Archive for theology

Church is not an adress

bethechurch325x303In evangelical circles we keep saying this, Church is the people not the building, but do we really understand it? The word church comes from the german kirche which in turn comes from the greek word kurios meaning lord. So the word church means “those who belong to the lord”, well you could of course make it mean houses belonging to the lord but that would be rather stretching it. When Jesus proclaims to Peter “on this rock I will build my church”, he is actually not saying the word church, it didn’t exist. He also did not say Synagogue which would have been the contemporary term. No, Jesus uses the word ekklesia which means gathering, assembly, coming together.

The gospels report Jesus saying where two or more are gathered, Paul states your body is the temple! It is that simple. Every person you meet is a temple housing the holiest of the holy. Everywhere you look you will see temples housing divine love, the source of life. “one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Eph 4.6)

Church then, can be everywhere at once, all the time. It is a way of being or maybe a way of seeing, where every person you meet is holy, every place you set your foot is holy ground. In the Salvation Army we call this the sacramental life, where everything and everyone is an outward sign of an inward grace.

Church is with you, within you and also with me, within me. When we meet we can be church together and honour the divine source within each other. We can be a living sacrament in the world, living the love of the divine, manifesting or incarnating god in the everyday-everyplace.

Do not go to church, be church wherever you go.

The things Pope Francis did not say…

francisThe last couple of days there has been a post circulating on the internet with a bunch of statements allegedly made by the current Pope. People are upset that a pope would say such things (although he didn´t) and what it would mean for Christianity at large. Other people are praising the Pope for these statements sharing their relief that, here we have at least one pope that makes sense.

Now let me be clear, the Pope did not say these things, the statements are said to have been made at Vatican III a convention that has yet to happen.

So why write anything about something that is not real? Well, the contents of the Popes speech echo what is already going around in many Christian circles and for some this is fundamental Christian faith. In other Christian circles it is the ultimate heresy. So regardless of the veracity this “speech” that never happened lands in the middle of the current theological discourse.

There is no literal hellfire

“Through humility, soul searching, and prayerful contemplation we have gained a new understanding of certain dogmas. The church no longer believes in a literal hell where people suffer. This doctrine is incompatible with the infinite love of God. God is not a judge but a friend and a lover of humanity. God seeks not to condemn but only to embrace. Like the fable of Adam and Eve, we see hell as a literary device. Hell is merely a metaphor for the isolated soul, which like all souls ultimately will be united in love with God.”

This is not a novel idea and has been circulating in Christian discourse as long as there has been a Christian faith. The idea of a literal hellfire is a medieval idea based more on the works of Dante and Milton then the bible. Please note that the statement does not in any way dismiss the reality of hell but rather dispels the belief in hellfire and hell as a place of punishment, like C.S. Lewis wrote and Rob Bell, N.T. Wright and many others have echoed, hell is not a flaming furnace but the isolation from god, something that is not only an issue of the afterlife but a reality in the here and now.

Adam and Eve is a fable

Like the fable of Adam and Eve, we see hell as a literary device. Hell is merely a metaphor for the isolated soul, which like all souls ultimately will be united in love with God.

Here the article touches on the idea that the first narratives in our scriptures are not historical facts but mythical narrative written to teach us about who god is, what it means to be human and what our relationship to the divine is and can be. The use of the word fable is apt as we indeed have a talking snake in Genesis 3. I will return to the idea of biblical authority further down in the article. We need to at least face the fact that our two creation stories in Genesis do not line up neatly and cannot both be literally true. We would do well to recognise that the creation myths of the Judeo-Christian scriptures are not factual historical documents and does not answer the question “how?” but rather tries to give us a hint at “why?”

God changes constantly

“God is changing and evolving as we are, For God lives in us and in our hearts. When we spread love and kindness in the world, we touch our own divinity and recognize it.

