Sex and the Sanctuary
There is an old apocryphal story I heard when I first became a pastor. A pastor sat down to talk to the children in worship. He said to them, “I’m think of something small and gray, with a bushy tail, that likes to eat nuts. Can you guess what it is?” A girl sitting next to him said, “Well it sounds like a squirrel, but you say Jesus is the answer for everything.”
The Song of Songs reminded me of this old story. Jewish and Christian religious leaders have long described this part of the Bible as an allegory for God and humanity. As if, “it sounds like erotica, but God is the answer to everything.”
Last week Marty and Alexandra, two local actors, brought the Song of Songs to life by dramatically reading it. Their reading made us all aware of the sensual and erotic passion of the Song of Songs. Sex and the Sanctuary. Which made some uncomfortable. But perhaps none more than a family of four in the front row, two teenage boys sitting between their gay dads while every other line of scripture seemed to be, “your breasts, your chest, oh my!”
And yet it’s worth allowing this part of scripture to make us uncomfortable. Because it’s a Plymouth kind of scripture. You see, we’re not like most Christians; we’re a bit different. And the Song of Songs is not like most Bible passages; it’s a bit different too. The Song of Songs could be a key to understanding the kind of Christianity we value.
But before we get too spiritual with the Song of Songs - before we say it’s really about God - we need to consider how it’s different and of course how it’s sensual.
The Song of Songs differs from almost every other part of the Bible. First, there’s no mention of God nor even an allusion to a religious festival. It’s all secular love poetry, all breasts and chests. Perhaps because God is not mentioned, there is also no pronouncements of moral rules or laws. But even more significantly, it’s the only book of the Bible in which a woman’s perspective dominates. Everywhere else in scripture it’s mostly about the men, and when a woman enters the story, it’s mostly to show how heroic the guy really is. But in the Song of Songs we hear the voice of a woman. And it’s a different voice: we hear the hopes and dreams, the yearnings and desires, the fears and impatience of a real person.
Now it would be worth reading the Song of Songs just for the chance to hear the voice of an ancient woman. But, her voice can help us imagine the life of discipleship in new ways. Much of the Bible retells the classic heroic quest: a call to leave the ordinary world, the crossing of a threshold into a time of testing which culminates in a climactic conflict, and then a restoration and return. The heroic model of discipleship focuses us on conflict and overcoming obstacles, even if it’s only a battle with ourselves. Discipleship becomes a quest to overcome a fall, to fight a battle, to seek a restoration.
The Song of Songs, while dramatic, doesn’t follow the heroic story line. Instead, the drama is all relational, shaped by desire and delight, as two people try to find a fulfilling relationship. Instead of Odysseus undergoing arduous tests to finally return home, it’s Penelope longing for her lover. The Song of Songs as a model of discipleship focuses us on our relationships, the cultivation of mutuality, the yearning for fulfillment.
What would it mean for us to pursue a Song of Songs discipleship? Less the heroic quest against evil and more the relational story of desire and delight?
Entering into the Song of Songs submerges us into an erotic text. Since it was first composed the sensuality of the Song of Songs made it controversial. Rabbi Akiva, a central figure of the Jewish tradition two thousand years ago, complained that people read the Song of Songs in taverns as a lewd drinking song. One could easily imagine it. A shot for every mention of an apricot.
The lovers in the Song of Songs revel in each other. The verses celebrate each others taste, smell, touch, sounds, and appearance. Each extols the other’s beauty. Even if we can’t imagine using the metaphors, we know their meaning. As when the woman says, “Turn to me, dear lover. Come like a gazelle. Leap like a wild stag on delectable mountains!” It’s a passionate text: “Kiss me—full on the mouth! Yes! For your love is better than wine.” The Song of Songs celebrates human sexuality.
The eroticism is so different than other passages of the Bible. Much of the metaphors of the Song of Songs use the images of succulent fruit and the repose of a garden to allude to sexual intimacy. Such garden metaphors ought to remind us of another garden story: Adam and Eve. For them, tasting the fruit led to their downfall. The succulent fruit of the garden led them astray. The garden of Eden story hangs over much of the Christian imagination for sex: our tradition talks as if sexuality will lead us away from God. We’ve spent two thousand years coming up with rules powered by this fear. And often, this approach to sexuality meant bad news for women; women’s bodies were demeaned as distractions from God, temptations for men, a dangerous carnality.
But in the Song of Songs lovers find delight in the succulent garden fruits. The woman sang:
He took me home with him for a festive meal,
but his eyes feasted on me!
Oh! Give me something refreshing to eat—and quickly!
Apricots, raisins—anything. I’m about to faint with love!
His left hand cradles my head,
and his right arm encircles my waist!
