Romancing the Bible

 Inspired by Song of Songs

As some of you may already know, I don’t listen to much Christian music in my personal life. I did go through a phase in my twenties that started with Christian pop and ended with Christian metal, but that phase finally went by the wayside.  One of the things that I didn’t like about contemporary Christian music, which me and my seminary buds used to always make fun of, was that many of the songs were a bit too sappy for me, and by that I mean that a lot of them sounded like romantic love songs to God, or as we would call them in seminary, “Me and my boyfriend Jesus songs.” I mean, just listen to some of these lyrics. This is one from a song by Casting Crowns, “Your fragrance is intoxicating in our secret place. Your love is extravagant.” Come on. 

I don’t know about you but I have never commented on how God smells while in prayer! However, I tell my wife all the time how good she smells. Here’s another one, this one from Gateway Worship “I wanna…lay back against you and breath, feel your heart beat. This love is so deep, it's more than I can stand. I melt…” Again, I just don’t talk to God that way! Am I alone? I have talked to my wife like this before though. Oh man, you should see some of the love letters we’d write to each other back in the day. Talk about sappy! They’d probably make us gag today! Anyway, this caused a disconnect between me and a lot of contemporary Christian music, and I eventually just gave up on it. Besides, I have always found more of God or spirituality or religious themes in secular music than I have in contemporary Christian music anyway. 

However, I don’t share this just so I can dump on contemporary Christian music like my seminary buds and I used to do, but rather, to come to its defense. Never thought I’d say that! Because something else I learned in seminary, as I took a deeper dive into scripture than I ever had before, was that the Bible was overflowing with romantic love references! And here’s the kicker, at least half of those references were not between humans, but between God and humans, even going so far as to use the image of marriage to describe our relationship with God. So, as it turns out, all those sappy contemporary Christian songs that we used to make fun of, were quite biblical the whole time! Who knew! I still don’t listen to contemporary Christian music, but I at least can appreciate it now, and even use it in worship. Some of it. 

And speaking of worship, our Jewish siblings have the tradition of reading or singing very specific Bible books on major holidays, in their entirety! Esther is read on the festival of Purim, commemorating the saving of the Jewish people from a Persian king; Ruth is read on their festival of Pentecost, a harvest festival commemorating the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai; Ecclesiastes, or as they call it, Qoheleth, is read on the Feast of Tabernacles, commemorating their reliance on God during their nomadic days before they took the promised land; Lamentations is read on the Ninth of Av, when they remember various disasters like the destruction of their temples; and last but not least, can anyone guess what holiday Song of Songs is read on? Passover! And I find that fascinating and weird and profound all at the same time! 

Why? Because Song of Songs is a love song! And not just any love song but a romantic, passionate, erotic, love song! Not the kind of song that we usually think of during a major religious holiday! But that is exactly what the ancient rabbis did when they put their Bible together. I mean, listen to some of these lyrics! “An enclosed garden is my lover; an enclosed pool, a sealed spring. Your limbs are an orchard of pomegranates with all kinds of luscious fruit, henna, and spices:…myrrh, and aloes, with the very choicest perfumes!...Let my love come to my garden; to eat its luscious fruit!” Here’s another one, “'I have taken off my tunic—why should I put it on again? I have bathed my feet—why should I get them dirty?' My love put a hand in through the latch hole, and my body ached for my love. I rose; I went to open for my love, and my hands dripped myrrh, my fingers, liquid myrrh, over the handles of the lock.” 

Whew! Is it getting hot in here? Did someone turn the AC down again? Here’s one more, “You are so beautiful, so lovely—my love, my delight! Your stately form resembles a date palm, and your breasts are like clustered fruit. I say, ‘I will climb that palm tree; I will hold its fruit!’ May your breasts be now like grape clusters…I belong to my lover, and my lover’s longing is only for me.” Ok, so I’m sure you get my surprise that this is read, in its entirety, on Passover. Not to mention, how it got into the Bible at all! Even more puzzling is that this is one of only two books in the entire Bible that never mentions God, not once. Anyone know what the other book is? Esther! Didn’t know there’d be a quiz today did you? Also, modern scholars believe that this was a secular song first, that was later coopted by the ancient Jewish community. 