The idea of a god that changes and evolves is very much presented in scripture in fact it is more present than the idea of the “changeless one”. As evangelicals we are prone to say things like it´s not a religion it´s a relationship as we believe in the idea that we can have a personal and intimate relationship with Jesus. Furthermore we believe that god is love and love also implies relationship. How can we believe in a relational god if we do not believe that both parties in this relation can change. Only death is static, changeless. Life is constant change and growth, why can this not be true of god as well? How can we at the same time argue for a literal reading of scripture and then ignore the countless passages in the bible where god changes gods mind and gods plans?

All religions are true

“All religions are true, because they are true in the hearts of all those who believe in them. What other kind of truth is there? In the past, the church has been harsh on those it deemed morally wrong or sinful. Today, we no longer judge. Like a loving father, we never condemn our children. Our church is big enough for heterosexuals and homosexuals, for the pro-life and the pro-choice! For conservatives and liberals, even communists are welcome and have joined us. We all love and worship the same God.”

I think this is the most upsetting statement of all the ideas presented in this short text. And while I agree in principle I would have liked the statement to read “there is truth in all religions”. C.S. Lewis famously said “Just because we are right, does not mean that everybody else is wrong”. To believe that Christian faith and doctrine is the only truth is a fallacy as there are countless variations of Christian belief and various different truth claims. If there was only one truth and Christians possessed it, then all Christian churches would preach and teach the same thing. However the reality is that we are sometimes so varied in our description of this truth that we may as well be different religions. I think we need to be at least a little suspicious when we believe that there is only one truth and we (as in our little group of Christians) have it. The text actually makes clear that the church’s mission or mandate is to include all, including the ones that have a different take on truth than us.

The Authority of the Bible

The Bible is a beautiful holy book, but like all great and ancient works, some passages are outdated. Some even call for intolerance or judgement. The time has come to see these verses as later interpolations, contrary to the message of love and truth, which otherwise radiates through scripture. In accordance with our new understanding, we will begin to ordain women as cardinals, bishops and priests. In the future, it is my hope that we will have a woman pope one day. Let no door be closed to women that is open to men!

In my opinion this is the key issue, the question that we all come back to over and over again. If there is one question that the church must face, wether Catholic or Protestant, Orthodox, evangelical or emergent, it is this one. The place of the scriptures in our faith community. If we cannot re-evaluate how we have historically interpreted some passages to be literal and others not, then we can never as a church or faith community grow. In many conservative circles we have come to worship our tradition (and/or the bible) rather than god. And we state blindly that god does not change neither does our understanding of scripture. The reality looks different, we have time and time again revised our understanding of scripture and tradition and changed how and why we act and believe in certain ways. In some liberal circles we have gone the other way and tossed out all tradition and historical understanding, changing things that may not have needed revision, just to make a clean break with the old.

It is my opinion that we need a far more sensitive and humble approach where we tread softly, recognise that we have always interpreted our scriptures and our faith through cultural lenses, some good and some bad. It must be the work of every generation to return to these scriptures and traditions and carefully re-evaluate and re-imagine what it is to be a follower of the way in our time and place.

So whether Pope Francis said these things or not is rather irrelevant (at least outside of Catholic circles), I for one would have loved to hear this speech made by a Pope or any other religious leader. We need this conversation in all of Christendom, and we need to be able to converse with love and charity, humility and grace.

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6.8 NRSV)

Is god opposed to pleasure?

2009-03-07-Pleasure-centersIn recent conversations the topic of pleasure has come up time and time again. It seems that from a Christian point of view we are as a community ambivalent about god’s view on pleasure.

It seems that somewhere deep down we do believe that although god is good and want good things for us, we still have a hard time believing that god would want us to experience pleasure.

As I was thinking about this I ran across this jubilant ending of Psalm 16:

You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

I know that in the context of this psalm, it seems it is taking about the life after, the life after, death (As N.T. Wright would put it). However I cannot help but think that the path of life, must be something that happens, you know, in life!

