Fifty Shades of Solomon

August 26, 2012

by Rev. Micah Bucey
Minister of the Arts

Not too long ago, while riding an ever-creaky C train into Manhattan from Brooklyn, I had one of those “only in New York” moments that went from making me smile hard to making me think hard. I was in the middle of a three-seater bench, wedged between two women, both middle-aged and both dressed rather classily. Each had an e-reader, one an iPad, the other a Kindle. Each was equally engrossed in what she was reading. But the best part was the combined effect of what they were reading on me, their smiling, thinking, nosy neighbor. See, the woman to my right was reading the Bible, the world’s best-selling book. And the woman to my left was reading Fifty Shades of Grey, the first scintillating volume in the erotic “Fifty Shades Trilogy,” which just topped forty million copies sold, despite mostly vicious reviews.

Now, for anyone who doesn’t know what the “Fifty Shades Trilogy” is, suffice to say it’s a series that provides readers with countless peeks inside a sado-masochistic sexual relationship between an older billionaire man and a younger smitten woman. As one reviewer puts it, the author EL James “writes as though she’s late for a meeting with a sex scene.” 1 I’ve only read a few pages here and there, but I can assure you that this review is quite accurate. 1

I’ll assume I don’t have to tell anyone the major plot points of the Bible, so I’ll just say that watching both of these women hunched over their backlit tomes was a mind-bending opportunity. And it grew ever-more-mind-bending when I realized that the Bible-reader was scanning chapter two of “Song of Solomon,” that ancient erotic love poem that quivers teasingly smack-dab in the middle of our Christian Old Testament. I quickly pulled out a Sharpie from my bag and scrawled on the inside of my palm, like a crazy person: “Fifty Shades. Solomon. Sermon.” And so here we are.

As the “Fifty Shades Trilogy” has skyrocketed in popularity, journalists and critics have taken it upon themselves to delve deeply into figuring out just how this series has infected the psyches of so many in such a short period of time. New Yorkers can barely take a subway ride without seeing at least three copies of each of the books and, as my friend Amanda said just yesterday, “Most any every woman you see with a Kindle is probably most definitely reading those books.” Well, I know one woman who is reading something else on her Kindle, namely one of the most sacred books of all time, but as it’s “Song of Solomon” she’s reading, I’ve been wondering over the past few weeks what the real difference might be.

Certainly, “Song of Solomon” has some risqué imagery that might seem out of place in the Biblical canon. But, after scanning through Fifty Shades of Grey and then digging more deeply into “Song of Solomon” and its unique place in our Bible, I would venture to suggest that it’s the astonishing way that “Song of Solomon” can be read in both a literal way as well as a metaphorical way that not only differentiates it from other erotic writings, but also offers all of us seeking-if-not-altogether-Christian readers the chance to use its imagery and narrative to lift up some of the most maddening, base, and complicated aspects of our own relationships to love and sex as things worthy of true spiritual exploration.

You might have noticed on our bulletin cover this morning a photo of a beautifully hardworking team of Judsonites. This crew participates regularly in a partnership program between Judson and the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center, at which volunteers put together safer injection and safer sex kits to prevent the spread of things like HIV/AIDS, HCV, and other preventable-but-still-fact-of-life diseases. I asked our own Kim Kelly to serve as liturgist today, because this project has been Kim’s baby since its inception in the early 1990s and she and her stalwart crew have ushered it into being the longest-running ongoing ministry at Judson, outside of our Sunday morning worship service.

These safer injection and safer sex kit meet-ups were one of my first introductions into the spiritual life of the Judson community. Though my own schedule keeps me from joining them as often as I’d like these days, I still count these gatherings as the best way to learn about Judson and, really, to learn about anything at all. But there’s another reason why I think these gatherings are so important and, although there is, of course, inherent worth in the fact that these kits are made at all, I think it’s particularly important to acknowledge that these kits are being made at a church, by members of the church. See, most churches that I knew growing up would not only shy away from having a decades-long program that acknowledges that drug use and sex exist, but would also shy away from acknowledging, at least in the pulpit, that “Song of Solomon,” an epic, erotic love poem, is both in our Old Testament and is pretty darn sexual.

There is a lack of consensus on whether “Song of Solomon” is to be read literally or metaphorically. What we do know is that it is indicative of other Ancient Near Eastern erotic writings and that it was for some time one of the most widely read and discussed parts of the Christian Biblical canon. According to my Old Testament professor David Carr:

“there are more Latin manuscripts of the Song than any other Biblical book, and there are more medieval sermons on the Song than all other Biblical books except the Psalms and John. For…ancient men and women, the Song…was their fifth gospel. It was read more often in some contexts than the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.” 2

Back then, readers held the book's lustful and loving exchanges between two smitten lovers as a celebration of the relationship between God and God’s people. But, starting in the 1800s, Biblical scholars began to explore the possibility that the book was not about God and God’s people, but rather about the relationship between two human beings that lies outside of the societal constrictions of marriage. Professor Carr has spent much time and many pages arguing that we might be able to join these two readings so that the book can be counted as both a metaphorical representation of our yearning, painful search for God’s favor, as well as a literal representation of our yearning, painful search for one another’s favor. I tend to agree, and that is why this service today is so filled with imagery and words that span the countless permutations of spiritual and human lust and love.

