Archives For Song of Songs

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.

 

 

 

lightstock_70152_small_user_2741517For our sermon series on marriage, I’m blogging my way through the Bible’s erogenous zone: The Song of Songs.

Today, I’m still reflecting on  2.1-17.

As I mentioned earlier, in chapter 2, verse 3 of the Song, the young woman sings:

   With great delight I sat in his shadow,
   and his fruit was sweet to my taste. 

And in case it’s not obvious to you, she’s talking about a vine of a different sort. This portion of the poem continues with imagery of mountains and gardens and, uh, “fruit-tasting.”

In my prior take on Song of Songs 2 I noted how the young woman who narrates her passion in the Song contradicts our prejudices of the Old Testament taking a mechanistic view of sex generally and a misogynistic view of women specifically. In the Song of Songs, we find quite the opposite.

The primary narrator is as bold and forthright in what she desires as any Cosmo article and the fact that her aggressive passion is not chastened but canonized tells us that her desire is good.

Even holy.

For my second take on Song of Songs 2 I notice not the woman’s 8 1/2 Weeks worthy word pictures but the fact that those word pictures have mountains and gardens in their background.

That is, I can’t help but notice not the novelty of WHO is speaking but Where she is speaking it.

Describing it.

To put it bluntly:

She’s describing her beloved and herself making love in the outdoors, with mountains behind them, naked, in the light of day, in a springtime garden.

Garden.

St Paul chooses the image of Jesus as the Second Adam to describe an alternative and antidote to the Fall in the Garden of Eden.

I think I like our narrator’s version in the Song of Songs better.

Certainly the allusions to Eden are one of the reasons the ancient rabbis included what would otherwise be a Madonna song in the holy scriptures.

And if it was one of their reasons, then this is more than this unabashed passion with the lights on is more than a passing allusion.

We can reason from the Song of Songs that shame is not intrinsic to sex nor was it intended by God to be such.

Irony is almost always tragic and no less is the case here, for shame is often the very thing Christians attach to sex.

Unashamed, unafraid lovemaking in the light of day is as homey an image of New Creation as any I can think of.

Just as irony is always tragic, from inferences always follow corollaries. If unashamed sex, outside, in the day, with the lights on best describes what Sin undid in Eden, then ‘Sin’ is anything we do to make sex ‘dirty.’

By ‘dirty’ I turn to Robert Jenson:

‘Sadomasochism, bondage and the like are not harmless deviations; they are attacks on humanity…the blessing of marriage brings sex within the gate of the coming new and transformed Eden, so restores its innocence.’

9fd2f25f6a96a760872a425d027134abNeo-Calvinist pastor, Mark Driscoll, infamously declared the Song of Songs to be his favorite book of scripture, an attention-getting claim if you’re speaking primarily to bible nerds. Driscoll even preached a long sermon series through the Song of Songs. That I’ve gotten this far in the Song without referencing that bile is a testament to my character.

Nevertheless…in one particular sermon Driscoll takes the graphic imagery of the Song of Songs, an erotic poem, a POEM, and uses it as a biblical mandate for wives to perform ____________ for on their husbands regardless of their own reciprocal desire.

He’s taking the Song of Songs and putting it back in the Old Eden.

Where it doesn’t belong.

 

lightstock_70152_small_user_2741517For our sermon series on marriage, I’m blogging my way through the Bible’s erogenous zone: The Song of Songs.

Today, it’s 2.1-17.

“I’ll have what she’s having.”

I don’t even need to cite the movie; you know the scene:

Sally Albright: Most women at one time or another have faked it.

Harry Burns: Well, they haven’t faked it with me.

Sally Albright: How do you know?

Harry Burns: Because I know.

Sally Albright: Oh. Right. Thats right. I forgot. Youre a man.

Harry Burns: What was that supposed to mean?

Sally Albright: Nothing. Its just that all men are sure it never happened to them and all women at one time or other have done it so you do the math.

And then, to prove her point, sitting there in the diner Sally takes her good, long time coming into the garden of delights. To use the Song of Songs imagery.