What if gods wish for us actually was “fullness of joy” and “pleasures forever more”. How would that change your view of god, how would it change your view of self? How would it change your view of all those experiences that give pleasure?

It also seems to me that while we are ok with some forms of pleasure, we are dead scared of others. We are ok with the pleasure of reading a good book or seeing a great movie. We are ok with enjoying a good meal and to enjoy the buzz after a good workout. We are also ok with the pleasure of good company, as long as it is not wit the opposite sex, then it sadly becomes sinful or guilty pleasure.

I wonder what would happen if we, instead of feeling guilty for all kinds of bodily pleasure, started thanking god for it. What if we before we go into the bedroom (or whatever place we enjoy each other) with our significant other prayed a prayer of thankful blessing over the gifts we are about to receive (kinda like praying grace before a meal). What if we said grace before seeking pleasure on our own, be it from a book, from a movie, from a meal, or from our own hands? And what if we instead of walking around feeling guilty for having received the gift of pleasure, prayed prayers of thanks afterwards? How would this change our experience, our enjoyment?

What if we could affirm god as the creator of pleasure, who, according to scripture created the first humans “naked and not ashamed”. The god who created humans in god’s own image uniquely able to experience and give pleasure. What if we could affirm ourselves our bodies to be part of the glorious creation of god and that we are not only good creations but “very good” and that as god’s creations made to experience pleasure, also could affirm that pleasure also is “very good”?

The truth of the slippery slope

During the last couple of years many friends and people I do not yet know have told me to beware the slippery slope. They have in no uncertain terms let me know that if I start questioning the tradition bound given truths of the church that I would eventually loose my faith.

Today having wandered, slid, fallen, tumbled, run, surfed down this slippery slope I can say that it was all true.

Here are some of the things they told me about the slippery slope:
- You will loose your faith in the bible as absolute truth and authority
- You will loose your high view of Jesus
- You will loose your confidence in the church
- You will open your self up to the influence of other religions
- You will no longer be able to pray like you used to
- You will no longer be a christian

It is all true!

However what they didn’t tell me, and what I found was this:
- I have found a new and deeper love for the scriptures
- I have a new understanding of Jesus that is refreshing, renewing and transformative
- I have a newfound respect and love for authentic spiritual community
- I have found the light of truth and transformation in the most unlikely places
- I have found a new urgency, understanding and love for prayer
- I may no longer be a christian according certain criteria, but I have never followed Christ more closely.

on top of this I have also found:
- A sense of belonging and connectedness
- immense peace
- unparalleled freedom
- unconditional love
- scandalous grace
- deep joy

I have also found a love for myself and my neighbour I did not think possible. All in all, while the warnings of the slope have proven true the rewards have been literally out of this world!

Sexuality in the Song of Songs – Part 5: Conclusion and bibliography

song-of-songs-titleThe primary focus of the Song is the passion and the desire between the two lovers yet there seem to be something deeper underneath the surface. Rob Bell astutely asserts that: “You can’t talk about sexuality without talking about how we are made. And that will inevitably lead you to who made us. At some point you have to talk about God” (2007: 15) He goes on to say: “Sex. God. They’re connected. And they can’t be separated” (Bell 2007: 15) and then Bell asserts that: “sex is all of the ways we strive to reconnect with our world, with each other, and with God” (2007: 42). If this is true then more can be learned about life, about spirituality and about God through the Song, than merely how to handle our sexuality. John Toy suggests that the erotic is a dimension of God’s love, of Eros. He also suggests that erotic is so much more than sex and that we need to reinstate “eroticism as one of the ways to love God for what he gives us and so to love our neighbours” (Toy, 2007: 331).

