Archives For 50 Shades of Grey

closeup1 2We just wrapped our winter sermon series on marriage and love.
Too often when it comes to love, sex and passion people presume that the Christian tradition only has list of ‘thou shalt nots.’ On the contrary, the only Puritanical Christians were the Puritans. From the earliest of the rabbinic traditions to the earliest of the ancient Church Fathers, sexual ecstasy- and its preceding mutual vulnerability- have long been considered something like a parable for how God loves us.
God sees us completely as we are…naked…and loves us.
I asked my friend Janet Laisch to write a post showing how this has been reflected in Christian art:
PHD968While plenty of artists portray love, and only a few artists identify their inspiration as Song of Songs, only Bernini achieved in sculpture what Song of Songs achieved in writing: the physical expression of love is a gift from God which connects us with the divine and with what it means to be fully human. Similar to how the Song of Songs, an erotic love poem, is found in the bible, this erotic sculpture is found in a church. Both share an explanation of our union with God through the metaphor of erotic love. In 1645, Cardinal Cornaro commissioned Bernini to sculpt the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa for the Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, in Rome. Like all Baroque art, Bernini sculpted it to trigger a religious response in the viewer; though not all artists who created religious art were as deeply religious as Bernini.
The first time I visited the Cornaro Chapel, I was stunned by what I saw. At first glance, a holy light emanated from gilded heavenly rays above the sculpture and the entire sculpture floated so that the figures levitated on the cloud below them. Walking close enough to touch the sculpture and looking up, a secret window, hidden behind the wall revealed the actual light source. Touching the cloud, it felt like cold stone rather than billowy cotton which had been reinforced with concrete below and behind it to make this stone appear to be floating. Bernini achieved a masterful installation where the event appears in action like a scene in a play rather than stagnant stone. It will not surprise you that Bernini was not only the most celebrated sculptor in all of Rome, but also a set designer, painter, architect, gilder, glassmaker and playwright and he married “one of most beautiful women in all of Rome” who became the model for Saint Theresa. Combining these art forms, Bernini hoped to elicit a religious response in each of us.
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By looking, we too become voyeurs to Saint Theresa’s vision. Two theater boxes flank the sculpture on the left and right and realistic, portrait-like sculptures of the wealthy donor–Cardinal Frederico Carnaro–on the right side react to what we see together. It is important when defining this work to mention what it is not, this art is not pornography; it is inside a church. We are experiencing a holy vision first-hand. It parallels the Song of Songs 6:13, when people watch the woman lover, “Dance, dance girl of Shulam. Let us watch you as you dance. She responds, “Why do you want to watch me as I dance between the rows of onlookers?”
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In the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, Bernini expertly conveys different materials from a billowy cloud to feathery angel wings; the differences in texture make the image appear more real and more immediate as if it is taking place in front of our eyes. Bernini sculpted, in white marble, Saint Teresa and the angel. He cut away marble to reveal flesh–stone that appears alive rather than cold.  Bernini chiseled away from a block of marble to reveal flesh underneath. Bernini’s work characteristically captures a moment in time and appears kinetic: hair and drapery sweeping in the wind. His marble becomes flesh malleable and reactive to other marble. A marble hand depresses a marble body, clearly indenting the marble where the two stones meet. The difference between these two sculptures illustrates just how effectively Bernini made marble appear to react like flesh; below Bernini’s sculpture– a love scene from a pagan story, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, which church fathers glossed in Christian terms starting in the Renaissance– is shown first while Rodin’s, from 1882, The Kiss, is shown second.

The Kiss 1901-4 by Auguste Rodin 1840-1917

Like the Song of Songs, the theme of the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa is how erotic love and passion are analogous to what union with God must be like.  Theresa’s vision represents from Song of Songs, ” Asleep on my bed, night after night I dreamed of the one I love; I was looking for him, but couldn’t find him. ” For Theresa, who is a sainted nun, her union with the divine happened through a vision which she recounted in graphic physical detail. Saint Theresa wrote, “It pleased our Lord that I should see the following vision a number of times. I saw an angel near me, on the left side, in bodily form. This I am not wont to see, save very rarely…. In this vision it pleased the Lord that I should see it thus. He was not tall, but short, marvellously beautiful, with a face which shone as though he were one of the highest of the angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call Seraphim…. I saw in his hands a long golden spear, and at the point of the iron there seemed to be a little fire. This I thought that he thrust several times into my heart, and that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew out the spear he seemed to be drawing them with it, leaving me all on fire with a wondrous love for God. The pain was so great that it caused me to utter several moans; and yet so exceeding sweet is this greatest of pains that it is impossible to desire to be rid of it, or for the soul to be content with less than God.”
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The male angel is indeed stunningly beautiful and he smiles, clearly deriving his own pleasure, as he looks at the nun’s beautiful face and lifts her robe slightly. With the angel’s other hand he holds an arrow, which he  points not at her heart as St. Theresa had written, but lower on her body.  St. Theresa’s head is thrown back, her eyes are closed and her lips are parted. Her drapery hangs in a kinetic frenzy mirroring her physical experience. The floating cloud references the intensity of her pleasure.  The obvious reference to a physical, erotic union cannot be ignored. She experiences ecstasy through divine union in her mind, soul and body. Her faith in God only increases the intensity of her vision.
Remembering that the model for Saint Theresa is Bernini’s own wife adds to its meaning; he portrays his wife’s ecstasy resulting from this divine union. Bernini is both a passionate artist and a deeply religious man. When he married his beloved wife, he experienced a spiritual awakening, he changed, and he forever deepened his faith. Here he not only portrays Saint Theresa’s Ecstasy then, but also his own wife’s ecstasy. Here he invites God into every aspect of his marriage.  When we recognize this truth as well, when we too invite God into our own marriage, our love only intensifies and brings us closer to each other and to God’s plan for us.