So back to the “Fifty Shades Trilogy.” As suggested by many critics, the interesting thing about what Ms. James attempts to do with her novels is that she seems to aim for the elimination of metaphorical possibility altogether. Her erotic scenes are erotic and nothing more, set pieces designed to stimulate the reader, titillating that reader into a state of arousal. They function as nothing more than a means to an end, and it appears that Ms. James does not intend for them to do anything but. Gone even are the clunky, awkward, laughable sexual metaphors of those infamous Harlequin romance paperbacks . This is bare-bones stimulation that aims to be nothing more. Don’t get me wrong; this is not necessarily an invalid hope for one’s prose, but, in my opinion, it does differentiate the merely erotic preoccupations of Ms. James’s novels from the promisingly suggestive dual-meanings embedded in each and every line of “Song of Solomon.” Quite simply, “Song of Solomon,” positioned as it is among much more overtly religious Old Testament texts, is imbued with line after line of gorgeous poetry that works to both uphold our basest desires and fears, while simultaneously suggesting that we might fuse our deepest yearnings for the love of one another with our deepest yearnings for the love of God.

When I was a teenager in Northeast Ohio, the moment that I decided to leave the church came when I read a supplemental sidebar in a Teen Study Bible that described homosexuality as an unforgivable sin. I still remember that day as a somber, confusing, life-altering one. Who knew that such careless words from some conservative Christian editor somewhere could throw me, an aspiring seminarian, so off-course for so many years? That’s power.

I remember thinking that day that I had lost God. That I could no longer connect with God. That God had broken up with me. That God no longer thought that we would be good for one another. I spent about ten years mourning my lost relationship with God, watching God have other successful relationships with new people, yearning for the love that I felt had been cut off too soon, with no sufficient explanation, terrified that my scars would make me too damaged and messy to enter any kind of new spiritual relationship.

I also, in those ten years, began to have romantic relationships with human beings. A similar cycle of yearning, excitement, fulfillment, disappointment, failure, pain, and healing took place. But, even when the healing took place, the cycle would simply start over again. I remember that our own Christine Binder sang one of singer Regina Spektor’s songs here at Judson a while back in which Ms. Spektor describes this cycle perfectly with the following lyrics: “This is how it works. You peer inside yourself. You take the things you like and try to love the things you took. And then you take that love you made and stick it into someone else’s heart, pumping someone else’s blood. And walking arm in arm, you hope it don’t get harmed, but, even if it does, you’ll just do it all again.” 3 That is the gospel of Regina Spektor and I would argue that truer words have never been spoken.

It is the fact that we all continue on this cycle, even when in happy, healthy, long-lasting relationships, which makes it so important that “Song of Solomon” is included in our Old Testament. The two human beings, in the text a man and a woman, but in actuality just two human beings who could really be anyone, go from excited courtship filled with deliciously painful yearning and fulfilled then unfulfilled desire to excited consummation filled with deliciously painful yearning and fulfilled then unfulfilled desire. We recognize this journey. We get on it, we get off it, we get back on it, we curse it, we crave it. And then we do it all again.

I tend to believe that most of us also do a similar dance with our own spirituality. And, though we’re sometimes told that our faith should be unshakable, I think allowing our faith to shake a little bit is probably definitely pretty OK. Life is messy. Love happens. Addiction happens. Sex happens. Disease happens. Fights and breakups and beginnings and endings happen. Sometimes we are the hurt. Sometimes we are the hurter. Human mistakes must happen, be acknowledged, and then be viewed as learning aids. And though there are some churches out there who claim that a human being’s relationship with God is so above and beyond all of this that these things should not be discussed as spiritual matters, I truly believe that the fact that “Song of Solomon” is nestled in among our most sacred scriptures disproves that suggestion.

What we've got is a sacred book that works on both a human and spiritual level, and that’s a revelation. The book is nestled within the Bible just as Kim’s kit-making parties are nestled within the physical building and the spiritual life and outreach of this church. Can spirituality take us to a place beyond our base desires? Certainly. But spirituality and God and our connections to both can also be found pulsing inside everything that hurts us, everything that embarrasses us, and everything that makes us think we can’t get up and do it all again.

Our Bible is chockfull of texts that can be read in multiple ways. The Bible has both books that heavily utilize metaphor and books that are somewhat clearer in their lack of metaphor. But the history of the multiple divergent readings of “Song of Solomon" is extra-special. It offers us a chance to make connections between something that we all know quite well, which is the cycle of human emotion that accompanies love and loss, and something that we might not know as well but try to know, which is the possibility for human connection to a higher power. The imagery and ache within “Song of Solomon” is something we all recognize, no matter how happy we are to be in a human relationship or how sad we are to be out of one. But, when also used as a metaphor between human and God, that ache takes on spectacular dimension. We learn to celebrate our cycles as the opportunities for education and expression and spiritual development that they truly are.

The fact that we here at Judson recognize and accept the untidy business that is life and refuse to push it under wraps in an attempt to reach for something higher is unique and necessary. It helps us to open our doors to those who have felt the doors of other churches closed gently in their faces. It helps us to heal one another while healing ourselves. It helps us to appear weak and needing in front of one another without fear that we will never be trusted to be strong again. For a church with such an active, smart, engaged, questing congregation, this is the only way to go on. We gather on Sunday, on Wednesday, at the kit parties on Tuesday or Thursday, on every day, we smile and see how we’re all doing, we acknowledge pain, hope for healing, laugh and cry, and then we do it all again. This is church. This is life. This is love. And this is God. May we continue to separate them when we must and hold them all together when we must, knowing that this is simply how it works.

Let us pray:
Creative Hand of the Universe: Thank you for the cycles. Thank you for the chances. Thank you for the changes. This is how it works. Help us to do it all again.

1. Zoe Williams. “Why women love Fifty Shades of Grey.”

2. David M. Carr, The Erotic Word: Sexuality, Spirituality, and the Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

3. Regina Spektor, “On The Radio.”

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