It seems clear that the Song has a lot to offer into the biblical dialogue about human sexuality. The Song affirms and praises the physical enjoyment of human sexuality and maybe more importantly, it offers a corrective to the otherwise androcentric world view  offered in the biblical texts. Dietrich Bonhoeffer “has suggested that the Song is a superb articulation of ‘creation theology’, for it celebrates the unquestioned ‘goodness’ of creatureliness” (Brueggemann, 2003: 325), it does so by countering the fall if not directly as suggested by 7.10, then implicitly by it’s vivacious celebration of what it is to be a human and a sexual being. By this the Song also offers an important counterbalance to modern societies superficial view of sex, not by condemnation, but by redeeming erotic passion and human sexuality as deeply spiritual and deeply human. It does so without side stepping the difficulty and pain that is also associated with passionate love but by inviting the reader into an imaginative fantasy of risk filled passionate love where the reader may encounter not only what it means to be human but also what it means to be passionately loved by God.


2005 Spiritual formation bible – New revised standard version.
London: Hodder & Stoughton

Beckford, Robert
2008 Theology Beyond iIlusion – Exploring Contextual Theology. Lecture given at the William Booth College, London. 25 June 2008

Bell, Rob
2007 Sex God – Exploring the endless Connections Between Sexuality and Spirituality.
Grand Rapids: Zondervan

Brueggemann, Walter
2003 An Introduction to the Old Testament. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Prss

Eldredge, John
2001 Wild at Heart – Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul. Nashville: Nelson

Estes, Daniel J.
2005 Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic

Freed, Edwin D.
2001 The New Testament – A critical introduction. Belmont: Wadsworth

Hess, Richard S.
2005 Song of Songs. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic

Lewis, C.S.
1960 The Four Loves. London: Geoffrey Bles

Murphy, R. & Huwiler, E.
1999 New International Biblical Commentary – Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs.
Carlisle: Pater Noster

Toy, John
2007 ‘God and Eroticism’ in Theology. Vol CX. No. 857 (2007) 323-331

Sexuality in the Song of Songs – Part 4: Sexual Ethics

Shulamite BrideIt should be very clear at this point that the Song is unashamedly and explicitly sexual. Describing the growing love and passion between two individuals. While It remains uncertain if they are married (what the Song has to say about marriage will be considered later in this essay) the Song clearly describes a passionate love affair or courtship. This love that they share is expressed openly and passionately as the two lovers take turns describing each other. Nowhere in this song is there even a hint of shame or sin induced guilt. Hess argues that this “positive theme of physical love contrasts with the persisting negative statements on adultery, promiscuity and the images of Israel as the unfaithful wife as found in the prophets” (2005: 33), he goes on to state that the imagery of a sexuality that is praised “counters the negative association of these things with sin as developed in the prophets” (Hess quoting Hunter, 2005: 33).

The absence of sinfulness and guilt does not mean that the song portrays human sexuality as problem free, there are a couple of darker episodes of the Song that seem to point out, as Rob Bell states in his book Sex God, that: “Love is risky” (2007: 94). Earlier in the same chapter Bell comments on this risk, it is, when in a relationship you give the other person power by allowing that person to accept or reject you (Bell, 2007: 89). And this is what we see happening in the Song 5.2-6 if you choose to read the surface narrative. First the man takes a risk, knocking on her door late at night and she rejects him, when she realises what she has done she changes her mind but to late he has left and Bell comments: “Now she is the one risking, searching, trying to find him. And coming up empty. The heart has tremendous capacity to love, and to ache. And that ache is universal” (Bell, 2007: 95).

If the Song is a positive statement on human sexuality it is even more affirming about female sexuality. This has led to an argument for female authorship. Fifty-three percent of the dialogue is given to the woman (Hess, 2005: 19) and some of the thoughts expressed in the song have been considered so feminine that they cannot possibly have been written by a man (Estes, 2005: 394). Whoever wrote these love poems did give the woman an unusual role not only as she gets to speak for herself but when she does she claims to have complete control of her own sexuality (Murphy, 1999: 242). This of course stands in stark contrast to most of the biblical narrative where women may be “seen but not heard” as Freed comments on Luke which is to be considered as one of the more feminist texts in the Christian canon (Freed, 2001: 170). “The song presents a view of male-female sexuality which is neither exploitative or hierarchic. Both man and woman act on their own initiative as well as in response to one another” (Murphy et al. 1999: 242). It has been suggested that the imagery where the woman is portrayed as “succulent fruit” stands in stark contrast against the otherwise passive imagery of woman in other bible narratives like Samson’s metaphor for intimacy in Judges 4.18 (Hess, 2005: 29). Hess goes on to argue that this “provides a counterpoint to the institutionalized patriarchalism of much of Israelite society” (Hess, 2005: 33)

