Saturday, May 24, 2014

Drunk with Love: Reading the Song of Songs with Beyoncé

Hey friends- so wow, it's been a while since I've been able to post much here... the second half of my last semester of seminary was pretty nuts, with a whole lot of writing and other assignments to finish, which took up most of my time. Now that I'm graduated from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, and I have a little bit of time on my hands before beginning my first call to ordained ministry in a parish, I figured I'd take some time to not only catch up on the ol' blog, but in fact to give it a bit of a facelift as well. So, what do you think about the new layout? I tried to go for a bit more of a professional, streamlined look.

At any rate, while there was a whole lot of writing over the last few weeks (about 80 pages in assignments), most of the assignments were a whole lot of fun, so I'll be posting them up over the next week or so. What follows though is probably my favorite paper I wrote throughout seminary, a sort-of exegetical take on Song of Songs 5:1, with my favorite international sensation Beyoncé as a conversation partner. I'd love to hear what you think!

Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love.
- Song of Songs 5:1 (NRSV)

I read the Song of Songs probably twenty times this past week, in a vain attempt to figure out what to write for this paper. Maybe it’s due to the overwhelming sense of excitement and gratitude I’m feeling as graduation approaches, but wow, no matter how many times I went through it, I just couldn’t come up with anything substantial to say! I wanted to dig deep, I wanted to come up with something profound that might rise above the centuries long debate over whether the Song is an allegory for God’s relationship with humanity or whether it’s simply about two ordinary folks deeply in love with each other. I almost thought about shifting my paper topic to another book of the Bible, but the Song kept calling me back… In a time when so few folks are regularly active in organized faith communities, at least in the American context where I’m called to pastor, the Song proves a uniquely powerful tool for self understanding, dialogue with folks of other faith traditions (or lack thereof) and thus, a level of mutual understanding.

Indeed, for us folks living in a pluralistic world, the Song is perhaps the most accessible book in the Bible… in a literal sense few individuals (outside some Pentecostal settings) see God hanging out here on Earth, regularly witness miraculous healings, or hear a Divine echoing down from heaven. Quite similarly, God’s presence is never explicitly mentioned in the Song. If it wasn’t for the Song’s placement in the wider Jewish and Christian canons, there would be little reason to consider it part of a scriptural genre at all. On the other hand, since the Song is in the Bible, it must have something to say about the Divine, right? Why would it be there otherwise? In this way, the Song of Songs floats above our culture’s false dichotomy of sacred and secular, towards a more holistic understanding of God’s work in the world, an understanding accessible to believers and non-believers alike.

In its ability to move past the false dichotomy of sacred and secular, the Song of Songs proves a uniquely powerful tool for ministry in a pluralistic world. While I understood this point, and it thus seemed important to explore the Song further, I simply couldn’t come up with much else besides identifying it as a really pretty song about romantic love that uses garden imagery to create some decidedly erotic undertones. Up pretty late and frustrated with my lack of progress last night, I decided to start googling terms like “top love songs of all time,” thinking it might be interesting to compare the Song’s image of love to that of contemporary music. I stumbled through songs from a diverse group of popular artists, everything from the Righteous Brothers to Foreigner, The Beatles to Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder to the Dave Matthews Band, but nothing felt like it quite reflected what was going on in the Song of Songs. I eventually decided to read through the Song one more time before going to bed, and finally part of a verse stuck out at me: “eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love.”

Drunk with love! Now anyone that’s hip to what’s going on in Top 40 radio right now would recognize a similar phrase! Ever since she dropped a surprise album in late 2013, Beyoncé has been “blowing up the charts” as they say with a number of hit jams, with the song “Drunk in Love” being her most popular. Given Beyoncé’s standing in American society, I assumed “Drunk in Love” would be a perfect dialogue partner for the Song of Songs. Billboard named her the top selling artist of the decade, and at least from my perspective, not since JFK and Jackie has a couple been so held up as an “all-American family” like Beyoncé, her husband Jay-Z and their young daughter Blue Ivy. Furthermore, her performance at the 2013 Superbowl holds the record for being the most tweeted event in history! Perhaps it’s my bias as a millennial and a proud member of the “BeyHive” (as fans frequently call themselves), but right or wrong, what Beyoncé has to say about love, on one level, likely reflects current popular thinking on the subject.