Here in the Song of Songs, our bodies are celebrated for their beauty; the garden not a scene of disharmony and fall but a place of discovery and joy. The Song of Songs celebrates our bodies as a gift from God, and speaks of intimacy as a natural blessing. As one commentator asks, “What would it mean for us, following the Song of Songs, to take our own bodies as gardens of desire and delight to explore?”
Earlier I alluded to the way many in our tradition have dealt with the sensuality of the Song of Songs; attempting to contain the passion of the text by attributing it to a metaphor of God and humanity. But this approach doesn’t really contain the eroticism at all; instead it revolutionizes our spirituality.
For a long time in the west we’ve tried to separate sexuality and spirituality, to hold these two spheres of our lives apart. It never works.
Now some have said, with Freud, that this is because all the God talk, all the spiritual language, is really just repressed talk about sexuality. And I can understand why Freud thought this way. There’s plenty of repression in religion. In fact, our continuing testament reading could be read this way. St. John of the Cross was an instrumental figure in the development of western European spirituality; the Catholic Church calls him one of 35 doctors of the church. We heard today a poem which begins one of his seminal works on the spiritual life, a metaphor of the soul rising up to spiritual union with God. And yet, one does not have to be a Freudian to hear in it homoerotic language:
With his gentle hand he wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.
I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
Was St. John describing a moment of intense prayer or something equally as ecstatic? Freud might well point to St. John as proof that all God talk is really just repressed sexuality.
But the claim of spiritual lessons in the Song of Songs suggests we reverse Freud, to ponder if all talk about sex is really just repressed spirituality. As such, the yearning desire of one lover for another becomes a sign of the burning longing of our souls for God and of God for us. Read this way we might look at our own spiritual lives in new ways. If the Song of Songs is really about being with Jesus, and if St. John is really describing prayer, then I have to realize my own prayer life is rather vanilla. And we might look at our spiritual lives to see how they could be charged with erotic power.
More broadly, the Song of Songs as an allegory of God and humanity would suggest all our sex talk might be an allegory too. One which comes right to the surface in songs like “Take me to Church” by the Irish singer Hozier. The lyrics use the language of church to talk about sexuality.
My Church offers no absolutes
She tells me, 'Worship in the bedroom.'
The only heaven I'll be sent to
Is when I'm alone with you—
Is all the sexuality talk, and all the hyper-sexualism of our culture, just a repressed desire for God?
Ultimately, and most importantly, there’s truth in both Freud and the Song of Songs as allegory. We can hear sexual longing in prayer like St. John’s and we can also hear a desire for God in a popular song. We don’t have to chose which is a foil for what repressed emotion. Instead, we can make a journey beyond repression towards an integration of our sexuality and spirituality.
Indeed, the Song of Songs is about both sexual desire and a longing for God because all our desires relate together. There is what theologian Sarah Coakley calls a “nexus of desire.”
We experience it sometimes when we go to pray, especially if we’re trying to pray silently. A few seconds of silence and then the mind starts running with various thoughts of food and sex. You wanted a stress-relieving moment, but suddenly your mind fills with all sorts of thoughts. And it happens because desire is our interior language.
As Coakley said once, “Desire isn’t simply about sex; the tether of desire is the lot of humanity, and it requires spiritual and moral discernment.” Desire, in other words, prompts a deeper question, “How can I find lasting delight?”
And so the language of sensual desire in the Song of Songs can prompt that deeper question of delight. There are lots of things we may desire, but not all lead to lasting delight. I may desire a cream puff - and I make really good cream puffs - but I’ll regret it on the scale tomorrow. We may desire someone sexually, but it may not led to true delight. We may want things or power or influence. But does it lead to holy delight?
The Song of Songs as an allegory invites us to be naked with all our desires - good, bad, and boring; to be vulnerable with our wanting hearts. To spiritually ponder, “How can I find burning delight like the lovers in the Song of Songs?”
Greg Mobley, who teaches at one of our seminaries, once described the Bible as if it were a huge cathedral. Like the medieval cathedrals of Europe, the great big stories of the Bible decorate the front doors - the crucifixion of Jesus, Moses leading the slaves to freedom, Abraham and Sarah. Above the massive doors of the cathedral of scripture appear the words “Awe” and “Fear of the Lord.” Such an entrance to scripture is imposing; many of us find it hard to open. But around the back is a simple door, smaller and often overlooked, the Song of Songs, and above that door appears just one word, “Love.”
I think Mobley is right: the Song of Songs, this book of love, is our way into the grand story of scripture and the life of faith. And through its door we can discover a relational discipleship, the blessing of sensuality, and a passionate spirituality.
Alleluia and Amen.