This places the Shulammite woman in the Song in the same category as Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Uriah’s wife (Baatsheba) who are the only women mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (Eldredge, 2001: 190). These women are not soft spoken and demure, but rather women who stepped up and took matters into their own hands clearly in control like the Shulammite woman of the Song.

There is a striking resemblance to the story of Ruth, a narrative that is also part of the Megilloth who uses her own sexuality to secure a future for herself and her mother in law. Robert Beckford argues that the uncovering of Boaz feet is a euphemism and that Ruth, like the Shulammite woman, secure in her own sexuality, initiates a sexual encounter and seduces Boaz by uncovering not his feet but his manhood (Beckford 2008). Although Eldredge argues that Ruth and Boaz did not have sex that night, he states that: “There is no possible reading of that passage that is ‘safe’ or ‘nice.’ This is seduction pure and simple” (Eldredge, 2001: 190). The book of Ruth is just as the Song filled with “verbal sparring in which she [Ruth] employs subtle yet recognizable double entendres” (Brueggemann quoting Linafelt, 2003: 321).

As the Song promotes what seems to be at least equality, if not complete independence, for the woman it seems to point back to a time before the fall and the Song has been described as “an extended commentary on the very good spoken over creation, particularly the creation of humankind as male and female” (Murphy et al. 1999: 242). It has also been suggested, although it cannot be proven, that the phrase: “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me.” (Song 7:10) stands as a counterpoint to Genesis 3.16: “your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” (Murphy et al. 1999: 242) This seems to suggest at least by implication that in the union between man and woman the goodness of Eden can be found.

On the topic whether this is within marriage or not, the Song stays silent. Brueggemann asserts that: “it is love of an innocent kind unrestrained by morality or even a suggestion of matrimonial context” (2003: 325). Although Hess argues that the passion of the Song sets it apart from other wisdom literature, but that there is an “emphasis on commitment that prevents a capitulation to promiscuity” (2005: 32) He goes on to link this emphasis links the Song to Prov 5.15-19 and states that “some six or seven explicit verbal images relate this passage to the Song and render explicit the theme of exclusive commitment that is assumed in the love poetry” (Hess, 2005: 32). Although some scholars argue that chapters 4-5 include a marriage ceremony, the text “does not explicitly relate sexuality to marriage and overall does not seem to insist that the appropriate expression of sexuality is necessarily limited to marriage. Neither does it claim that marriage is insignificant. Marriage is simply is not an overt concern in the text” (Murphy et al. 1999: 243).

Sexuality in the Song of Songs – Part 3: Symbols

newBefore looking at the Song’s message and theology, some of the Song’s symbols and images must be decoded. It is important to not get carried away in doing this. While the Song is rife with sensual images appealing to all five senses, it is easy to take this decoding too far and end up with something as subjective as the allegorical interpretation. It is important to remember that while there are a multitude of symbols and images layered in the Song they are not consistent and what symbolises one thing in one verse can symbolise something else in the next. It is therefore impossible to create one-one relationships between symbols and meanings. The Song is a collection of Poems and as such it tries to “communicate in language what is beyond language” (Estes quoting Landy, 2005: 401). Therefore a delicate touch is required not to destroy the beauty of the song with crude decoding and paraphrasing. The Song must be experienced and perhaps even felt (Estes quoting Exum and Bergant, 2005: 401) rather than simply read. Murphy suggests that: “the poet calls attention to the lovers’ imagination and, in so doing, invites the reader to imaginative activity as well” (Murphy et al. 1999: 222)

