them – this is a book that needs to be read, and with a degree of urgency.