His shirt sleeves rolled up, his image projected onto five video screens framing a church auditorium filled with 2,000 people, the Rev. Tommy Nelson read from one of the most sensuous books he knows: the Bible.

The yarn-spinning, joke-telling Texan travels the country using the Bible's Song of Solomon as God's definitive message on dating, marriage and sexual intimacy. He led a recent two-day conference in Westlake Village, Calif., taking hand-holding couples and singles seeking relationships through the Old Testament book verse by juicy verse.

He explained words like pomegranate, vineyard and garden are layered in sexual imagery. Raisin cakes represent aphrodisiacs. And the phrase "let his left hand be under my head and his right hand embrace me" means begetting has begun.

"We're going to watch this couple make love passionately," Nelson said, claiming the Song of Solomon twice depicts a husband and wife in intercourse. Then he interpreted the verse: "I will go my way to the mountain of myrrh and to the hill of frankincense."

"This man wants to bury his face in the bosom of his wife. Does that sound erotic? It's meant to," Nelson said. " ...This book is as sensuous as you want to make it."

The Song of Solomon is a collection of poetry that follows a man, described as both shepherd and king, romancing a woman as they court and marry. Though some dismiss it as idle erotica not fitting the rest of the Old Testament, the book is interpreted by many Jews as an allegory representing God's love for Israel, and by Christians as a symbol of Christ's relationship to his followers.

"It shows Christ's love for the Church. We are the bride of Christ," said the Rev. Ed Owens, a theologian at St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, Calif.

Owens acknowledged the Song of Solomon is sexually charged and implies intimacy between a husband and a wife can be passionate and loving, though he suggested the use of the text as a sex manual is going too far.

"This is not Dr. Ruth," he said. "When we proclaim it in church, we're not offering information on being a good spouse. We're reminding one another of God's love for us and that should be how we love one another with devotion and care. That's the point."

Nelson is a one-time college quarterback who speaks in a drawl, has been married for 27 years and tells his conferees that the intimate joy of his wedding night convinced him of God's love for romance. That he sees the Song of Solomon differently from many clergy screams out from the press releases promoting the conferences that attract average crowds of about 2,000 people.

"Pastor Tommy Nelson teaches Southern California residents how to have great sex," read an advance for the two-day conference at Calvary Community Church in Westlake Village.

He contends that as God created sexual urges, he provided the Song of Solomon as a literal guide of instruction. It covers courting, communication between husbands and wives, conflict management and, of course, passion.

Its theme is that a healthy marital relationship, including sexual intimacy, can be built only on a bedrock of faith.

"No man can properly love a woman if he doesn't understand his relationship to God," Nelson said. "...What's going to make you an exciting lover is holiness."

Nelson, who has been teaching the Song of Solomon for about seven years, said church communities often are embarrassed or otherwise reluctant to address the book head-on, with its verses laden with phrases such as "your two breasts are like twin fawns" and "your lips, my bride, drip honey."

He said anything overtly sexual is either skirted by faith leaders or camouflaged as symbolism.

But sexuality is a potentially overwhelming force, Nelson said. It can obsess, even possess.

"It's just like a fireplace when you lose the grating," he said, noting flames can threaten to burn everything in their path. "If you don't have a standard, it's like this great drive becomes perverse."

The only standard that works, Nelson suggested, is the Bible.

He said the love depicted in Song of Solomon shows how a husband should treat his wife, exuding a sensitivity that understands her needs and respects any boundaries.

"The most sensitive organ on a woman's body is her mind," he said.

He argued at length against premarital sex: "It's like building a fire with lighter fluid. There's no foundation. It burns out."

But he encouraged married couples to embrace sex as a gift built for not only procreation but pleasure. He advised women to buy provocative lingerie and suggested spontaneous husband-wife trysts at the nearest Sheraton.

"I know what you're thinking: 'We're Christians. We can't do that,' " he said, holding up a leather-encased Bible. "It's OK. I've read the book. It's OK."

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