This month marks 9 years since the death of journalist Christopher Hitchens (13 April 1949 – 15 December 2011), one of the so-called ‘four horsemen’ of the new atheism. Guest blogger Peter Harris reflects on his famous (mis)characterisation of the God of the Bible.
Hitchens’ view of God was of a distant, tyrannical figure whose commandments are impossible to obey and who punishes eternally. If God is benevolent, Hitchens argues, He is intolerably paternalistic, ensuring that people get what is good for them whether they like it or not. In Hitchens’ eyes, God is therefore the enemy of human autonomy and self-respect and it is an excellent thing that He does not exist.
Hitchens’ images of God, however, are a travesty for many reasons, one of which is the Song of Solomon, a romantic and erotic poem nestled at the heart of the Old Testament. The Song also demonstrates how wrong Hitchens is to identify sexual repression and disgust with natural bodily functions, particularly those of the female body, at the heart of Christian morality.
Male and female desire
To understand the tone and imagery of this biblical book, here are a number of ways in which the man and woman describe each other. The woman, or ‘Shulamite’ as she is referred to, describes her Beloved as having legs that are “pillars of marble set on bases of fine gold” (Song of Solomon 5:15).
The man celebrates the woman’s breasts by describing them as “two fawns, twins of a gazelle, which feed among the lilies” (4:5). The woman’s desire is palpable, almost overwhelming, and is a celebration not a rejection of female desire:
“Like an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down in his shade with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.” (2:3).
Male desire too is celebrated, not feared or trammelled, for the man declares:
“You have ravished my heart, my sister, my spouse; you have ravished my heart with one look of your eyes, with one link of your necklace.” (3:9).
How is such poetry to be interpreted? According to Walter Brueggemann, there is very little historical-critical data available for this text, and so the way to interpret it is through the methods of literary criticism. According to this hermeneutic, the Song of Solomon is deeply passionate love poetry.
The book is certainly love poetry, but not unrestrained. Though it is erotic, it stops short of being pornographic. Phyllis Trible interprets it as the redemption of Eros, which in Genesis 2-3 is a narrative of disobedience and disharmony, whereas the Song presents love as harmonious.
The relationship between the Shulamite and her Beloved appears to be that of wife and husband. As seen in 3:9 quoted above, the Beloved addresses her as his spouse, which he repeats in 4:10 and 5:1. If this is the case, the text exhorts married couples not to allow their sexual passion to die because of the pressures and responsibilities of conjugal life or over-familiarity with each other’s body.
However, there is a second reading of the book, which arose early within Jewish and Christian criticism and which supplements the view that it is a celebration of human romance and sex. This love poetry allegorically represents the love between God and Israel and Christ and the Church.
Such an allegorical reading is indeed daring, for it describes God as lustful, which does not normally feature in traditional theological descriptions of God. (Lustful is not the best word as it has lurid connotations. The word passion is preferable.)
Critics have welcomed the allegorical reading. Paul Ricoeur and Andre Lacocque, for instance, support a variety of understandings of how the Song is metaphorical. God through the lens of this book becomes a husband or lover who woos Israel and the Church. Such an interpretation receives support from Hosea 1-3 and Jeremiah 2-3, where God’s love is metaphorically compared to that of a husband.
Though there is no physical consummation of the love between God and His people, which is a monstrosity found in the sexual crimes of Zeus, for example, the intensity and focus of courtship is a vehicle of approximation for those who wish to find metaphorical representations of this love.
What is important to emphasize again and again to Hitchens (who argues that the Bible condones rape) is that the Shulamite in the Song wholly consents with all her heart to the attentions of her lover. So committed is she to him that she says that by night on her bed she seeks the one she loves (3:1). When she finds him, she holds on to him and does not let him go (v4). She pursues him as much as he pursues her and so there is symmetry of desire to this text.
Hitchens never mentions the Song of Solomon in his anti-theist pyrotechnics. His God is the heartless autocrat who inculcates a horror of sex and the human body and who rules with a titanium rod, turning human hearts to deserts and battlefields. If God is benevolent, he is the infantilizing ‘Daddy’ ever present to ensure we take our medicine.
However, the Song of Solomon reveals how God cannot be a totalitarian. It invites us to his garden where we are loved and where we can love in return perpetually, and which is an exchange that is offered to all humanity.
Whether God exists or not, the Song of Solomon reveals that at the heart of Judeo-Christian conceptions of God there is the image of Him as a lover and a husband and that Hitchens slanders God when he compares him to a celestial Stalin or an eternal Mary Poppins.
This blog is an adapted extract taken from chapter four of Peter Harris’ The Rage Against the Light: Why Christopher Hitchens was Wrong. You can hear more of Peter Harris on Christopher Hitchens in this episode of Unbelievable?.
Dr Peter Harris is the author of The Rage Against the Light: Why Christopher Hitchens was Wrong and Do You Believe It? A Guide to a Reasonable Christian Faith. He teaches the history of Christianity for Lucent University.