Song of Solomon: Scripture that makes you squirm

I can’t pinpoint any one embarrassing moment in my life, but I can say with all confidence that attending the movies with my parents was a comprehensive experiment in the art of embarrassment.

Whenever a bad word was uttered, my father would groan like a frog.  I always thought it brought more attention than the word deserved, but he considered it a thorough warning.   When we saw Goodfellas, I thought he was going to have a heart attack.

You could only imagine how embarrassing it was when we saw a romance scene.  Oh, how I hated those moments.  Awkward.

I am sure that’s how Jewish boys and girls of old felt when it was Song of Solomon day at the local synagogue.  They probably squirmed in their seats when the rabbi read something like, “With great delight I sat in my beloved’s shadow, and his fruit was sweet…” (2:4).   For its time, it was as graphic as any R-rated film that, according to the Oxford Study Bible, was likened to a “feast for the senses.”

The Song of Solomon is still one of those books preachers rarely preach on, and it is an oddity in scripture since it defies all biblical genre.  It is not prophetic or wisdom literature.  It is not history. There is no mention of God anywhere.  At best it is a duet in which a groom and bride celebrate their love for one another.  A book that was, according to feminist scholars, penned by two lovers in search of divine oneness.

That describes the English version.  The original Hebrew captures all the nuances and word plays that would even make Hugh Hefner blush.  No wonder ancient rabbis considered it “forbidden.”

Yet, it was included in the Bible by the skin (no pun intended) of its teeth, so the Church had to sanitize it somehow.  Medieval scholars found that interpreting the Song as an allegory (a spiritual message) of God’s love for the church was the best option.  It wasn’t about physical romance after all, they argued, and a long, thankful sigh could be heard from parents everywhere.

With that taboo out of the way, the Song became rather valuable during the medieval era.  One scholar, Origen, wrote a ten-volume commentary on it.  French abbot, Bernard of Clairvaux, preached some 86 sermons on the first two chapters alone.  Jewish mystic Rabbi Akiva compared the book to the Holy of Holies and argued that it sufficed as a temporary sacred place for long as the temple remained unavailable.

Whether the book was a literal duet or an allegory of God’s love, there is still a fresh word in this amazingly contemporary book.  It’s dialogue expresses a type of faithfulness and fidelity for which we all long.  In our fly-by-night sex-saturated society, a fresh poem that speaks to God’s eternal love might be the type of gospel-message we need these days.

Come to think of it, there is something in the Song for everyone.  For married couples, its rich vocabulary has the power to ignite the embers of intimacy and fan the flame of passionate romance from an earlier time.

The Song reminds singles of their faithful attention to a God who comes to all of us as Spouse.  It also celebrates the type of purity that St. Paul championed in his letters to the Corinthians.

For people who despair over love lost, the Song resonates with broken hearts and the pursuit for wholeness: “Upon my bed,” the Song’s bride wrote in grief, “I sought him whom my soul loves…and found him not” (3:2).

For all of us, the Song can bring us some good seat-squirming experiences now and then as it reminds us just how intimately God longs to be with each of us.  Allow our love for Him to be the second part of the duet in all our hearts.

What good is a cold, distant and useless God?

Caution: Spoilers Ahead

The most recent film from the mind of M. Night Shyamalan is based on a folktale in which the devil roams the earth in order to collect the souls of sinners unsaved.  The movie, “Devil,” is a thriller about five individuals  (one of whom is the devil incarnate) stuck on an elevator.

As each person meets his or her doom, the lights in the elevator flickers out briefly.  (Spoiler alert!)  When the lights return, chaos ensues amongst the small group as each one accuses the other of being the killer.  The movie unfolds until there are two left standing, and the sole survivor is spared only because he takes responsibility for his misdeeds.

The movie is one of many that explores the universal battle between good and evil in human society.   For this particular caper, as in others, the devil is present within the plot and interacts with the protagonists.   Whenever I watch these horror flicks, I am always left wondering: Where is God?

Ever notice that these films usually portray demons as near and present dangers while God remains aloof or missing from the story entirely?  People end up saving themselves.  Even when they do get religious, as in the movie “Stigmata” for instance, it is because of human initiative, not because of a direct intervention from a very present God.

When I watched “Devil” several weeks ago, this little puzzle bothered me.  What bothered me even more, however, was the realization that we do not treat God any differently in real life than do the movies.  We often live our lives as if God is distant and detached, merely a Clockmaker that sets things in motion only to let humans muddle along.

And like these movies, humans rely on their own power in order to bring about salvation.  No wonder we have a crippled economy, countless broken families, and a high rate of depression.  We think we can figure this all out on our own and escape the snare of the real Satan (not a movie stereotype) who “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

If we go on long enough without relying on God in all aspects of our life, we threaten to forget God altogether.  God becomes an after-thought.

One way to get out of this rut is to transform how we talk about salvation.  For many years, I heard that when a person “accepts Christ as their Lord and Savior,” they are “saved.”  I believe this to be true; but for many people, their salvation stops there.  For many, the acceptance of Christ is a one-time event rather than a beginning of a life-changing journey.

Consider that our acceptance of Christ–our conversion–is like a wedding vow.  When we get married, we have a special event in which we exchange vows with our beloved, but the relationship and the true love that follows takes a lifetime to cultivate.

Truth is, our relationship to God is like a marriage, and we recommit to making God an intimate part of our life on a daily basis.  There may be times when we feel distant from God and there are times when we feel close to God, but in all things our marriage to God is something that keeps us connected.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul encourages readers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (2:12b-13, NRSV).  A Christian who works out salvation is one who truly believes that God is present–a God incarnate and living in the power and person of the Risen Christ.