Friday, February 18, 2011

Unprotected Texts: The Bible's Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire

Title: Unprotected Texts: The Bible's Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire
Author: Jennifer Wright Knust

Reviewed by Richard Packham for the Association for Mormon Letters

** WARNING: Due to the nature of the subject matter, this review, like the book being reviewed, is likely to be considered by some as R-rated
(or maybe even X-rated) ****

Publisher: Harper One (Harper-Collins)
Genre: Non-fiction, Bible study
Year Published: 2011
Number of Pages: 343, including 90 pages of endnotes
Binding: hardcover
ISBN13: 978-0-06-172558-6
Price: $25.99

It has long been a favorite pastime of irreverent boys in Sunday school classes, when forced to deal with the Holy Bible, to scour the sacred text for prurient passages and supposed obscenities, and pass around the citations to their equally irreverent pals.  Fortunately for their spiritual welfare, most simply preferred not to have anything to do directly with the Bible and its antiquated language, and simply listened, fidgeting, to what the teacher or the preacher told them the text said.

The collecting of Biblical obscenities and outrageous passages continued with some, even as adults, and resulted in several books.  Joseph Lewis in 1926 published *The Bible Unmasked* (Freethought Press), which went through 17 printings by 1941, complete with voluptuous line drawings, illustrating the Bible stories which Lewis considered "pornographic." 1933 saw Charles Francis Potter’s book *Is That In The Bible?* which, although primarily a collection of Bible "oddities," still included a lot of Bible passages about sex.

J.  Ashleigh Burke in 1983 published privately his *The X-Rated Book: Sex and Obscenity In The Bible,* in which he piously credited God as his co-author, since the bulk of the book consisted of His words, winnowed from the Good Book.  A more recent (and more readable) collection was *The Harlot By The Side Of The Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible* by Jonathan Kirsch (1997, Ballantine).

And now we have the present volume by Jennifer Wright Knust, which only in some ways is in the tradition of the earlier works named.  The title, of course, is a word-play on the phrase "unprotected sex," which by many would be considered wilder, more impromptu, riskier (and therefore more exciting?) than "safe sex." Knust, unlike the previous authors mentioned, is not a Bible-basher, however, that is, one who would (as some of them did) urge libraries to ban the Bible as pornography.  Rather, she is an ordained minister (American Baptist) and assistant professor of religion at Boston University.  Not just a minister in name only, she has actually served in church ministries both in Pennsylvania and Maine.  She has a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary, and later earned a Master of Philosophy degree and Doctor of Religion from Columbia University.  In other words, she is "pro-Bible." Her purpose is not to arouse prurient interest, but rational, open-minded thinking about the Bible.

Knust’s purpose in writing this book is to demonstrate once and for all that most Christian ministers and preachers who rely on the Bible to support their particular moral views, especially their views on abortion, chastity, homosexuality, adultery, women, masturbation - almost anything having to do with love, lust, and sex - are standing on very shaky ground.  The Bible, according to Knust, is not a clear, unambiguous voice on these matters.  Any strong statement made by one passage is almost always just as strongly contradicted by another.

In making her case, Knust carefully gathers all the Bible passages dealing with each area of sex that supposedly support one moral (or immoral) view or another.  She assists the non-Bible scholar in explaining - very graphically and clinically at times - the subtle meanings of certain King James or Hebrew phrases.  References to a man’s "feet," for example, are code words for his genitals.  Thus, when Ruth "uncovers" the "feet" of Boaz, and "lies at his feet" we see that the story is a sexual encounter, Ruth’s seduction of a willing Boaz.  Knust points out that this act of seduction and fornication, far from being condemned by the author, is presented as a positive act, the progeny of which resulted in the royal lineage of David.  This particular incident is also intended, says Knust, as a condemnation of the ban on miscegenation, since Ruth was a Moabite, with whom the children of Israel were not to intermingle.  This treatment of the sexual story in Ruth, as Knust points out, is typical and frequent in other explicit (or semi-explicit) "immoral" Bible stories, which have no specific condemnation by the writer of acts which would be considered immoral by many modern Christians.

Mormon readers will be pleased that Knust shows that the Bible clearly approves of polygamy, especially in the Old Testament.  Not so encouraging to Saints is that later Bible writers condemn not only polygamy, but discourage all marriage, as when Paul says that he wished all could be as he (unmarried), and when Jesus is said to praise those who can make themselves eunuchs, and to deny that there is marriage in heaven.  Adultery is sometimes condemned, but almost as often it is tolerated or even used by God for wise purposes: Solomon, one of God’s favorites, was the product of an adulterous relationship.  Seduction also is one of God’s tools, as when Esther uses her beauty to get the king’s permission to slaughter the Jews’ enemies.  Knust compares her with Jezebel, who is generally vilified by the Bible writers (and modern preachers), but who was really no different: a foreign queen, serving her god in the interest of her native people, and using her sexual attractiveness to accomplish her purposes.