With that caveat in mind it is time to look at some of the images in the Song without intending to probe the depths of this text but rather to sample some of the imagery. The language of the song is filled with similes and metaphors. It is often compared to an Egyptian poetry form called a wasf, which is a list of physical features where the different aspects of the beloved are likened by different things, places or animals (cf. 4.1-7 and 7.1-4). The woman is described with a plethora of images describing her beauty.  The most common imagery is taken from nature, likening the woman to fruit, trees or animals, but some of the images are more imposing, like the use of tower and warlike imagery such as shields.

The poet shifts from image to image. For example in 7.7 where the woman is likened to a palm tree, and “then the speaker enters into his own metaphor, expressing his desire to climb the tree and gain access to its fruit” (Murphy et al. 1999: 222). Perhaps this shifting is most noticeable as: “metaphors keep shifting between the actual landscape, suffused with erotic associations, and the landscape of the body” (Murphy quoting Ariel and Chana Bloch, 1999: 225). For instance, it is unclear in 2.17, where the man is likened to “a gazelle or a young stag on the cleft mountains”, whether the mountains in question correspond to literal mountains or to the woman’s breasts just as it is not clear whether this is an invitation to a sexual encounter or a request that the man goes away for the night thus preserving her chastity (Murphy et al. 1999: 261). Another passage with this kind of double entendre and layered images is the dream sequence described in chapter five. This passage is dripping with sexual overtones and the suggestive language offers all sorts of erotic imagery. However, the same passage can be read as a completely innocent literal sequence of events. This sequence uses the imagery of oil and myrrh dripping of the woman’s fingers possibly referring to the myrrh found in the “female’s ‘garden’ (4.14, 5.1) or her ‘mountain’ (4.6)” (Hess, 2005:173). Murphy states that: “all of this is in the realm of double entendre. Contrary to the claim of some interpreters, on a descriptive level the passage narrates the man’s visit to the woman’s house. Yet the language raises sexual associations with every line” (Murphy et al. 1999: 276). It seems that at every turn the poet is using evocative language to achieve this ‘double entendre’ and provoke the readers imagination to break out from traditional or religious thinking and to fully immerse and even loose themselves in this passionate erotic narrative.

All living things are my teacher

5415984_-039039-kosmos-039039--1In John 3.16 we read that god so loved the world (kosmos) that he gave his only begotten son…. And it seems to me that all through scripture we are reminded again and again that kosmos, that is all of creation, is longing for redemption.

When god creates the world, as we read in Gen 1, god looks upon creation and pronounces it good. There is an inbuilt original glory to creation that holds and proclaims the glory of god. Every piece of creation has this original glory and shows it off by being truly itself. A tree sings of this glory in the rustling of it’s leaves, a tiger whispers of this glory in it’s graceful but deadly prowl.

Yes there is brokeness to, all is not what it should be, but god did not break it, we did with our machines and pollution. However much be screw things up, we are not able to break god’s imputed goodness. It is still there, it sneaks through in waterfalls and sunsets, cats and seahorse, birch trees and mountain ranges, in kisses and caresses, in you and me.

We are all part of this kosmos, we are all made of the same stuff and so we all carry within us part of the glory and goodness that god drew out and still creatively draws out in this evolutionary process.

We are all part of this big living organism glued together by life and quantum mechanics and so whomever you meet whether human, animal or plant, celestial or spiritual phenomenon, there simply is no other, there is only being. As such we can learn, if we are open and willing, from all of god’s glorious creation. Every moment can be a learning moment, every place a Solomon’s porch, a temple of divine growth. Every person place or object holds something sacred and holy if we are willing to open our eyes, ears and minds to the voice of god luring us to greater beauty and complexity.

