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Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire by Jennifer Wright Knust, HarperOne, 2011, 343 pp.

Unprotected TextsThis 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.

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A child-safe version of the Bible features a cartoon Jesus on the cover. But a faith based on this two-dimensional caricature won’t hold up in a grown-up world.

At church on Sunday, B got a giveaway bible, just a little pocket New Testament that had been left over from a previous event. He is a budding reader, so he came home that day and sat down to start reading it. J and I were both intrigued with what he might possibly grasp, and wondered how to interpret the gospels with him.

Ever the ardent atheist, J chuckled and remarked, “You know, it always cracks me up that your faith, that the Bible, is not age appropriate. Your God is not safe for children.”

He’s right, of course. From Cain and Abel to the mass slaughter of Canaanites to the stoning of an adulteress to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the Bible is loaded with the kind of violence that we would ban from video games and television programs for children.  Biblical clans generally set bad examples for the “traditional family values” that we want to instill in our children—Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery, sisters Leah and Rachel try to destroy each other over a man, Paul says it’s better not to get married to focus on the Gospel.  Even Jesus disses his family when they try to get in the way of his ministry. Hardships like poverty, disease, natural disaster and corrupt rulers fill every page.

“Last Supper,” by Fritz Eichenberg, shows that Jesus came to dine among the poor, not the pretty.

Then there’s all the sex stuff—and not just the beautiful erotic poetry in Song of Solomon. Abraham tells his wife Sarah to pretend she is his sister and become the king’s mistress. Visitors are threatened with rape in Sodom and Gomorrah. Onan is struck down for “spilling his seed on the ground.” (Yes, that means what you think it means.) Tamar dresses up as a prostitute to trick her father-in-law into getting her pregnant. And we haven’t even made it out of Genesis yet.

God’s story is clearly rated R. When we introduce children to God, we carefully select the stories of Jesus welcoming children and multiplying loaves and fishes, Jonah and the whale, Daniel and the lions, Moses and the ten commandments, Abraham and Sarah laughing at the impossible promise of a baby. We carefully omit the content that is inappropriate for young children, and avoid the parts that would be considered NSFW* as a Youtube video.

While J intended his remark as a gentle taunt, I am proud to claim an R-rated God and an R-rated faith. My life and my world have no need of a squeaky-clean God with a scripture full of nice and pleasant stories. Violence, sex, poverty, broken families, twisted relationships abound in the world we live in. They weigh heavy on the lives of people everywhere and threaten to drown them in despair.  We need a God who can enter that kind of world and still find a way for the divine light of hope, love and peace shine through. I do not need the Divine Disney to create a magic kingdom insulated from poverty, violence, sex and oppression. I need a God who comes to dwell among the grit, the grime and the graphic and somehow finds a way to redeem it all in the end.

“Pieta” by Paul Fryer, a graphic reminder that Christ came to show love to the worst people in the worst circumstances.

The R-rated story of God in the Bible makes possible a mature faith for an adult world. Stories of violence show me that God can go with us into the valley of the shadow of death. Broken families help us to know that we are not alone in our imperfect relationships, and God knows our struggles to love and be loved. Sex in the Bible reveals that intimacy is a gift from God, and sin only enters sexuality with power, violence, deception and manipulation. The prominence of the poor, the ill and the outcast in the Bible teach us that hardship and oppression cannot separate us from God’s love, nor should it separate us from loving one another. The prominence of sinful biblical heroes reminds us that God loves us and God can use even our messed-up lives for good and holy purposes.

The world is not rated G, so neither is our God. The R-rated God comes to R-related people in an R-rated world, to change the “R” from restricted to redeemed, by the power of love. I’ll claim that rating for my faith any day.

*NSFW is code for “not safe for work,” and usually applied to videos or online materials with graphic content.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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