Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Unprotected Texts -- Review

“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. 


Gary said...

The book's author is looking for loopholes so she can do what she wants. But God does not provide any.

According to the Bible, moral sex is limited to marriage. And marriage is limited to a man and a woman who are qualified to marry each other.

keithwatkinshistorian said...

Bob, I appreciate the fact that you give a comprehensive description of this book and a serious evaluation of the author's achievement and shortcoming. It gives me enough information to be appropriately aware of the book even though my reading schedule is not likely to include it any time soon.

heathertlc said...

Thanks for providing such a thorough review. I think the author's goal was simply to open the topic up for discussion in new ways, and if that's correct than she succeeded. I know what you mean about wanting more conclusions drawn though - I think I'd want to know exactly where the author stand on some of these issues.

Thanks for being on this tour.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

heathertlc -- Thanks for your comments! I think the author makes pretty clear her position, but in the end she leaves us hanging as to how we might reintegrate the stories into something managable. As a pastor I may have the training to do this, but many of the readers won't have that background. But, if we can have a good conversation about important matters, then this is a useful text!

John said...


Here is a lecture by the author which I listened to last week and really enjoyed.


dcsloan said...

"Now Lot went up out of Zoar and settled in the hills with his two daughters, for he was afraid to stay in Zoar; so he lived in a cave with his two daughters. And the firstborn said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to come in to us after the manner of all the world. Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, so that we may preserve offspring through our father.” So they made their father drink wine that night; and the firstborn went in, and lay with her father; he did not know when she lay down or when she rose. On the next day, the firstborn said to the younger, “Look, I lay last night with my father; let us make him drink wine tonight also; then you go in and lie with him, so that we may preserve offspring through our father.” So they made their father drink wine that night also; and the younger rose, and lay with him; and he did not know when she lay down or when she rose. Thus both the daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father. The firstborn bore a son, and named him Moab; he is the ancestor of the Moabites to this day. The younger also bore a son and named him Ben-ammi; he is the ancestor of the Ammonites to this day."

Genesis 19:30-38

dcsloan said...

Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” She said to her, “All that you tell me I will do.”

So she went down to the threshing floor and did just as her mother-in-law had instructed her. When Boaz had eaten and drunk, and he was in a contented mood, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came stealthily and uncovered his feet, and lay down. At midnight the man was startled, and turned over, and there, lying at his feet, was a woman! He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.” He said, “May you be blessed by the LORD, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. And now, my daughter, do not be afraid, I will do for you all that you ask, for all the assembly of my people know that you are a worthy woman. But now, though it is true that I am a near kinsman, there is another kinsman more closely related than I. Remain this night, and in the morning, if he will act as next-of-kin for you, good; let him do it. If he is not willing to act as next-of-kin for you, then, as the LORD lives, I will act as next-of-kin for you. Lie down until the morning.”

So she lay at his feet until morning, but got up before one person could recognize another; for he said, “It must not be known that the woman came to the threshing floor.”

Ruth 3:1-14

Scott.Gregory00@gmail.com said...

The book does have some strengths and weaknesses. I think the literalists are troubled by how she did a meticulous job outlining what the purpose of marriage was, as opposed to what we believe it to be in the contemporary church. Settling property disputes and the like clearly held sway. on that point, she makes a convincing and sound argument. She also does a good job in regards to showing how sexuality was diverse among the prophets, and that it could hardly be maintained that there was ONE clear standard.

To me, the biggest weakness is her statement that: "Jesus devalues literal family ties to the extent that he would rather his followers ignore the death of a prent than miss the chance to follow him." Clearly, context matters here and Knust only fails to look for that in this instance. Jesus was commenting about the priorities of the people, not that they should give up their family ties. Excellent review on your part, thank you for your honesty and sincerity in looking at both sides of this book.

tashe' said...

I completely agree with this review. It's exactly how I felt about the book. It was very messy, without any sense of the author following through her thoughts all the way to some sort of conclusion. I know we will never completely find an answer as long as we are alive, it seems like this book didn't really work towards an understanding of what it means to be a sexual being. I was excited to start reading what I thought would be a challenging and insightful book, but I really felt disappointed. As a Christian I feel like I didn't really learn anything about God's nature.