Song of Solomon 7:10-13
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
7 October 2018
Note: Part of our Inspire series in collaboration with the Joslyn Art Museum.
This sermon inspired by Salome Dancing Before King Herod
by Georges Rochegrosse.
As I prepared the sermon for this week, I kept listening to the song "Wild" by the South African singer Troye Sivan. The refrain of the pop song is
Never knew loving could hurt this good, oh
And it drives me wild
'Cause when you look like that
I've never ever wanted to be so bad, oh
It drives me wild
You're driving me wild, wild, wild
Sivan's songs have been described as "an infectious celebration of sexual desire." A fitting complement to this painting of Salome Dancing before King Herod by Georges Rochegrosse. The Joslyn Art Museum describes Georges Rochegrosse's painting as such: "Frequently, literary or historical sources serve as pretexts for sensational and titillating images." And in this particular painting "inspired by the biblical account of the death of St. John the Baptist, minute details of setting and human physiognomy encourage the viewer to share with the painted audience the lithe dancer's provocative performance." This is a painting meant to both exhibit and evoke our desire. To drive us wild.
Now, we modern people are trained to take a detached, sophisticated approach to art. Nude bodies in art are okay, because they're art. As if great art couldn't inspire our desire. I'm certain that Michelangelo didn't expect a detached reaction to his statue of David.
Art, even great fine art, does inspire our desires. But desires are slippery things; they can drive us wild. Therefore, desires make us anxious. Plato, for example, thought pleasure was wrong, that it polluted the soul, and that the enlightened person must rise about desire and pleasure into the realm of abstract reason. Some of those ideas clearly infected Christian thinking.
But what if desire is vital to our spiritual life? What if God wants to drive us wild? Contemporary theologian Belden Lane, for instance, praises a "God of wild beauty" and Natalie Carnes declares that "God is desire itself."
Could our desires inspire us to transformation? By driving us wild, can they also make us good?
Salome Dancing before King Herod hangs in the European galleries on the north side of the Joslyn's main building. In that room are a handful of paintings from the Orientialist style.
These Orientalist paintings are fascinating. They come from the middle and late 19th century when traditional forms of painting were at their most developed. These painting represent classical painting just before modernism burst upon the scene. They exhibit great detail and skilled execution.
Orientalism emerged as part of a Western European fascination with the exotic. When Napoleon invaded Egypt, his soldiers returned with such new and exotic things, they they inspired imaginations. And so artists began to paint images of "the Orient." But for them "the Orient" meant pretty much everything east of Western Europe, including Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and the Middle East, regions that are actually part of Western civilization.
Despite the artistic skill of these paintings, they are problematic, for they perpetuated racist stereotypes. Though they were painted in a realistic style, the images were fantasies, exoticizing their subjects. Here, for instance, a biblical subject matter excuses the prurient details of the painting.
Edward Said, the great cultural critic, published his masterpiece Orientalism in 1978 criticizing how 19th century Europeans had fetishized the East in ways that presented lasting implications for global politics. And one point he made was how these artists had created sexual fantasies--"What they looked for often," he wrote, "was a different type of sexuality, perhaps more libertine and less guilt-ridden."
The cultural and political issues surrounding this paint inform us that one of the dangers with desire is that the object of our desire can become objectified and commodified. Isn't that what the story of Herod is about? His own prurient lusting after Salome and the dangers it leads to? For objectification can lead to exploitation and attempts to possess and control the objects of our desire. And the attempt to possess and control that can become violent.
Our society is currently engaged in a deeply profound conversation about just these matters of sexual ethics. And in particular how toxic masculinity breeds a sense of entitlement and privilege that results in violence, abuse, and trauma for women.
Can desire, then, drive us wild and make us good?
What glory that our religious tradition contains the love poem I read at the start of this sermon! In contrast to commodified, fetishized desire, the Song of Solomon is a rich resource for celebrating love that is good. Dianne Bergant points out in her commentary that what this poem celebrates is "mutual love, not an unequal relationship." The Bible gives us an image of mutual love and mutual desire that drive us wild.
That we humans are tempted by objectified and commodified desire, is it possible that we desire too weakly?
Natalie Carnes, a professor at Baylor, wrote precisely that in her new book Image and Presence—"the problem with our own desire is that it is too weak, too easily satiated, too quick to terminate. We are satisfied with golden calves."
Instead we need a desire that grows and enriches us. A desire that is never-ending and never satisfied. And what kind of love does that describe? God's love for all of us. So, the desire that truly drives us wild and makes us good is the desire for God and God's desire for us.
To love and desire as God does, change us, by teaching us to see the world in new ways. Natalie Carnes declares, "To see the world [as God does]. . . requires resisting the will to master the world. It demands, instead, opening the self up to the transformations love can accomplish."
I've now been married for over nine years, and marriage has worked its changes upon me. Marriage has revealed to me my rough edges. I've learned things about myself I might not have learned otherwise. Or even really wanted to learn. So to be a better husband, I've had to work on myself.
And being a father these last three and half years has revealed depths of love I wasn't even aware of. Joys and delights I didn't know.
Loving my husband and my child have changed me. This is what good desire, true enjoyment can accomplish.
And so with God's love for us. God's love and desire for us can open us up and change us. It can drive us wild and make us good.
Today is World Communion Sunday. Together we will eat the bread and drink the grape juice. These elements nourish us. But the little bread and the little juice aren't enough to fill us up if we are actually hungry and thirsty. Despite how tasty the gluten free matzo is. In fact, that little taste might serve as a reminder that you are hungry.
Instead, the communion nourishes our spirits. In the meal we remember Christ, which means we also remember "a life beyond us, which precedes us, [and] prepares us to enter into a . . . fullness that shatters boundaries." As Natalie Carnes writes.
Through Jesus we share in God's glory, and "the divine presence come to us . . . transforming us into an image with still greater likeness to God."
God never desires us as objects or commodities. Listen to this beautiful description from Natalie Carnes:
For God looks upon us as clothed in Christ—as if we are God, inexhaustible and infinitely unfolding. God loves us as if we are Christ, and such love makes us little christs. Thirsty for us, Christ looks upon us as if we are Christ's very body, and so the Father looks upon us as if we are Christ, and desires us as if we are Christ. So looked upon and desired, we can become christs.
God loves us with an infinite, unconditional love, and invites to enjoy the same kind of love.
Dearly beloved, let us be made wild with a desire that makes us good.