Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire by Jennifer Wright Knust, HarperOne, 2011, 343 pp.
This is a book I’ve been looking for a long time. In today’s polarized environment, every new book on the market is either making a case for the rights of LGBT people in the church (including marriage) or against it. Each side cites enormous amounts of scripture to support their case, but every book turns into a polemic.
Jennifer Wright Knust steps into the fray with an in-depth analysis of the many, conflicting perspectives on sex presented throughout the scriptures. Those who claim the Bible is inerrant and designed to be taken literally will not appreciate or approve of Knust’s work, but anyone who is open to even the most basic historical and literary biblical criticism will find a treasure trove of information. Knust’s style is full of transparency and frankness, an open, questioning approach to find out what the Bible really says about a host of topics related to sex and desire.
Her scholarship uncovers, very clearly, that the Bible has a lot to say about sex and desire. Most of what it says is in conflict with something else it says in another place. Little of what it says can be directly transferred to contemporary situations of sex and desire to provide clear moral guidelines. Much of what it says we have long ago dismissed.
One example is the analysis she gives to the idea of “biblical marriage.” Although it’s one of the hottest topics of contemporary debate, it is one of the shorter chapters in the book, because there is less direct comment about marriage than on many other topics, including circumcision. Knust begins with the two creation stories, which she identifies as stories about procreation rather than marriage.
For the land and the community to prosper, men must sow their seeds, both in the arable land and in a fertile female. To fulfill their appointed lot, Genesis suggests, women have no choice but to dedicate their bodies to this purpose. (55)
To get to any actual talk of marriage, Knust looks to the Hebrew law codes. Those laws, from Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, proscribe how the sexuality of women and slaves, both seen as property, must be carefully managed and controlled by men. The legal questions surrounding marriage are about “who will benefit from her labor and her sexuality.” (59) The law is designed for a man to maintain as many wives, slaves and concubines as he can afford to support. Knust finally moves into the New Testament, looking at Jesus’ familiar lines undoing traditional family relationships (Matthew 12:48-50), promoting celibacy over marriage (Mark 12:25) and prohibiting divorce (Matthew 5:32). She contrasts the perspective of each of the synoptic Gospels, identifying differences between them. In the subsequent chapter, which is about desire rather than marriage, she outlines Paul and differing Pauline perspectives, ranging from arguments supporting celibacy over marriage (Paul) to those insisting that everyone must fit within an ordered, male-headed household (the Pastoral Epistles).
Knust’s deconstruction demonstrates conclusively that there is no one idea of “biblical marriage.” While there may be some wisdom to uncover from these conflicting stories, there is no clear guidance to our modern questions. Knust then proceeds to conduct the same thorough biblical examination of other topics–the joy of sex, the control of desire, sex with angels and foreigners, circumcision and bodily fluids, demonstrating the same argument that the ancient texts do not translate into modern self-help books for sex, desire and relationships.
Knust refuses to pull punches. While she shows some personal support for the cause of equal marriage and the full inclusion of LGBT people in the church, she does not try to explain away biblical passages that do not support her opinions or dig up passages that do. Unprotected Texts is true to its title. Knust lays it all out, the mess that it is, and leaves it to us to sort through the chaos. I appreciate the way she trusts the reader to reason, and refrains from the danger of polemics. Knust adds enormously to this ongoing conversation.
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, Picador, 2012, 406 pp.
After finishing Wolf Hall, I couldn’t wait to dive in to Bring Up the Bodies. The story picks up right where Wolf Hall leaves off, with the death of Sir Thomas More. King Henry VII is becoming disenchanted with Anne Boleyn, as she loses her second child. Bring Up the Bodies follows the story forward to the accusations, trial and death of Anne Boleyn, as the King’s infatuation with Jane Seymour grows.
As in Wolf Hall, the focus of the story is Thomas Cromwell, and the novel unfolds from his perspective. Mantel’s storytelling makes Cromwell a sympathetic and humane character, a shrewd businessman with a growing fold of young men in his household. However, Bring Up the Bodies shows Cromwell as the legal architect of the trumped-up case against Anne Boleyn and her supposed lovers. Mantel’s Cromwell is patient and calculating, the perfect embodiment of the proverb, “revenge is a dish best served cold.” The story places the four men accused of cavorting with the queen in a play, years before, mocking Cromwell’s mentor Cardinal Wolsey. Cromwell’s case is his silent, unacknowledged payback.
