OK guys. It’s time for Father Dave’s sex talk! It comes once every three years, when the passage from the Song of Songs appears in the lectionary.
When you were in school, you used to get this talk every year. If you were in a Christian Youth Group, you probably got this talk every week! Most of us here are now significantly older though, and once every three years seems about right.
Either way, let me begin with my favourite love poem:
I wonder by my troth what thou and I did till we loved?
Were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures childishly,
Or snorted we in the seven sleepers den?
Twas so, but this all pleasures fancy be.
If ever any beauty I did see, which I desired and got,
Twas but a dream of thee!
Yes, it’s John Donne (in The Good Morrow), eulogising about the joys of waking up alongside your lover. Now let me now read you my favourite Biblical love poem:
The voice of my beloved!
Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag.
Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice
My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”
It’s from the Biblical book, ‘The Song of Songs’, otherwise known as ‘The Song of Solomon’, and it shares the same theme as the earlier poem. It might not have the same lyrical quality to it as Donne’s work of course, but remember that it’s translated from the Hebrew, and probably loses a lot in the translation. The theme, at any rate, is much the same: Spring has come, love is in the air, and the time has come to sneak away for a romp in the woods!
That much is clear. What is not clear is what this is doing in the Bible! That is a question that students of the Bible have been asking for thousands of years! The other big question for me is why the compilers of the lectionary chose to schedule this reading for Fathers Day! Well, maybe that was an accident, but the bigger question is not so easy to solve:
- Jewish Rabbis were debating the place of the Song of Songs in the Scriptures way back at the Council of Jamnia back in AD 90!
- In the year 553 Theodore of Mopsuestia questioned the place of the Song in the Scriptures and was opposed by the second council of Constantinople.
- 1000 years later, in 1553 Sebastian Castellio was forced to leave Geneva after arguing with Calvin that the Song should not remain in the Bible.
At the very least we must admit that this ‘Song’ doesn’t fit the normal Biblical mould.
- The Song never mentions God.
- It reads as being positively bawdy at points!
- Most disturbing of all, for good middle-class church-going people, the lovers in this Song don’t appear to be married! If they were, why would they need to sneak away for a romp?
We people of the book, over the generations, have consistently found this Song of Songs to be a source of embarrassment. And frankly, more embarrassing still, from my point of view, than the book itself have been those who have sought to defend it, always on the basis of allegorization.
The early Jewish Rabbis took the Song to be an allegory of the love between the Lord and Israel. Likewise, most Christians who defended the book regarded it as a song of love between Christ and His church.
This allegorical approach was standard from the medieval period right through the Reformation:
The man is taken to be Christ. The woman is the church. His kisses (1:2) are the Word of God, the girl’s dark skin (1:5) is sin, her breasts (7:7) are the church’s nurturing doctrine, and her two sweet lips (4:11) are law and gospel! (no doubt the top lip was sweeter than the bottom!)
The most curious part of the historical allegory, I think, has been the popular identification, made originally by St Ambrose, of the woman with the virgin Mary! Not only is there no independent reason to think that the women in this Song is Mary, but the woman in question is certainly no virgin!
Most modern scholars regard the allegorical interpretation is indefensible, which brings us back to our original question: what is this book doing in the Bible?
The only possible answer, I think, is that the Bible appreciates love more than we do, or at least, the Bible has a more relaxed attitude towards love and human sexuality than the church has had historically. For let’s be honest: the historic church of Christ has not generally exhibited a very positive view of human sexuality over the ages!
My belief is that this has been largely due to our dualistic Greek philosophical heritage, where the body is divided from the spirit, and where all things physical are seen as being unspiritual, most especially human sexual desire, which is a further hankering after the physical!
In this Greek understanding ‘chastity’ is equivalent to ‘purity’. Hence celibacy is extolled as a spiritual virtue. Sex is seen as a necessary evil, for the purpose of procreation. As one early Christian leader put it, ‘the good thing about sex is that it produces more monks and nuns’.
At the risk of offending some of our Catholic brethren, I personally believe that this is the line of thought behind the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of the Mary!
If you follow the logic, Mary could only bear Jesus because she was ‘pure’, and her purity is seen as tied up with her virginity. As adoration of Mary grew over the ages, it came to be seen as perpetually pure, and hence it followed that she must have continued to be a virgin, despite the fact that Jesus’ brothers and sisters are referenced in the New Testament!