Furthermore, Beyoncé’s latest album is a “visual album” with each song accompanied by a pre-recorded music video. With all this in mind, “Drunk in Love” seemed like it might be a perfect dialogue partner with the strikingly vivid portraits painted by the Song of Songs. Upon careful analysis of the lyrics and accompanying music video however, although its definitely about getting lost in nuptial sexuality, “Drunk in Love” still didn’t feel quite right. The Spirit moves in mysterious ways however, and after deciding to click the YouTube link to another song from Beyoncé’s visual album, “XO,” I found exactly what I was looking for. In “XO,” Beyoncé joyfully dances and plays with friends and strangers, drunk with nuptial love while awash in the strange, neon garden of Coney Island. There’s longing and even a tinge of sadness amidst the joy however… love between mortal beings, no matter how bright, cannot last forever. Beyoncé sings to an unnamed beloved (we can assume that’s Jay-Z) to take her quickly, “before they turn the lights out.” After watching “XO,” I finally got it. In seeing what being “drunk with love” looks like in the post-industrial, digitally networked world I live in I could begin to understand how the concept of being “drunk with love” is so important to the world portrayed in the Song of Songs. In fact, coming from my particular context, being “drunk with love” provides a key exegetical lens for understanding what the Song says about living a life of love with a committed, longterm beloved partner AND living a life of love with God.

Giving its elusive, almost mystical nature, debate over the Song’s “true” meaning has existed since nearly the time of Christ, if not earlier. While Rabbi Aquiba’s argued for the Song’s canonicity based on illustration of God’s love for Israel, Church Fathers like Cyril and Ambrose used the Song of Songs in baptismal liturgies, perhaps borrowing from Saint Paul’s use of the nuptial image to characterize the mystery of Christian initiation in Ephesians 5:25 and II Corinthians 11:2. Origen however took Paul’s typological approach to the mystery of Christian initiation quite further in his commentary, moving toward an allegorical interpretation that considered Christ’s love for the Church as THE meaning of the Song. To put it in a hopefully more intelligible way, while Paul and the early baptismal liturgies would use the Song’s image of a nuptial bond as the type of thing that came closest to characterizing Christ’s love for the Church, Origen and especially later theologians’ allegorical approach considered the Christ/ Church or the Christ/Christian relationship the primary meaning of the text, buried beneath the less important plain meaning of two folks in love. Modern allegorical commentators tend to follow a similar vein, basing their assumptions about the “true” meaning of the Song by “anthologizing” similar words from other Biblical witnesses who describe God’s relationship with Israel/ the Church through the nuptial image.

As Ricœur points out, allegorical interpretations have their problems, especially since other biblical witnesses use the nuptial image quite differently from its use in the Song of Songs. Throughout the Prophets the nuptial image is typically one of the unfaithful wife or of God’s overwhelming love for Israel, neither of which reflect the deep sense of loving mutuality in the Song. Furthermore, as many of the early allegorical interpretations were written by ascetics, they typically needed to empty the Song’s erotic images of any human to human meaning in order to describe mystical love or union with Christ. Unfortunately, the Reformation’s focus on the plain meaning of the text and the Enlightenment’s search for universal truth resulted in equally unsatisfying interpretations. Modern techniques like historical criticism did indeed result in essential work, especially in identifying the author of the Song as likely female, but in other instances deconstructed the text to the point of near meaninglessness for those outside strict academic circles. Such readings have also frequently gotten bogged down in the need to agitate against conservative Christianity’s legalistic claims regarding human sexuality.

I still hold these subversive readings as important, however. The sinfully patriarchal legalism applied by conservative Christian to human sexuality, whether it be in regard to LGBT issues, sex before marriage, or a host of other matters, has gotten in the way of many believers hearing the gospel in recent decades; I myself almost left the Church for such reasons. That said, by relying solely on interpretations that stand above and in judgement of the text, it’s easy to miss how the world painted by the Song of Songs can profoundly shape one’s life of faith. Throughout this semester I’ve been blessed to experience the deep ways the scriptural world helps form our identity by standing in dialogue with the world we experience. Especially as the forces of sexual legalism continue losing ground throughout many regions of our country (Arkansas’ ban on marriage equality was struck down just yesterday in fact), I believe developing an alternative reading from within the Song that avoids the universalistic claims of past allegorical approaches is an important task. Reading the Song of Songs through an internal lens of being “drunk with love” in this way takes precedence over the external readings of recent decades, while not necessarily negating the important contributions of such work.