So, what did they see in this book, that not only allowed them to include it into their holy scripture, but read it at every Passover? Well, like myself and many others, they had no problem hearing God or religious themes in secular music. And, like I mentioned before, the Bible is full of romantic love references to describe our relationship with God. That got me thinking about romantic love, and dissecting it a bit. What are the building blocks of romantic love, and how did they apply them to us and God? It’s not really something that is part of our own modern faith journeys, but now I’m wondering if we might be missing something! By not including this kind of love in how we think about the love between us and God, are we cheating ourselves out of an ancient but profound approach to our faith? 

Well, let’s see. I’d love to hear what you would add to this list but these are some of what I came up with as elements that make up romantic love. Fidelity. Fidelity is loyalty of the most intimate kind. Now, fidelity between humans often has a sexual connotation but it doesn’t have to. As we apply it to God’s love, we are reminded of how all-consuming God’s love is, how deeply it penetrates the core of our very souls, to the point that the two, us and God, are made one. And anything that gets in the way of that oneness, that tries to get in between, threatens that fidelity. 

Here’s another element of romantic love, respect, mutual respect. The kind of respect that acknowledges the autonomy and free will of the other. The kind of respect that protects one from being forced upon by the other, or made to become someone who they are not. As much as God wants to have a close relationship with everyone, God will not force Godself upon anyone. Likewise, we also should not box God into our own image, but should allow God to be who God is, no matter how uncomfortable that makes us sometimes. Just ask the prophet Jonah about that! 

I’m gonna put the next two on my list together, dire and passionate. A dire passion. Not only should there be passion between two lovers but there should also be an urgency to it, as if time is running out, or as if there may be a threat around the next corner. Though we only have 26 years under our belt, one thing we have noticed in our own marriage is that time is running out, meaning it has gone by faster than could have ever imagined. And, that there often is a threat just around the corner, a threat to our love. And it’s this dire passion that keeps us on the alert, as well as reminds us to not take time for granted. 

I’m gonna pair these next ones as well. Two more elements of romantic love are irrationality and blindness. Romantic love can cause you to do some of the dumbest things you’ll ever do in your life, as well as allow you to overlook so many faults in each other. Now that last one is easy to apply to God as God overlooks all of our faults! But irrationality, that might take a little imagination, but I think God acts irrational all the time in God’s continuing effort to love us. As we’ve heard in other Bible books, God’s ways are often seen as foolish, irrational even; but that’s just because of how much God loves us. 

And lastly, romantic love should be pleasureful. You know, when I was growing up, somewhere along the way I came to the conclusion that sexual pleasure was bad, dirty, ungodly, unholy, defiling, and in my mind, that meant it was evil. It was a very unhealthy perspective on sexual pleasure. And in my conversations over the years with many other people, I’ve learned that I was not alone. That many other people’s childhood caused them to come to that same conclusion. Which is another reason why I love that those ancient rabbis included this book in their holy scriptures, because pleasure, even the sexual kind, is anything but ungodly. As we learned last week, God wants us to enjoy life, to take pleasure in what we can, no matter the kind of pleasure we’re talking about. Safely, of course. 

What a gift this book is, opening up these and so many other elements of romantic love to the way we think and live into our relationship with our God! But it can’t end there. So, your homework for this week, no, scratch that, your homework for the rest of your lives, is to imagine and practice, what this kind of love might look like out in the real world, because what we say and do in here only matters if it matters out there. So, what might fidelity, an intimate loyalty, look like out there? What might respect, mutual respect, that creates safe places out there, look like? What might a dire passion look like as you traverse this world? What might a blind and irrational love look like out there? 

And what might the world look like if we started caring about how much pleasure is in people’s lives? I think you’d agree that pleasure, of any kind, is vital to a healthy life. Yet, despite our caring for people's needs like food, and water, and shelter, I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone ask how much pleasure our unhoused have, or the single parent working three jobs, or the elderly living alone. So, that’s all, just work on those from now to eternity. In the meantime, I pray that you, my friends, experience the intimate richness of God’s love, as it urges you to open up that love for others. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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