February 16, 2011

Forests, Trees, and Finding the Way

Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire, Jennifer Wright Knust. HarperOne 2011.

Jennifer Wright Knust’s Unprotected Texts does not explore a great deal of new ground, but the ground it explores it covers with considerable thoroughness, in a few cases with more than is needed. Writing from both her expertise as a biblical scholar and her life experience, Knust sets out to demonstrate that the Bible neither is nor should be a simple answer book for complex moral issues involving sexuality. Her primary method is to document the considerable concrete inconsistencies in the biblical text, as well as the seeming lack of discomfort the text evinces when particular biblical personalities stray from the purported strait and narrow.

She is much more successful, persuasive, and on firmer ground, with the former approach than the latter. The Bible is inconsistent or unclear on a number of topics related to sexuality, and while it shouldn’t take a scholar to point that out, it is helpful for one to do so, in particular to the extent Knust does. The second approach is far less useful — as is evident from a number of reviews written from a more conservative perspective than mine. That Rahab the harlot or Ruth the Moabite are lauded as persons will not be seen as an endorsement either of harlotry or premarital sex by anyone disposed to see these actions as sinful. Nor does the Scripture appear to endorse the actions themselves — or particularly to condemn them for that matter. This supports Knust’s larger case that we will not find easy answers to questions such as, “Is premarital sex immoral?” in a neat table on page 732 of a floppy Bible, next to the one for Biblical Weights and Measures. (Knust herself offers a number of tables that lay out biblical inconsistencies with great clarity.) But for a modern audience already well-settled in the cozy myth of a “biblical teaching on sexuality” more will be required than Knust offers to unsettle them and remove the scales from their eyes. It will take a brow of flint to confront the obdurate mind-set that looks but doesn’t see, hears but does not understand.

In spite of the weight of scholarship, insufficient as it might be in the long run, the book is a fairly easy read; it is divided and subdivided into fairly short sections with catchy subheadings. As the argument is not so much cumulative as a mosaic of individual elements, each of which highlights the central premise, the book is easily picked up or set down at leisure.

Although I resonate with Knust’s overall argument, I take some exception to a few of her particular readings. For example, when Paul counsels the Corinthians (1 Cor 6) not to be joined with prostitutes, I do not think Paul’s use of the word member is in reference to the sexual organ of an individual man. (The English member used for the male sexual organ is a relic of Victorian squeamishness, and a confusing word choice still with us in the NRSV, where member has another primary meaning; a better translation would be “meat” or “flesh” as in the KJV. The “member” of which Paul speaks is a different word entirely.) I must also note that transliteration of Hebrew is inconsistent, and in one case in error.

To the general reader, however, the greatest disappointment will be the last full chapter before the short conclusion. It includes an exhaustive, and somewhat exhausting, exploration of everything you ever wanted to know about circumcision, and much you didn’t want to know; and knowing, wonder why it is of help to know it. As such it seems to be at a remove from the primary concerns of the book. And in spite of the rousing coda which follows it, this long chapter comes as a bit of a letdown.

Still, Knust has some important things to say, and they are well worth hearing. It is unfortunate that much of what she says will fail to persuade those more comfortable with simple answers to complex questions. There is a difference between not seeing the forest for the trees and not seeing the trees for the forest — in this case, the “forest” as the largely unfounded belief that there is a “biblical teaching on sexuality,” which blinds most people to the actual complexity and richness of the biblical text. Knust’s book highlights these complexities, but not to the extent or with the clarity to shatter the myth once and for all. Some will insist — in spite of the detailed evidence Knust lays out — that there is still some clearly discernible sex ethic to be found in Scripture.

And to some extent, there is — just not the one they think. Knust is not claiming that there is no help from Scripture when it comes to sex. What she affirms is that the Bible will not give us easy or specific answers to the questions now being asked of it. It is not, as she suggests in her concluding chapter, about physical perfection but faithfulness. It is about treating the Bible not as a mere answer book but as a rich history and revelation, from which guidance will be gained only by an approach that engages with it as it is, finding the way through the forest by minding every tree and discerning every path. And the same goes for life itself, doesn’t it?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

This review is part of the TLC Book Tour for this volume.


WSJM said...

Tobias, I think this is probably a very good review. I say "probably" because I haven't read the book yet, though it's on my Wish List (another book or two and I get free shipping!). But I did read, and comment briefly, on John Chilton's post on The Lead last week with links to Dr. Knust's WaPo article. I think her basic thesis is good, but I wish her analysis of specific biblical texts had been better. A lot of "yes, but..."s and even "yeah, maybe, but..."s. Still, a useful contribution to an important dialogue.

Anonymous said...

This book is quite controversial so I appreciate seeing a well-reasoned review that shares both the good and the not-so-good aspects of it. Thanks so much for being on the book tour and for sharing your thoughts!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Bill, the WaPo was a kind of mini-intro to the topic. I think it is basically a good book, though I stand by my comments concerning that last chapter. It works against the "build" in tempo and intensity.

Heather, glad to be part of it!

Brother David said...

I got the book last week at Amazon for $16 for the pure joy of the title.