BK over at CADRE Comments recently quoted an old C.S. Lewis essay on which I have been meaning to comment for some time. Lewis comments that for a religion to be adequate for the world in which we live, to have any right to contend as the true religion, it must meet certain criteria: it must have mysteries and ecstasies and celebrations on the one hand, and ethics and philosophy on the other; any religion which only contains one or the other is simply inadequate to cover the whole truth of the world, regardless of whether it might get certain individual things right. This serves as a decent introduction for my comments on the Song of Solomon, one of the follow-ups I still intend to post on the topic of the canon of Scripture.
The Song of Solomon was once among the contested books of the Bible, back when the canon of Scripture was still being formed. Being a cycle of sensual poems about romantic love, some liked it for its content, some disapproved of it as less than holy, and some allegorized it.
I have heard outspoken atheists mock Christians for having such a sensual book in the Bible; they've apparently confused sexual integrity with being cold, rigid, and joyless. That is a mistake; but it is a mistake all too commonly made. More than one religious person has taken a badly wrong turn by supposing that morality was something cold, rigid, and joyless; it has given goodness and uprightness a bad name that was never deserved. One of the Bible's best-loved characters is a king who was a shepherd, a musician, a composer of songs who was known to dance in the streets. The ancient traditions hold that it was his son Solomon who composed this particular cycle of poems.
The Song of Solomon deserves its place among our holy books for its portrayal of beautiful, playful, sensual, and devoted human love. Including a book like this in the canon makes a statement on the nature of goodness. It sets the married man free to enjoy his wife's beauty in a tender way, not in the harsh and degrading tones of pornography, but in a way that is also compassionate and dignified. It shows intimate sensuality coupled with kindness and devotion, a sensuality with decorum instead of crudeness. It sets the wife free to pursue the sensuality of spices and dancing and wine, to celebrate with her husband. It recognizes and appreciates the body without losing sight of the beloved as a person; instead it appreciates the other only because the other is the beloved. There is no talk about what the beloved's body should be like; it is simply appreciated and celebrated for what it is.
What kind of religion has sensual poetry in its sacred texts? One that recognizes the value and goodness of the world as creation; one that does not think of the material world as a distraction or a mistake but a blessing; one that recognizes the right place of unrushed private moments between a husband and wife; one that values things not only for their abstract philosophy but also for their humanity. If a religion had no place for that, is it really broad and generous enough to speak to the whole range of human experience? If a religion had disowned that text, is it really glad enough and life-affirming enough -- and personal enough -- to be entrusted with directing our lives? Imagine what a cold effect would it have, and what a loss it would be, if there was no such cycle of poems in the Bible. Our own culture is one where a healthier image of the marriage relationship is much needed. Imagine the effect it would have on the lives of people in our culture if they had an ideal in which sexuality is combined with love, devotion, decorum, and kindness; where uprightness is combined with a celebration of spices and wine and delight in the other person. That is a text that can help a confused age reclaim its humanity.