Speaking about his understanding of the Scriptures through faith, Karl Barth proclaims the following in The Word of God and the Word of Man:
…we may rest assured that in the Bible, in both the Old and the New Testaments, the theme is, so to speak, the religion of God and never once the religion of the Jews, or Christians, or heathen; that in this respect, as in others, the Bible lifts us out of the old atmosphere of man to the open portals of a new world, the world of God.
In this quote at least, Barth is absolutely correct—the world of our Scriptures is the world of God, a world that through faith shapes how we understand the world of our everyday experience. At the same time however, the world of the Bible, God’s world, tells us it can be understood through the world of our everyday experience. Perhaps the most profound example of this is Paul’s preaching to the Athenians in Acts 17:
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us (Acts 17:22-27).
Paul proclaimed to the Athenians that they already possessed an understanding (albeit incomplete) about the world of God through the “unknown god” of their experience. We search for God, reaching for Her in faith through the world of our experience, and in turn apply this experience to the world of the Bible. Hence, a dialectic is created: the Bible interprets and indeed forms the world of our experience, but our experience interprets the world of the Bible in return.
Given this understanding, if we experience our world through the eyes of faith, how could we not understand the Song’s image of nuptial love between two human beings as also saying something about the love of God? If a person of faith has ever experienced mutual, long-term, deeply trusting, committed and at times ecstatic love for another human being, how could she or he not know something of the love God through such a relationship? The world of the Bible teaches us that while made imperfect in sin, we are still created in the image of God: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). How then could the nuptial love of our beloved not be understood as an imperfect image of God’s love? Coming at it from the opposite direction, Christ calls us to love each other in much the same way we’re called to love God:
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22: 36 - 40).
Christ teaches us the first of the greatest commandments, to love God with heart, soul and mind, is like the other, to love our fellow humans as ourselves.

I’ll summarize quite simply: in loving our beloved, we love God. In loving God, we cannot help but love our beloved. In being loved by our beloved, we know something of God’s love. These experiences of love are inherently knit together, by love, actually. Are there other ways to know God’s love outside of nuptial love for another human being? Absolutely! Word and sacrament are a couple great examples. Similarly, are there other ways to love God outside of nuptial love for another human being? Absolutely! There are a whole lot of folks to love in other ways out there. Yet in the world of the Bible, a world through which we understand the world of our experience in faith, to know the nuptial love of a beloved is to inherently know something of the love of God. The Song of Songs certainly has something to say then about the love of God, but it’s not buried beneath the text as some sort of esoteric message. The plain sense meaning of the Song is a woman’s nuptial love for her beloved, and the nuptial love she equally experiences in kind. Yet in the world of the Bible, an experience of God’s love is implicitly part of experiencing the nuptial love of two human beings. By placing ourselves in the plain sense world of the Song and hence knowing something of this woman’s experience of nuptial love, we cannot help but know something about God’s love.

Interestingly enough, after a significantly more detailed analysis than my own, Ricœur arrives at quite a similar conclusion:
At last intersection between the poem and myth is also intriguing. One may challenge the theological character of these two texts where God is not named or referred to. To this we can reply that it is the myth of creation as a whole that names God. Did we not refer above to the verse that says that “Yhwh God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone…’”? This divine approbation authorizes us to say that love is innocent before God. But, someone may say, can God be the witness of a declaration for which he is not the intended audience? Perhaps we should answer, in an exploratory vein, that the origin has no need of being distinguished, named, or referred to insofar as it inhabits the creature? Man loves, beginning from God. If so, when rereading in light of Genesis, the Song of Songs becomes a religious text insofar as we can hear in it the word of a silent, unnamed God, who is not discerned owing to the force of attestation of a love caught up in itself.
Humanity loves, beginning from God. Ricœur’s findings have profound meaning for anyone living out a life of faith, to be sure. His work certainly furthered my understanding of the text. At the same time however, his overall method, or at least his rhetorical style, misses an important aspect of the Song of Songs, especially when one reads the text through the lens of being “drunk with love.”