And when she’s done…well, just watch it:

Everyone’s seen the scene and quoted the line, though in my marriage ‘I’ll have what she’s having’ is a distant fourth to ‘white-man overbite,’ ‘wagon wheel coffee table,’ and ‘_______ is quiche of the ’90’s.’

Turns out, When Harry Met Sally’s ‘I’ll have what she’s having’ scene isn’t just ubiquitous it’s theologically instructive.

Where Sally’s sated desire elicits hunger from the two-top at table 8, the young woman of the Song of Song’s desire for her lover is meant to arouse (pun intended) in us a similar desire for God.

The Old Testament usually receives critique and suspicion as being the testament that takes a dim of women generally and women’s sexuality specifically. Despite our assumptions, here in the OT of all places, a woman’s forward, sexual desire is presented in an unabashed and positive light.

In chapter, verse 3 of the Song, the young woman sings:

   With great delight I sat in his shadow,
   and his fruit was sweet to my taste. 

If you think she’s talking about apples and oranges, then you probably thought Led Zeppelin’s ‘Lemon Song’ was also about horticulture.

But no, the ‘Sally’ of the Song of Songs is every bit as bold and unashamed about her desire as the Sally in the film.

By the time we get to verse 16 of the same chapter, the young woman is overcome with hunger, love and desire. The preceding verses climax by breaking breathlessly from poetry and metaphor.

With an almost asphyxiated shout she cries:

My beloved is mine and I am his…

Of course the English translation turns the lights down on how she says it.

In Hebrew:

‘My beloved- mine. Me- his.’ 

And that a poem not unlike the scene in When Harry Met Sally made it into the scriptural canon is a very good indication that when the ancients heard this young woman cry out in passion: ‘My beloved- mine. Me- his’ they heard an allegorized version of the Hebrew Bible’s primary profession of love:

‘I will be their God and they shall be my people.’

By including a long, racy poem like the Song in the canon, the ancient rabbis wanted us to look at this woman, think of our relationship to our Beloved, and respond with our own desire: ‘I’ll have what she’s having…’

As Bernard of Clairvaux observes:

“What does she say when she says ‘He for me and I for him?’ We do not know, because we do not feel what she feels. O holy soul, what is this ‘He’ for you, what are you for him?

What, I beg to know, is so familiarly and gracefully given and returned between you? He is for you and you in turn are for him.

Can you speak to our understanding and tell us what you feel?’

The Song of Songs, in other words, is like so many of the songs on the radio. It’s meant to make us long, to wonder what it’s like to be her and to have that other in her life. It’s meant, I’d argue even, to make us jealous of her lover.

 

 

 

 

lightstock_70152_small_user_2741517For our sermon series on marriage and relationships I decided to blog my way through the Bible’s own Skinemax Channel: The Song of Songs.

In 1.9-17 of the Song of Songs, the young woman and her lover voice to one another their reciprocal admiration for one another. They name their attraction. They call out what they find beautiful in the other. About the other.

9 I compare you, my love,
   to a mare among Pharaoh’s chariots. 
10 Your cheeks are comely with ornaments,
   your neck with strings of jewels. 
11 We will make you ornaments of gold,
   studded with silver. 

12 While the king was on his couch,
   my nard gave forth its fragrance. 
13 My beloved is to me a bag of myrrh
   that lies between my breasts. 
14 My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms
   in the vineyards of En-gedi. 

15 Ah, you are beautiful, my love;
   ah, you are beautiful;
   your eyes are doves. 
16 Ah, you are beautiful, my beloved,
   truly lovely.
Our couch is green; 
17   the beams of our house are cedar,
   our rafters are pine. 

I once had an old professor at Princeton who shared with us how he and his (criminally young) newly wed wife spent every evening of their honeymoon reciting a section of the Song of Songs to one another.

From either side of their bed.

Naked.

I’m sure he thought something like: ‘I’m showing them how powerfully scripture and liturgy can form every part of our lives.’

We all thought: ‘Gross.’

The vomit in my throat aside, my professor was (inartfully) conveying an ancient and sweeping biblical principle:

There is no deeper knowing of another than knowing the other in their nakedness.

Two people stripped of every guise or pretense, making themselves vulnerable to another, baring every imperfection and risking to see if they are a delight to the source of their delight…

They know each other in a way that no one else can know them.

