I’ve written quite a bit about Christianity and sex both here and elsewhere. I’ve made the case for a more inclusive and liberated ethic on Scriptural, spiritual, and psychological grounds. Folks who are curious about where they can learn more about a progressive — yet authentically Christian — sexual worldview often ask me for recommendations for further reading. And I now have a new text to add to the list I give: Unnprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire, written by Jennifer Wright Knust, an American Baptist pastor and New Testament professor at Boston University.
Unprotected Texts (a clever pun) is the rarest of books: instantly accessible to the layperson, yet sufficiently scholarly to serve as an appropriate text for a graduate level theology course. In some 250 pages (not counting the extraordinarily extensive bibliography and footnotes), Knust examines the sweep and scope of both Old and New Testament writing on sexuality, sin and the elusive notion of purity. She’s created a refreshingly non-polemical work, managing to do what so few of us who write about sex and faith accomplish: avoid taking one side or another in the ongoing culture war.
Knust is writing for those of us who take the Bible seriously. If there’s a consistent charge thrown by theological conservatives against their liberal brethren, it’s that those of us who advocate for an inclusive sexual ethic don’t take a sufficiently rigorous or reverent approach to Scripture. Knust dismisses that charge, reminding her readers in the introduction that
…the Bible is not only contradictory but complex…biblical teachings regarding desire, marriage, and the human body are entirely inconsistent and yet thoroughly fascinating. The Bible does not offer a systematic set of teachings or a single sexual code, but it does reveal sometimes conflicting attempts on the part of people and groups to define sexual morality, and to do so in the name of God.
Knust’s summary of these “conflicting attempts” is dazzling; from Genesis to the Epistles, from the story of Noah’s nakedness and Lot’s daughters to Paul’s views on homosexual sex and marriage, she deftly explains that the “plain meaning” of these texts is not nearly so plain at all. For students of biblical criticism, it’s remarkable how well Knust uses multiple levels of interpretation (historical, grammatical, and yes, “reader response”) to explore complicated and influential passages. Along the way, Knust shares some remarkable stories from the Apocrypha and other non-canonical sources. (I had no idea, for example, that it was the Proto-Gospel of James that went so far as to claim that not only was Mary a virgin when she conceived Jesus, but that she never menstruated and that her hymen remained intact after the holy birth!)
Knust warns her readers, both right and left:
Whatever we wish for can be found somewhere in the Bible, which is why it is so important to admit we have wishes, whatever they may be. We are not passive recipients of what the Bible says, but active interpreters who make decisions about what we will believe and what we will affirm. Admitting that we have wishes, and that our wishes matter, is therefore the first step to developing an honest and faithful interpretation…. it is up to readers to decide what a biblically informed and faithful sexual morality might look like. (Emphasis mine.)
Our wishes matter, of course, because that’s part of how we were intended to relate to God and to Scripture. People of faith are always in multiple relationships: with God, with sacred texts, with the living and the dead interpreters of those texts. Every relationship is a two-way street, of course. Our desires and our hopes are at the very core of our identity, and to imagine that we can purge ourselves of them completely so that God can simply inscribe God’s will on the blank slate of our souls is a naive fantasy. The prophets and the scribes brought their agendas as we bring ours. It has always been so and will continue to be so, and to pretend otherwise is foolishness.
If you’re looking for a scholarly yet highly readable analysis of what the bible says — and far more importantly, doesn’t say — about everything from menstruation to homosexuality to virginity to marriage, Unprotected Texts is indispensable. A stirring rebuke to those who claim that the Bible speaks with unmistakable clarity on contemporary moral issues, Knust’s terrific new book will also serve as a tremendous source of comfort and inspiration to those who long for affirmation that the way in which they express love and desire is not contrary to God’s will.