Interview on ‘Unprotected Texts,’ the Bible and sex

Today, you’ll meet Bible scholar Jennifer Wright Knust, whose new book “Unprotected Texts” already is causing a stir in news media.

What Are People Saying
about ‘Unprotected Texts’?

Newsweek’s Lisa Miller also is a popular author on religion (see our earlier interview with Lisa Miller on her book “Heaven”). This week, Lisa writes about Jennifer’s book for Newsweek and says that Jennifer hopes “to steal the conversation about sex and the Bible back from the religious right.” Later in the Newsweek story, Lisa writes that Jennifer’s “greater cause is a fight against ‘official’ interpretations. Knust, who was raised in a conservative Christian home, recalls with intensity reading the Bible with her mother and—with a mixture of faith and skepticism—taling aloud about what it might mean. With her book, she encourages readers to do the same.”

Another important author arguing for inclusion, Candace Chellew-Hodge, also weighed in this week with a recommendation of Knust’s book. Candace is the Editor of Whosoever, an online magazine for GLBT Christians, and the author of the Jossey-Bass book, “Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians.” Candace writes that it is “particularly galling” when anti-gay Christians argue that they are defending “biblical marriage.” … Jennifer’s new book shows readers that “when one actually reads the Bible—something a majority of ‘traditional marriage’ supporters have obviously not done—one finds a myriad of models for marriage—most of them involving one man and many women—and all of those women are property of the man they are married to.” She also praises the wide range of themes in Jennifer’s book, which we described in Part 1 of our ReadTheSpirit story on “Unprotected Texts.”

Coverage of the book is yet to come in the New York Times and in an NPR interview. Stay tuned. Already, you can see the value in small-group discussion. There will be no shortage of lively conversation. You can order “Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire” from Amazon at a discount. We also published a brief excerpt from the book on Monday.


JENNIFER WRIGHT KNUST, Bible scholar, educator and author of “Unprotected Texts.” Photo courtesy of Frank Curran for Boston University Photography.DAVID: Let’s start with your vocation. You’re a Bible scholar. Your research has a special focus on the Bible as it emerged in the early Christian church. You also teach, which is one reason that the voice in your new book is pitched so perfectly for general readers. Are you teaching undergrads or grad students these days?

JENNIFER: Both. I teach both in the religion department at Boston University’s college of arts and sciences and I teach in the school of theology.

DAVID: You’re ordained in the American Baptist Churches, which is the denomination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., educator Tony Campolo, standup comic Susan Sparks—and also international peace negotiator Daniel Buttry. Pretty impressive mentors in your church! But you’re not currently heading a congregation, right?

JENNIFER: I am invited to preach sometimes, but in my own congregation, on Sundays, I just go to church. I do teach Sunday school.

DAVID: You’re right in the middle of the generations that are so influential, when it comes to the issues covered in your book—older adults, Boomers and young adults under 35. There are lots of changing attitudes flowing through those generations. You’re how old now?


DAVID: If readers start your book, they’ll immediately realize the passion for justice in your writing. You’re furious at bullies. You were teased as a girl yourself, not over sexual orientation—but you did experience bullying, which you describe for readers in your book. You’ve got a crusader’s passion against injustice.

JENNIFER: I don’t like bullies at any age, whether they’re 12 or 50—and I especially don’t like it when the bullying takes place in the name of the Bible or in the name of God.

DAVID: You cover many topics about sex, gender, desire and relationships in your book, but the hottest topic is homosexuality, of course. American churches managed to resolve the question of divorce and remarriage—something that Jesus specifically condemns—more easily than they’re resolving this issue. Why is that? Why does it continue to stir such arguments?

JENNIFER: That’s a really good question and there’s not as simple answer to it. Ken Stone calls the homosexuality issue among American Christians a heresy test. That may be one reason we keep talking about it. It’s shorthand for establishing someone’s politics, for determining the side you’re on. So, people use it as a kind of quick heresy test. But, I’m a biblical scholar and not a historian of contemporary culture. I’m sure there are many complicated reasons that this continues to be such a big issue in our culture.

DAVID: As we write about your book, I want to point out that this isn’t a single-issue book. It’s a really robust encounter with the scriptures on many issues.

JENNIFER: Thank you for saying that, because homosexuality and gay marriage can quickly become one-note topics for people. There’s so much more to human sexuality, and to biblical notions of human sexuality, than just debating Leviticus until we’re blue in the face.

DAVID: You’re defending the idea that the Bible should be continually interpreted and reinterpreted as human history unfolds. We can’t cut out single verses on sex and relationships, tack them to the wall and depend on them as a rule for all time. Our idea of divorce changed dramatically.

JENNIFER: The Bible is so contradictory on just about every topic you can imagine concerning human sexuality that it just doesn’t make sense that we can pull out any verse and say: That’s the Bible’s statement forever. The Bible wasn’t intended as a straightforward rulebook on these issues. Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t develop sexual ethics in light of the Bible—of course we should. But, I am saying that we should interpret the Bible in light of how our decisions affect people around the world.


JOSIAH HENSON, who is believed to have been a real-life inspiration behind Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1858. Henson’s 1849 autobiography, “The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave,” describes how he suddenly awoke to a new awareness of life’s possibilities when he came to understand a passage in the book of Hebrews describing Jesus this way: “He, by the grace of God, should taste death for every man.” This new interpretation of the Bible changed his life—and changed history.DAVID: One historical example you raise is the reinterpretation of the Bible to condemn slavery. I have reported on this for newspapers at various anniversaries of the Civil War and the abolition movement over the years. For example, I know that it took John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, decades to decide that slavery was wrong. He knew the Bible cover to cover, but he didn’t see the evil of slavery for much of his life. It took a lot of lobbying by his friends and a whole lot of fresh Bible study before he finally condemned slavery. The truth is: Most of the biblical writers took slavery for granted. Jesus didn’t specifically condemn slavery.