Every day is an adventure and: Life is my religionBeing alive is my daily spiritual practiceLove is my ruleHumankind is my familyAuthentic friendships is my churchThe kingdom of god runs through my veins.Jesus is my brotherBecoming and being all that I am is my callingHelping you become and be all that you are is my ministryMy deepest feelings is my guideAll living things are my teacher.

My deepest feelings are my guide Church is in trouble every time it instructs us to disregards our hearts or tell us that our hearts are evil/wicked. If Life is to be our religion and being alive is our spiritual practice; If the church is build by authentic relationships and if becoming and being all that I am is my calling then I ignore my heart and my hearts desires at my own peril.

Keep your heart with all vigilance,
for from it flow the springs of life. (Prov 4.23 NRSV)

The scriptures tell us that life comes out of our heart, out of our feelings, thoughts and committed actions. So if we want to live, to be alive, we must reclaim our hearts, our hearts desire and liberate them.

Or to quote The Tibethan Yogi Padmasambhava:

Look into the nature of desire and there is boundless light.

When I say that my deepest feelings are my guide I mean just that, it’s not the echoing chatter of my ego; All the justification and careful protection that I have built up so that we won’t get hurt, sideswiped or stepped on, but rather the deep longing and desire for connection within us. Our deepest feelings are intrinsically connected to our true self and our longing for being. To be connected to everyone and everything else and to be alive in god.

Life is my religionBeing alive is my daily spiritual practiceLove is my ruleHumankind is my familyAuthentic friendships is my churchThe kingdom of god runs through my veins.Jesus is my brotherBecoming and being all that I am is my callingHelping you become and be all that you are is my ministryMy deepest feelings is my guideAll living things are my teacher.

Sexuality and the Song of Songs – part 1: Background

0596_song_of_songs_pThe Song of songs is a much debated and unique book in the Old Testament. It is near impossible to find consensus on any statement about the book except that it is unique. The book has no parallel in the rest of the Jewish or Christian Canon. It becomes difficult to assert anything about authorship, dating or even context with such a divided collegium of scholars to refer to. This essay will, however, try to avoid these debates and engage in the main debate of what if anything can the Song teach us about human sexuality and how does the Song stand in the dialogue, that is what does it have to say to other Old testament texts, to New Testament text and what does it have to say to the church of today about human sexuality and spirituality.

The Song of Songs is the first of the five scrolls called the Megilloth in the Hebrew Bible and it has been suggested that it was part of the last addition to the Jewish canon (Hess, 2005: 20). While many scholars have asked how the Song came to be canonised it seems that it has been settled into the canon with no room left for uncertainty by Rabbi Aquiba who stated that “all the ages are not worth the day on which Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies” (Hess, 2005: 20f). With this the Song was accepted into the Jewish canon (Hess, 2005: 21). Due to the inclusion into the Jewish canon it was also accepted as canon by the early Christians (Estes, 2005: 395) and Eusebius includes Song of Songs as Christian canon, in his Ecclesiastical History, as early as the second-century AD (Hess, 2005:21).

It seems that the general message of the Old Testament on the subject of sexuality is a negative and undermining, and especially, regarding feminine sexuality (Murphy et al. 1999: 242). This is especially evident in the Levitical law that regulates sexual conduct but does so only by that which it condemns and never with any positive statement. It also becomes very clear that as the Levitical law condemns specific sexual practices it also emphasises the uncleanness of women and judges women more harshly than men when it comes to sexual misconduct. The prophets also pas harsh judgement on human sexuality by condemning bad practice and never condoning positive examples.

It is into this negative view of sexuality that the Song speaks. Whatever interpretation is chosen, literal or allegorical, clearly the Song speaks in a positive and affirming way about sexuality generally, and especially about female sexuality as more than half of the verses in the Song are attributed to the woman. The woman is also portrayed as the initiating party as well as in clear ownership of her own sexuality (Song 8.12) which stands in stark contrast with the view of women in most biblical texts.

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