Can Tolkien help us interpret Scripture?: on the christological applicability of Solomon’s Song of Songs.
What does Solomon’s love song to the Shulamite woman have to do with one’s contemporary understanding of salvation by grace through faith in Christ? What purpose does a provocative text the likes of Song of Songs serve in the ecclesiastical context? What should be done with this scriptural treatise on the euphoria of sexual intimacy? These, among many others, are representative of the interpretative quandaries that have plagued students of Scripture for ages. In many respects, Solomon’s Song of Songs remains a canonical outcast, a preaching pariah. In many ways, the book “seems completely uninterested in salvation,”1 evidently the lone subversion to the Pauline assertion of scriptural efficacy. (2 Tm 3:16–17) The subject matter of Song of Songs strains the efforts of students and scholars alike, with little to no evangelical agreement on how to biblically situate the book’s eroticism. (Song 1:12–13; 5:3–5; 7:1–9) But despite the absence of consensus on the exegetical best practices for studying Song of Songs, it is the height of imprudence to relegate this portion of Scripture to obscurity.
Assessing Song of Songs has presented, perhaps, the most enduring biblical challenge to churchmen throughout the centuries. Some argue that the entire book is a dream. Others theorize that it is a scriptural examination of love, akin to the examination of suffering in Job or the examination of existentialism in Ecclesiastes. Others have suggested the book is a “celebration of humanity created male and female.”2 Such abundance of interpretive methodologies, coupled with the book’s narrative dearth and assorted speakers, make Song of Songs one of the most inaccessible books in Scripture.
To combat this sense of inaccessibility, the persistent interpretive framework by which one is able to understand Song of Songs is to allegorize its words. “The Christians of antiquity,” G. Schwab comments, “inherited the philosophical technique of interpreting difficult passages as pointing away from themselves to a profound and virtuous meaning.”3 By explaining that the affection and passion of the man for the woman, and vice versa, is an allegory for God’s affection and passion for Israel or for Christ’s affection and passion for the Church, the literary tension would thus be resolved. Such covenantal or ecclesiastical allegorizing of Song of Songs has lingered for centuries. “The allegorical approach,” Schwab continues, “more or less typified how Song of Songs was handled throughout the patristic and medieval eras, and this continued through the Reformation and post-Reformation periods.”4 But does longevity alone make such a method the best for assessing the devotional merit of the book? Many would contend negatively against such claims.
The failure of the allegorical method arises in the abandonment of contextualization. “With allegory,” Schwab asserts, “the text becomes whatever the interpreter wants it to become, and no two allegorists agree on an interpretation.”5 Even while arguing for allegory, one finds oneself in the same quandary in which one began since there remains the struggle to decipher which allegory is appropriate. “The most powerful argument against the allegorical method,” Schwab continues, “is that it seems to allow for no controls. In effect, anyone can see any meaning he or she wishes to see in any passage.”6 With no abiding principle, the allegorization of the text can run untamed according to the whims and fancies of the interpreter.
One method for counteracting the allegorical approach is to dramatize Song of Songs, as though it were entirely a piece of ancient performance art. “The book becomes, then,” writes Schwab, “a sort of parable whereby the overall virtue can be deftly transferred into the sphere of the religious, without every detail being pressed into artificial service as in allegory.”7 However, this approach faces the same difficulties as the method it was devised to offset. As in allegorizing, there is no interpretive standardization in dramatizing Song of Songs either. Another approach is to entirely jettison the propensity to interpret Song of Songs theologically. This, then, would conceive of the entire song as a literal expression of love between a man and a woman. “Song of Songs is about human, not divine, love,” Schwab concludes.8 But to relinquish the theology of a book of the Bible is to undermine its intent.
One is left, then, searching for answer amid a sea of riddles surrounding Solomon’s Song of Songs. There is a sense, though, in which Oxford philologist J. R. R. Tolkien’s infamous remarks regarding the merits of applicability and demerits of allegory afford one the best framework by which to understand the amorous awkwardness of Song of Songs. In the foreword to the second edition to Tolkien’s titular work, The Lord of the Rings, he writes the following:
I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.9
Song of Songs, then, is best understood as christologically applicable. (Song 2:1) “Passion between lovers,” Schwab says, “also images God’s passion for his people and his people’s for him.”10 Song of Songs, therefore, follows the biblical precedence of Hosea and his conception of marriage as a covenantal metaphor for God’s divine mercy and patience. (Hos 3:1–5) Precedence can also be found for such application by noting the manner in which the author of Hebrews determines to ascribe the love song of Psalm 45 to Christ himself. (Heb 1:8–9; cf. Ps 45:6–7)
There is a profound applicability, not allegory, at work when a husband and wife are united in the throes of sexual intimacy, especially when considered under the purview of Song of Songs. “One’s view of sex has in it a theology, a view of God,” writes Schwab. “Sex is intrinsically religious and points to this.”11 This is not to allege for some graphic apologue for the sexual act and its divine constituents. Rather, understood thus, one is invited to grapple with the extent of Christ’s love for his Church as one grapples with the imagery of Song of Songs, knowing that there is an Author of love behind each portrait. (Eph 5:24–33)
G. Schwab, “Song of Songs 1: Book Of,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings, edited by Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 738.
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of the Lord of the Rings (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965), 7.