A Sexy Savior

A few decades ago, I found myself surprised that Christian music embraced a strangely romantic tone. In fact, if you didn’t know you were listening to Christian radio, you’d probably be ignorant that the subject of the song was not a young, nubile female but the God of the universe. This blurring of the line between worship and romance may feel unusual, even heretical, to the orthodox mindset. But as the revival at Asbury University is reminding us this last week, the Spirit is reaching out to this generation in exciting and intimate ways. A controversial observation on a topic such as this will frequently draw sneers of criticism demanding clarification. I am asking for prudence and wisdom from my readers, not reactionary defensiveness. For people of the Book must be people of the whole Book. 

The contemporary traditionalist is much more comfortable with the image of God as Father—and understandably so. He would point to countless instances, especially in the New Testament, where God frames Himself in these terms. But even so, he often sees the Father as stern, exacting, and a no-nonsense disciplinarian rather than comforter, nurturer, and healer. Living through the Depression and surviving World War II, fathers of the 1950s and ‘60s typically held an emotionally distant, austere view of relationships, knowing they could be swept away in an instant. The unintended consequences of this movement were that we grew up assuming that God was the same way. In short, the Greatest Generation’s view of Dad and his role shaped our conceptions of Abba.

This was not, however, the perspective of other generations of believers. Medieval nuns, interminably single by the world’s standards, considered themselves married to Christ, took vows, wore veils, and even donned wedding rings—a custom increasingly in practice by a growing number of nuns today. The thirteenth-century hermit and mystic Richard Rolle wrote profound religious verse adoring God, poems that were not seldom tinged with an unusual eroticism. Margery Kempe, another mystic, made many fifteenth-century canons very uncomfortable with her ecstatic visions and feminine depictions of Christ, not to mention her growing popularity as a female authority. No less than the metaphysic John Donne, in his Divine Meditations, speaks of being ravished by Christ. Their experiences are even mirrored in some of our own favorite old-timey music. A veiled sexuality inhabits classics like “Behold a Stranger at the Door”, “I am His and He is Mine,” and of course, “I Come to the Garden Alone.” Rarely are these hymns read through this prism, but a casual glance at the lyrics certainly skims the surface of double entendre. 

Because of the volatility of Eros in a Christian sub-culture, we are reluctant to fully consciously and publicly embrace it, rightly concerned that such dangerous materials could prove disastrous in untrained hands. Critics are quick to balk at the sexuality peddled by popular culture today, from everything to advertising to film to fashion. Indeed, my students are so averse to the stories of Paolo and Francesco in Inferno, or of Romeo and Juliet, they reject these lovers as experiencing anything but lust; surely, they say, there can be no possible love between them. But this criticism, often rightly earned, can communicate sexuality’s pitfalls to the exclusion of its virtues. Hosea details the tragic, sickening portrait of adultery, but Song of Songs enthusiastically celebrates sexuality within the marriage. Song of Songs is conspicuously lacking any reference of God in its sensual lyrics, and yet the church fathers insisted it be regarded canonical because of its allegorical value as a beautiful portrait of Christ and his Church. But even the untrained eye cannot miss the near obscene quality of the text: “Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits” (4:16, KJV), or “My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him. I rose up to open to my beloved; and my hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers with sweet smelling myrrh, upon the handles of the lock” (5:4-5, KJV). It is not difficult to see why Song of Songs might go really well to a Barry White tune.

If we indeed read such erotic lyrics as allegorical, and not merely literal, then it must radically change our perceptions of God. His love encompasses Storge, Phileo, Agape, and Eros—no verbal description, no type of love is beyond him. The God who chases us through the garden and anoints us with perfume is also a God who would bow his head and take up a cross. Rather than gloss over the overtly sexual metaphors in sacred text and insist on the image of the austere potentate, would we not be better served to acknowledge to ourselves and to a lost world that God is passionately in love with us? While the picture of God in the bedroom playing Marvin Gaye may make us squirm, it also presents the portrait of a creator who eagerly desires intimacy with his creation.  He whispers gently, “Set me as a seal upon thy heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is as strong as death…Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the flood drown it” (Song of Songs 8:6-7).

Through Eros life is created and it is fulfilled. It is the passion of the beloved, and the ability to laugh at one’s lover. It is the friendly ear and the touch of a warm hand. God’s love for us is not simply a simile of the marriage relationship. It is the marriage relationship, with all the erotic connotations included—emphasized, highlighted and underlined in scarlet red.

