modified 28 December 2018 and 27 May 2022
I’ve been expanding my ‘To Be Read’ pile as a result of being on the History working group for the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) exercise in the Church of England. Recently, I’ve been wondering where to find a theology of joy and of pleasure (rather lacking so far in the LLF project, but maybe I just haven’t found it in the Dropbox – although as of Dec 2018 a member of one of the groups has written a great piece on desire), but until this week I had no idea that Yale Divinity has for the last few years been running a project on the theology of joy. I’ve signed up for the newsletter, but only to discover that the project has just ended! One of its threads is on ‘Sex and pleasure’, asking ‘How should a sense of authentic (rather than counterfeit) joy inform the meaning of sex and pleasure, our sexual practices, and our experience of pleasure?’ One of the scholars mentioned on the website is Stephen D. Moore, professor of New Testament at Drew University in New Jersey. I already knew about him through one of his many publications, God’s Beauty Parlor: and other queer spaces in and around the Bible (Stanford University Press, 2001), a book that came to my attention when I did a little bit of teaching for the ‘Gender and the Bible’ course at Gustavus Adolphus College last year.
Here I want to describe just one section of Moore’s very rich book, the longest chapter, which is on the history of reading Song of Songs. He calls it ‘the book of professional celibates’ in which they ‘strive manfully to play the feminine role thrust upon [them] by the spiritual reading of the Song’ (p.49). I haven’t read much Queer Theology before and I found this a very approachable way in. I’ve never really understood what the whole ‘Church as the Bride of Christ’ thing is really saying and how gender and sexuality are supposed to play out in this; I wouldn’t say I now ‘get’ this image, and in many ways I understand even less why it helps people today, but I can at least see how many different ways of using it there have been. Moore focuses on the very long tradition of men presenting themselves as the Bride to Christ the Bridegroom – and by ‘men’ I mean Origen, Bernard of Clairvaux (‘let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth’), Denis the Carthusian and St John of the Cross (‘there I promised to be his Bride’).
Moore compares Jewish and Christian readings of the Song, for example in their exegesis of Song 4:5 on the breasts of the Bride. Sometimes in Christian readings not the Bride’s, but the Bridegroom’s, breasts are ‘better than wine’ (Song 1:2); treasures of wisdom and knowledge are concealed in them, Origen writes. For Jewish commentators these breasts were Moses and Aaron and they left it at that: but ‘The Fathers and Doctors of the Church, in contrast, simply could not get enough of the breasts, elbowing each other aside to examine them and outdoing each other in concocting fanciful descriptions of them’ (p.51). Are they love of God and love of neighbour? The Old and New Testaments? The blood and water from Jesus’ side? The contemplative and active lives? The Doctors of the Church? Revealingly, Moore notes that these writers looked at the female body – or at least an imagined version of it – and saw only themselves.
I would recommend in particular Moore’s discussion of interpretations of Song 1:5 where the Bride is either ‘dark but beautiful’ or ‘dark and beautiful’, the ambiguity present in the Hebrew being read according to successive cultural judgements about race. By 8:5, through contact with the Bridegroom, she has been ‘made white’, white enough for the ‘hard-to-impress daughters of Jerusalem’ to comment on it (p.61). What I had not read before was that some commentators argued that the Bride was also in some sense Mary, thus making Christ’s mother into his lover, further blurring the categories.
Moore notes that different readings of the Song such as this one are, whatever the serious intentions of their creators, carnivalesque, overturning some of ‘the nonnegotiable moral strictures that structure everyday life’ (p.72). These carnivalesque, queer readings ended in modern times: ‘commentary on the Song of Songs began to recoil sharply from allegory in the course of the nineteenth century. Slipping stealthily out of bed and hastily adjusting its clerical collar, it tiptoed out of the room’ (p.78). The Song became heteronormative and not queer any more.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, I loved the style of this book, although it’s sure to offend some readers. ‘ “I am the beautiful Bride in sooth,” purrs Origen, sashaying across the stage, “and I show not my naked face to any but Thee only, whom I kissed tenderly but now”’ (p.28). But even more I loved the demonstration of the different ways in which Christians read the Bible in the past; in particular, the displacement of the allegorical in favour of the literal. Some of this reminded me of the medieval imagery of the church discussed by Karl Whittington in a 2008 article; ‘parallels between the redemptive possibility of Christ’s blood and women’s blood’ and the birth of the Church through the wound in Christ’s side. Again, it’s something of a shock for a modern reader to find that these images existed; thanks to Miranda Threlfall-Holmes’ excellent book, How to Eat Bread, this information is now out there for everyone to read. But why do we read the Bible so differently?
Moore suggests that heterosexuality was ‘invented’ at roughly the same time as ‘the indispensable appurtenances of modernity’: listed by him as electricity, photography and automotive engineering. That would be very ‘roughly’ indeed: 1934 is often given as the date when heterosexuality came to mean what it does now, rather than being used for some ‘morbid passion’. But the modernity point may still be valid. Moore asks, ‘Is it entirely a matter of chance that the emergence of heterosexuality, with its sharply delineated and strictly policed sexual borders, should happen to coincide with the decline of the allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs, with its blurry and poorly policed sexual borders?’ (pp.80-1). The readings of the Song which he discusses presuppose ‘a lack of homosexual panic’: so, can the rejection of those readings be explained by a rise in the ‘pervasiveness of homosexual panic’? His analysis ends with the ‘new allegorists’, Marvin Pope and Michael Goulder, who have found even more sexual references in the text, including a vulva rather than a navel in 7:2a, but keep their readings heterosexual, indeed ‘hyperheterosexual’ (p.89).
In the rest of the book, Moore examines portraits of Jesus (particularly in popular culture), St Paul’s approach to sex and salvation in Romans, and the imagery of war in Revelation. I expect to be further challenged.