Except God.

imagesAs Rowan Williams writes:

“The whole story of creation, incarnation and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God’s giving that God’s self makes in the life of the trinity. We are created so that we may be caught up in this; so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God…”

This is why nakedness in general and the Song of Songs in particular long have served as a metaphor for how we know and are known by God.

It’s this metaphor from which comes the practice of veiling the bride.

The gradual, ongoing unveiling of bride to groom and groom to bride that happens over the course of a marriage is like a laboratory of learning how God sees us.

Williams continues:

“The body’s grace itself only makes human sense if we have a language of grace in the first place; and that depends on having a language of creation and redemption. To be formed in our humanity by the loving delight of another is an experience whose contours we can identify most clearly and hopefully if we have also learned or are learning about being the object of the causeless loving delight of God, being the object of God’s love for God through incorporation into the community of God’s Spirit and the taking-on of the identify of God’s child.”

The prevailing Gospel of Inclusiveness leads too many couples to presume that love and marriage means their partner should accept them as they are and never ask them to change.

Cultural presumptions aside, the fact remains that true married love changes you whether you think it should or not.

Married love changes you because, other than your relationship with God, marriage is the only place in which you are perceived as you truly are, shorn of all pretense.

In marriage alone, you are shaped and changed by the perceptions of other. Seeing you for who you really are, your spouse alone can help shape you into who God would you have be.

It’s in being seen for you really are

It’s in being seen naked, in both a literal and metaphoric sense

And yet still being loved, still being a cause of delight for your delight

That you get closest to how God loves you

And thus grow into God’s likeness for you.

Some Christians refer to marriage as a sacrament. Others prefer to name it a covenant. Everyone concurs that marriage is a ‘means of grace.’

Like the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

Just as the habit of constant communion over a lifetime shapes you in unseen, untold, unnumbered ways, being revealed to another over a lifetime reveals, by grace, a different you.

 

 

 

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This month for our winter sermon series on marriage and relationships I decided to blog my way through the bible’s erogenous zone:

The Song of Songs.

I met my beloved when we were both just 15.

High School Swim Team.

Picture Day.

Love at first sight.

In the ever elongating hindsight, I like to imagine it was the sight of me in my banana hammock that set her heart aflutter.

Or maybe it was my strapping, ready-for-the-cover-of-a-romance-novel physique that bewitched her. Possibly, I reason once I’ve returned to reality, it was my virile voice, the Mother Theresa-like compassion in my eyes or my profound, wise-beyond-my-years sense of humor.

Truthfully I know that there was never a single attribute that attracted either of us to the other. There was never a discrete moment in time that led to our for all time commitment.

Neither of us ever made a conscious choice to fall in love with the other.

For both us, it was both fortuitous and has since proven gratuitous.

In 1.9-11 of the Song of Songs, the man, whom the young female narrator loves, replies back:

9 I compare you, my love,
to a mare among Pharaoh’s chariots.
10 Your cheeks are comely with ornaments,
your neck with strings of jewels.
11 We will make you ornaments of gold,
studded with silver.

Of all Pharaoh’s chariots and of all the other horses which pull those chariots, this man has chosen this particular ‘mare’ to love. The woman- and the reader- are left to marvel: Why?

What is it about her?

Read within the context of the scriptural canon, where these two lovers serve as a Mature Audiences Only analogy for the love between God and God’s People, the text begs the selfsame question:

Why?

What is it about Israel?

What is it about the Church?

What is it about you or me?

That God would liken us to a choice (if confounding) mare?

Just as this young woman in the Song who’s been unfaithful (not kept her ‘vineyard’) and does not conform to the consensus definition of beauty (dark skin), Israel- the rest of the canon concurs- was chosen by her lover not because she was any comparative prize.

God, our Lover, chose his People not by any rational decision nor by any arbitrary one.

God, it turns out, is a Lover much like the rest of us.

God loves Israel and the Church and you or me because…he loves us.

As Robert Jenson riffs on Karl Barth:

‘The Bible’s God is sheer contingency: he is the one who chooses what he chooses because he chooses it.