To understand what I mean by such criticism, we must examine the experience of being “drunk with love,” both within the world of the Song of Songs and in the world of our human experience. While I by no means am arguing Beyoncé’s song “XO” and its accompanying music video are equivalent to the Song of Songs in any way (I figured it was pertinent to make that clear), “XO” did help me see what being “drunk with love” looks like in the world of my experience. Beyoncé is immensely joyful, drunk with love amidst the sea of humanity at Coney Island. There’s a light-hearted element to this joy—near the end of the video she’s dancing atop a skeeball game in an old-fashioned arcade, teaching folks somewhat silly moves akin to what usually accompanies the Village People’s “YMCA.” While light-hearted and perhaps even silly, there’s a profound element here as well. Only a few moments later she’s shown signing the “XO” dance in front of a massive audience, taking a bold stand for love. When “drunk with love,” all sorts of regular human distinctions disappear, seemingly conflicting emotions flow seamlessly together only to break apart again in new types of knowledge that move beyond the limits of human verbal expression.

I know I’m overly reliant on the visual story-telling of my globally networked world, and perhaps my constant visual connection to humanity through YouTube, Hulu and Netflix has dulled my ability to see the deep sense of being “drunk with love” in the Song of Songs, but wow, it’s still certainly there! The following words of the lovers as translated by Marcia Falk provide a profound example (with the male lover’s voice in italics):
The sound of my lovercoming from the hillsquickly, like a deerupon the mountains
Now at my windows,walking by the walls,here at the latticeshe calls—
Come with me,my love,come away
For the long wet months are past,the rains have fed the earthand left it bright with blossoms
Birds wing in the low sky,dove and songbird singingin the open air above
Earth nourishing tree and vinegreen fig and tender grape,green and tender fragrance
Come with me,my love,come away
The woman’s deep sense of urgency crashes into the joy and abandon of new spring in the voice of her beloved. The line between beloved and the wider creation blurs together in the man’s mind.
A few verses later in 2:15 we hear, “Catch us the foxes, the little foxes, that ruin the vineyards for our vineyards are in blossom.” Is this the chorus speaking, “the daughter’s of Jerusalem,” critiquing the lovers for some sort of unsanctioned love? Perhaps! Could this be the voice of the lovers as they recklessly run through the vineyards of Jerusalem awash in moonlight? Perhaps! Could this be the lovers worrying about getting caught in an act of unsanctioned love but recklessly running through the vineyards of Jerusalem awash in moonlight anyway? Perhaps! The fact of the matter is that the text is not clear about who is speaking, and unless we assume its author or compiler made a mistake or wanted to provide future readers with some secret type of meaning, it seems pertinent to admit that the text simply doesn’t need to make a distinction. When “drunk with love,” lines blur, even at times between “self” and “other,”  while seemingly conflicting thoughts, emotions and experiences crash together, only to reemerge anew.

Being “drunk with love” also indicates a type of love that defies traditional lines of categorization. Grammatically speaking, the word ‘love’ in Song of Songs 5:1 is translated from dod, a rarely used root properly meaning “to boil.” Yet in the same verse the male character calls his beloved both achot or “sister” and kalla, a word usually translated as “bride,” but based off a primitive root that indicates a sense of completion, destruction or consummation. The Song of Song’s sense of a nuptial couple being drunk with a love that is beyond categorization reflects the world of our experience, doesn’t it? All this business about drinking wine with milk and eating honeycomb with honey in the earlier portion of Song 5:1 is sometimes read as an act (or dreamt about act) of oral sex. If one has engaged in that sort of thing with a committed, longterm, beloved partner, could one read Song 5:1 as a description of oral sex? Sure, although the use of garden imagery creates enough mental space to also read it otherwise. Could that same person read it only as a description of oral sex? Absolutely not! When “drunk with love,” different senses of love and acts of love and memories of love mix and meld, embracing each other beyond classification. In the midst of sex with one’s beloved, at least sometimes, memories from many years of friendship, or the beauty and the struggle of building a life and family together flood into one’s mind. Or perhaps the dog wakes up and starts barking outside one’s bedroom door. Is the nuptial couple’s moment of sexual passion over? Maybe, but a sense of desire remains, the beloved embrace other, look into each other’s eyes, shrug it off, and going on loving anyway (and probably fight over who has to get up to let the dog out).

