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Assessing the Hill

By October 10, 2012 4 Comments

I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with roughest courage.  When they are real, they are not glass threads or frostwork, but the solidest thing we know.

–Emerson, “Friendship”

This week I’m teaching Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s magnificent poem, In Memoriam: A.H.H. to my first year honors students.  Tennyson began the poem—which he worked on for over fifteen years—after the shockingly premature death (at age 22) of his best friend Arthur Henry Hallam. 

The poem is a meditation on some of the profoundest of the “big questions:” theodicy and suffering, faith and doubt, creation and chaos. But in addition, the poem examines the very personal nature of grief—and of love.  On Monday, then, my students and I discussed Tennyson’s struggle to find adequate metaphors for the love that comes in friendship; over and again, he advances different comparisons to try to make clear what he felt for his lost friend, and over and again, he can only, at best, approximate.  

My students agreed that the problem isn’t only Tennyson’s: we still lack a robust way to talk about friendship.  Maybe that’s because the church has spent so much of its attention elsewhere.  While popular culture, especially TV, has certainly seemed to celebrate a friend-centered ethos—beginning as far back as Seinfeld, Friends, and Sex in the City—our churches have continued to behave as if the marriage/family unit is the site of people’s only significant interaction.  When was the last time you heard a sermon exhorting you to be a better friend?  Or even telling you what that might look like? 

That’s a pity because, while the Bible is full of rich metaphors of connection, it is striking how much it has to say about friendship, including God’s friendship being extended to us.  Of course, we worry about seeming irreverent in envisioning God as “pal,” but scripture doesn’t seem so wary: Moses and Abraham, after all, are both called “friends of God.”  That’s quite the term, if you think about it.  I know I quoted Frederick Buechner several postings ago, but I find him helpful here too.  In Whistling in the Dark, he observes:

[Friendship] is not something that God does.  It is something Abraham and God, or Moses and God, do together.  Not even God can be a friend all by himself apparently.  So is it a privilege only for patriarchs?  Not as far as Jesus is concerned at least. To be his friends we have to be each other’s friends, conceivably even lay down our lives for each other.  It is a high price to pay, and Jesus does not pretend otherwise, but the implication is that it’s worth every cent. 

Thus, it is telling that Christ does not use a familial metaphor when he describes the “greatest love” in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (NASB).  Think about it: Jesus could, for example, have easily used “brothers and sisters” in place of “friends.”  Such a choice would have been perfectly in keeping with a metaphor that emphasizes our adoption as children of God.  But instead, he says the “greatest love” lies in a different direction. Of course, in so doing, Christ, as usual, asks that we radically revise our notion of what friendship requires.  Not only must we consider how, in our friendships, we can emulate Christ—who after all calls us his friends—but we must also ask if our friendships evince the kind of love that would even lead to sacrifice?

That’s paying one kind of “price.”  I don’t understand fully what “laying one’s life down for one’s friends” means, but I do know that I have dear friends that prop me up every day—and surely that is part of it.  So I like Emily Dickinson’s formulation, “My friends are my estate,” too.  I love the idea that it is the people who have invested in us (and we in them) that form our true wealth—a condition full of fortune indeed.  

I read of a study recently in which a group of students were given heavy backpacks and taken to the bottom of a very steep hill. There, the students stood either alone or with friends.  Asked to assess the incline of the hill, students measured the severity of the ascent in front of them quite differently: those with friends thought the hill was much less steep than those that stood alone.  What’s more, the hill seemed the least steep to those groups where students had been friends the longest. 

May the same be said of us—that, in the name of the one who called us friend, we help each other face and re-envision the arduous climb that lies before us.  

Jennifer L. Holberg

I am professor and chair of the Calvin University English department, where I have taught a range of courses in literature and composition since 1998. An Army brat, I have come to love my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m also the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. My book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith, was published in July 2023 by Intervarsity Press.


  • Debra Rienstra says:

    Beautiful post, Jennifer. Thank you. There's such lovely literature on friendship right through the early 20th century. What happened then? Maybe one of our sociologist or philosopher readers can suggest some insights or a booklist or something. I'm afraid most of the friend stuff we see on TV is dreadfully shallow. Maybe the Harry Potter series is the only popular literature of friendship we've got right now.

  • Jennifer L. Holberg says:

    Thanks, Debra. Appreciate the kind words. In our Tennyson discussion today, one of my savvy students brought up Sam and Frodo too. I expect one of the appeals of the HP series is, in fact, its strong emphasis on friendship. But you're right–even popular culture does a bad job.

  • Matt Ackerman says:

    Thanks for this post! I couldn't agree more – we in the church are not thinking or speaking enough about what friendship could and should look like. Laying down our life for a friend is a rich example, and it reminded me of another suggested by Elizabeth Johnson (in She Who Is). She proposes friendship as a metaphor for the Trinitarian relationships. It's a model that highlights mutuality and equality over against the hierarchy she sees in familial models of the Trinity. If God, at the core of God's being, is the embodiment of perfect loving friendship, the stakes are that much higher! No wonder even Tennyson couldn't find the language to describe it.

    Despite being a lover of language, I see friendship best in Rublev's icon of the Trinity. It's a simple image – just three friends sitting around a table, sharing a meal. But it invites me in. I feel welcome to join them, unworthy as I am. As the idea of family becomes more and more complicated for so many of us, maybe the church can revive friendship as its primary social metaphor.

  • Jennifer L. Holberg says:

    Thanks, Matt. Great stuff here. I love the description of the icon–a feast indeed.

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