UNPROTECTED TEXTS: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire. San Francisco: Harper One, 2011. 343 pages.
“Family values” has long been a rallying cry of politically inclined religious conservatives, especially as the sexual mores of the American people have “loosened” since the 1960s. In the face of increasing acceptance of homosexuality, premarital sex, and divorce, “family values” push for the adoption of a “biblically based” sexual morality that includes a definition of marriage limited to one man and one woman along with sexual abstinence outside of marriage. The problem with these proposals is that it’s difficult to nail down a consistent biblically based sexual ethic. First century families, Christian or otherwise, look a lot different from contemporary family structures – even among conservative Christians, not to mention variety of family groupings and guidelines found in the Hebrew Bible/Christian Old Testament. So, whose family values should we embrace? Abraham’s, Jacob’s, David’s, Jesus’, or may be Paul’s? Once you start digging deeper into the biblical text the possibility of finding such a consistent ethic is difficult to find.
Jennifer Wright Knust has taken up the question of the bible and sexuality in her provocatively titled book Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire. While the “contradictions” might not be all that surprising to those of us who have read the Scriptures with a critical eye, for many lay readers the questions raised by Knust might prove challenging at the very least. Since this is a book written with the educated but curious general reader in mind, one can imagine the conversations that will take place around the “new books” table at the local bookstore (if such a thing still exists in your community). That the author is not only a biblical scholar (Knust is an assistant professor of religion at Boston University), but an ordained American Baptist minister might be even more provocative to some. How does a person called to serve the church write such a book?
The answer might be found in common concern among religious leaders, including clergy and religious scholars – how do we respond to the questions being asked of us concerning religion and sexuality? For some the answer is simple – stick to “traditional values” – but for others this simply doesn’t work. As we learn more about homosexuality, for instance, it’s much harder to see same-gender relationships as sinful or unnatural. And as young adults postpone marriage, it’s harder to enforce prohibitions against pre-marital sex and living together outside marriage. It is in response to these dilemmas that Knust writes, hoping that by uncovering the complexity of understandings of sexuality in Scripture Christians and Jews might find answers to festering questions. The basic purpose in writing the book, according to the author, is to present “a detailed analysis of biblical attitudes and assumptions while exploring the reception of biblical narratives by later Christian and Jewish interpreters” (p. 16).
In taking up her quest to understand the various ways sexuality is understood in scripture, she makes it clear that in her estimation the Scriptures present conflicting perspectives on sexual morality, even though all of this is done in the name of God. As we take this trip through the Bible’s discussions of sexuality we deal with such issues as whether Jonathan and David’s relationship was homoerotic and whether the Song of Solomon envisions a premarital erotic sexual relationship. The reader will also look at the variety of ways that marriage is envisioned, from the polygamous marriages of David and Solomon, to the rather negative portrayals of marriage offered by Jesus and Paul. Then, of course there are the household codes that we find in Ephesians and Colossians. Sections of the book deal with body parts and fluids – looking into questions of menstruation, circumcision, and masturbation. Another chapter deals with the “evil impulse,” that is the sexual drive, which needed to be controlled. In this particular chapter Knust responds to the suggestion by Southern Baptist megachurch pastor Ed Young that marriages can be strengthened if partners have sex every day. Knust notes that such advice would run quite contrary to the teachings of Paul and his own interpreters, who sought to control their sexuality not free it up – whether within marriage or not.
Knust’s book is an interesting and intriguing read. She covers a lot of territory and does so provocatively. As I noted earlier for many readers much of this won’t be new, though personally I found the discussion in the chapter on “Strange Flesh” illuminating. In this chapter she deals with a number of issues that range from the Sodom Gomorrah story to the suggestion that the giants and “warriors of renown” were the children of unions between angels and human women. The latter isn’t all that new or controversial, but the suggestion that the issue in Sodom centered not on either homosexuality or hospitality, but the Sodomite’s yearning to mate with angels (that is strange flesh) was new to me and intriguing. She also deals with the question of the angels whom Paul is concerned about in 1 Corinthians 11. Paul suggests that women should be veiled “on account of the angels.” Could the issue be that the angels are watching and desiring these women? Remember too that the Corinthians were engaging in angelic speech. Another topic that many will find intriguing and challenging is her comparison of the Jezebel and Esther stories. One is condemned for being a foreign woman who leads her husband astray (Jezebel), while the other is a Jewish woman (Esther) who leads her foreign husband to do what is right. Both play similar roles, but one is commended and the other is not. It is, therefore, a matter of perspective!
The book is, as noted earlier, intriguing and at times illuminating, but it is also frustrating. At times it seems as if we’re being given only two choices when it comes to reading scripture. You have to choose between either biblical literalism or biblical minimalism. As is often true of the broadsides written by folks like John Spong and Bart Ehrman (his blurb graces the front cover) there doesn’t seem to be any middle ground. Thus, although I find the “strange flesh” explanation for the Sodom story to be intriguing, I’m not sure I’m ready to jettison the idea that the problem is one of breaking the code of hospitality. Another conversation point has to do with Paul’s attitude toward sex (pp. 81ff). Although Paul prefers celibacy, I’m not convinced that this makes him anti-sex or that marriage is the second best option for controlling sexual desire. In addition, while I’m in agreement that there isn’t a consistent sexual ethic present, I wish there was more attention given to how we might make use of the biblical story/stories to construct appropriate sexual ethics in the present age. The author herself affirms that while the Bible is not perfect it is beautiful, “particularly when we do not try to force it to mean just one thing” (p. 247).
My conclusion is that Knust’s book is far from perfect. First, I'm not always clear who the intended audience is. There are points at which she gives some rather remedial directives as to the context of a story, while at other points going into rather deep detail in topics that require more background. While she raises lots of important questions about the role of sexuality and family in the biblical story, often in provocative ways, I wish she had given more guidance as to how we might make sense of this diversity in creating a sexual ethic that is appropriate for this age. Yes, there is great variety in the text, which seems to offer permission for variety of expressions in the modern age. But, how does one discern what is appropriate and what is not when it comes to sexuality? Although, the book is a helpful conversation starter that may serve as necessary antidote to the proof-texting methods of the "family values" crowd, but I was left wanting more.
Offered as part of the TLC Book Tour.