The Bible is filled with erotic stories, erotic poetry, and even erotic prophetic imagery. The stories range from the criminal (the rape and murder of the Levite’s concubine, David’s adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband), to the obscene (Lot’s daughters having sex with their drunken father, the member of the Corinthian Church sleeping with his father’s wife), and the beautiful (poetry from the Song of Solomon, God’s identification with Israel and the Church as a bride).
At the same time, the Bible is filled with warning about the misuse of our bodies by sexually impure practices.
This leaves us in a conundrum. We are balanced precariously between the roles of moralists and erotic story tellers. We cannot fully declare the mysteries of God without the dynamics of the erotic being a part of the vocabulary of our eschatology, pneumatology, and I would say even our christology. The scriptures are pregnant with erotic prophetic allusions. (Did you see what I just did there with my own reference to pregnancy and prophecy?)
With all of this eroticism in the Christian mythos, and the aggressively open eroticism of our culture, there has been a significant movement toward the erotic in Christianity, and many of us, including myself, find ourselves uncomfortable with this movement. We wonder when it reaches beyond the prophetically erotic and beautiful into the obscene. How and when does it maintain the innocence and holiness of Christian spirituality and a divine love story, and when does it dip into the self justification of my lusts?
A brief caveat: This is not a statement about current “social justice issues” in categories of sexual ethics. This is simply a discussion of the movement of the prophetic in regards to erotic imagery. I am not interested who does it right, and who does it wrong in the context this discussion. (As a heads up, I am in practice, extremely old fashioned, I guess some would say Puritanical, in contrast to our culture.)
Christian culture and theology is groping in the dark for answers to this question. Mark Driscoll’s strangely obscene yet conservative book on sexuality, and his many pulpit references to anal sex are one weird side of this spectrum, while Queer Theology and the reframing of scripture as a liberating genre for all forms of sexuality, sometimes including polyamory and group sex, are another edge of the wildly swinging arc.
As I delve into the concept of Carnival as a Gospel revolution, I am faced with medieval variations of this same tension between obscenity and the prophetic. Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel is some of the most erotically grotesque literature ever written, and at the same time it carried with it a profoundly liberating impact during the times of the Reformation. Mikhail Bakhtin‘s treatise on Rabelais was one of the few places he could present his idea of Carnivalesque as revolution, and hint at this being the nature of the Gospel itself, without being “cleansed” by Stalin. As it was, Bakhtin spent over 20 years in exile under Stalin’s regime.
This last weekend, I was asked to present poetry, and song on the theme of the Green Man in an outdoor tour at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival. I dressed in my Green Man tree costume, and sang my riddle song based in imagery from Gothic Cathedrals “Cum Tacent Clamant”, and wrote a sonnet about the Green Man (a carving whose origination is found overwhelmingly in Gothic Christian architecture). There is a monstrous, grotesque and wild character to the many Green Man representations. The Green Man, this unnamed face upon the Cathedral walls, remains mysterious, and although conjectured by Neo-Paganism to hail back to pre-Christian times, he still remains a mystery to us. For me, this hints at Paul’s sermon in Athens about the altar to the unknown God. People have made something of the Green Man, based upon their conjecture, and I like Paul, simply find allusions to the Gospel, and hints of God in the Green Man imagery.
Yet, finding hints of christology, eschatology and pneumatology in the Green Man leaves me with the uncomfortable tension, where the erotic meets the prophetic. The Green Man is a lusty figure; a living, dying, rebirthing, fruit bearing, springtime and harvest figure. He is passionate: both scowling and festive, both desiring and despising, and I am challenged to present this lusty character in his prophetic Gothic Christian sense. And so, my sonnet carried the lusty theme forward into the eschatology and christology – finding sexual imagery of Christ and the consummation with His Bride in the Green Man. The sonnet hinted at missiology with the evangelism of the church as growth of fruit upon a tree, and the birth of children, and it hinted at pneumatology with Fruit and Gifts of the Spirit released upon the followers of Christ as a means of evangelistic reproduction. But couched in the lusty of language of the Green Man, it may be possible to read or hear obscene terms, just as modern critics of atonement theology have found child abuse in substitutionary atonement. But this begs the question of whether we say more about ourselves than about the object of our observation when we make such critical commentary upon it.
Could it be that erotic elements of the prophetic only become pornographic in the minds the of the perceiver? And if so, it begs the question of what we are doing wrong by seeing the sensuality of the prophetic in perverted terms. I want to suggest a couple foci in respect to the prophetic couched in erotic terms, which might help avoid the degradation of the erotic imagery of the Bible into the obscene: 1) the focus of the prophetic is not the sensual, the earthen, or the temporal. On the one hand, it is not that the earthen and sensual is avoided, nor automatically demonized, but neither is the erotic the eschatological fulfillment of the prophetic. When we make the broken sexuality of humanity the primary focus of the Gospel, whether by seeing the Gospel as sexual liberation, or sexual restraint, we have brought the prophetic down to an obscene and shallow level. 2) The prophetic is not erotic, though it may include elements of the erotic in it. Vice versa, the erotic is not prophetic though it may be. Virgin birth and Bride of Christ, Spirit in us and God as a lover: these terms have a sensual component, but they are not prophetic statements about sexual behavior.
At the foundation of this intersection of the erotic and prophetic is the real heart of the issue – our own hearts. We will find the obscene, the common, the perversion of the text if we view it through the eyes of lust, or the eyes of fear and control, or through the eyes of a simultaneously repressed and liberated culture, which has become too Freudian, and sees everything through the eyes of sexual desire.
So, how do you read my Sonnet #42 – on the Green Man? With eyes of prophetic beauty, or the eyes of the pornographic?
Sonnet #42 on the Greenman
He hides among the stories past, but now
He has no name, with stonied face he laughs
or scowls, or smiles, or frowns, or cries. Who knows
what mood is carved by ancient cunning crafts?
The wintered face of death after the fall
The brambled, twisted, tortured crown of thorns
will gently resurrect at springtime’s call
with vestal bud and festive flowered horns
but then from jamb post lustily explodes
From foliate frieze the summer greens wrap round
and high above the narthex harvest loads
his juicy fruits upon the stirring crowd
he has no name and yet he wears the crown
of life and death and birth upon his brow
This is part one on a Hermeneutic of the Erotic.
Part two on a Hermeneutic of the Erotic: Purity Balls, Mark Driscoll and a Hermeneutic of the Obscene
Part three on a Hermeneutic of the Erotic: Traumatized by Erotic