One of the interesting aspects of Mantel’s story is Cromwell’s religious and spiritual life. His intellectual curiosity makes him a Protestant sympathizer, because he believes in access to the Bible, to thought and new ideas. However, he seems distant from God or faith, uncertain of the reality of God, or more importantly, whether God matters at all. If God is real and God matters, he is convinced, it is a God unbound by human limits and human imagination. This interaction with the dying Queen Katherine is an example.
She looks up. ‘I have wondered, master, in what language do you confess? Or do you not confess?’
‘God knows our hearts, madam. There is no need for an idle formula, for an intermediary.’ No need for language, either, he things: God is beyond translation. (91)
Mantel’s writing is just superb. Her style is subtle and direct, just like Cromwell himself. Initially, it appears like it could be dense or dry, especially since the major plot developments are already known by history. However, I find myself turning page after page. Mantel is already at work on the third volume of the trilogy, and I can only hope it will be published soon.
There’s a Woman in the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments & the Healing Power of Humor, ed. by Rev. Martha Spong, Skylight Paths Publishing, Woodstock, VT, 2015, 215 pp.
For years, my clergywomen friends and I have been swapping stories about what our lives are like in the crazy, beautiful work of ministry. “You should write that down.” “We should write a book someday.” “Somebody needs to publish all these stories,” the voices echo. Finally, someone did!
There’s a Woman in the Pulpit captures the stories of dozens of clergywomen across denominations and cultures and across the world. The initiative began with the RevGalBlogPals, a blog ring of women in ministry that I read for a long time and was honored to join when I became a blogger myself. Many of these women have been writing their stories for years, others are new to ministry or to writing. They pulled together the best of the best from all the submissions for There’s a Woman in the Pulpit.
Here’s my response: I laughed. I cried. I shouted, “I know exactly what you mean.” I had to put the book down because I was too deeply moved to turn another page. I wanted to answer back by swapping stories of my own. I felt like I was hanging out with old friends (and, truth be told, several of the authors are my friends–in person or via the internet). I said a deep, sighing “yesssss” on multiple occasions.
The breadth of the stories moved me. While I expected the stories about tender moments with the dying to bring a tear or two, I was surprised to also find myself sighing deeply over the stories of mothering through ministry, or presiding at the communion table, or preaching. There were stories I immediately recognized as similar to my own, like keeping vigil at the bedside of a beloved church elder or searching for a nice pair of preaching heels, and stories that offered me a window into another’s life, like parenting a child with a disability or juggling a church and a farm.
If you want to know what it’s like to be a woman in ministry (or just a person in ministry–not all stories are gender-specific), this is the book for you. If you are a person in ministry and want to read something reflecting our experiences with beauty and wonder and humor, this book is for you. If you love a woman in ministry, this book will offer insight into her world. While there are occasional stories of sexism or gender bias, most of the book is just about the beautiful, messy, holy lives we share with beautiful, messy, holy people and congregations.
When I have shared stories like these with others, including male clergy colleagues, there is often disbelief. “That doesn’t really happen, does it?” You might read this book and feel the same question arise. Here is my three-part reply: 1. Yes, this stuff really happens. 2. Yes, I mean it. It really does. 3. Isn’t it beautiful and messy and holy, and isn’t that just what God is like?
I’m so proud to know many of the women whose writing is contained in this book, and I feel blessed to have our stories told for the world to share. Get it, read it, love it.
Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999, 228 pp.
The title drew me in. (Also, I’ll admit, the Booker Prize Finalist sticker on the cover.) The title made me think this book would have some rich theological insight hidden inside, even if it never mentioned God. Fasting and feasting are such rich concepts for contemplation. The book did follow its title with interwoven threads of deprivation and abundance, although it did not capture my heart and mind as much as I had hoped.
The story is told in two parts, from two central characters. The first part takes place in India, and focuses on Uma, the eldest sister of an aspiring middle-class family. Uma is a bit slow-witted and physically clumsy, but she has dreams for her life. However, at every turn, her parents thwart her aspirations and turn her into a servant in the household. Her prospects for marriage crumble, and she is denied even the simplest pleasures. She is not alone. Nearly all the women in the story are bound in service to men, their own dreams unsupported and unsustained.
The second part takes place in the United States, and focuses on Arun, the youngest child and only boy in the family. The family (especially Uma) sacrifices everything so that Arun can succeed, achieve and prosper. While it seems that he has everything, he longs desperately for affection. During his time in the United States, the land of plenty, he sees the elements of physical and emotional deprivation in American family life, even as he himself goes hungry rather than eat meat with the host family.
