Surprise! Love Month isn’t really over. Today is a special encore day.
I had planned to feature Dr. Jennifer Wright Knust last month, but due to technical difficulties, I’ve got her on the blog today. Why am I featuring her? Because she’s written a decidedly controversial book, Unprotected Texts, in which she asks if there is really such a thing as “biblical” sex. Does the Bible give us clear instructions on marriage, family and intimacy? She’s also a professor at Boston University, an ordained American Baptist pastor, and a mother. With a book that is sure to cause debate, I knew I had to take a closer look.
You might love what she has to say. You might hate it. You might find yourself agreeing with her more than you care to admit. You’ll have to read on to find out. We’re also giving away free copies of the book, so you can make up your own mind about it.
Dr. Knust, you have a big problem with the sexual double standards that girls are given in our culture. Can you tell us what the big problem is?
In our culture girls are often taught that, above all, their first obligation is to become objects for others. Girls are to be selfless, obedient, pretty, and ready to sacrifice their own needs. Their happiness is presented as an extension of the happiness of parents, teachers, boyfriends and, eventually, of husbands. The problem here is that girls may come to regard themselves as valuable and worthy of love only in so far as they succeed in pleasing someone else, a perception that undermines their own sense of self-worth.
Yes. If girls are taught that they are to become pleasing objects, boys are taught that they are to treat girls as objects. Dominating others, demanding satisfaction, and refusing to back down are presented as manly traits. I believe this message is as damaging to boys as it is to girls. This double standard hurts everyone.
In the book, you claim the Bible doesn’t always have a problem with premarital sex, prostitution, or other acts that Christians consider sinful (e.g. Judah looking for prostitutes). Even though God never strikes Judah down, are we to really take passages like this as permission for prostitution, or are they simply recordings of sinful peoples’ actions?
Well, it depends how you are defining sin. From the point of view of Genesis, Judah’s sin was not that he visited a prostitute but that he failed to live up to his obligations to his daughter-in-law Tamar. This story presumes that prostitution was a normal part of life. Similarly, when the apostle Paul addresses prostitution in Corinth, he fails to address the difficulties facing actual prostitutes, who are placed outside of his concern. To Paul, the sin was not prostitution per se, but followers of Jesus who visit prostitutes. In Paul’s letters, the sin involves the violation of community boundaries by men who visit brothels. Looking to either example for permission to engage in prostitution would be a mistake, but it would also be a mistake to ignore the cultural and material circumstances that lead to prostitution in the first place.
The whole point of the book is that the Bible gives conflicting lessons about marriage and sex. For 21st century Christians, who don’t treat women as property as in Exodus, have slaves, or engage in polygamy, is the Bible still useful? Do “biblical” sexual ethics even exist?
Of course the Bible is useful! As an American Baptist, I confidently claim that the Bible is the most authoritative guide to knowing and serving the triune God. As Baptists, we should develop our ethics in conversation with the Bible, in the context of our communities, and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This is our sacred task.
Many Christians want to honor God with their sex lives, and have gone to great lengths, including abstaining from pre-marital sex in order to do so. Seems to me that a book that says we didn’t have to be abstinent would really irritate a lot of people who missed out. What do you say to Christians that truly desire to have a God honoring sex life? What are you teaching your sons about sex and marriage?
My book does not argue that one should not practice abstinence outside of marriage. Instead, I simply point out that not every biblical book values abstinence. Abstinence may well be an important value, but its value will not be determined on the basis of biblical teachings alone. The desire to have a sex life pleasing to God is good, and I share it. I am teaching my sons that they are precious to God. I also teach them that everyone they meet is equally precious. They therefore have a responsibility to treat others with care and concern even as they honor their own lives, bodies and desires. This principle necessarily extends to sex and marriage. It is my hope for them that they will live compassionate, just and full lives, whether they find a life partner or not.
Some might say that in a time when divorce and pornography are rampant, when 41% of children are born outside of marriage, and all the consequences of that follow, that we don’t need to be discrediting our one source of sexual ethics. What good purpose do you hope your book serves?
The Bible is not and has never been the “one source of our sexual ethics.” Those who pretend that it is are misreading the Bible and refusing to take responsibility for the ethics they are promoting. I therefore hope that my book will encourage readers to engage the biblical witness more fully. I also hope readers will examine the implications of the moral programs to which they are committed. I believe these purposes to be good.
Jesus summed up the complexity of the law and prophets with one commandment. Is it possible for you to sum up the complexity, contradiction and difficult interpretations of biblical sex into one statement that makes modern day sex something good again?
I readily admit that I am not Jesus! What you are asking is too difficult for me. Nevertheless, I would say that our desire to touch and to love, and be touched and loved in return, is God’s gift to us. Therefore, using either sex or the Bible to abuse another is a grave violation of God’s will.
That’s it from Dr. Knust. Give us your thoughts – is the Bible a sex manual, or is it a little more complex than that? I’ve got a copies of the book to give away to a couple of lucky commenters and twitter-ers. All you have to do is drop your name in the hat!