He is the one who is what he is because he is it; and for whom this contingency of fact and reason is not necessity but freedom.’

Or as Bernard of Clairvaux puts it in a less staid manner:

‘Loves suffices for itself…It loves what it loves, and nothing else moves it…I love because I love; I love in order to love.’

Thinking of God as Lover, as the Song of Songs demands, unveils how futile and impoverished are so much of our theological categories.

Thinking of God as our Lover makes clear how ridiculous is the notion that there’s anything we can ever ‘do’ to earn our Lover’s first affection. Serving the poor, while good and noble, is ultimately as futile as an unwanted box of candies.

Thinking of God as our Lover unmasks how…unromantic…is the suggestion that our ‘belief’ in our Lover could somehow suffice for ‘love’ of our Lover.

Passionately arguing the finer points of doctrine can be as false and disembodied as that picture in your locker of the girlfriend you have in ‘another state.’

Likewise, thinking of God as Lover reveals how mistaken it is to suppose we’re not obligated to do anything which reflects our love and belief. Of course we are: in love people do loving things for the person they love.

Flowers, kisses, cards, gifts beyond reason…

And if they don’t, they don’t.

We all (correctly) assume when it comes to our relationships.

Our relationship with God is no different.

Perhaps the Song of Songs shows us how our staid language of belief and doctrine should be replaced and thus clarified by the language of want, desire, pleasure and longing.

Perhaps correct doctrine requires a Mature Audiences Only way of construing God.

lightstock_70152_small_user_2741517For our winter sermon series on marriage and relationships, I’ve decided to blog my way through the Bible’s erogenous zone: The Song of Songs.

1.6 Do not gaze at me because I am dark,
because the sun has gazed on me.
My mother’s sons were angry with me;
they made me keeper of the vineyards,
but my own vineyard I have not kept! 


7 Tell me, you whom my soul loves,
where you pasture your flock,
where you make it lie down at noon;
for why should I be like one who is veiled
beside the flocks of your companions? 


8 If you do not know,
O fairest among women,
follow the tracks of the flock,
and pasture your kids
beside the shepherds’ tents. 

     My mother’s sons were angry with me/they made me keeper of the vineyards/but my own vineyard I have not kept! 

     This poem shouldn’t continue.

It shouldn’t go on.

Were Dr James Dobson the author and ‘family values’ his muse, then you can be sure the poem wouldn’t persist past verse 6.

Or, at the very least, the poem would conclude with a cautionary, moralizing coda to young women about the dangers of not protecting their “vineyard,” about the mandate to keep their vineyard pure and wait for God to send them their foreordained vintner.

Something tells me Dr. Dobson isn’t sufficiently subtle for poetry but if he were then Song of Songs 1.6 might be followed by allusions to the permissiveness of modern culture and its anything goes media.

But the Song of Songs doesn’t with Hester Prynne finger-wagging. It doesn’t end at all. No poetis interruptus here. Instead the Song continues on for 7+ chapters of soft-core poetry that would make Skinemax proud.

And that’s remarkable.

That this Song continues at all is gospel.

Good news.

It’s grace.

An unmerited, unexpected gift.

Because, we’re left to conclude, this unfaithful young woman (my own vineyard I have not kept!) has been forgiven by her betrothed.

He loves her still.

His love is steadfast.

Read simply as an exchange between two mortal lovers then this poem might only conjure the worst type of Jerry Springer, Ike & Tina melodrama.

Read- as it is- as a piece of the biblical canon and thus as a piece of poetry that witnesses to God and God’s relationship with God’s People, then this poem sings with a U2-like, stadium-show volume.

The forgiveness implied within here is enough to make Easter deja vu all over again.

 Because the betrothed’s off-stage forgiveness of his fiancee parallels God’s own forgiveness of his unfaithful people.

What’s more, the physical reminder of the young woman’s sin (her dark skin which resulted from the labor imposed for her infidelity) now has become a mark of greatest beauty and pride.

Like Peter who after Easter could weave the blemish of his 3-fold denial of Christ into a beautiful declaration of God’s forgiveness, this young woman’s lover’s forgiveness allows her to rhapsodize (dark skin) that which would otherwise remain repulsive (in an ancient context).

