There’s a scene in Keeping Mum where Rowan Atkinson and Maggie Smith are talking about Song of Songs. Rowan’s playing an Anglican priest, and he explains all about how it’s a metaphor about God’s love for His people, and Maggie goes ‘No vicar, it’s about sex.’ And then he reads it again and he’s like oh man this is some sexy shit and it blows his mind. Anyway I caught John Owen doing the same thing, and we’re gonna bag him for it.
- The book: Communion with God
- The author: John Owen, 17th century British Puritan.
- Notes: We’re working with an abridged version, with modernized language, courtesy of one R.J.K. Law.
- Read it yourself: Here’s a free online version of the original text, or the version I’m working with is available here.
So Owen is travelling through Song of Songs chapter 5, which you can read here. If you’ve never read it before, it’s a poem about sexual desire, where we find corkers like this:
“My beloved thrust his hand through the latch-opening;
my heart began to pound for him.
I arose to open for my beloved,
and my hands dripped with myrrh,
my fingers with flowing myrrh,
on the handles of the bolt.”
And here’s Owen having his hot take on how it’s all a Jesus metaphor or something. In each instance, he offers the line from the Bible, and then his interpretation.
“His cheeks are like a bed of spices, like banks of scented herbs” (Song 5:13)
“The cheeks of a man show beauty and courage. The beauty of Christ is from his fulness of grace. His courage is revealed in his rule and government arising from that universal authority that has been given to him. This beauty and courage the church calls his cheeks.”
I just – I fucking can’t take this seriously. Your sexy cheeks bud, they’re a metaphor about government. You can govern me with those cheekbones anytime. Get over here and exercise your universal authority. Similarly, for the line “His hands are rods of gold set with beryl” (v14), Owen tells us that Christ’s hands symbolise his works, which are valuable, which is why they’re compared to gems and shit, because it’s all a metaphor about how Christ does good works, and nothing to do with anyone’s golden rod. And then fucking – get this:
“His body is carved ivory inlaid with sapphires” (Song 5:14)
“The smoothness and brightness of ivory, the preciousness and heavenly colour of sapphires are here used to describe the glory and beauty of Christ. To these, his body – or rather his heart – is compared. They describe the glory of Christ’s feelings and emotions, the tender and unspeakable love and kindness to his church and-”
Did you catch that switch? Oh, when they say his body, they actually mean his heart, because we’re uncomfortable with his tight rippling abs. And that lady over there handling someone’s bolt, that’s also about Jesus. Fucking Owen.
Tell you what though, here’s a question. In mainstream Christian theology, the church is conceived of as the bride of Christ. Song of Songs is part of that framework: it’s about desire, and a yearned-for union which is totally spiritual and 100% not a sex thing. But how is it that male theologians understood themselves as Christ’s bride? When you hear these guys talking about their relationship with God, if you pay attention, you’ll catch them using the same terms that they use to refer to women. There’s a lot of submission, a lot of yielding and surrender. Actually – where’s Owen gone –
“Christ looks on his church with doves’ eyes, that is, with kindness and compassion. Towards his church he has no anger or thoughts of vengeance. As God’s eyes were on the land of Canaan, and as he cared for that land, so his eyes are on the church, on each one of his people as one that in kindness and compassion cares for us and uses his wisdom, knowledge and understanding on our behalf.”
It’s that classic Christian paternalism, right. It feels gross, because you know that it’s also how Owen thinks the relationship between men and women should work – men should look on their wives with kindness and compassion, and pat them on the head, and use their knowledge and wisdom on their wives’ behalf, because women are basically stupid children. That’s a valid read of the gender dynamics at play here. And we could follow that thread – but just for now, I want to set it aside. I’m less interested here in women, and more interested in the position of Christian men who in their relationship with Christ take on the characteristics that they assign to women. Because that’s what’s happening in this whole bride of Christ metaphor. It’s Christian men, Christian theologians, thinking about themselves in relation to God by conceptualising themselves as women. It’s a sort of metaphorical transgendering. That’s curious. It makes you start to look differently as passages where Owen talks about the beauty of Christ. Go back and read those passages above – twice Owen refers to the beauty of Christ. Is that spoken by a man thinking of himself as a bride while thinking of another man’s beauty? What’s the gender dynamic here?
Let’s take a few more passages from Owen. I’ll jump around a bit within Communion, so apologies if you’re trying to follow the text. Oh – and the Shulamite is the woman in Song of Songs.
“Scripture shows us that we hold communion with the Lord Jesus in grace by a marriage relationship. Christ is married to us and we to him. This spiritual relation is accompanied with mutual love, and so in this fellowship with Christ we experience and enjoy all the excellent things which are in him. This the Shulamite declares: ‘My beloved is mine, and I am his’ (Song 2:16). He is mine. I possess him. I claim him as my head and my husband. I am his. He possesses me, owns me, and has taken me into a personal marriage relationship with himself.”
First time I read this, I was confused by that final section – everything after the Bible quote. Is that Owen taking on the imagined position of the bride, spinning out the metaphor to make more explicit the relationship between Christ and the church? Or is it a personal statement, where Owen talks about his own relationship with Christ? To what extent is he thinking of himself as a woman? It’s not clear. And the rest of the text doesn’t necessarily make it easier. Sometimes Owen will treat the church metaphorically as one singular entity: “She [the church] is married to her Maker, and her Redeemer is her husband.” And then sometimes it’s very explicitly an individualised, personal relationship, where, unambiguously, each individual believer is conceptualised as a woman in relation to Christ: “Christ commits himself to the soul, to love, care for and show kindness to it as a husband does to his wife. The soul, in response, gives itself up wholly to the Lord Christ to be to him a loving, tender, obedient wife … this relationship begins with Christ giving himself to the soul to be its Saviour, head and husband, to dwell with that soul forever.” Elsewhere: “The soul calls itself to account for what it has done, how it behaved when Christ was present that caused him to leave. It asks itself, ‘Why has Christ withdrawn himself? What have I done to drive him away? Have I been wandering after other lovers?'”
I want to be clear here, I’m not necessarily coming out in favour of one reading or another. It’s not clear, for instance, how Owen sees the relationship between physical bodies and spiritual souls. When men, in relation to Christ, are thought of as women, is that just as metaphorical women? Or as spiritual women (whatever that means)? Does Owen even think that men and women have different sorts of souls? Are there men’s souls and women’s souls, or are our souls all essentially genderless? Because if men’s souls are different to women’s souls, then what does it mean for a man’s soul to become a loving, tender, obedient wife to Christ? And where does all that sexuality fit into the picture? It’s probably metaphorical sexuality – Owen definitely does his best to de-sex Song of Songs – but like, if there are man-souls and woman-souls, where does sexuality fit in? Do souls fuck? How would that impact our understanding of Christian men as, spiritually, the brides of Christ?
I should also acknowledge as we close that all of this is ultimately pointless speculation based on faulty premises. We can’t endorse Owen’s theology here, because it’s built on paternalistic assumptions about the respective roles of men and women, and we don’t fuck with that shit. It can’t be possible for any of this stuff to be true. But, for the sake of the discussion, I just wanted to put that fact aside, so that we could follow Owen’s thought to its logical conclusion. Sometimes it’s worth peering down the rabbit hole.