Bach, Bono and Rookmaaker – Eros and Agape in perfect harmony?
It is not uncommon for Bono deliberately to blur distinctions in his lyrics and, especially, in his performances. A classic example comes in the song, Mysterious Ways – it sounds like a song about a girl. Mainly because it is a song about a girl. However, as I’ve explained elsewhere, there are clear theological allusions to God (not least because of its derivation from William Cowper’s great hymn). More to the point, when performed live, Bono often riffs on the idea of the Spirit (he will often cry out ‘the Spirit is in the house) moving like the girl of the song. It seems risky, dangerous even, to blur the distinction between so-called Eros-love and Agape-love (not that the semantic ranges of these two words are that distinct in the first place – but that’s quite another story for another time!).
Have recently read Laurel Gasque’s interesting (if rather uneven) memoir of Hans Rookmaaker because of his peerless impact on Christian engagement with contemporary culture. He was an astonishing man who suffered greatly during the second world war, and whose first great love died in the Holocaust. Countless people in Europe and the USA owe their passion for their holistic discipleship to him. But I was very struck by this excerpt, because it perhaps offers a very helpful corrective to the many prevailing distortions in the area of sex and sexuality in our culture.
[Rookmaaker] was neither romantic nor puritanical. Agape and eros were not pitted against each other in his personality but were embraced in a way rare for our times. In this way he lived like Bach, who was not a man out town womanizing, but was not frightened at weaving sexuality into the spiritual meaning of his cantatas in a way that is still surprising if one really reflects on the content of his texts. Two of Hans’s favourite Bach cantatas exemplify an eroticism that is foreign to our own times but was as natural a way of being for Hans as it was for Bach.
In the first, ‘O Everlasting Fire, O Source of Love’ (“O ewiges Feuer, O Ursprung der Liebe,” BWV 34), a cantata Bach had written for the wedding of a pastor, he had little trouble later seamlessly recycling it with minimal changes for Pentecost, remembering the coming down of the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire on his bride, the church, after Jesus’ ascension. The second, ‘Wake, Arise, the Voices Call Us’ (“Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme,” BWV 140), a cantata for the last Sunday in the calendar of the Christian year before Advent, speaks of a wedding. Its biblical anchoring in the parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) compresses eschatological preparedness with the expectant intimacy of a bridegroom about to consummate his marriage. The duet aria sung by the soprano and basso is a joyous celebration of bliss in union even as it is an allusion to words in the Song of Solomon (2:16; 6:3):
Soprano (Bride/Soul): My friend is mine.
Basso (Bridegroom/Jesus): And I am thine.
Both in union: Let love bring no division.
Both at the same time, but not in unison:
Soprano (Bride/Soul): I will with thee on heaven’s roses pasture.
Basso (Bridegroom/Jesus): Thou shalt with me on heaven’s roses pasture. Where pleasure in fullness, where joy will abound.
In the 1970s the siege mentality of pious evangelicals was evident in the area of sexual mores, even as a proactive engagement on the way to social justice was often sadly lacking. Between the secular proponents of sexual promiscuousness and the backlash from pulpits propounding all-encompassing agape at the expense of eros, Rookmaaker may not have stood entirely alone, but he was isolated and threatening in his own way in this area, particularly to some insecure British types consumed with concern about “the permissive society.” Sexuality was not a topic he spoke on explicitly. But it was one he knew a great deal about, as it was related to the subject matter of much of the art he dealt with. All those nudes he talked about made some nervous. Because he could exegete through art the qualitative changing nature of sexual relations over the centuries, he was able to understand the degradation he found in his own day. But it also helped him handle it healthily with hope, suggesting a better, more biblical way rather than reactive fear. He modeled something valuable in this area for the sexually indulgent as much as for the sexually judgmental. (Art and the Christian Mind, Laurel Gasque, Crossway, 2005, p132-133)
We have a lot to learn…