The novel is beautiful, intricate and run through with allusions to various kinds of fasting and feasting. At times, it felt a bit heavy-handed to me, like it was a morality tale or parable about abundance and deprivation, rather than a novel. Uma felt more like a real character about whom I cared than Arun did. I yearned for redemption in the story, but hunger won out over satisfaction for both Arun and Uma.
This is a book I appreciated more than I enjoyed, recognizing its merits while never quite falling under its spell.
I am fast becoming a leading member of the Kent Haruf fan club. After discovering Benediction not long ago, I was determined to read more of his work. At the library, they all looked so intriguing I couldn’t decide which one to borrow—so I took home all three. Plainsong was the first one I chose to read, because it was recognized as a National Book Award finalist. It was just as lovely as Benediction had been, and made me glad to have two more Haruf novels waiting on my shelf.
Plainsong unpacks the intertwining lives of ordinary, yet quirky, people in a small town east of the Rockies. (At one point, I became fascinated by where Holt might be, and whether it is a real place. It is a real county in western Nebraska, and the highways described match the highways on the map.) The characters include two young brothers, Ike and Bobby, 9 and 10, left alone much of the time to explore the town and their independence. Their mother is a minor character, afflicted by mental illness and recently separated from them and their father, but their father Tom Guthrie is central. He is a high school teacher who tangles with the family of a student he fails, and has a developing relationship with fellow teacher Maggie Jones. When student Victoria Roubideaux discovers she is pregnant and kicked out of her home, she turns to Maggie for help. Maggie turns to two reclusive brothers, Raymond and Harold McPheron to take her in.
Plainsong‘s style and story echo its title: a simple telling of their stories, and how they come together in unison, simple and unadorned. Ike and Bobby lose a bit of their childish innocence, discovering some harsh truths about sex and violence and relationships, but the adults in the story guide them through. Tom Guthrie and Maggie Jones help heal one another of broken relationships. Victoria and the McPheron brothers are the most unlikely of partners, and many of their awkward encounters made me chuckle. Still, they were charming and good-hearted, and Haruf has a way of weaving all his characters together such that they are all less lonely by the end of the story.
I was also intrigued by the western setting of the book, with stories about cattle and horses and rural life that offered a unique insight into this region of the country. I have driven through small towns in western Kansas, western Nebraska and eastern Colorado, and I could imagine all the scenes of the story in those locations.
Plainsong was lovely, through and through, with a kind of simple beauty that is only possible by refined, well-worn, carefully crafted prose. I am looking forward to the next Haruf novel in line, and hoping to encounter some of these characters “around town” next time.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2009, 532 pp.
I stumbled into this by impulse and accident, buying Bringing Up the Bodies from the discount bin only to set it aside when I realized it was part two of a series. When my eyes caught Wolf Hall on the library shelf, I decided to give it a try. I’m so glad I did.
Wolf Hall is the story of Thomas Cromwell. Set against the backdrop of Henry VIII’s romance with Anne Boleyn, the book covers the subtle machinations of Cromwell’s service to Cardinal Wolsey, then Henry and Anne. Cromwell is usually a side plot in most books on this place and time. Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn have had countless novels imagining their relationship, personalities and political maneuverings. Likewise with Sir Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cranmer (Archbishop of Canterbury), who get feature roles. Cromwell, however, is generally portrayed as the aide or antagonist to these main characters. Wolf Hall finally gives him the spotlight in our imaginations.
The book begins with a brief account of a working class, violent childhood, followed by disclosure of youthful wanderings and military service on the continent that remain shrouded in mystery. He emerges from time on the continent as a wealthy, well-connected, senior advisor to Cardinal Wolsey. Wolf Hall imagines how the most trusted advisor to Wolsey could somehow maneuver to become the most trusted advisor to Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, which is an unlikely assimilation but true to history.
Mantel’s storytelling is wonderful, and even after 532 rich pages, I still wanted more. She portrays Cromwell as the smartest man in every room, a scholar with a kindly heart and a desire for grace. He is willing to do what is necessary to accomplish the goals of his master (or his own, which are never quite explicit); however, in spite of about his bloody past as a soldier, Cromwell avoids violence as his tactic, unlike More and the King. In every other portrayal I’ve seen, he is mean-spirited, cold, calculating and harsh. In Wolf Hall, I liked him immediately. He is still calculating, but aloof instead of cold, and winsome in his humor and intellect. His Reformation tendencies emerge as a desire for knowledge, of the scriptures especially.
