Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Book Review: Unprotected Texts

When I agreed to review an advance copy of Unprotected Texts by Jennifer Wright Knust as part of a TLC Book Tour, I was struck by the suggestive title. The title reminded me  of Misquoting Jesus, a book by Bart Ehrman.

Lo and behold, who should be quoted on the front cover of Unprotected Texts but the self-same Bart Ehrman who calls the book "explosive", "fascinating" and a "terrific read by a top scholar." Not surprisingly, I found it none of these things (although I do not mean to imply the author is not a top scholar). It is sometimes interesting, sometimes tedious, but not "explosive". At least it is not explosive to anyone with a broad knowledge of scripture.

First of all, let me make it clear that I am NOT a Biblical scholar. I don't know the ancient Biblical languages and I never went to seminary. I'm a lay Christian educator and Presbyterian elder with a passion for inspiring people to in-depth Bible study in the tradition of Reformed theology.  As an elder, I am vowed to "accept the Scriptures of the old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal and God's word" to me. (PCUSA Book of Order W-4.4003 b.That is my point of view on the authority of the Bible.

The author is Jennifer Wright Knust, an American Baptist pastor and assistant professor of religion at Boston University . She states her thesis in the introduction  " the Bible is not a sexual guidebook." She sets out to prove  it with an exhaustive (and exhausting) discussion of every word of scripture that mentions sexual activity, bodily parts, bodily fluids and reproductive functions .
To anyone familiar with the Bible, the fact that it contains  tales of prostitution, rape, homosexual behavior, concubinage, incest, and adultery is not a surprise. In my opinion, this does not constitute an endorsement of these behaviors. Knust offers some novel interpretations of these stories, apparently based on her own translations of the original text and ancient Middle Eastern mythology and culture.

For example, she says the first three chapters of Genesis are not necessarily about marriage, but are a story about farming because it is similar to the Babylonian creation myth Gilgamesh. 

She devotes a whole chapter to interpretations of several Biblical and Apocryphal passages that she says show that the only sexual sin clearly condemned in scripture is sexual intercourse between humans and angels. She points to the Nephilim (according to Genesis the offspring of angels and women), the apocryphal books of Enoch and The Watchers, the men of Sodom, and the admonitions of Paul to the women of Corinth to keep their heads veiled in worship (so as not to tempt the angels). A novel interpretation, for sure!

With regard to homosexual relationships, she interprets the relationship between Naomi and Ruth as a single sex household where Ruth and Boaz's child Obed (to become the grandfather of King David) is raised. Last time I read that story, I don't recall Boaz being out of the picture. Predictably, she interprets the relationship between David and Jonathan as a "love affair" based on her translation. I checked several other translations and did not find the language she used in hers. Knust analyzes the condemnation of homosexual behavior in Leviticus and the letters of the New Testament  in tandem with ancient contemporary writings on the subject and concludes that the condemnation was only directed at the passive partner in the act.

The well-known story of Jesus meeting the  Samaritan woman at the well, revealing he knew she had five husbands  is transformed into an allegory of the sin of pursuing the pleasure of the five senses (her five husbands) instead of pursuing the love of Christ. The more commonly accepted interprestion of this passage is twofold: the revelation of who Jesus is to someone who is not a Jew (showing that Christ did not come only to redeem the Jews) and an affirmation by Jesus that sexual promiscuity is sinful behavior. Knust does admit that this allegorical interpretation is not widely accepted today.

My copy of the book, which is an uncorrected publisher's proof, is riddled with yellow underlines and a lot of notes. The book is mostly written in an academic style, with 81 pages of footnotes and bibliography. Much of the research she includes will no doubt be useful to other scholars. There are some livelier anecdotes about modern life included which are aimed at discrediting conservative, fundamentalist understandings of scriptural teaching on sex.

Unprotected Texts is another partisan entry in the "sex wars" going on in the mainline Christian denominations. I would argue that when the Bible is read as a whole,  it does provide clear moral guidelines for human relationships , including sexual relationships, such as the story of the Samaritan woman at the well with Jesus, previously discussed in this review.

My progressive friends and I may differ on the parameters of those guidelines, but I think we agree that they are there. One could point of agreement is these words of Christ in response to the question "which is the greatest commandment?":
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these. (Mark 12: 30-31)
Unprotected Texts seems to be directed at an academic audience rather than the lay reader. Some progressive church groups and pastors will find it useful in supporting their side of the controversies regarding ordination of actively gay persons and the definition of marriage. It is not going to change many minds, in my opinion.

Note: this review is also posted on QG's Book Reviews.


Teri said...

Thanks for this review, QG!
I've heard the cover-your-heads-don't-tempt-angels thing before...and thought it was just as spurious then as now. LOL. I think the jury's out on David and Jonathan, though if that's the only aspect of their relationship that she was able to find, that's pretty sketchy too....

One thing I think is probably an accidental conflation, either due to a missing sentence here or in the book: the woman caught in adultery and about to be stoned (John 8) and the woman at the well who had five husbands (John 4, I think) are not the same woman....those are two separate instances of Jesus talking with someone whose sexual past was not within the boundaries of the community's mores.

I love reading your book reviews...keep 'em coming! :-)

Jody Harrington said...

Thanks for the correction, Teri! My confusion is responsible for the conflation, you're right. I'll correct it.

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

Great review! I agree that people familiar with the Bible will not be surprised by the verses quoted in this book. Thanks for pointing out that this really is a book with an agenda - I think that is important to realize, regardless of which side of the debate your find yourself on.

Thanks for being a part of this tour!r

Anvilcloud said...

To me, the central point that the Bible seems to present conflicting views is the important one. A lot of hate is spewed by zealots who cling to a few verses, and I think this book gives one a broader view, even if you aren't convinced by some of the arguments.