Who’s dating Jesus?

Written by Father Bill 16 Comments

He’s Jesus’ bride?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.   


16 Comments

  1. Paul Schafer   |  Sunday, 10 December 2006 at 11:59 am

    Good Post!

    Thank You,

    Paul Schafer

  2. Sarah Flashing   |  Sunday, 10 December 2006 at 12:00 pm

    I also posted on Tennant’s essay and I appreciate how you analyzed it a bit deeper. As an evangelical woman trying so hard to conquer the shallowness that exists in our ministries, the Tennant essay was a cup of cold water. I am a non-egalitarian who wants desperately to end these self-centered approaches to living out one’s faith. See my post at http://flashpointfiles.blogspot.com/2006/11/therapeutic-image-of-god.html

  3. Fr. Bill   |  Sunday, 10 December 2006 at 6:55 pm

    Thanks, Sarah, for dropping by. The shallowness you mention is epidemic today, and not just in “women’s ministry.” To judge by what I usually see being billed as “men’s ministry” you’d think the only way to a man’s heart was via a pancake breakfast at 6:00 A.M. weekdays or 8:00 A.M. on Saturdays.

    Oh! And, be sure not to ask him to actually do anything overtly mental, such as read something and come prepared to engage others on a controversial topic.

    Blech.

    I know a ministry to men which touts the fact that nothing it produces for men will require them to expend more than 20 minutes from the time they pick it up to the time they set it down. The rationale for this “strategy” is that no man’s attention span is any longer than that.

    This is patently false, as any observer of men will know. I could acknowledge that for the products of men’s ministries such as the one I’m thinking, the observation is accurate — that they cannot hold a man’s attention any longer than 20 minutes with the folderol they set before him.

    Ask me another time, and I’ll tell you what I really think!

  4. Austin Storm   |  Monday, 11 December 2006 at 11:20 am

    This is a great post. I just found your blog and it’s going straight into my feed-reader!

  5. Fr Arsenius   |  Wednesday, 13 December 2006 at 12:31 am

    While I understand the author’s queasiness over some individuals and groups taking Biblical imagery too far (in her words), she seems astoundingly ignorant of the ancient tradition of consecrated virginity in the Church, necessarily linked to the spousal theology inherent in the Scriptures themselves. One has only to look at the writings of Ambrose, Augustine, Cyprian, Ignatius of Antioch, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzen, John Chrystostom, etc. to see that this is no modern phenomenon.

    I refer you, for example, to the website of the U.S. Association of Consecrated Virgins: http://consecratedvirgins.org

  6. Fr. Bill   |  Wednesday, 13 December 2006 at 7:44 am

    Fr. Arsenius,

    There are several reasons that the phenomenon reported by Tennant is, at best, heterodox. But, the factor you point to — ignorance generally of any tradition of this dynamic of personal spiritual life in past centuries — makes “spousal” or “bridal” theology almost irrelevant when analyzing this phenomenon among American evangelicals.

    First of all, American evangelicals are, indeed, astoundingly ignorant of the Great Tradition. Leaving aside what within that tradition is wholesome or has Biblical warrant, most American Protestantism consciously repudiates tradition in the sense you are referring to it. The result is a sort of wooly wildness in understanding and living the Christian faith, unchecked by the mind of the Church over two millennia.

    Consequently, the notion of consecrated virginity you refer to is simply not a factor in the matters Tennant speaks to. I’d wager that the vast majority of women Tennant complains about are married! Whatever is going on among them, it probably has only the most tangential relationship to the consecrated virgins mentioned at the website you provided a link for.

    Finally, as to the notion of consecrated virginity you point to, a couple of thoughts …

    This application of “spousal theology” to spiritual vocation “works” (if it works at all) for women only. This is a premise in the website you referred to, which defines a consecrated virgin first of all as a woman, never a man. Within modern Protestant evangelicalism, however, the spousal/bridal concepts are assumed to apply as much to men as to women. Whether such an application is overt or merely implicit (as in singing “Jesus is my boyfriend” choruses during congregational worship), the result is profoundly toxic to masculine spirituality.

    Second, there is a very serious question that spousal/bridal concepts have any place within the relationship of an individual Christian to the LORD. The spousal theology you rightly say is inherent in Scripture is invariably deployed by the Prophets and Apostles to speak about God’s or Christ’s relationship to some aggragate entity — God and Israel, for example, or Christ and the Church. This is why the observation that Jesus has a Bride, not a harem, is precisely to the point of the Biblical use of such concepts.

    This is NOT to say that a life of individual consecration to the service of the LORD is unbiblical, for clearly this kind of service has abundant Biblical warrant in both Testaments. However, the Bible simply does not construe such individual consecration in bridal or spousal terms.

  7. Seth McBee   |  Wednesday, 13 December 2006 at 10:38 pm

    wow…that is sickening…it reminds me of that other post you did on Jesus is my boyfriend…

    Wonder if these same people would be proponents of the TNIV…wouldn’t surprise me.

  8. Fr. Bill   |  Wednesday, 13 December 2006 at 11:19 pm

    Hi, Seth,

    Actually, I think many would be. But, it’s probably not possible to draw a hard and fast correlation between gender-neutral translation proponents and those Tennant is talking about.

    Tennant is grousing about those who are pushing the edge of the envelope, as it were. But, for her it seems to be a complaint about the degree something is carried out, not the kind of thing that’s going on.