Finding Love at Swan Lake

When the Kyiv City Ballet came to town, I anticipated something extraordinary was to occur. I am no connoisseur of ballet, though I have been surrounded by and alternately participated in different forms of dance at various times in my life. Enough to blandly imitate, not enough to piercingly critique. My ballroom dance instructor regularly refers to me as a tree—which, I hope, is a reference to stability and not inertia. Yet I am aware that while I wish to possess the agility of Legolas, I likely appear on stage with all of the grace of an Ent.

This only confirms the importance, even for blockish professors, of a life dedicated to the physique as well as to the mind. Dance—and all the best philosophers support me in this—is perhaps the most spiritual of art forms, melding sound and sight, movement and passion, body and spirit. While puritanical naysayers have derided dance as worthless at best and pagan at worst, I prefer to see it as the expression of the divine longing to reach upward toward the heavens by pressing into the human community. Through dance, in the democracy of our limbs and the aristocracy of its motions, we experience the heights of sublimity. Done well, dance requires rhythm, precision, focus and discipline. And discipline, despite its poor reputation today amongst the general population, is one of the truest ways we worship God, ever more so than its antagonist spontaneity. Like liturgy, discipline steadies the bones and evens out the blood, preparing the soul for action.

We rushed to the theatre not as a political statement, certainly, though without a doubt it was a Ukrainian troupe that enriched the evening, infusing our experience with greater meaning because of the present crisis. Even before the ovation, when a quarter of the audience raised their little flags of blue and yellow, I could not help but remember that these dancers were homeless, exiles from their war-torn land. Like many of their Western counterparts, they begin such a tour dancing for art, for expression, for bread. Unlike the rest of us, however, these Kyiv players dance with new purpose, as if their very lives depend upon it—for surely they do—knowing more than most that life and art must continue, not in spite of the chaos but because of it. As the darkness of Diocletian rises, we must respond, like St. Lucia, bearing light and hope.

Which is what we experienced at Swan Lake. To the newcomer, finding a plot through dance can be a challenge, as our eyes are not attuned to doing what our ears do naturally. Not only did this performance make it easy to follow, it accomplished its task by emphasizing beauty over spectacle.

The romance scene in Act II, for example, between Odette and Siegfried is Eros at its finest, a violin come to life, its notes the oars on a sea of arms and legs. Before a chorus of mirrored leaps, pirouettes, and pointes, two bodies flow together in embrace, stretching to the upper limits of anatomy’s reach. To follow the seeming impossible lines and curves fills the spectator’s own body with tension, followed by a slow release when the dancer finds equilibrium. The elegance of such a dance is found in its simplicity, from which emerges its universality. We are all lovers seeking the beloved, all longing for fulfillment in the other’s eyes, lips, and motions. We are all eager to reorder the broken pieces of the world and to recover Eden.

Awe inspiring, too, was the expression of chaos fighting to undermine order. The evil sorcerer Von Rathbart, a malevolent demon, glides on the lake alone and later in mimicry of the prince, reminding us that death waits ever in the wings of our desires and behind the most innocuous of our deeds. His dark dance of Thanatos, more sublime than beautiful, is no less alluring than that of Eros. Yet I was surprised to discover my own sympathy and understanding for the demon. His deceit, tricking Siegfried to proclaim his love for the black swan Odile, provoked in me a natural parental yearning to provide and to protect. For after all, is not Von Rathbart’s desire to heal his own daughter’s curse not a good, even if his means are an evil? It was through the lens of our current international conflict that I thus read this part of the story, seeing the sorcerer as the Russian bear and the white swan as Ukraine. While I cannot condone Putin’s violence, and his aggression against the innocent must be stopped, I found myself hearing anew the desperation of the parent to care for the child, and in it saw the tyrant not merely as a monster to be defeated but as a soul in need of pity.

In the finale, the Kyiv City company opted for the happy ending, where neither Siegfried nor Odette die. She is not drowned in the waves, they are not translated into the heavens, but they remain embodied—their love perpetuating in the flesh as well as the spirit. It was an appropriate dénouement, a proclamation that Ukraine would not be transformed into merely an idea but would remain an idea permanent and whole, stronger and more complete because of the struggle.

As I walked away from the theatre that night, the embers of my imagination were stirred, and are stirred still, by the performance—certain proof of art at the height of its powers. I learned that dance is as transformative as poetry and pottery. I remembered that to adore the beloved is not merely a duty but one of the highest of divine pleasures. And I discovered that to love one’s nation is expected, to love another’s nation is admirable, but to love the demon is an act of holiness. Though I am properly unfit for any of these tasks, awkward in society as in dance, I pray for the strength to do so with wisdom, wit, and joviality.