 

 

 

The G(od) Spot

Jason Micheli —  January 7, 2014 — 2 Comments

lightstock_70152_small_user_2741517This weekend we kick-off a 4 week sermon series on marriage and relationships based off of Adam Hamilton’s book, Love to Stay: Sex, Grace and Commitment. 

The first of those subtitled themes has spooked some sober-minded fellow sinners.

Sex, the assumption seems to be, is simply not a suitable subject for a sermon (unless, I suppose, it’s in the service of preaching ‘against’ some form of sexuality).

Ironically, this time last year I posted an article about how Christians are uncomfortable with the full implications of the doctrine of the Incarnation. The post, ‘Jesus Farts,’ netted me a scolding from my bishop whilst simultaneously proving the point of the post: we don’t think of our bodies in a divine way and we certainly don’t want to think of the Christ in a full-throated physical way.

The reaction to my post last year and a single theme of Hamilton’s book this year has convinced me that many Christians have a malnourished theology of the incarnation.

We’re closeted Gnostics.

We think ‘God’ is Spirit thus godly things must be ‘spiritual things.’

We’re conditioned by the Enlightenment.

We doubt that the objects of the material world point to and are sustained by Beauty itself.

We forget that by taking on physicality in Jesus Christ the Divine imbues our physical lives with the divine.

The things which comprise our everyday, material, physical, fleshly lives are sacred.

Holy.

 Just as with the tangible objects of bread and wine, the physical touch of another can be a means of grace.

The reaction to the first subtitled third of Adam Hamilton’s book has provoked my interest not in Hamilton’s book (sorry, Adam) but in a little book of the Old Testament.

The Song of Songs.

All of the above, then, is just throat-clearing to say that during our 4 week Love to Stay sermon series I will be blogging my way through this much-neglected (if known at all) part of the Jewish and Christian canon.

So read it with me and check out the future posts.

Even though the Song of Songs is one of the most commented upon books by theologians and biblical scholars, chances are you’ll have to locate it by way of your bible’s table of contents.

Before I commit to the Song itself perhaps a little courtship is in order.

The Song of Songs falls under the Old Testament’s ‘Wisdom’ literature, but it’s not at all like the other books in that category.

The Song of Songs does not meditate on the goodness of God in a suffering world a la Job.

The Song of Songs does not reflect on faith in or fear of the Lord as the Psalms do.

The Song of Songs contain no prudent, pithy sayings like you’ll find in Proverbs or Ecclesiastes.

The Song of Songs is not like anything in the Hebrew Bible at all.

It’s not law, prophecy or covenant history.

It’s an erotic, explicit series of poems to love.

Physical love.

The Song of Songs is about a passionate young woman and her not-always-as-interested lover.

The Song of Songs is about erogenous zones and seduction, aromas and places to be found alone.

The Song of Songs could make Shakespeare blush and the 50 Shades author red with envy.

hs3Most of the poems in the Song of Songs are narrated in the voice of the young woman, a woman who, in the words of one ancient commentator, is without modesty. Contrary to what you may think about the stodgy, antiquated bible, this young woman’s voice and desire drives the arc of the book.

Here’s the odd thing about the Song of Songs: it’s completely secular.

None of the poems make any mention of God, faith or religious practice.

It’s just about the erotic passion between this woman and her lover.

‘Just?’

The full title for the book is The Song of Songs: Which is Solomon’s. It has a subtitle too.

That construction, Song of Songs, is a Hebrew idiom for a superlative. The Hebrew Bible uses it a lot, mostly in constructions like ‘Lord of Lords’ and ‘Holy of Holies.’ In other words, this form of superlative most often is a way of referring to the Most High God.

And so…

Song of Songs likely could be a way of saying this Song is about God or that this is the godliest, holiest, most sacred of songs.

Why not? The Old Testament prophets frequently compare God’s relationship with Israel to that of a jilted lover or a cuckcolded spouse.

Why must the analogies always and only be in the negative?

While we can’t be sure who wrote the Song of Songs or what was their intent by writing it, we can be certain what the ancient rabbis intended by including it in the canon. In this ode to erotic, physical love they found an analogue to the love between Israel and her God.

Later the ancient Church Fathers found in the Song a parallel for the love Christ has for his Church, and because the Church Fathers believed the external works of God mirror the interior life of God, they found in the Song a description of the love the Father and Son have for each other through the Spirit. chag1

Sex, according the most ancient way of reading this scripture, is an analogue for the love between the Trinity, the love between God and Israel and the love between Christ and the Church.

As anyone who’s taken the SAT’s knows, sound analogies work both ways.

The ancients didn’t just read the Song of Songs as suggesting that God is like the erotic passion of lovers.

The ancients believed the Song of Songs showed that the erotic, physical passion between lovers is like God.

It’s not just a poetic description in other words. The erotic love between lovers really does correlate, in reality, to the nature of God. Indeed our love is only an approximation of it.

A foretaste of it. Foreplay, if you like.

As Robert Jenson puts it:

“By the classic understanding of Creator/creature analogies, mostly developed by Thomas Aquinas, this does not mean that our eroticism is the original and that we construe God’s relation to his people by projecting it. Just the other way around, it means that human lovers’ relations to each other are recognizable in their true eroticism only by noting their analogy to an eroticism that is God’s alone.

Just as our faulty righteousness can nonetheless be anticipation of our eschatological sharing in God’s own righteousness, our frail eroticism can be an anticipation of final sharing in the fulfillment of God’s and his people’s desire for another.”

Eschatological is a jargonny word, I know.

For the laymen out there, the quote means this:

Heaven will be a lot more fun than sitting on clouds and playing harps.