Unprotected Texts by Jennifer Wright Knust
Unprotected Texts by Jennifer Wright Knust seeks to make a biblical analysis of various topics related to sex. In general, it’s academically rigorous but very accessible and I would recommend it, although some sections definitely dragged on more for me than others. The topics themselves were definitely interesting. Some I had learned more about in my own studies, particularly the current cultural controversies. Others tackled questions I hadn’t even thought to ask. The chapters:
- The Bible and the Joy of Sex, texts like Song of Songs that view sex as a good thing
- Biblical Marriage, the complicated and varying definitions of marriage in the Bible
- The Evil Impulse, particularly Jesus and Paul’s call to celibacy
- Sexual Politics, the inconsistent rules against certain types of sex
- Strange Flesh, the one consistent sex rule: no sex with angels
- Bodily Parts, circumcision and genital emissions
Some people are probably squirming just reading that list since a small portion of the Western church (and culture in general) are actually willing to talk about sex. That makes this book extra important if only for its willingness to be honest and comprehensive about what the Bible actually says: a fair bit, but probably not what you think or as clearly as you think.
I’m not going to repeat many of those details here, but one section was particularly fascinating for me. I learned that many in the early Church believed that after this life, our resurrected bodies would be androgynous. The understanding of the time was that the original creation was androgynous, but then was split into male and female because it was not good to be alone. Heterosexual sex and marriage reunites the two halves of humanity into one again. But in Heaven, we return to being whole already, so sex and marriage aren’t necessary. This explains why Paul says there is no more male or female and why Jesus says we won’t have marriages in Heaven. I’m not saying I agree with this idea – the essentialization of genders doesn’t match reality, even biologically when you consider intersex individuals – but within a cultural context of that essentialism, I can easily see how they reached that conclusion from the biblical texts.
Another odd note: the same day I read about circumcision including some medieval “discovery” of Jesus’ foreskin – since that was the only part of his body that didn’t ascend – I then saw a reference to it in the show The Borgias. A woman was talking about it as having magical healing properties, exactly the kind of thing that Wright Knust was describing. First time I’ve heard about this idea and then I encountered it twice in the same day.
The conclusion wraps things up nicely, summarizing that the real lesson here is to not pretend our understanding of the Bible is the same thing as the Bible itself. A lot of books doing this kind of summary overview tends to just throw out the information with no conclusion, so that was really helpful and let her put on her pastor hat a bit more alongside the biblical scholar hat. Here’s my favourite piece with a valuable idea I might implement:
As a New Testament scholar and pastor, I am sometimes asked to lead Bible studies at local churches, including my own. Studies of Paul and women or of the Bible and sexuality are especially popular topics these days, though I have also taught courses on, for example, biblical perspectives on war and violence or the circumstances surrounding the production of particular New Testament books. Whatever I am teaching, however, I usually begin by asking participants what they wish the Bible said about the topic at hand…Do we wish that the Bible would confirm gay marriage, instead of rejecting it as so many Christians insist?… Perhaps we wish that Paul had not told women to be silent and learn from their husbands at home, especially since talkative and independent women can be found throughout the Bible just as often as silent, obedient women. Whatever we wish for, I point out, probably can be found somewhere in the Bible, which is why it is so important to admit that we have wishes, whatever that may be. We are not passive recipients of what the Bible says, but active interpreters who make decisions about what we will believe and what we will affirm. Admitting that we have wishes, and that our wishes matter, is therefore the first step to developing an honest and faithful interpretation.
(Conclusion, under Sex, Desire, and Biblical Interpretation; emphasis mine)
This was the gist of my chapter in A Living Alternative as well, although I then went farther and encouraged what I believe is the best hermeneutic for reading the Bible: Jesus. Wright Knust doesn’t really dive too deeply into hermeneutical choices – that’s not the point of the book – but she does make it clear that she sees the Bible as beautiful and life-affirming, ending with these words:
Anyone who would use God and the Bible to deny touch, love, and affection to others has failed to present a valuable interpretation, not only of the Bible but also of what it means to be human, whether or not some biblical passage somewhere can be found to support their claims. Those who attempt to belittle or demean a class of people, denying them rights on the basis of an unexamined interpretation of a few biblical passages, are expressing not God’s will but their own limited human perspective, backed up by a shallow and self-serving reading of the biblical text. No one should rejoice when Jezebel is eaten by dogs. Slavery is never acceptable, whatever the Bible says. And it is a tragedy, not a triumph, every time some young person somewhere is crushed by the weight of taunting and shame inspired by cruelty masquerading as righteousness. If the Bible is truly the word of God, as Christians have claimed for centuries, then surely it deserves to be treated better than this. If human bodies matter to God as much as some ancient Israelites, Jewish Sages, and early Christians taught, then surely they deserve both protection and high regard, no matter what. The Samaritan woman desired living water capable of quenching thirst forever, not still water trapped in a bucket and available for one thirsty afternoon. When it comes to the Bible, may we imitate her example, seeking abundant life in all the interpretations we offer.
(Conclusion, under Touching Jesus)
In the same vein as the clever title, I conclude with a simple idea: practice safe Bible-reading, always use a hermeneutic of the love of Jesus.