This is the third post in my series on Religion and Romance. You don’t need to read the previous posts before this one, but if you are interested they are:
The secularization of Romanceland
Today’s post was perfectly formed in my head as I was in bed, just before falling asleep, one night last week. What you’re getting is a poor reconstruction of that in the cold light of day. Sorry.
A few weeks ago, I read Laura Florand’s latest novella, Snowkissed. I read it in the bath and by the end (actually from about a third of the way through) I was weeping. That’s not true. I was sobbing. There were moments during the book where I thought I might not be able to go on, because whenever I’d got myself back under control, I only had to look at the page again and the tears would start flowing. Reading it was a raw, painful, emotional experience. And at the end, my overwhelming feeling was, “I want to be loved like that.”
I’m nothing like the heroine in the book, Kai. I haven’t been through any of the experiences that inform her character in the book. I liked the hero well enough but he wasn’t a man that I thought I would fall in love with. What I wanted, passionately and desperately, was the experience of being loved the way that he loved Kai. Their love for each other prompted a desire in me to experience that same love for myself.
Okay, so what does that have to do with religion, huh?
Well, for the last 5 years I’ve been writing my PhD thesis on the Song of Songs. The Song of Songs is the romance novel of the Bible. Except it’s not a novel, it’s a cycle of poems. (And yes, there are other romances in the Bible, too. And yes, the whole Bible is a romance. That’s another post for another time.) It’s a cycle of poems about a pair of lovers, together, apart, yearning, content, passionate, anguished, tender, delighting, fierce, satisfied, longing. And it’s in the Bible. Which is both interesting and challenging. It forces the intersection between religion and romance, for both Jews and Christians who have this book in their sacred text. It challenges readers to see what is sacred in romance – and not merely tender, sweet, clean romance. The Song of Songs is passionately erotic and unashamedly so. Sex and sexual desires are celebrated in the Song.
For me, the Song does what Florand’s novella did. It leaves me with that same passionate, desperate desire to be loved like this. To have this other person to cling to, and to be the person clung to. To delight in another and be delighted in. To find satisfaction, safety, contentment and peace – the shalom that the shulammite brings. To know the fierceness of this love that is stronger than death, that cannot be bought or sold or washed away. In reading about the passionate desire of these lovers, the book makes me passionately desire that same experience of love. It’s not a didactic book, teaching what love is in a theoretical, dispassionate way, though by showing and celebrating and reflecting on this particular experience of love, of course it does teach us what love is. But the point isn’t to learn about love, the point is to feel that love.
Because the Song does something which no romance novel can do. It fulfils the longing it evokes.
The phenomenon of the ‘book boyfriend’ tries to do this, I think, by acknowledging that the feelings a reader has for a character are real. But the character is fictional and ultimately the relationship will never satisfy.
One of the things I have tried to do in my thesis is show how the Song works differently in the context of the rest of the biblical canon(s). Taken as an isolated text, it seems as unsatisfying as any other romantic text. It shows the reader love, it creates the desire to be loved, but it can’t fulfil that longing. But in the context of the canon, something else is going on. The woman, who is given no name, is described using the language of Eden, of Canaan, of the land flowing with milk and honey, of Israel who is God’s own bride. Her loved-ness is the reversal of the fall, the redemption out of Egypt, the return from exile. Her lover is the messiah, the Christ, who adores and delights in the beauty of his bride. And though both are still longing for the final consummation of their relationship after which there will be no mourning or separation, there is already a joyful declaration of love and mutual possession as each claims the other for their own.
Which means as a reader, at least as a reader who identifies by faith with Yahweh’s Israel or Christ’s church or both, this isn’t somebody else’s love story. This isn’t a fictional presentation, or a historical retelling. This is my experience. This is how I am loved. This is how God delights in me, as part of his bride. This passion, this desire, this fierce, unyielding love that provides shalom, this yearning to be together and never parted again – that is mine.
I read Florand’s book again, sobbing again, tears of joy, this time. Not ‘I want to be loved like that,’ but ‘I am already loved like that.’ And it reminds me that for every romance novel I read, every happy ending I bear witness to, there’s no place for envy, because it is already mine.
Romance is my religion.