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.