The idea of being “drunk with love” might sound like all sunshine and roses, but it’s not, as Beyoncé’s “XO” helped me explore. “Drunk with love” isn’t the love of Disney or the “happily ever after” situation portrayed in many conservative Christian appeals about God leading one into a blissful marriage with a perfectly special someone. To be “drunk with love” also means to contend with great struggle, fear and loss. Hearing Beyoncé sing the lyrics “oh, baby, take me, before they turn the lights out, before our time has run out,” I couldn’t help but think of what my parents must have experienced as a couple when my mother was dying of lung cancer at a young age. To be “drunk with love,” no matter at what age or in what state of health sometimes means looking into the eyes of your beloved and saying, “I don’t ever want you to die,” yet all the while knowing your time with your beloved, at least in this life, is fleeting. In this way there is an unmistakable sense of urgency to being “drunk with love,” as reflected throughout the Song of Songs, but most poignantly in its final verse: “Make haste, my beloved, and be like a gazelle, or a young stag upon the mountains of spices!” (Song 8:14).

There is another sense of death in being “drunk with love” as well: at least at times, one dies within one’s beloved. As the Song puts it, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song 6:3). Remember as well, what the man calls his beloved in Song 5: kalla, while translated as “bride,” its primitive root indicates completion, destruction and consummation. Beyoncé references this quite simply: “You kill me boy, XO.” Sometimes to die within one’s beloved is a joyous experience. Life feels like it has more meaning when “drunk with love,” and when one feels weak, one can lean on the strength of the beloved. One learns and grows in such a relationship, becoming a better person through the experience. Yet at other times, to die within one’s beloved hurts or is downright scary. What if the relationship doesn’t work out after years of commitment? What if one’s beloved feels called to move across the country, many hours away from one’s friends, family and career? As a less drastic and more everyday example, what parts of one’s identity (or at least the full expression thereof) are lost in negotiating the nuptial relationship? I cherish the seven Bob Dylan posters I have hanging up in my room for instance, having started the practice in high school of collecting one at each of his concerts I’ve attended. When I marry my beloved and share a bedroom, she’s already told me we’ll be switching to more “mature” decor, and furthermore that I have no say in the matter. This isn’t the end of the world of course, but it is less than ideal. As I look forward to gazing up at a picture of Great Aunt Blahdeblah and a bunch of flowery chachkas through hopefully many years of nuptial love, a little bit of me dies inside, but just a little bit :).

As both the world of our experience and the world of the Song affirms, no matter how deeply one is “drunk with love,” at times one’s beloved will feel distant. On a simple level, you might be half a world away from your beloved for professional reasons, and she or he can’t understand the darn internet isn’t quite up to American standards. More significant problems can exist in the nuptial relationship however, no matter how much a couple may be “drunk with love.” Perhaps you’re in close proximity physically, but worlds apart on an important life decision. The drunkenness of nuptial love may even feel like it’s dried up, sometimes for months or years even, only to be rekindled by an unexpected event. The world of the Song shows us that despite a nuptial couple being “drunk with love,” distance can creep in, and often frustratingly so: “Upon my bed at night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer” (Song 3:1).