Knust lays to rest the long Christian tradition of interpreting the Song of Solomon as an allegory for the church’s love for Christ.  That idea does not hold up, says Knust.  It is an erotic love-poem, idealizing pre-marital, illicit sex.  Although many church fathers did not want it included in the canon (Joseph Smith did not include it in his Inspired Version, saying that it was "not inspired"), many theologians, both Jewish and Christian, considered it among the most treasured books in the canon, based, of course, on its supposed allegorical message.

Homosexuality in the Bible gets a thorough treatment from Knust, and most Christians (including Mormons) will be tempted to reject her analyses out of hand, since she shows that it is not so clearly condemned as most Christians claim.  She argues convincingly that the friendship between David and Jonathan was erotic, and also considers the devotion between Ruth and Naomi to have had a lesbian component.

The many passages dealing with adultery are not so much due, says Knust, to the idea of fidelity, but more to the preservation of a man’s lineage.  The importance of semen and its proper use is based on the reverence for it as the carrier of life and lineage, and Knust explains that as the reason why the Bible objects to depositing it in the wrong places (another male, an animal, a foreign woman).  Ironically, both semen and the female sexual discharge of menstrual blood make one unclean under Levitical statutes.

Circumcision also gets lengthy treatment - its general use among the Israelites and their neighboring tribes, how it came to be the mark of a Jew, the debates among early Christians about whether it should be continued, the theological significance of Jesus’s circumcision (I was unaware that there arose a Cult of The Holy Foreskin in the 11th century), what "spiritual circumcision" means, etc.

Knust places the changing (vacillating?) doctrines of Jews and Christians on these issues as recorded in the Bible against the contemporary political background.  Among the early Jews, God (whom Knust always calls "Yhwh") also had a consort, Asherah (the Mormon "Heavenly Mother"?), whose worship was difficult for the later priesthood to eradicate.  As Greek and Roman ways became more influential in Palestine, their ideas about sex, adultery, divorce, incest came to be reflected in the Bible.  Knust follows these changes into the later centuries in the writings of the Church Fathers.

Knust does not deal with some areas of Biblical sex that curious minds may wonder about.  Many homosexual advocates today suggest that Jesus’s love for the "Beloved Disciple" was homosexual, for example.  How should that be viewed, especially when compared to the relationship between David and Jonathan?  And what was Jesus’s relationship to the women in his entourage?  Some earlier Mormon theologians insisted that they were Jesus’s plural wives.  Was Jesus married at all?  If not, why not?  If so, why is there no evidence?  Knust does not deal with these questions.  She may be unaware that some Christians (including some Mormons) have historically tried to read into the Bible their own answers to these questions, to justify their own teachings.

Knust’s hope is that this book will help all Bible interpreters to see that they have wishes and desires about what God may have said and what God may want, and that they look to the Bible to see those wishes confirmed.  She sums up (p.  244): "It is time for us to admit that we, too [like the New Testament writers interpreting the Hebrew writings], are interpreters who hope to find our convictions reflected in biblical texts, and have been all along.  Looking to the Bible for straightforward answers about anything, including sex, can lead only to disappointment.  When read as a whole, the Bible provides neither clear nor consistent advice about sex and bodies..."

She continues (p.  245): "It is therefore a mistake to pretend that the Bible can define our ethics for us in any kind of straightforward way..." The tragedy of refusing to recognize that, she says, is that it appears to force a choice upon us "between accepting the Bible as literally true or rejecting the Bible altogether.  Christians should not and need not be asked to make this choice." It should be up to readers of today to construct their own moral perspectives, since the "Bible provides neither a shortcut to the real work of interpretation nor a simple solution to the important task of figuring out what it means to be human and yet in love with God."

Unfortunately, I suspect that many lovers of the Bible will find that message troubling, when they have so long looked to the Scriptures for reliable guidance and comfort.  I would hope that Christian readers would listen to Reverend Knust’s wise counsel.


Dallin said...

I enjoyed this article. I wonder if my browser is broken as I hit refresh and still no comments. I just wanted to say thank you for this review. It actually catches my interest in the book.

Anonymous said...

with a topic like that -- its got to be interesting reading