One of my most memorable teaching triumphs occurred in a course for United Methodist lay pastors (“local pastors”) about four years ago. The course was on the “Theological Heritage” of United Methodism, and in it, somehow, we were to cover what it means for Methodists to belong to, and have a part in, the church of Jesus Christ. Overall, I’m not sure how good a job I did teaching the course, but about two-thirds of the way through our sessions I had real success with an exercise in reading Scripture.
First, I gave the students a handout that had Song of Songs 1 on the first page. I had them read it on their own, then they were to discuss it in four small groups. As I eavesdropped on the conversations, I overheard admissions, from pastors and would-be pastors, that they had never read Song of Songs, or that they couldn’t understand why we were reading this passage, or that they were a bit uncomfortable with the passage, or that they couldn’t imagine ever reading this with their congregations.
Second, I had the students turn to the rest of the packet, which had excerpts from five interpreters of the Song. Everyone read the first interpreter, Charles Wesley, who wrote one of his Scripture Hymns (vol. 1, 1762) on Song of Songs 1:2 (“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth”). The hymn is not among Wesley’s most famous or finest, but in it, Wesley takes the verse from the Song as an address to Jesus and pleads, “Unveil the beauties of thy face, / Those blessed lips, replete with grace.” After reading Wesley’s short hymn, each group was then assigned one of the four remaining authors (Gregory of Nyssa, Bernard of Clairvaux, Ellen Davis, and Paul Griffiths) to read and discuss.
I watched the class intently. Eyes widened. Mouths opened. Uncomfortable laughs and awkward jokes from the initial discussion gave way to a deepened reverence for the Song and its possible meanings. The large group debriefing at the end of the exercise was full of “It had never occurred to me…” and “I wonder how I might….” Thanks to the tradition of the church, the Song was opened to them, and they began to understand.
Since that great moment, I have repeated the exercise in other courses, unfortunately with less satisfying results. While my students are often surprised or interested by these different ways of reading Song of Songs 1, I have not, sadly, had anything like a repeat of that first experience. (Though in an ecumenical course, one student, a Roman Catholic, wryly suggested that Paul Griffiths’ commentary “would be a letter straight to the Archbishop” if it were preached during Mass. I took it as an unintentional compliment.) Nonetheless, I remain convinced that something like this exercise is not only helpful but essential.
The Song of Songs has fallen on hard times in the church. The default contemporary reading, that the Song is nothing other than a sometimes-explicit poem about physical intimacy and passionate romantic love, is so desiccated that even in the hands of the most delicate reader the Song crumbles to dust, so few bother with it. This reading, and the neglect of the Song, would stun most readers from the church’s past, as would the now-common charge that allegorical readings were a way to dodge the poem’s sexual content (to see how ridiculous that charge is, try reading some of the bawdy poetry monks in the Middle Ages wrote as they learned Latin). For them, the Song is the very heart of Scripture, the Holy of Holies. Reading the Song with them gives us a chance to rediscover the Song as Scripture.
That does not mean we need either to endorse without reservation any one particular interpreter of the Song or try to duplicate exactly methods of interpretation from ages past. Over the last half-century and more, numerous theologians have wrestled with how to reinvigorate the fourfold sense of Scripture (the four senses being the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical), especially the allegorical sense. What is more important than recovering a particular method is recognizing that we read Scripture best when we read it with challenging, insightful, and faithful companions from every age.
I did not come to this conclusion on my own. I also once sat in classrooms where teachers showed me how to read well with others. As a result, one of my few inviolable rules for sermons is that whenever Song of Songs is in the lectionary, I preach on it, without exception. And I try to hand on what I have received to the students I teach and the congregations I serve. This, I think, is what it means, for all Christians, to belong to, and have a part in, our theological heritage.