Unprotected Texts: The Bible's Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire - Jennifer Wright Knust “(T)he truth of the Bible is never obvious, but always in need of further thought and study.” (p. 244)

Jennifer Wright Knust’s Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire should terrify fundamentalists of any stripe. It should make even mainstream and liberal believers squirm in their seats for if her logic is carried to its end, her argument undermines the idea that there is a “Word of God” that is a meaningful, universal guide to human conduct. In her conclusion, the author emphasizes that readers of the Bible bring their own desires to the reading, and impose their own interpretations on the texts. To illustrate her point, she writes that Paul in his letter to the Galatians didn’t care about the historical or social context of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar. He needed to find a justification that Gentiles didn’t need to adopt Jewish law. And he found it after some creative theologizing that reduced Ishmael and Isaac to symbols for those who lived “according to the flesh” and those who lived “according to the promise” (p. 242).

Knust’s conception of what a believer’s proper relationship to scripture deserves to be quoted in full:

“Nowadays, the sense that reading scripture is a creative, imaginative act has too often been lost, despite the creativity it took for 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 convictions 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’s 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 hoping 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 is 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.”
(pp. 244-45)

Where is the Bible’s authority if you can find nearly any interpretation reflected somewhere within it? Why is Fred Phelps’ interpretation that “God hates fags”* less authoritative than Chris Levan’s that “It (scripture) simply asks if the relationship is functioning according to principles of justice and dignity? Does the partnership demonstrate mutual trust and compassion? Is so, it is blessed by God” (website Religious Tolerance.org, accessed July 2011)?

This is a problem I have with the conclusion, not with the rest of the book. The bulk of this work is devoted to what the Bible says about sex, desire, marriage, gender, purity, and other issues. It’s lively and well written and will provide plenty of ammunition to those who like to debate such matters with conservative religious friends and relatives (however fruitlessly).

* Or the less obnoxious interpretation that says God may not hate homosexuals but he certainly doesn’t think their behavior is OK.