“My Lord, it is time to move on.
Well then, may your will be done.
O my Lord and my Spouse,
the hour that I have longed for has come.
It is time to meet one another.”
– Teresa of Avila –
I’ve been watching a lot of snarky commentary sweeping the Twittersphere this week about the deep, dark, theological sin of proclaiming that Jesus is your Boyfriend. The critiques range from general annoyance to Biblical correctives to lots and LOTS of making fun. And it’s not just Valentine’s Day that brings up this righteous indignation. Y’all have probably heard pastors complain about “Jesus is my boyfriend” music. The litmus test for these corrupting songs is “could the lyrics of this song be equally applied to a boyfriend as to God?” Heaven meets earth with a sloppy wet kiss?!? Sloppy wet kisses – from GOD? hiss the orthodoxy police. How dare you speak so casually about God! How dare you trivialize the creator of the universe like that! This type of music is lamented as the downfall of the modern church and more proof that millennials just don’t take their faith seriously.
Let’s unpack this is a little bit.
First of all, this isn’t a millennial phenomenon. This isn’t part of the stain of the modern evangelical worship movement. This kind of talk about Jesus and God goes way back, and is one of the consistent metaphors that monastic women and men use to talk about the Divine. To be fair, the orthodoxy police didn’t love that language then, either. And probably for a lot of the same reasons – in particular, that it seems to trivialize the Divine.
So for starters, people who use this as their primary complaint don’t seem to understand how metaphors work. No one seems to be complaining about trivialization when we compare God to a lion, either in Narnia or in our favorite hymns. Nobody says that it “strips God of God’s personhood” to imagine God as a water. And nobody is saying that it strips God of Divinity to imagine God as a parent, especially as a Father. So why all the fuss about the trivialization of God via the language of romance?
My feminist radar pings a little bit here, because honestly, this reeks of sexism to me. That this particular metaphor of God, that has meant so much to the powerful female voices in the church, from Julian of Norwich to St. Teresa of Avila right up to pop-culture Christian female writers, gets so much criticism, and it just happens to be a metaphor that has historically been a feminine sphere. I’m not surprised that a lot of male commentators are complaining that a historically feminine sphere is “trivial”. Women are brides, and men historically aren’t. Of course male commentators say that “God as your husband/lover/boyfriend” is trivializing. What women do is often pegged as trivial. Nothing new to see here.
And while y’all are complaining about the “God is my lover/ husband/ boyfriend” metaphor, please take it all the way to the top, because this metaphor is as Biblical as the Creation narrative. It runs all the way through the Old Testament where God is described as the husband of Israel right up through the book of Revelation, and the Christian church as the “Bride of Christ” is one of the strongest metaphors in the New Testament. So if we’re going to complain about trivialization… well, take it up with Paul.
But here – here, in the Biblical texts, here at the root of the metaphor, here is where I guess I’ll join you a little bit, and raise my eyebrows at how the Biblical authors used this metaphor, and maybe even wince a little bit with you.
Because when I look at how the Church (say from the year 300 til the present day ) has used this metaphor, versus how it was used in the Hebrew Bible, we’re doing something different with the metaphor than the original writers.
In the Hebrew Bible God is talked about as Israel’s husband a lot. Most of the prophets use this “marriage” as a metaphor to talk about God’s relationship with Israel. But this metaphor isn’t speaking to the deep and powerful commitment and emotional relationship and the true love between God and humanity. The metaphor is usually used to talk about cheating. The wife cheating on the husband. And by usually I mean – always. In Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea, the prophets use the language of marriage to talk about Israel’s unfaithfulness to God. The prophets are talking are talking about Israel’s idolatry – either by worshipping other gods, or by turning to foreign kings for military support – and using the concept of sleeping around to do it. So this metaphor that we think of as carrying the weight of this “true love” actually is a metaphor full of jealous husbands and cheating women whose sexual indiscretions are described in vulgar and humiliating detail… and this metaphor is full of husbands who are treating their wives in horrible ways to punish them.
Because here’s the thing – the role of a husband in the Ancient Near East wasn’t the role of a romcom leading man. Marriage in the Ancient Near East wasn’t a fantastic deal for women. It was usually cruel. Women were quite literally owned by their husbands. They had no legal rights, couldn’t own property, and marrying “for love” was something that men (notably Jacob or David), not women, got to do. Mostly, marriage was a property transaction between a husband and a father. We still have hints of that today in our modern marriage ceremonies – the father walking the daughter down the aisle to “give” her to her new “owner,” the husband. While the Israelites did have some moderately progressive laws for their time that were protecting women, it was overall a dehumanizing process for women. So into this culture of women being owned by men, and marriage as a property transaction, we encounter the prophets and their metaphors of God, the Israelites, and the cheating spouse.
