God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says - Michael D. Coogan Whilst searching my libraries to see if any had a copy of Stephen Prothero's God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter (2 did, huzzah!), I came across this interesting, potential gem.

God and Sex is a short discussion (195 pages text) of the many places in the Bible where “sex” and related subjects come up. There’s no real discussion of any particular passage but Coogan’s point in this brief book is that the Bible says many things about sex, marriage, divorce, homoeroticism*, etc., and that much of it is contradictory, ambiguous and culturally relative. He does provide citations for all the passages he quotes and a useful bibliography at the end for people who want to explore the subject further.

This is not solely a refutation of the Biblical literalist however. I don’t know whether Coogan is Christian or Jewish but he is a believer and wants to affirm that the Bible, for all its contradictions and unsavory stories, is an important foundation for a moral life. To do that he is forced to concoct a theory about the scripture’s subtext. As he writes in his conclusion:

“One can thus trace a kind of trajectory from biblical times to the present and into the future. The trajectory moves toward the goal of freedom for all, in an inclusive community. This goal, this inspired ideal, is the underlying principle of the Bible – its subtext, as it were. Any specific biblical text is an incomplete formulation of the ideal because it is historically conditioned, and so it should not be taken as absolute in any sense. Moreover, no single biblical text adequately expresses the ideal, and in fact some texts clearly are counter to it from our perspective. Taken as a whole, however, the Bible can be understood as the record of the beginning of a continuous movement toward the goal of full freedom and equality for all persons, regardless of social status, gender, ethnicity, age, or sexual orientation. How…a particular text speaks to an individual or a community in the present must be determined by testing it with the touchstone of fair and equal treatment of the neighbor, as seen in the strikingly similar sayings of Hillel and Jesus.” p. 194-95

As a “weak” atheist, I find the argument forced. If anything, my take on Western intellectual history is that the Bible is a touchstone against which thinkers created our modern, Western notions of individuality and liberty. I’m also not sure how this would appeal to a believer who wants certitude. Coogan would throw up biblical interpretation to a continual reinterpretation by each generation. A prospect I find exciting but not one I think many believers want when they go to Sunday school (or its equivalent). I’m reminded of a sentence I recently read in Sean Wilentz’s The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln where he’s discussing the concept of “democracy.” Substitute the words “freedom of conscience” for “democracy” and I think the point’s equally valid:

“Democracy is never a gift bestowed…. It must always be fought for…. Democratic successes are never irreversible.” p. xix

I’d recommend it, nevertheless, as Coogan performs a valuable service collecting the information in an easy-to-read-and-use format and (as I noted above) provides a nice bibliography for further study.

• The binding of this book is interesting: It’s black, faux leather with endpapers of Jacob Jordaens’ “The Temptation.” When the librarian brought it from the hold shelf and handed it over, I felt like I was buying a copy of Hustler. A forbidden, salacious tome that no self-respecting person would be caught in public with.

• I liked Coogan’s characterization of the Bible as not a book but a “library,” a collection of disparate, if related, writings.

• I was also powerfully struck by Coogan’s discussion of women in the Bible. I know that there’s not much in the book for a feminist but the author’s juxtaposition of citations and clear-headed discussion makes it all the more apparent that even in the best and most enlightened of circumstances a woman was nothing more than the property of some man, whether father or husband or son.

* Coogan prefers the term “homoeroticism” because our notions of homosexuality and heterosexuality are modern inventions.