Thursday, August 29, 2019

Unprotected Texts by Jennifer Knust Book Review by Sutton



UNPROTECTED TEXTS
The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions  
about Sex and Desire

Author:  Jennifer Wright Knust

Date: 2011

Reviewed by

  Geoffrey W. Sutton





Knust’s book has an intriguing title for anyone thinking about the sex-related moral issues constantly in the news. I purchased the digital copy of her book as I was writing A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures, and I’m glad I did because I referenced some of her insights.

Knust has impressive credentials. She has a Ph.D., from Columbia University and is an Associate Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Boston University School of Theology. She’s also an ordained American Baptist pastor.

This well written book addresses biblical sex in six chapters with primary titles that do not easily identify the subject matter until you’ve read a few pages. In this review, I’ll provide a summary, then add some thoughts at the end of this review.

*****

The Bible and the Joy of Sex (chapter 1) introduces us to texts that celebrate sex outside of marriage—an obvious contrast to the interpretations offered to evangelical youth. Knust offers us the graphic imagery in The Song (aka Song of Solomon) as evidence of biblical erotica expressed in the relationship between two unmarried lovers. We also glimpse Ruth’s seduction of Boaz and King David’s infamous extramarital affair with Bathsheba. As Knust concludes, “…the passages considered in this chapter suggest that nonmarital desire can be both limitless and productive.” (Kindle Locations 871-872)

Anyone reading the Bible knows ancient men in many cultures had many wives. Chapter 2 is about biblical marriage. If you follow American news, you know Christian evangelicals have worked hard at establishing a cultural norm that legal marriage ought to be between one man and one woman. Knust takes us through several texts to make the point that biblical women were the property of the men in their families. Not surprisingly, the story begins with Adam and Eve, but we have no specific commandments about marriage until we get to the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. Here we are reminded of the high value placed on a woman’s virginity, Israelite rules governing slave women and their families, and the rights of fathers, husbands, and slave owners with respect to women. Next, Knust reviews the various New Testament teachings on marriage and divorce. I found Table 1 particularly useful because she provides details comparing the similarities and differences among the gospel writers.

It’s no secret that evangelical preachers and conservative theologies have warned congregants about sexual immorality. In chapter 3, The Evil Impulse, Knust examines Disordered and Ordered Desire. The chapter opens with a discussion of Paul’s advice to the Corinthians about the value of celibacy— provided people have self-control—otherwise, they ought to marry. In Corinthians 6, Paul communicates the horrid consequences of missing out of the kingdom of God as a penalty for engaging in sexual immorality. Knust examines Paul’s language in the context of Greco-Roman culture. She reminds readers of Paul’s expectation of Jesus’ soon return and the later writings that emphasize authoritative control of people and their passions through household structures (e.g., Ephesians, 1 Timothy). By the end of the chapter we have learned that the early Christians wrestled with the same issues as those in the Roman culture concerning appropriate ways for men to manage their sexual desire.

Chapter 4 is about Sexual Politics. The Old Testament writers condemn enemy tribes using the language of sex and idolatry—the outsiders are prostitutes. Purity and holiness are values reflected in the rules about sex. Prohibitions against incest is one example of biblical attention to detail about what constituted a sex crime. Despite the attacks on the evil of their neighbors, we see that the Israelites were guilty of the same sexual sins.

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Chapter 5 is perhaps the strangest, Strange Flesh. Here we are reminded of that quizzical old text about the sons of God having sex with earthly women (Genesis 6). Knust traces the history of the relationships between heavenly beings and those of earth. This exploration takes us to the much-quoted story of Sodom and the men who wanted to rape Lot’s heavenly guests. And we see this angel-human relationship story pop up centuries later in Jude and 2 Peter. We now return to the stories of Sodom and the Levite’s Concubine (Judges 19). We learn of several lessons that may be taken from these stories—especially the importance of showing high respect for one’s guests (i.e., hospitality norms). We also see the concern of biblical writers for crossing sexual boundaries between humans and supernatural beings, which is in contrast to the recent interpretations about male homosexuality. Appropriate sexual boundaries are also the topic of texts dealing with foreign tribes as seen in the rape of Dinah (Genesis 34).

I’d call Chapter 6 miscellaneous topics. Bodily Parts includes a review of biblical voices about Circumcision, Semen, and the Products of a Woman’s Womb. The history of circumcision and its role in separating one culture from another is interesting—especially when we see the considerations of the early churchmen regarding what gentile converts ought to do. Next, Knust reviews the rules about purification from bodily discharges and the different paths to becoming clean so that one may enter God’s holy place. At the end of this chapter, Knust observes the difficulty in applying ancient interpretations of bodily discharges to contemporary life.

In her conclusion, Knust expresses concern about biblical interpretations that demean a group of people or form the basis for denying rights to people. The book’s end matter includes an extensive bibliography and an index.

Some Thoughts

I recommend Unprotected Texts to Christians who want to learn more about the perspectives of ancient Israelites regarding human sexuality and the righteous life. Knust’s work joins others in emphasizing the diverse voices within the biblical texts as well as a cacophony of interpretations by biblical scholars and authoritarian clergy. Although published nearly a decade ago, the book remains relevant to contemporary discussions about laws and policies attempting to control human sexual desire. That is, the Bible contains much evidence that regardless of laws, human beings have a hard time controlling their sexual desires.

I would certainly recommend this book to students who are researching various views on sex and gender-linked topics. The book is relevant to understanding people’s views about sex and gender in any nation where Christian teaching has been influential in their laws and cultural norms.

Knust’s view of the Bible as a collection of works by many men with different views about how godly people ought to behave is common among biblical scholars. However, the view is not common among evangelical Christians—especially those who lean heavily toward a fundamentalist (near literal) interpretation of most texts. Reading translations of old texts out of their historical context is a danger. Readers may surely disagree with Knust, but I think her voice is worth hearing—especially when Christians want to claim they have the correct interpretation of the Bible and wish to create restrictive laws based on their interpretation.

 References

Knust, J. W. (2011). Unprotected texts: The Bible’s surprising contradictions about sex and desire. New York: HarperCollins

Sutton, G. W. (2016). A house divided: Sexuality, morality, and Christian cultures. Eugene, OR: Pickwick. ISBN: 9781498224888


A related post is the book, Sex Texts by Hornsby



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