I’ve been asked and given permission to publish this week a series of chapters from the new A Faith and Culture Devotional: Daily Readings on Art, Science, and Life
Sex, Intimacy, and Worship
By Bruce Herman, a painter and Lothl?rien Distinguished Chair in Fine Arts at
Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., whose work has been exhibited in eleven major
cities. This entry germinated at a Harvard Veritas forum with Herman, Bill Edgar,
Elisabeth Overmann Bauman, and Drew Trotter speaking on “Media and Image, Veritas
or Vanitas?” www.brucehermanonline.com.
I don’t think it’s a mistake that Jesus referred to himself as a bridegroom and
the church as his bride. Romantic love gestures toward divine love. Genuine
erotic love is a powerful and beautiful reflection in this world of the world
above — hallowed human love, not its cheap imitation. Promiscuous sex is a
game, a lie, because you can’t possibly mean it: I give myself to you and take it
back. It’s the same with religion — which can also be promiscuous, a pose.
In art and in popular culture, there has been a gradual slide away from
any sense of what is taboo. Without taboos, there is no meaning. Taboos fence
in a particular experience — and what is fenced in also fences other things
out. Case in point: sexuality. The fence around sexuality is there to protect
something that is very vulnerable and precious. If you knock the fence down,
you no longer have the sense of preciousness, and eventually all sensitivity
What is sex? At its core, sex is letting your guard down. It’s saying, “I trust
you enough that I don’t have to protect myself in your presence. I can take
off my clothes as well as all my pretenses. I can let down the fence with you
because I trust you. It’s safe to give myself to you, and you belong to me and I
to you.” And this is possible only when there is lifelong commitment to honor
that gift of self.
No one can entrust themselves to another person who has no intention of
keeping that trust. That’s the heart of sex. The physical aspect of sex is not
irrelevant, but it’s actually more a symbolic enactment of the spiritual reality
taking place. I entrust myself to you and give myself wholly into your care by
becoming utterly transparent, utterly vulnerable.
Sex at its best is trust. Why have a fence around it? Because it is so precious,
so vulnerable, and so subject to corruption. That which is most precious
is most rare.
And authentic intimacy is especially rare these days.
It is the same with prayer and communion with God, which is the ultimate
form of intimacy. Bride and Bridegroom. “I can let my guard down with you,
God, because I trust you.” Genuine prayer is not some kind of performance.
Jesus said, “Lock the door before you pray.” This is your relationship with
God. Don’t violate it by inviting the whole world in to see how great you are at
praying. We have problems in our culture with images that violate our sense
of what’s true, what’s beautiful, what’s good, what’s holy because we have lost
the habit of mind which says there is something in my life which must be
protected that doesn’t belong to just anybody. We have radically democratized
the spiritual life and invited the whole world in as if this were a spectator
Though congregating to worship together is a great joy, we need to avoid
the subtle temptation of a performance-like prayer and song, profaning
what — who — is most sacred. The hyped phenomenon of “worship style”
or “worship experience” as self-conscious performance can be like the performance-
oriented pop culture — and can subvert the genuineness of our
encounter with the Lord.
Worship is encounter with God, not an ecstatic experience that can be televised
or broadcast or prompted by a technique. You can’t have it both ways.
You can’t have intimacy and also have your sex life or your religious life publicized
as a spectator sport. Either you’ll have the public display of com munion/
sex or you’ll have authentic intimacy — one or the other, but not both.
Communion is true communication, and it means entering into, knowing
the other person intimately. You cannot know another person or know God
until you can let down your guard, and no one lets down their guard as a
public event — that is, unless they are lying or acting on stage. The authentic
article can only be encountered in privacy. Hence the taboo.
We are told that one day believers will join “thousands upon thousands,”
from every race and nation, encircling the throne of God and singing “Worthy
is the Lamb who was slain . . . to receive glory!” Mysteriously we will have
total intimacy with God and with those thousands of fellow worshipers, singing
with the hosts of heaven in that great congregation at the end of time,
“Holy, Holy, Holy” — entering fully into what we so deeply desire — perfect
communion of bride and Bridegroom.
For reflection and discussion
Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as
strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire,
like a mighty flame. Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot sweep
it away. If one were to give all the wealth of one’s house for love, it would be
SONG OF SONGS 8:6 – 7
These feelings are universal — and sexual feelings are protected only
under God’s sovereign covenant with us — in lifelong marriage.
? How do these passages in the Song of Songs make you feel?
? Can you see the passion and beauty in the romantic love described by
King Solomon’s poem?
? If you are married, how might you build more sacred privacy, thus intimacy,
into your life?
? If you are single, how are other forms of intimacy between single friends
guarded by God? How are they achieved, and what sorts of “fences” are
? Why do you think the Song of Songs, a poem about sexual intimacy, has
been traditionally associated with Christ and the church? Read Paul’s
stunning assertions in Ephesians chapter 5, where he says that mutual
submission and self-forgetfulness is the paradigm of marriage and our
life as the bride of Christ (vv. 21 – 33).