Agnieszka Tennant’s recent essay in Christianity Today entitled “Dating Jesus” is a mixed bag, mostly for what it does not say. Where she speaks to her topic, I’d agree with her, though with more urgency than she displays. But, still … as far as it goes, what she says is spot on.
Her criticism boils down to this: Christian women, aided and abetted by popular evangelical writers and some church ministries, are going overboard with the Bible’s bridal imagery. And, she acknowledges that this mistake is not exactly new. Neither is reading the Song of Solomon and other biblical passages as erotically charged letters addressed directly to the reader.
In support of the antiquity of this error, Tennant points to bridal imagery in the vows of Medieval nuns whose vows of celibacy are construed as spiritual marriages. On the modern scene, Tennant alludes to unnamed female writers who urge their female readers to go on dates with Jesus or to have “Tea with Jesus,” wearing their wedding dresses to the affairs.
When it comes time to sum up her critique, Tennant tells us this:
I have little patience for taking biblical metaphors too far and giving one’s relationship with God an air of irreverent chumminess. Somehow, the scenario in which “his princess” shaves her legs for a date with Jesus seems to leave little room for fear of God. And consider how unhelpful this misreading must be to single women who are hormonally awake. The cruel message they get is: If Jesus is really your husband, what’s your problem? Be satisfied!
As I said. well and good. But, is it sufficient (as a critique, I mean) for Tennant to tell us that “she has little patience” with this kind of thing? Why should it matter that it seems to be irreverent chumminess to her. And why is her special concern only for the single woman who is hormonally awake?
What’s wrong with Tennant’s critique is simply this: it’s myopic. And, it’s myopic in a way that’s typical of modern egalitarian evangelicals: the whole “problem” is considered purely from a woman’s perspective, a kind of gender-affirmative action, if you will. Oddly, for women to co-opt the Bible’s bridal imagery for their own personal feminine spirituality seems fine to many evangelical women. Indeed, Tennant seems to object only to those who go overboard with this sort of stuff. Going overboard offends Tennant’s sensibilities. Otherwise, we suppose, construing or attempting to live out one’s spiritual life in terms of bridal or spousal concepts is okay.
Of far greater consequence is the impact of this kind of thing on men in the church. Leon Podles work The Church Impotent: the Feminization of Christianity propounds two theses: (1) that the application of bridal imagery to the personal spirituality of Christians has had the effect of driving men out of the church, and that (2) the chief culprit is Bernard of Clairvaux, whose preaching and discipleship ministry was largely responsible for injecting bridal imagery into the personal devotions of Christians in the West. Podles gets challenged on pinning this tail on Bernard’s bridal donkey; but, even if Podles is inaccurate in that charge, his case for man-unfriendly bridal spirituality in both Catholic and Protestant communions is difficult to dispute.
Podles is Roman Catholic, but reading his book gives one who grew up in a thoroughly low-church Protestant environment the willies. Often, you’d think he were speaking of the Sunday School at First Baptist Church back in the 1950s, or the revivalist tent meetings of a half-century before that. The saccharine sentimentality of old gospel songs is aimed straight for the feminine heart, and in the mouths of men these songs are emasculating.
Fast forward, now, to the “Jesus is my boyfriend” choruses so popular in evangelical settings today. Imagine the spiritual impact on men who are prompted to sing “I cry your name out in the night, I want to feel my arms around you, I long to hear you call my name, I want to be your Holy Bride.”
I actually watched an assembly of Christians crooning these and similar lyrics in a dimly lit sanctuary (resembled a night-club lounge) as they appeared on the wall. By my estimation two-thirds of the people present were women, and by the sound of it all, the only voices who were singing were the female ones, except for the male crooner on stage, moaning these lyrics into the ever-phallic microphone. Glancing around, I saw mostly still male faces, or occasionally ones which seemed to be mumbling something.
There are strong and potent reasons why this kind of thing is toxic to the spiritual life of both men and women. But, how it is toxic differs depending on the sex of the worshiper. For women, to eroticize their relationship with the LORD goes a long way toward idolatry. It has this same effect with men plus this additional disaster: a wholesale repudiation of their created masculinity. Men are not and never will be “brides” without severe distortion of their personal identity.
Someone somewhere in my hearing once said “Jesus has a bride, not a harem.” Relating to Jesus as a romantic, or erotic, or spousal, lover is simply not permitted by the Biblical texts. That alone should give pause to any who suppose it to provide an “option” for one’s personal spirituality. For men and for churches that hope to evangelize and disciple men there is an additional liability. Men not only sense the perverseness of such thinking, a majority of them get right up out of their pews and flee for the door. Permanently.