In contrast to the deep mutuality of love indicated throughout most of the Song, the woman’s beloved withdraws a second time, this time with seemingly devastating consequences:
I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned and was gone. My soul failed me when he spoke. I sought him, but did not find him; I called him, but he gave no answer. Making their rounds in the city the sentinels found me; they beat me, they wounded me, they took away my mantle, those sentinels of the walls. I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, tell him this: I am faint with love (Song 5:6-8)
Little else in the Song seems to indicate a neglectful aspect to the male character, but reading from a context when violence against women is one of the most pervasive problems in our society, its proves difficult not to stand in judgement of the text here. The woman may be dreaming in this passage, we can’t be sure, but if we stay within the world of the text itself, there are other possibilities? If this passage were not included in the wider text, on one level, the Song’s image of nuptial love wouldn’t ring true to the world we live in, as there would be no real societal cost… the Song would just end up being a much prettier version of Disney. We give up a lot when we engage in nuptial relationships. Having a family often lowers one’s standard of living, climbing the career ladder is sometimes put on hold—coming from an American context, the United States is sinfully one of only a handful of countries without nationally mandated paid parental leave from work (included both maternal and paternal leave). I immensely dislike the Song’s use of a violent act against the woman as an image, I can’t help but stand in judgement of the text on this one, yet at the same time, from within the imperfect world of the Bible, it serves to make a point—being “drunk with love” often comes with immense societal costs.

As the Song of Songs, the world of our experience and even Beyoncé all indicate, despite the many movements from deep, joyful presence to wrenching distance from one’s beloved and back again, being “drunk with love” is still typically worth it. Amidst this love, emotions, memories and even identities crash together only to explode apart again, making something brilliantly new. There isn’t much else in the capacity of human experience that’s as painful as being “drunk with love,” but there isn’t much else that's as joyful either. Furthermore, there isn’t much else that’s harder to describe, at least in an academic or analytical sort of way. Being “drunk with love” is simply beyond classification, and getting back to Ricœur’s otherwise brilliant analysis, that’s where his problem lies. It’s probably where the weakness of this paper lies too, although I’ve tried to strike the least academic tone and approach possible. The experience of being “drunk with love,” and thus the ancient Song that so perfectly describes it, simply go beyond the realm academic understanding. No degree or ordination, no number of books or knowledge of biblical history can fully advance one’s appreciation for both its profound wisdom and tempestuous power.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the Song then is how it acts as a great equalizing force in the world of the Bible. As I mentioned earlier, the Song of Song floats above divisions of sacred and secular, towards a more holistic understanding of God’s work in the world, an understanding equally accessible to Bible scholars and first time readers, to believers and non-believers alike. Deeply experiencing the world of the Song only requires one thing: to love. In this way, as a person of faith I can approach the most vehement of atheists and say, “Ya know that feeling you got looking into your spouse’s eyes on your wedding day? Ya know that feeling you got in the hospital waiting room when the doctor came in and announced you had a newborn baby girl? Ya know that feeling you got when you made love, couldn’t hold your beloved tighter and couldn’t help but cry? That feeling is pretty much like how I experience the love of my God.” Now that atheist might not agree with the source of your experience, and that’s okay, but by golly, he will know what you mean.

When one does read the Song of Songs through the eyes of faith, one cannot help but know something of God’s “drunken love” for humanity as well. Despite his decidedly allegorical approach, one of my favorite theologians Saint Gregory of Nyssa describes this point quite eloquently:
Once the bridegroom has addressed her spouse, the Song offers the bride’s companions the mystery of the Gospel saying: “Eat, my companions, and drink, be inebriated, my brethren” [Song 5:1]. To the person familiar with the Gospel’s mystic words, there is no difference between this sentence and the words applied to the disciples’ mystic initiation: in both cases it says “Eat and drink” [Mt 26:26-27]. The bride’s exhortation to her friends seems to have more weight than those in the Gospel. If anyone carefully examines both texts, he will find the Song’s words to be in agreement with the Gospel, for the word addressed to the companions is brought to fruition in the Gospel. All inebriation makes the mind overcome with wine go into ecstasy. Therefore, what the Song enjoins as then and always, this food and drink contains a constant change and ecstasy from a worse to a better condition.
When carefully read through the eyes of Christian faith, how could the words “Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love” not work on us, making us know of God’s outpouring of immeasurable love? As promised, Christ shows up again and again and again for us in the Eucharist, in His invitation to eat and drink as we pray His prayer that we may taste and see the love of God. And we do, and in that food and drink, as Gregory of Nyssa so beautifully puts it, we come to know “a constant change and ecstasy from a worse to a better condition.”