JENNIFER: That’s right. From what I’ve seen of that history, it took abolitionists a good century to fully develop their interpretive strategy. Over many years, the abolitionists developed these incredibly valuable biblical interpretations on the question of slavery. And, they tried various strategies; not all of them succeeded. Some of them tried to reinterpret words in the Bible—maybe the Bible was talking about servants instead of slaves. But that didn’t work too well. One of the best ideas was to look at the notion of loving our neighbors as ourselves. If that’s true, and if that’s the central message of the Bible, as the abolitionists argued, then how can you say slavery is in keeping with a biblical ethic? Remember: Slave apologists had very strong arguments from the Bible, too. One biblical scholar argued that Christians had no choice but to support slavery. The Bible dictated it. We hear that kind of argument today on other issues. People will say: Well, personally I don’t want to sound judgmental, but the Bible requires me to declare that you’re wrong.

We have to judge the value of interpretation we are making of biblical passages and what that interpretation is trying to accomplish, how it will affect the world. When we pretend the Bible is dictating to us in every situation, then we get into big trouble. Just as the abolitionists did, we need to think through our interpretations of the Bible today and consider the implications for human health and flourishing.


DAVID: Well, to illustrate how your book covers a huge range of topics, I’ll point out in our review of your book that you’ve got this big section, which is just about 50 pages, on circumcision and related topics. That may sound like a weird subject for so much attention, but I know that people who participate regularly in New Testament Bible-study classes run into this topic all the time. Circumcision was a big issue as the Christian movement emerged out of Judaism.

JENNIFER: I’m so glad you asked me about that chapter. I learned so much about ancient Israelite and ancient Jewish and ancient Christian attitudes toward the body than I had known before as I spent the time to fully research and write that section of the book. That’s an important part of the book, because it shows that notions about the human body—and the sexual body—do change over time. This topic relates to issues of procreation, fertility and identity marked on a man’s body. The idea gets interpreted and justified in many ways down through history. Christians ultimately reject circumcision as a requirement, when they decide that they’re not Jewish anymore. For religious reasons, Jews and Muslims continue to circumcise baby boys. Most Americans do it because of a medical rationale. What I’m pointing out is that our ideas about such issues change over time.

DAVID: And you point out that, in the pages of the Bible, we actually read the thoughts of early church leaders as they debated this matter. Scripture wasn’t clear to them about a rule that everyone had to follow for all time. They had to interpret the texts.

JENNIFER: Absolutely. For Paul, it becomes fundamental to his theology. He labels people either the circumcised or the uncircumcised. In plain language, he divides the world into those with and those without foreskins. He argues that the foreskinned are able to come into the community and worship through Christ Jesus. For him this was good news and a good way to identify people: Gentiles were the foreskinned and the good news was they could come worship with their foreskins still intact.


DAVID: In the book, you write, “Nowadays, the sense that reading scripture is a creative, imaginative act has too often been lost, despite the creativity it took New Testament writers and early Christians to claim that the law and the prophets are, when read correctly, all about Jesus Christ.” You also write that, when you begin teaching a Bible-study class, you begin by asking participants to be honest about what they wish the Bible said about the topic at hand. You’re calling for transparency in our motives, our hopes—and you’re saying that it’s OK to take into account our hopes of helping humanity with the Christian message. It’s OK to talk about what we hope the Bible says.

JENNIFER: That’s absolutely the first step to an honest interpretation of the Bible. We have to admit that we want the texts to say certain things. We want God to affirm certain things about our lives. Even if we don’t admit it—we do it anyway. What we usually do is start with our desires, then we find some passage in the Bible that seems to back up our desires, then we claim that there’s absolutely no other way to see that truth.

About 10 years ago, I began asking groups that question. As a woman called to ministry myself, I have to admit that I want to find God’s affirming call to women in the Bible. I don’t want to be told that I should go home. So, I can argue that the line in the New Testament about women needing to keep silent can be interpreted in a way that lets us get around it to women’s ordination. But I have to admit that those words about keeping silent are still there in the pages of the Bible. If we honestly talk about the interpretation, then I know that we can reach an affirmation of women in ministry—but we need to admit that it is an interpretive process. Not everyone agrees with the interpretation.

Think about Paul. All his life, he was familiar with Isaiah. So, why didn’t he see that Isaiah seemed to be pointing to Christ? Paul had to be hit over the head by the risen Christ before he recognized that. Then, these interpretations came over him like one big: Ohhhhh, now I get it! Then, he went back to Isaiah and suddenly he read Isaiah in a completely different way. The scriptures didn’t teach him that on the face of it. For much of his life, the meaning wasn’t obvious to him.

DAVID: The way you talk about interpretation over time has a very Wesleyan ring to it. Of course, you’re teaching at a historically Methodist seminary. You’re standing with figures like Wesley when you say that we must see scripture in light of human experience and reason. Slavery is illegal now because some courageous people began to realize that, throughout human experience, it was wrong to own other people—and they began to think through the biblical interpretation. Now, having said all of that, it’s obvious that you’re still going to encounter some harsh critics out there, right? We long for eternal certainty.

JENNIFER: I completely understand the longing so many people have for absolute certainty about what it means to be sexual beings. Why are we here? How shall we live? I understand the longing. I wish we all were born with life’s instruction manual tattooed on our forearms. It would be nice to flip open the Bible, pick out a verse and easily find a rule we need. But, I think we harm ourselves and others if we claim that kind of easy certainty. And, ultimately, harming others with claims of certainty is not what the Christian message is all about.

REMEMBER: You can orderUnprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire” from Amazon at a discount.

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