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.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

0 Comments

  1. This is a good, easy, powerful point – important, it would seem, and yet I’m struck by a sense that this argument wouldn’t get very far with our contemporary, minimalist Evangelicalism. I would like it to be this easy (and I know you’re not trying to make a watertight argument here), but I suspect part of the weakness I detect in this line of reasoning is the lack of a sense of boundaries; ie, certainly one could construct a church, service, worship style, etc. that is so frivolous that it takes resources away from other essential tasks of the church…

    And obviously I’m deeply convinced of the usefulness of your argument. I’m just always wondering why it hasn’t take root in our American church. Thoughts?

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  2. My thought is that it hasn’t taken root because it clashes with what many church have as the main purpose of coming to their church. For many churches, the main purpose of going to church often isn’t mainly to worship and commune with God (like for example in the Orthodox Church or as we see in early church gatherings), but rather, in the words of a major evangelical church I know of, to preach and teach the Word.

    Another trend I’ve noticed is to make church so much about the gospel, with gospel defined as spreading the word about Jesus (which interestingly is not how Jesus defines it), that as much as it may appreciative these frivolities in theory, it doesn’t see them as essential, which is the minimalism I think you speak of, Christof. Yet looking back at Jenson’s insightful commentary, I wonder how one can “have Jesus” when they’ve never had these “nonessentials.” Or at least they’ve only had a reductionist relationship.

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  3. Christof,

    I think you’re right about the sense of boundaries. After all, there are obligations to the poor that we must take into account. Knowing how much, and how often, to dress up for the King is difficult. I suspect that the question of boundaries is best taken on a case-by-case basis. I hope that’s not a way out of the question (which is important), but rather a real point about ethical deliberation regarding these principles. Aesthetics and their role might take different shape in middle class America than they do in third-world countries.

    Christina, I think you’re probably right about the shape of the Gospel, but I’m less certain about your point about the preaching and teaching of the Word. For any good evangelical, that IS communing with God.

    But the Gospel’s the thing. One thing I’m curious about is the extent to which I can talk about beauty, aesthetics, etc. while still talking about the Gospel (which I think is fundamentally that “Christ came to save sinners”). When it gets reduced to its simplest forms (“Believe and ye shall be saved!”), it’s hard to make room for some of what we might otherwise be tempted to include.

    Best,

    matt

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  4. Good question at the end there Matt – how much can we talk about the Gospel and beauty simultaneously. I think if Plato were reading this conversation over our shoulder he would be shocked by the way we seem to see “Good News” and “Beautiful News” as being in tension with each other… In fact I’m almost certain Plato believes they are the same thing.

    Of course Plato did not have the life of Christ to contend with in his calculus. Nevertheless, it seems like the old adage (from where I don’t know) that “beautiful worship ministers equally well to the poor and the rich” is fitting to remember here.

    Opposing “normal goods” like food, water, and shelter against “frivolous goods” like beauty, peace, and sensuality seems a terribly unsophisticated exercise in all but the most extreme examples (I’m going to die unless I eat a meal before Church, etc.)

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  5. I think conceiving of beauty as something frivolous, ornamental, or nonessential, is not the way to begin understanding beauty.

    Beauty understood properly, according to Hans Urs von Balthasar, can be thought of as the inner-worldly manifestation of the glory of God. And according to Thomas, it is the synthesis of the good and the true, and therefore is a characteristic of being itself.

    Balthasar, following Thomas, said that all being is One, and Good, and True, and Beautiful, and in order to comprehend the fullness of being we must understand how God’s infinite glory manifests itself to finite creatures in the Beautiful. Of course there is an insurmountable difference between God and his creature, but there is also an analogy between them, and therefore an analogy of being.

    He says the power of beauty is its enrapturing power, its ability to make us marvel, and only this can draw us out of ourselves into the gratuity of sheer worship for its own sake. This does not mean that the perception of the beautiful can be equated to the perception of the glory of God. Except in the one concrete historical event in which the divine glory is fully present: in the beauty of Christ.

    Regarding the inability of modern theology to grasp this characteristic of being he says, “nothing expresses more unequivocally the profound failure of these theologies than their deeply anguished, joyless, and cheerless tone: torn between knowing and believing, they are no longer able to see anything, nor can they, therefore, be convincing in any visible way”.

    I think a great place to begin to understand how deep and fundamental this problem is would be von Balthasar’s The Glory of the Lord (at least the first volume of the 7 volume treatise). A whole host of perceptive thinkers have learned a great deal from Balthasar. Even David B. Hart’s magisterial The Beauty of the Infinite is greatly influenced his thought.

    To make of beauty a mere ornament or call it frivolous is ultimately to dismiss God’s glory as ornamental and frivolous or at least fail to see how God manifests his glory, analogically, to his finite creatures, and in so doing lead them to marvel.

    As David said, “One thing have I asked of the Lord, this will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord…”

    I have learned a great deal from it and it has transformed my understanding of how the manifestation of beauty in the physical realm leads directly to a contemplation of the glory of God in the transcendant.

    Best,
    I.J.

    Reply

  6. Matt,
    Another issue to contend with is what God has explicitly revealed about how he wants to be worshiped. While not many contemporary, non-denom, evangelicals are asking this question explicitly, older American answers are exerting influence nonetheless. And, if you go to a conservative Reformed church, or a conservative Baptist church, or a conservative Brethren church, or a conservative Mennonite church you’ll find that this question has been asked and answered with reference either to Acts or to Leviticus. Keep this in mind before cutting down the argument on purely contemporary terms.

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  7. […] I spoke of the “frivolity of beauty,” Adolph Saphir speaks of the God-givenness of […]

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  8. I am going to go in a completely different direction with this discussion. Two areas of the arts are very much a part of the life of the church, music and architecture. However, sometimes out of fear of idolatry, some denominations and movements have had little regard for the visual arts. Speaking as a painter, I find it a bit frustrating that the visual arts get very little attention in the church except perhaps as graphics for a church bulletin. While I understand that God has chosen to communicate his truths primarily through Scripture and preaching, he has also made many things beautiful. As a visual artist, I have a great appreciation for the beauty of creation and a desire to paint and make things that reflect that beauty.

    I simply want to express my frustration that the contemporary church has little appreciation for those of us who have the desire to honor God with our gifts and talents. We see those with musical gifts appreciated, while we are ignored or, at best, tolerated. Perhaps that is why most of the art world has little to do with the church. It has been subtly communicated to us that we don’t really matter.

    Thank you Matt for recognizing and acknowledging the “frivolity of beauty.”

    Reply

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