The New Testament has almost nothing helpful to say about sex, other than Jesus’ quotation from Genesis, about the man leaving his parental home to be united with his wife, and the two becoming one flesh. St Paul focuses so much on avoiding sexual sins that he never gets round to the good things. Fortunately the Old Testament is sane, recognising the delight of sexual love as well as its pitfalls. But the centre of biblical witness to sexual love is a book which is hardly ever read in church for fear of embarrassment, namely The Song of Songs, called in my Boy’s Brigade bible the Song of Solomon. This wrong title (there are certainly two speakers in the Song, a woman and a man) is typical of the dishonesty of both church and synagogue, which have insisted that these sexy lyrics express the mutual love of God and his people. This metaphorical sexuality set off a whole genre of Christian art and literature culminating in Bernini’s orgasmic statue of St Theresa. If handled delicately, as in George Herbert’s “Love bade me welcome,” it can be touching, but there’s not much of it I would miss if it were destroyed, and moreover, it perpetuates a wrong interpretation of the Song of Songs.
It is a difficult book to read as it consists of speeches by two characters and a chorus, but doesn’t tell which character is speaking. Many modern bible have designated them for the reader, but different bibles do so differently. Still it’s possible to enjoy the frank sexuality of these exchanges, and realise that, although doubtless the main characters love each other, it’s sexual love, making love, which is portrayed and celebrated, in which the woman is as desirous as the man, and often takes the lead. A wealth of images from nature, animals, birds, flowers, mountains, and so on, are used to depict the lovers’ bodies and embraces. Unlike modern novels which tell you exactly what’s happening, these poems leave you guessing and imagining which is more sexy.
So what is to be concluded from the presence of this book in the Bible?
1. The bible sees women as powerful people in their own right. This is true of both testaments. Yes, they depict a patriarchal society, but there are many stories in which women are the leading figures, and many phrases in which their female dignity is upheld. This book shows the woman as an equal partner in sexual love.
2. Sexual love is depicted partly as an intoxication with the partner’s body. Clearly this text depicts male-female sex, but it can be appreciated by people of any sexual preference. Moral approval or disapproval are irrelevant in the poems. A powerful and beautiful thing is happening. Sexual love may need moral guidance, but the morals need to do justice to the thing itself. Modern amoralities and older puritanism alike fall short in this respect.
3. This depiction of sexual love is almost a commentary on Genesis 1, 2. In sex the separated bits of the original dust-creature make a real effort to get back together again, to become one flesh. This humorous and sensual teaching is a particular gift of male/female sexuality to the understanding of human beings. Because we see the worth of other sexualities does not mean we should neglect the male/female tradition with its special insights.
4. The poems show that the sexual relationship as beautiful without compromising its fierce desires. D H Lawrence among others wrote and argued for a culture in which the beauty of sexual love could be celebrated. All this is a thousand miles from the soft-porn constantly used in our media to sell commodities. The timidity of Christian churches with regard to sex, has left the field to exploiters and abusers.
5. All of the above are reasons why the book has been neglected by the Christian tradition. The absence of sexuality in the thought, worship and work of the churches may explain the absence of young people.