Archive for June 2015
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.