Now to be fair, despite helping come up with the Nicene Creed and all, ol’ Saint Gregory didn’t get things quite right all the time—he goes on to talk about the Song teaching us to stay away from the “passions of the body” and the like. When we put our world of experience in dialogue with the world of the Bible in faith however, we know that while the “passions of the body” are often destructive, that isn’t always the case. Christ tell us in Matthew 22 that the love of our beloved is like, albeit in an imperfect sense, the love of God. Although we’re a wholly broken creation, Genesis 1:27 proclaims that we’re still created in our God’s image. How then could we not know something of God’s love for us, however imperfect, through the trusting, longterm, committed and at times sexually expressed nuptial love of our beloved? Furthermore, as the world of the Bible works to form our life of faith, we can also move past all the tired, legalistic and overly simplistic arguments (sometimes on both sides) regarding issues like sex before marriage. Is a sexual relationship still most fully expressed within the security and public affirmation of marriage? For all sorts of reasons, both practical and spiritual, and when legally and/ or ecclesiastically possible, absolutely! Is marriage the only deciding factor for a person of faith regarding sex? The image of a committed, mutual, and partnered nuptial love within the Song of Songs provides a significantly more nuanced approach to such an important question.

There are of course plenty of other lessons we can learn about the love of God from the Song of Songs, many significantly more important than how we should lead our sex lives. First of all, while God seriously loves humanity, and indeed all of Her creation, that love need not always be expressed in a serious way! Have you ever been to a zoo? God created the anteater, and the baboon and even the blobfish! Seriously… google the blobfish right now! As God acts and creates and dances in Her mighty and constant works of love, She clearly has a sense of humor at times. Much like Beyoncé signing the “XO” in front of thousands of her fans or the two beloved’s romp through the vineyards however, God’s many acts of love are always profound. God’s love furthermore, isn’t easily defined or categorized. All this business one hears preached from the pulpit so often about God loving us in only the “agape” sense is mere poppycock. As the Song of Songs teaches us (and the Incarnation does too, by the way), God deeply desires and yearns for Her children, reflecting the Greek “eros” sense of love as well. The man refers to his beloved in Song as achot, and in this way the “philia” or familial sense of love is also present. God does indeed promise to walk with us, and in fact to carry us through the many struggles of life, and isn’t there the notion of a loving sister or brother present in such a relationship? Similarly to the experience of being “drunk with love” in the Song of Songs, the love of God is wholly beyond classification.

Finally, the Song of Songs also lets us know what a life of loving God entails… and on one level, it’s not all good news. Loving God comes with great struggle. We sacrifice of ourselves, we sing God’s praises, we hear Her Word and partake in Her Meal, we try throw ourselves into God’s loving arms in moments of great despair and joy alike, but at times, just like the woman in the Song, we still may not feel God’s presence. At other times we might know God loves us, but just like the woman in the Song, God doesn’t seem anywhere to be found. And much like the man’s experience of his beloved’s locked garden (and let’s ignore the obvious sexual allusion of that passage for the time being), we might know God loves us, we might even know exactly where to find Her, but still, we just can’t seem to find our way in. Loving God comes with great cost, it always does, as we die to ourselves each and every day in the waters of baptism. We get hurt, we get lost, we get bruised and broken living a life of love, and we’re not always good at it either. Loving God is never easy, but as we know through a faithful reading of the Song of Songs, sometimes, especially in those very moments when we’re “drunk with love,” romping through the vineyards (or dancing on skeeball machines at Coney Island), loving God is incredibly joyful, and meaningful and beautiful and profound and lighthearted and passionate and frankly, the best damn feeling in the world. XO.

Works Cited

Beyoncé. “XO.” YouTube. (accessed May 9, 2014).

Lacocque, André and Paul Ricœur. Thinking biblically: exegetical and hermeneutical studies. 
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Leahey, Andrew. “Beyoncé - Biography.” Billboard.
beyonce/biography (accessed May 9, 2014).

Nyssa, Gregory of. Commentary on the Song of Songs. trans. Casimir McCambley. Brookline, 
MA: Hellenic College Press, 1987.

Strong’s Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary of the Old Testament. Public domain, in Accordance 

Bible Software, version 8.4, CD-ROM. OakTree Software, 2009.

Dustin is a recent graduate from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and approved candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, Dustin spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with an amazing woman named Jessie and pretending to know how to sing.

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