This 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.
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.
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.
Most 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.
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.
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.
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.