I can’t wait to dive into Bringing Up the Bodies, and I am already enjoying the miniseries version of Wolf Hall currently airing on Masterpiece Classic on PBS. Wolf Hall is a great read.
Lila by Marilynne Robinson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014, 261 pp.
Oh, Marilynne Robinson, how you move me! I think she (and especially her character Rev. John Ames) has become one of my favorite theologians in recent years. I have treasured the first two volumes of this trilogy, Gilead and Home, and waited longingly for Lila to finally be available.
Lila completes the trilogy with the story of Lila Dahl, the late-in-life wife of Rev. John Ames, a wanderer with an unknown past. In the previous two stories, she is a mystery. Finally we hear her own voice, and Robinson reveals–in her careful, slow way–Lila’s complicated past. Like Ames and Boughton, hers is a story of loneliness and isolation. Unlike the men, who also had to cope with disappointment, Lila never had any expectations for her life, so her struggle is not so much with disappointment as with emptiness. Her loss is not of an imagined future, but of any comfort and companionship at all.
Everything that happens here between Lila and Rev. John Ames is familiar to readers of Gilead and Home. She comes to church and he baptizes her. They meet and talk in their stilted way. They are married, and soon she is pregnant with his child. What we learn in this book is Lila’s perspective on their relationship, and the intricate back story that leads Lila to Gilead and breaks her heart open to love. Her story begins in poverty and abandonment, grows into love and wandering and being an outlier with Doll, the woman who raised her. When she loses Doll, she loses herself and falls into the realm of violence and abuse. Yet she escapes, she finds redemption, and together with Ames finds a frail happiness she can hardly believe is real.
As always, Robinson offers a deep sense of poetry and theology, even though our main character is not a preacher. Below are a few gems I want to remember.
She saw him standing in the parlor with his beautiful old head bowed down on his beautiful old chest. She thought, He sure better be praying. And then she thought, Praying looks just like grief. Like shame. Like regret. (93-94)
The next four passages are words spoken by Rev. John Ames, and they sum up much of my own theology.
I really don’t think preachers ought to lie. Especially about religion. (99)
Thinking about hell doesn’t help me live the way I should. I believe this is true for most people. And thinking that other people might go to hell just feels evil to me, like a very grave sin. So I don’t want to encourage anyone else to think that way. Even if you don’t assume that you can know in individual cases, it’s still a problem to think about people in general as if they might go to hell. You can’t see the world the way you ought to if you let yourself do that. Any judgment of the kind is a great presumption. And presumption is a very grave sin. I believe this is sound theology, in its way. (101)
“If the Lord is more gracious than any of us can begin to imagine, and I’m sure He is, then your Doll and a whole lot of people are safe, and warm, and very happy. And probably a little bit surprised. If there is no Lord, then things are just the way they look to us. Which is really much harder to accept. I mean, it doesn’t feel right. There has to be more to it all, I believe.”
“Well, but that’s what you want to believe, ain’t it?” (Lila)
“That doesn’t mean it isn’t true.” (143-143)
‘Of course misfortunes have opened the way to blessings you would never have thought to hope for, that you would not have been ready to understand as blessings if they had come to you in your youth, when you were uninjured, innocent. The future always finds us changed.’ So then it is part of the providence of God, as I see it, that the blessing or happiness can have very different meanings from one time to another. ‘This is not to say that joy is a compensation for loss, but that each of them, joy and loss, exists in its own right and must be recognized for what it is. Sorrow is very real, and loss feels very final to us. Life on earth is difficult and grave, and marvelous. Our experience is fragmentary. Its parts don’t add up. They don’t even belong in the same calculation. Sometimes it is hard to believe they are all parts of one thing. Nothing makes sense until we understand that experience does not accumulate like money, or memory, or like years and frailties. Instead, it is presented to us by a God who is not under any obligation to the past except in His eternal, freely given constancy.’ (223)
I mean, just, wow. That’s how I feel the whole time I am reading these books. The aching beauty, the grim loneliness, the frail joy, the probing faith, the way she captures the contour of the soul moves me every time. If you haven’t yet read Robinson’s trilogy, get to the library now and get started. These books will stand among the great works of 21st century literature, I’m certain.