American attitudes toward sexuality continue to change as Baby Boomers now are the most influential generation of active adults over 50—and the millions of adults under 35 have grown up in a world where success in education and employment often depends on embracing diversity. Long-held assumptions are shifting.
TODAY we introduce the third author on the cutting edge of rethinking religious attitudes toward sex and desire—in a series of stories moving from the evangelical rebel Jay Bakker then on to the popular Buddhist author Brad Warner. Today, we return to the Protestant realm (the religious affiliation of more than half of all Americans) to introduce Bible scholar, educator and author Dr. Jennifer Wright Knust.
WHY WE SHOULD CARE ABOUT JENNIFER WRIGHT KNUST
AND THE NEW ‘UNPROTECTED TEXTS’
Why should we care? Like it or not, her work will be an influential force in coming months. Soon, you will hear her on National Public Radio, see her book discussed in the pages of the New York Times—and her book is likely to wind up in small groups, congregations and college campuses nationwide. Just as Bible scholar Bart Ehrman has become a major interpreter of the Bible in popular media, Knust is headed into that same public spotlight. In fact, Ehrman appears on the front cover of Knust’s new book, calling this new book “a terrific read by a top scholar.”
What is Knust saying in “Unprotected Texts”? The answer to that question takes Knust 350 pages—and this book moves at a fast pace, so she covers a whole lot of territory between these covers. She moves through the Protestant Bible from start to finish, explaining what she—and other Bible scholars—now believe controversial passages about sexuality really meant thousands of years ago, and what these passages can mean today. She covers huge topics like biblical viewpoints on marriage, the nature of sexual desire, and the Bible’s many different approved approaches to sexual relationships from polygamy to celibacy. Here’s a good example of her book’s relevance: If you are among the millions of long-time, Protestant, Bible-study students, then you’ve probably coughed uncomfortably over the New Testament’s recurring attention to circumcision. In this new book, you’ll find 50 pages explaining ancient attitudes toward circumcision both in Judaism and in the emerging Christian world.
Any single topic in that list could fill a book—and has filled many volumes before this one. Here, Knust is trying to step outside her university lecture hall to provide a helpful overview of these scholarly debates for general readers. So, are you planning for a small-group Bible study this spring? You can order “Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire” from Amazon at a discount.
EXCERPT FROM ‘UNPROTECTED TEXTS’ BY JENNIFER KNUST
To give our readers a feel for this book’s tone and overall purpose, here are three paragraphs from the concluding section of “Unprotected Texts.”
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. Paul, Matthew, Irenaeus, and Origen came to the Bible with a conviction about what should be found in its pages and, employing a variety of interpretive methods, they found what they wanted. But, unlike many contemporary readers, they did not attempt to hide their interpretive work from their audiences. Instead, they sought to persuade their readers that their interpretations were valuable by revealing the principles they brought to bear on the texts they read, whether they were arguing that Gentiles should come to God as Gentiles, that Jesus’ birth was miraculous, or that the church is the best arbiter of divine truth. They did not assume that quoting a few choice verses out of context could serve as sufficient proof of what the entire Bible says and therefore of what God says as well.
It is time for us to admit that we, too, are interpreters who hope to find our convictions reflected in biblical texts, and have been all along. Looking to the Bible for straightforward answers about anything, including sex, can lead only to disappointment. When read as a whole, the Bible provides neither clear nor consistent advice about sex and bodies, as the material presented in this book demonstrates. If one set of biblical books interprets polygamy as a sign of God’s blessing, another set argues that celibacy is the best option for the faithful. If one biblical writer condemns those who engage in sex before marriage, others present premarital seduction as central to God’s plan. Just about every biblical commandment is broken, and not only by biblical villains. Biblical heroes like Abraham, Moses, and David also violate the commandments of Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus, and Jesus is represented radically reinterpreting earlier scriptural teachings, including commandments regarding divorce. When it comes to sex, the Bible is often divided against itself.
It is therefore a mistake to pretend that the Bible can define our ethics for us in any kind of straightforward way: such an interpretive strategy will only lead us astray while also preventing us from taking the Bible as seriously as we should. Even more tragically, a refusal to acknowledge that we are active interpreters might make it seem as if the only possible choice is between accepting the Bible as literally true or rejecting the Bible altogether. Christians should not and need not be asked to make this choice. Since neither the Bible nor a particular interpretation can limit what particular stories and teachings must mean, it is up to readers to decide what a biblically informed and faithful sexual morality might look like. If the New Testament writers were willing to admit that they were constructing their theological and moral perspective with biblical texts, but not because of them, then what is preventing readers today from adopting the same strategy? The Bible provides neither a shortcut to the real work of interpretation nor a simple solution to the important task of figuring out what it means to be human and yet in love with God.
REMEMBER: You can order “Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire” from Amazon at a discount now.
COME BACK on WEDNESDAY to meet Dr. Jennifer Wright Knust in our in-depth interview on her new book “Unprotected Texts.”
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(Originally published at readthespirit.com)