A lover’s forgiveness makes it possible for sin and shame to become instead a part of a larger, more redemptive story.

Lovers possess the power to turn their relationship’s greatest tragedy into their greatest triumph.

Of course, the caution with the Song of Songs should always be against making poetry do the work reserved for prose alone. Nonetheless I think there’s a reminder here.

Over the course of ministry I’ve encountered a number of couples who share this Song’s couple’s struggle if not their youth; that is, I’ve encountered a number of couples encountering what could/should be a marriage ending betrayal.

Be it with another’s body or with a bottle or _________________.

The challenge in encountering such problems is also the opportunity:

To not let your partner’s sin be the end of your story.

To work- to do the work of forgiveness and then to work- towards making a partner’s sin into a larger story of mercy and love.

To work for that day when your partner’s ‘dark skin’ can be seen not as the blemish it originally was but as a cause for beauty.

In other words, to work…so that you can say ‘X happened to us, he/she did Y to our marriage but we’ve overcome it and have discovered a life even more delightful.

Certainly it’s easier to end the poem at v.6.

To go on requires…

faith?

It’s easier to end the poem at v.6, but, take Easter as your evidence, sometimes the alternative leads to a far more interesting story.

This isn’t to say every partner’s sin should follow unremittingly with the other’s forgiveness. The Song allegorizes God’s forgiving love of our unfaithful love.

It would be idolatrous to think we’re capable of God’s frequency of forgiveness.

This Song, then, doesn’t mandate our forgiveness in every instance. Rather, it points out the possibility of forgiveness in ever instance.

It points out the reality that when we forgive- when we invite forgiveness with those magic words ‘I’m sorry’- we’re participating in the very life of God.

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For our winter sermon series on marriage and relationships, I’ve decided to blog my way through the Bible’s erogenous zone: The Song of Songs.

Like discovering unopened Christmas presents hidden in the toe of the stocking, I remember the first time I realized Prince’s song ‘Little Red Corvette’ wasn’t about matchbox cars after all:

“I guess I must be dumb / Cause you had a pocket full of horses / Trojan and some of them used / But it was Saturday night / I guess that makes it all right”

I came (no pun intended) to this realization while translating a just-as-dirty Ovid poem in 10th grade Latin class. The artist formerly and known once again as Prince was simply perpetuating the ancient rhetorical form known as innuendo.

All in the voice of the young woman, here are verses 5-7 of Song of Songs chapter 1:

5 I am black and beautiful,
   O daughters of Jerusalem,
like the tents of Kedar,
   like the curtains of Solomon.
6 Do not gaze at me because I am dark,
   because the sun has gazed on me.
My mother’s sons were angry with me;
   they made me keeper of the vineyards,
   but my own vineyard I have not kept!
7 Tell me, you whom my soul loves,
   where you pasture your flock,
   where you make it lie down at noon;
for why should I be like one who is veiled
   beside the flocks of your companions? 

prince-little-red-corvette-warner-brothersEven biblical literalists will have to concede that “the vineyard” to which the young woman refers here (at the beginning of this erotic poem) isn’t the sort where grapes are plucked.

She’s not protected her vineyard.

She’s not been chaste.

And for that offense her brothers have punished her.

The punishment is the source of her dark, tanned skin, upon which the female chorus of the poem stare in derision. Much as only recently, skin color was a reason for categorization. This young woman’s chorus of women, we can surmise, are wealthy and look down upon the supposed caste of a darker skinned woman.

But, she sings:

Do not gaze at me because I am dark,
   because the sun has gazed on me.

Her skin color indicates not her status but her sin.

The punishment for not preserving her ‘vineyard’ has been labor in the sun. Another inneundo-laden song comes to mind (Blister in the Sun).

But here’s the remarkable thing:

she thinks what others would consider a blemish has actually made her beautiful.

How so?

Her lover’s love for her has convinced her that it makes her beautiful.

These young lovers, then, have happened upon a realization that usually only long-married lovers learn:

True love can see in their beloved not just the obvious beauty but also what in other eyes’ seem a blemish.

