Jesus is my favoured suitor? Erotic spirituality in earlier ages

Posted on November 15, 2011

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A good-natured, entertaining, and informative discussion occurred a week or so ago online, sparked by Carl Beech and Vicky Beeching, concerning the perceived ‘feminization’ of worship songs, resulting in a ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ spirituality in (some strands of) contemporary worship which (it is argued by some) might keep men away from the church.

I don’t want to argue the subject at hand particularly, but some historical context occurred to me. I was typing up some songs for our evening service this afternoon, and came across a query from our musical director with reference to Isaac Watts’s ‘How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds.’ One verse, in Newton’s original, read:

Jesus, my Shepherd, Husband, Friend,
My Prophet, Priest, and King,
My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,
Accept the praise I bring.

Our more recent songbook, apparently, suggested replacing ‘Husband’ with ‘Saviour’ (which could only be entertained by someone with a tin ear; the more common ‘Master’ is better). I chose to retain ‘Husband’; Newton’s Biblical reference is Song of Songs 1:3, so ‘Husband’ is appropriate. This brought to mind a long tradition of Puritan spirituality, drawing extensively but not exclusively on the Song of Songs to picture the relation of the human soul to Christ. The texts that survive are mostly from male authors (Anne Bradstreet or Elizabeth Rowe would be the most obvious exceptions); they are strikingly graphic and direct in their appropriation of marital and erotic imagery to narrate the relationship between Christ and the believer – or sometimes, drawing on Eph. 5 and similar, between Christ and the church.

There is a good discussion of this theme in Belden C. Lane’s Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality (Oxford: OUP, 2011), pp. 105-115. Lane quotes, for instance, Edward Taylor’s funeral poem for his wife, which moves on to reflect on his own experience of God’s love:

Shall Mortall, and Immortall marry? nay,
Man marry God? God be a Match for Mud?
The King of Glory Wed a Worm? mere Clay?
This is the Case. The Wonder too is Bliss.
Thy Maker is thy Husband. Hearst thou this?

John Cotton, famous pastor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, repeatedly used the image of maternal milk to describe the teaching the pastor offers his people. In commenting on the Song of Songs he casts himself as the ‘breasts of Christ’ from which the pure milk of the Word can be sucked (Lane, p. 114). Michael Winship’s 1992 paper, ‘Behold the Bridegroom Cometh! Marital Imagery in Massachusetts preaching, 1630-1730’ (Early American Literature 27, pp. 170-184) contains other striking examples: for Samuel Whiting, the joy of heaven will include ‘his sweet embraces … in that Celestial Bride Chamber and Bed of Love’; for Samuel Willard, the reality of earthly devotion is that if the saints ‘could but now and then, steal a Sight of him, or obtain a Kiss from him … they reckoned themselves happy.’ Contrast this to heaven: ‘there shall be that intimacy which there is between the most loving husband and most beloved wife and transcendently greater … they will not be interrupted Carresses which they shall have from him … There will be no more Coyness on their part … but the delights which they shall enjoy, shall be both full and uninterrupted … the reciprocal ardours of Affection between him and us, shall break over all Banks and Bounds, and we shall be entirely satisfied, both in Soul and Body.’

(Really, comparing the current Vineyard stuff to this is like comparing Stephanie Meyer to D.H. Lawrence…)

There are other examples of such extreme rhetoric in the tradition – medieval Western mystics, for one. The Puritan tradition flowered fairly briefly, with Watts the dying end of it in the 1730s. Some explanations of this sort of spirituality major on the fact that the word ‘soul’ in Latin is grammatically feminine (anima); I think this is a mistake: confusion between grammatical and biological gender seems a very recent phenomenon to this non-linguist, at least. Grammatical explanations also fail to explain the ebbs and flows of such language in history: Tillotson and a moderate Anglicanism disdained such spirituality whilst the Puritans were luxuriating in it; this is not because the Puritans were better Latin grammarians! (And if the Evangelicals of Watts’s day and after also refrained from it, it is not because they were less passionate in their devotion.) Freudian readings are also available (Leverenz, The Language of Puritan Feeling suggests Puritan men desired to be transformed into women and children and protected by a transcendent father); like most Freudian readings of most things, these can and should be ignored.

Winship describes this feature of seventeenth-century Puritan devotion as exhibiting a ‘gender polymorphousness’ (p. 172); I suspect that this chance phrase is important. The eighteenth-century Enlightenment found in observations of material reality the clue to all truth, and so invited a crude essentialism about gender; the rich and extravagant erotic imagery of two generations earlier, which relied on a much more subtle negotiating of gender identity, now sounded bizarre rather than enticing.

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