If you’re looking for a great erotic read, check out Song of Solomon. Have you ever read it? At its core, Song of Solomon is a celebration of erotic love. It’s about the longing two lovers have for one another and the bold celebration of their passion. It’s racy stuff! I wonder, if Christians today were given the task of deciding which books would be included in the Bible, would Song of Solomon make the cut?
Through the years Christians haven’t known quite what to do with this little book in the Old Testament. Many have interpreted it as an allegory about the love between God and his people. Some have suggested that it be thrown out altogether, that it has no place in the Bible, as if its inclusion was some kind of mistake. But Song of Solomon is actually a treasure for us because these few highly erotic pages in the Holy Book celebrate God’s profound gift of sexual intimacy.
The fact that we don't read from Song of Solomon in public worship, and preachers choose not to preach about it, is the result of a larger problem we have in our culture that comes to us from Greek philosophy. It’s the belief that everything that has to do with the physical world will never be anything but impure and only in the spiritual realm can true purity be found. So we get this dualistic viewpoint where the body is bad and the spirit is good. This is a gross distortion of the world God created.
Dr. Phyllis Trible, a Biblical scholar at Wake Forest, sees the garden imagery of Song of Solomon as a recreation of garden imagery in the Garden of Eden, before the fall. In the Garden of Eden, after the fall, we find sexuality entangled with guilt, judgment and shameful nudity. In Song of Solomon, we find love woven with play and imagination and delight; there is no guilt found anywhere. In Genesis we find pain in childbirth and unequal power between lovers. In Song of Solomon childbirth is eagerly anticipated, the Rose of Sharon invites her beloved into her mother’s chamber for the consummation of their love, and their relationship is a rich mutuality of power and passion. Although God is never mentioned in Song of Solomon, there is something very sacred going on.
So, what happened? Why has our understanding of sexuality become so twisted? That’s a complex question that deserves more than a simple explanation in a blog post. But, beyond the way a dualistic view of body and spirit has permeated our western thought, there is also the matter of how sexuality is so often abused in the world that it’s hard for us to see it as a gift.
This was true in New Testament times, too. The new religion of Christianity was being introduced into a world where promiscuity, temple prostitutes, and pedophilia were not only commonplace, but they were also socially acceptable. Paul addressed these issues head-on in his letters.
We can never make sense of the writings of Paul without learning something about the culture in which he lived. When he refers to fornication, he’s talking about temple prostitution, something that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to us today. In the 21st century, our context for sexual ethics is different. 80% of college students have sex together regularly – many of them with the people they will eventually marry. 9 out of 10 heterosexual couples married in most of our churches have been living together before the wedding. (I can't remember the last time I married a couple that wasn't already living together.) When Paul refers to homosexuality, he’s talking about pedophilia, which was an accepted practice in his day. There was no understanding of committed relationships between two adults of the same gender. To say that sexual behaviors practiced today are different than they were in Paul’s day is an understatement to the Nth degree.
As Christians, we have a challenge when it comes to sexuality. We need to do what Paul did by offering guidance to one another about healthy sexual behavior in our time and place. We can’t base our behaviors upon the context of the first century Middle Eastern world. We need to establish a sexual ethic for our contemporary context.
Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has written what one commentator has called, “the best ten pages written about sexuality in the 20th century.” His view of sexuality has been very helpful for me, and you may find it helpful as well.
Williams affirms the sacred space of erotic love, but he also underscores an ethical imperative. He does this by grounding his ideas in covenant theology – in the faithful and exclusive covenant that God has with us – and the faithful and exclusive covenant that we’re called to have with God. Because we’re created in the image of God, Williams suggests that we are called to embody the creative ethic of God. To use Williams own words: “to desire my joy is to desire the joy of the one I desire… it is to ask the moral question, ‘How much do we want our sexual activity to heal and enlarge the life of others?’” I really like that: a sexual ethic that heals and enlarges the life of the other.
A reciprocal and mutual covenant ethic suggests that asymmetrical – unbalanced – sexual relationships are simply not part of God’s vision: sexual behavior that exhibits power over the other, sexual behavior that focuses on me instead of the beloved, sexual behavior that hides in the shadows of shame. None of that behavior heals and enlarges the life of the other. That means that it’s not “anything goes” when it comes to sexual behavior. Some things are wrong, like prostitution, promiscuity, adultery, pedophilia, clergy sexual misconduct, “hooking up” for casual sex. Those practices are wrong, not just because they break some antiquated rules, but because they don't heal and enlarge the other.
So, why are Christians so afraid to talk about sex? We’re still very much people of the garden after the fall, aren’t we? When it comes to our sexuality we're filled with guilt and judgment and shame. But that’s not what God wants for us.
Song of Solomon reminds us of the amazing gift God has given us through our sexuality. Through our sexual relationships we have the opportunity to reflect the image of God within us by seeking the joy of the one we desire. I’m so glad Song of Solomon survived all the sorting and cutting that resulted in the Bible we have today. Lest there be any doubt about God’s intention for his people, we were created to enjoy sex. In fact, every time we engage in the act, we’re honoring our Creator. Now, if that doesn’t motivate you to go to bed a little early tonight, I don’t know what will.