True love sees not the other’s imperfection as imperfection but rather they are there, as Robert Jenson says, “to be transformed by the grace of affection into occasions of endearment.”

 

 

 

 

lightstock_70152_small_user_2741517

For our winter sermon series on marriage and relationships, I’ve decided to blog my way through the Bible’s erogenous zone: The Song of Songs.

I’ve loathed much of contemporary Christian music not so music itself or the modern medium but for the message of its lyrics.

Too often the songs are limited to the first person. ‘I’ am the subject of whom I sing and God is made the object of my wishes and desires, which is exactly the opposite of how scripture typically speaks of God and us.

Frequently the songs strike me as little more than repackaged pop love songs with ‘God’ switched in for he/she.

‘Jesus in my pants songs.’

We called them in seminary.

The Song of Songs, however, causes me to wonder if I was wrong in my dismissals. The Song of Songs is most definitely not contemporary and from the very first verses it’s unabashedly a first person love song:

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!
For your love is better than wine,
your anointing oils are fragrant,
your name is perfume poured out;
   therefore the maidens love you.
Draw me after you, let us make haste.
   The king has brought me into his chambers.
We will exult and rejoice in you;
   we will extol your love more than wine;
   rightly do they love you. 

-1.2-4

This isn’t an abstract ode to the idea of love. The young woman narrating races to first base with a demand for kisses, and, we can surmise, she hopes to not stop there.

Her lover (whether he’s king of a realm or just her heart we’re left to guess) enters in verse 4 when she enters his bedroom chambers. He must be a stud, for the young woman tells us that not only does she long for him others do too: ‘…‘rightly do they love you.’

As I mentioned before, that the ancient rabbis included this thoroughly secular, erotic poem in the canon of scripture tells us how they understood it. They and the Church Fathers after them believed it was about more than a young woman and her lover.

It was about God’s People (Israel, the Church) and their relationship with God.

What’s interesting about reading this section theologically is that the roles get reversed from what you might expect.

No longer is God the first person subject of the sentences, as God is in most of the bible.

This ancient Song sounds more like many contemporary Christian songs.

We’re the ‘young woman.’ We’re the ones speaking/singing of our longing.

And God is the ‘king.’ God is the object of our desire. Erotic desire.

The theologian Robert Jenson writes that in this erotic desire for God we can find a poetic illustration of how the Eastern Orthodox Church understands salvation:

“…the Song was a favorite way for them to describe salvation. Israel does not here long for forgiveness of sin or rescue from disaster or for other gifts detachable from the Giver, as Western theology tends to conceive salvation, but simply for the Lord himself.

The longing is aesthetic rather than ethical; it is longing for the Lord’s touch and kiss and fragrance. The Lord is simply loveable, and salvation is union with him, a union for which sexual union provides an analogy.”

One of the reasons I’ve dismissed the contemporary ‘Jesus in my pants’ songs is that I feel uncomfortable singing them.

For example, ‘I’m so in love with you…’

I love God, sure. But to say I’m in love with God? Weird right?

Except the Song of Songs makes me do a double take.

I’m driven in my faith by ideas, concepts, theology and even hands-on service.

Maybe what I’ve resisted in those ‘Jesus in my pants’ songs is what the Song here lauds as a needful part of faith- maybe the most important part:

Desire.

I can remember the tables-turning charge that hit me with my first kiss. And so, I’m sure, can you. Why would we want our experience of God to be anything less?

Shouldn’t our first kiss be a foretaste of our experience of God rather than our experience of God being only a fraction of the experience of a first kiss?

It’s always tricky to ask poetry to do the work of prose. Asking what it means in some deep way is to betray the nature of a poem. Nonetheless, having just read a news story about how 1/4 tweens are sexting, I think this is a sound takeaway:

Touch, kiss, embrace, and __________ are all approximations of our eventual union with God.

They’re holy things.

Thus they are occasions for neither shame (as is the case for many conservative Christians) nor a simple shrug of the shoulders (as is the case for much of secular culture).

They’re holy, good, sacred things.

As such, they should be treated as reverently as priest holds the host and as joyously as a parent holds their baby for baptism.

Or, as Jesus said: Don’t throw your pearls to swine.

 

 

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.