Erotic spirituality — the good, the bad, and the ugly of combining faith and sexuality

What is the relationship between sexuality and spirituality? In many ways, sexuality has become its own spirituality. And in the process, it has coopted church music and biblical language to articulate it.

Ray Charles has been tagged as the first to take gospel music, which he grew up with in church, and use it to sing romantic songs. That seems pretty tame in today’s eclectic musical environment, but it was shocking at the time. Religion and romance just didn’t go together.

So, when we get to Hozier’s song “Take Me To Church,” released as an EP in 2013 and on a full album in 2014, we get to an intentional full-on coopting of both church music and church language to describe a sexual relationship and, ironically, to denounce the church for its views on homosexual practice.

The song starts out this way: “My lover’s got humour/She’s the giggle at a funeral/Knows everybody’s disapproval/I should’ve worshipped her sooner/If the heavens ever did speak/She’s the last true mouthpiece … My church offers no absolutes/She tells me, ‘Worship in the bedroom.’/The only heaven I’ll be sent to/Is when I’m alone with you.”

So, when he sings, “Take me to church,” he’s not referring to a Christian worship service. He’s talking about taking his lover to bed. “There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin,” he sings.

Just like Hozier, Beyoncé’s song “Halo” uses a gospel choir to give it a churchy feel while picking up on church language. She sings: “Everywhere I’m looking now/I’m surrounded by your embrace/Baby, I can see your halo/You know you’re my saving grace.”

Instead of a halo representing holiness as in ancient church art, Beyoncé’s romantic feelings toward her lover give him a halo’s glow in her eyes. And then the coup de grace: “you’re my saving grace.”

Really? Your lover/husband is your saving grace?

As someone who was raised in a Methodist church, she ought to know better theologically. And yet as someone who is often described as a devout Christian, it’s understandable that she would reach for images that resound with the deepest part of her to express similarly deep emotions.

Yes, there is a relationship between sexuality and spirituality.

The book of the Bible where we see this most is the Song of Songs (also referred to as Song of Solomon or Canticle of Canticles). As preteens, my friends and I would giggle over the blatant sexuality that was right there in our Bibles. And no one at church could ever fault us for reading it because, hey!, we were reading the Bible and that’s always a good thing.

My Mom has often referred to reading the Song of Songs as a teenager as key to her understanding the love of God. And St. Bernard of Clairvaux preached 86 sermons from the Song and barely made it into chapter two of the eight-chapter book. Both of them and many others have seen a correlation between sexuality and spirituality that just doesn’t exist elsewhere.

This is why we have had so many Jesus-is-my-boyfriend worship songs over the past few decades. Brian Doerksen’s “Come and Fill Me Up” 20 years ago may not have been intentionally erotic, but if you exchange the God references with a boyfriend’s name, blushing ensues:

I can feel you/Flowin’ thru me/Holy Spirit/Come and fill me up/Come and fill me up … I am thirsty/For your presence, Lord/Come and fill me up … I need you/I want you/I love your presence/I need you/I want you/I love your presence

There has been plenty of criticism of both popular musicians who pull from Christian spirituality to express their sexuality (especially Madonna, who has made a career of doing so) and worship musicians who have pulled from sexuality to express their spirituality.

For one, Jesus is my boyfriend. For the other, my boyfriend is Jesus.

But is the criticism appropriate? We’ve already noted that there is precedent for doing so both in the Scriptures themselves and in the history of Christian spirituality.

Like the nuns at the Catholic high school I attended, I wear a wedding band on my right hand to symbolize my commitment to Jesus.

There’s something right about this. It’s why Bono of U2 has been able to sing songs to an unnamed “You” who is either his lover or his Lord. In fact, he often slurs intentionally while singing, so the listener is uncertain if he singing “Love” or “Lord.” Bono even went so far as to refer to God as “She” throughout the Achtung Baby album to further blur the spirituality/sexuality line.

I find that in Bono’s capable hands, it works. And it works exceedingly well. But not so in other hands. The romanticism of some worship song writers is cloying at best. And the deifying of sexuality by some popular artists is blasphemous and idolatrous. It’s all in how it’s done.

As my Mom sensed as a teenager, there is something to this overlap between religion and romance. This is why the Church is referred to as the Bride of Christ. This is why the marriage relationship was the final and crowning and completing part of the Creation.

At the same time, there’s a reason why prostitution was as aspect of so many pagan rites. The soaring of the soul in sexual expression has been used to sell empty gods, something the God of the Bible never does. In fact, in a world of sexualized pagan deities, the Old Testament writers consistently refused to sexualize Yahweh. The same is true of the New Testament writers with Jesus.

There is something to the romantic and the religious to be explored. And books like The Divine Romance and The Sacred Romance: Drawing Closer to the Heart of God can help lead us into it. At the same time, there’s only one of the 66 books of the Bible devoted to it. So, we ought to keep it in perspective.

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