And it’s terrifying. It is horrifying. It is brutal. For example, in Hosea, the prophet talks about Israel like a cheating wife that God has beaten and tossed out into the desert to teach her a lesson. Is this really a way we want to talk about God, let alone talk about husbands? Do we really want to imagine a God who demands our absolute fidelity and then abandons us until we are in sufficient pain? What does this do to our spiritual lives? And using these passages, and this metaphor, uncritically, isn’t just a danger for our devotion time – what does using this metaphor uncritically do for our vision of our relationships?
It legitimizes violence. It paints a picture of a emotionally and physically abusive husband that is still the “good guy” – because after all, he wouldn’t be doing all this if his wife didn’t “deserve it.” Language like this in the church has been destructive to women for centuries. It has emboldened pulpit preaching justifying domestic violence with language of “authority” and “submission.” It has led to women being counseled and commanded to stay in violent relationships. It has dehumanized women. It is a metaphor that kills women.
So here we are, with this violent and abusive language for God. Here we sit, not with God as Ryan Gosling, but God as brutish and cruel.
Which is so, so sad, because the prophets were speaking in their culture, to their people, and in that context, were saying something radical about the limitless love of God. The context of marriage was cruel to women. It was dehumanizing. And when a woman in that culture, owned by a man, decides to cheat on that man, she has no recourse. Her best case scenario is divorce. Her worst case scenario is being publically stoned. Deuteronomy explicitly says that when a woman leaves her husband, she isn’t even allowed to come back if she wants to. If a woman cheats on her husband, there is no legal or cultural option for forgiveness. It’s over for her.
Into this cruel social milieu, the prophets preach. They preach that God is so recklessly committed to God’s people, that no matter how “illegal” or “unheard of” or “culturally unexpected” it is, and not matter how “shamefully” we’ve behaved, God is always, against all expectations, always going to come and get us. The prophets set us up to believe in a deep sin committed by Israel that cannot be forgiven… and then tells us that God is up to forgive it anyway.
Where the prophets land is Grace. It is a beautiful place to land.
Let’s be honest, though. Reading it today, how they got there is pretty foul.
So here we are, in 2017, thinking about metaphors. I am comfortable with letting the metaphor as it is used in the Hebrew Bible die off. While the prophets were saying a gorgeous thing about the grace of a pursuing God, I think there’s too much cruel baggage on the way for this metaphor to be used well in churches without it really doing terrible wounding damage to women.
So do we need to let go of the entire metaphor of “God as lover”? Is this it? One of only a few metaphors that are the domain of women, and we have to get rid of it?
Well, maybe. The metaphor as it appears in the Old Testament should be allowed to die. We should find a way to talk about God’s redeeming love in a way that doesn’t implicate God in domestic violence and dehumanizing of women. But just because the metaphor as used in the Hebrew Bible is dead, does that mean that we throw away the language of husband and love altogether? Or can we reclaim, rewrite, and rewire the metaphor until it is unequivocally ours?
Because Julian and Teresa and generations of women have already done that. They weren’t using the metaphor as it’s used in Scripture. They made their own. Ditching culturally masculine imagery of warrior and leader and king for the Divine, women keep deciding that we get to decide how we talk about God.
And our God is the lover of our souls. God is our bridegroom and our heart skips a beat when we catch His eye. Stepping into His presence makes our hearts leap. As the ancient and modern monastic women have attested, being a follower of Christ sometimes just looks like falling in love, again and again, every day. The way that Teresa envisions “God as spouse” wouldn’t have made sense to the ancient prophets. But that’s because she was making a brand new metaphor.
Because we’re allowed to make new metaphors, and we’re allowed to redefine old ones. We’re allowed to dig into our cultural and personal box of experiences and rewrite a language for God and what God means to us and the world. The Biblical writers played with language and images and ideas to say true things about an inexplicable God, things that rang true to the people they preached to in the years that they lived – and guess what? We’re allowed to do that, too.
Learn the history of our metaphor of God as husband, and how it’s been used to oppress, to hurt, to belittle, to condone violence against women. And also learn the history of the metaphor of God as lover, and how it’s been used to empower, strengthen, and enrich the lives of female saints throughout the ages.
And as for me, I’m turning up David Crowder. Happy Valentine’s Day!