    In truth, the other things going on generally in evangelical worship are just as bad as the things Tennant complains about. Female “worship leaders,” for example send a constant, unmistakeable message on several spiritual channels, and they are picked up, processed, and imprinted on everyone who follows their lead. You don’t have to explicitly sing “Jesus is my boyfriend” choruses (though many do). Just act as if He were your boyfriend, and you get to the same place.

  9. Seth McBee   |  Wednesday, 13 December 2006 at 11:25 pm

    very well put…

  10. David McCrory   |  Monday, 18 December 2006 at 11:40 am

    Stephen Clark has written an excellent book, a magnus opus, concerning the biblical roles of men and women in church and society entitled, “Man and Woman in Christ”. I would commend it to you, though he himself is a Roman Catholic, his grasp of this material rivals (or IMO surpasses) any Protestant’s thus far.

  11. Fr. Bill   |  Monday, 18 December 2006 at 8:40 pm

    Yes, I’ve had Clark on my shelf since it was first published.

    Did you know that the entire text of Clark’s work is now online, available for free? Check out this link for this work and additional theological works in this subject area, provided to the Christian public by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood:

    http://www.cbmw.org/resources/books.php

    Enjoy.

  12. SingingOwl   |  Wednesday, 17 January 2007 at 1:41 pm

    As an egalitarian, as someone who just recently wrote an article about the (supposed) feminization of the church, as someone who disagrees with your views on many subjects AND someone who owns a TNIV, I have to chime in here. Not to disagree. To agree. Thank you for this “But, it’s probably not possible to draw a hard and fast correlation between gender-neutral translation proponents and those Tennant is talking about. ” Just take out the “but” and I’m totally with you.

    🙂

    I deplore the Jesus-is-my-boyfriend mentality, or for that matter the Jesus-is-my-buddy mentality.

    Jesus loves me, and Jesus is my friend. Thankfully. But you are right–the theology here is not only damaging to woman, but to men as well. And if the guy bolts for the door, he might have me, an egalitarian, female, evangelical pastor, right behind him.

    Egalitarian does not mean “sentimental sap.” Thanks for saying so–or close enough. 🙂

  13. Bethany   |  Sunday, 21 January 2007 at 12:08 am

    I agree that many of the points brought up are very interesting. Especially that Jesus has a bride not a harem. As a Body we are the Bride of Christ, I alone am not. Much less am I his girlfriend, etc. However, as a former female “worship leader” as you would so place in quotations, I am concerned with your grouping of every female who “leads worship” (a term which I believe is misleading in the first place but that’s for another discussion) into a bunch of brainless, emotional women misleading congregations into bad theology if not with specific songs at least with the apparent female-worship-leader-typical-lifestyle. Your steriotype is, in itself, misleading if not downright ignorant.

  14. Fr. Bill   |  Sunday, 21 January 2007 at 6:34 pm

    Singing Owl,

    Egalitarian does not mean “sentimental sap.” Thanks for saying so–or close enough.

    You’re most welcome. I’ve never thought egalitarians are sentimenal saps. I do think some of those who are irritating Ms. Tennant are sentimental saps, and they may also be egalitarians, but I doubt it.

    Egalitarians, in my experience, are far too messianic in their agenda for sentimentality.

  15. Fr. Bill   |  Sunday, 21 January 2007 at 8:08 pm

    Bethany,

    You wrote, “I am concerned with your grouping of every female who “leads worship” (a term which I believe is misleading in the first place but that’s for another discussion) into a bunch of brainless, emotional women misleading congregations into bad theology if not with specific songs at least with the apparent female-worship-leader-typical-lifestyle. ”

    Whew! Let me pick that into its various parts …

    First, I’d like to know where you find me saying that female worship leaders are “a bunch of brainless, emotional women.” I’ve looked back at the two posts where I’ve possibly addressed female worship leaders (“Jesus is My Boyfriend” and “Who’s Dating Jesus”), and I can’t find that string of words in what I wrote. If you can help me out here, I’d be grateful.

    Second, as far as female worship leaders leading congregations into bad theology, I agree — this is exactly what they do, no matter what comes out of their mouths. Of course, with a good many of them, what comes out of their mouths adds to the toxic effect.

    For the record — even if every word out of their mouths were totally orthodox, the fact that they are delivered to the people of God, assembled for worship, in a context where the relevant female worship leader is … well, up front and leading … then her activity alone is outside the boundaries for her participation in the corporate worship.

    The Pauline pattern for worship is this: (1) Men up front and leading, (2) women present and participating. You see this in 1 Cor. 11 with the head covering serves to visibly identify whose glory is unveiled (God’s) and whose glory is veiled (man’s and the woman’s). You see this in 1 Timothy 2, where women are expressly prohibited from teaching or exercising authority over men. These boundaries clue us how to read 1 Cor 14 in a way that does not contradict 1 Cor. 11. And, none of this is rocket science. The Church has understood this and largely followed it for about 2,000 years now. It’s only in the last couple of decades that the female worship leader has emerged as the star of the show on Sunday.

    And though we receive this most recently from Paul, it is really not Pauline. He got it from the Old Testament, about 1,000 years of pattern and precedent, most of that from what God Himself designed when He taught His people how to worship Him.

  16. Intimacy With Jesus? Not thru Sex!! | Faith and Gender   |  Tuesday, 01 November 2011 at 7:44 pm

    […] When Worship Songs Seem Sexual.” I covered much of what she offers twice in 2006 (here and here ) and again  in 2007. It’s time to bring this up again, for evangelicalism is, if possible, […]

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