Indeed, if you follow Christian tradition, you will find that Mary’s mother, a woman supposedly named, ‘Anne’ herself came to be regarded as being a virgin at the time of Mary’s birth! This idea arose in the 4th century and was revived in the 15th century, and though the Vatican renounced the idea as ridiculous in the year 1677, they retained the belief that Mary herself was born to Anne via an immaculate conception!
This is a long way from the attitude we see in the Song, and I’d suggest that the attitude of the Song towards sex more truly mirrors the overall Biblical perspective than does Christian history.
Broadly speaking, I would suggest to you that the Bible has very little to say about sex! Despite all opinion to the contrary, and despite the fact that sex is a very significant subject for us, I would suggest to you that the it is not a very significant subject for the Bible.
Yes, Jesus had a couple of things to say on the matter, and yes, there are warnings scattered about the Bible, telling us that we need to be careful about where our sexual drives might lead us. But this is pretty minor stuff really, especially when we consider how significant sex is in other religions, most especially the other religions that were popular when the Bible was being written!
From the early Canaanite fertility cults we read about in the Old Testament, to the worship of Aphrodite in the New, sex was seen as a divine force. Much new age spirituality has likewise latched on to ‘sacred sex’ rituals in Hindu tradition and elsewhere.
At the other end of the spectrum, as we’ve already mentioned, you had the influence of Greek dualism. This was has been more influential on the history of the church, but its influence is equally absent from the Biblical texts themselves, where you will never find human sexuality written about as an evil, demonic force.
While historically religions have latched on to sex as a mighty spiritual power, positive or negative, our Bible takes neither course! It simply leaves sex as a human reality.
Like anger, which is seen as a powerful human force, that when properly utilised can drive us towards justice, so sex is seen as a powerful human force, that when properly utilised can do much good. And like anger, when it runs out of control, it can do much damage. As Fred Buechner put it, sex is like nitro-glycerine ‘it can be used to heal hearts or to blow up bridges.’
This is the first thing that needs to be said about a Biblical perspective on sex – namely, that the Bible sees sex simply as a human drive that – a drive that, like anger, can easily lead us into sin, bur which can also be a very creative dimension of human life. The other thing that must be said of the Bible on this subject is that it always links intimacy with commitment.
This is true in all relationships. To quote our friend Morde Vanunu, ‘to know is to be responsible‘. This applies in social and political life, yes, but it is equally the rule in personal relationships. The closer you are to somebody, the more you know them, the more capable you are of hurting them, and so the more responsible you are for them, and the more committed you need to be to them. Knowledge brings with it responsibility. Intimacy, if it is not to be damaging, must always involve commitment. And complete intimacy means total commitment.
I won’t say more on this now, but would encourage you to think this through further for yourself, for I do believe that this is the key to understanding sex and relationships from a Biblical perspective.Sex, Biblically speaking, is not fundamentally about procreation, from my reading of the Scriptures, but about being close to someone. Good sex is about sharing a closeness that nurtures and strengthens another person. Illicit sex is intimacy without commitment, knowledge without responsibility. From a spiritual perspective, this sort of sex is just a form of abuse.
Well, that’s it for Father Dave’s sex talk for another three years. It’s not really a sex talk though is it. It’s as discussion of spirituality and relationships. It’s more about religion than sex, and this is as it should be.
It may be instructive to consider word ‘religion’ itself. It comes from the Latin word ‘religio’, meaning, ‘to bind back’. ‘Religion’ is the process through which we bind ourselves back – back to our creator and back to who we are. From a Christian perspective, we this binding back process is always a process of love. Romantic love is not the whole of love, but it is a dimension of love that the Bible celebrates.
I read that In Bonn, in Germany, a German group of psychologists, physicians and insurance companies cooperated on a research project, designed to find the secret to long life and success, and that they made a surprising discovery!
Kiss your partner each morning when you leave for work! The German researchers discovered that partners who kiss each other every morning have fewer automobile accidents on their way to work than those who omit the morning kiss. The kissers miss less work because of sickness and earn 20 to 30 percent more money than non-kissers.
Sex, love, romance, friendship, affection, warmth – these are good gifts of God to be enjoyed. It is not for all of us to enjoy all of them, nor for any of us to enjoy any of them all of the time. But when a good relationship is given to us, we should be able to celebrate it in Song!
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, September 3rd, 2006.