Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

The Frivolity of Beauty

March 14th, 2010 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Modern interpretation and preaching about the Song of Songs is largely characterized by its reaction against classical notions of ‘allegory’ that mitigated the sexual content of the book by making it all about YHWH and his people.

The defensive posture is, from one vantage point, right.  The book is in the first essence a love song between a man and a woman, and however we interpret it needs to include it.  But like so many defensive positions, it too is in danger of missing the text by overreacting.

So argues Robert Jenson in his delightful commentary on the book.   Jenson comments by starting with the text, moving up to the “allegory,” and returning to love in its human dimension.

The structure highlights the social dimensions of eros without leaving behind its primary context in the relationship between the lovers.  At least in the Song, anyway.  And in doing so, he grounds a way of being the church that cuts against the pragmatic intuitions of large swaths of Christians.  He writes:

Two further points must be noted about our poem’s evocation of God’s love for Israel and her return of it.  First, its intensely sensual atmosphere.  We are again warned away from either spiritualizing or moralizing the Lord’s covenant with Israel.  The Lord and Israel, Christ and the church, want each other, and each rejoices in every aspect of the other’s beauty.  One may even suggest that, like the man in the overt story, God rejoices in the jewlery–of vessels, and stained glass and mosaic and weaving and fresco and…—with which the church sometimes decks herself when she approaches him…*

Such beauty is frivolous, but in the sense that it is deeply significant frivolity–like children who approach their play with a profound seriousness.  The adornment is grounded in the presentation of the beloved to the lover, and that presentation is moved by a sense of joyful delight in the other’s impending presence.

But here’s the rub:  if we interpret the Song individually and make room in our sexuality for pageantry and adornments that accompany the delight of love, then it is disingenuous to approach the meeting place of God and his people with any less a sense of preparation, decorum, and adornment.  The human love is an analogue to the divine, and if perfume is appropriate in the one, then it ought be appropriate in the other.

What God has deemed beautiful, then, let no man reduce to pragmatism.

*It says “two things,” but I’m only interested in the first right now.