Love Month Encore: Unprotected Texts

March 4, 2011

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.

You approach the book from a female perspective, but you are the mother of boys.  Do you think your sons are being given mixed signals and impossible standards like the girls?

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!

50 responses to Love Month Encore: Unprotected Texts

  1. suggesting evangelical sex values aren’t as explicit in the Bible as we think they are is about as cool these days as suggesting more people are going to heaven then evangelicals say. Are we entering an age of questioning?
    Charlie’s Church of Christ recently posted..Self Indulgent 100th Post- Or You Can’t Know Yourself Until You Live For a While

  2. Wow, from love, to love love…. Love Month just keeps on giving!

    I’m intrigued what she has to say… seems like she may have quite a nuanced position on a topic in which most people don’t exactly allow for nuance. I’m definitely going to check this one out.

    PS – Consider my name hatted!

  3. You know, I just read that and don’t think I know what she’s talking about! It could be that it’s the end of the day here (and I’m tired), but I think I would have to read her book in one hand and the Bible in the other, to understand her.

    Can my hat please be blue?

  4. Her comments definitely make me uncomfortable, but I don’t like to rule anything out until reading it for myself. I would love a copy of her book.

  5. Yikes! As above – def need to read the book to better understand what she is endorsing or not endorsing. How much should we refer back to Genesis 2 (pre-sin) for God’s idea of marriage? Sure, people throughout the bible made other decisions regarding wives and prostitution, but doesn’t mean it was right.

    Name in hat if you can post to Australia :)

  6. BAHAHAHA I just love the title.

    Reminds me of the comic with a dad in his chair reading a newspaper and says to his son, “Son, it’s time we talked about ‘Safe Sects.”
    Charlie Chang recently posted..268 Defining naiveté

  7. Hmm… I don’t think I see her point about Judah at all…I thought the point of the story was that he was “going outside of the community” (as she states Paul was saying), rather than meeting his obligations to “the community” (his daughter in law).
    I’m sorry, I really can’t grasp her point from this post. Maybe if I read the book, I’d have a better idea. I’d read it if I won it. Name in hat.
    Helen recently posted..The Idea of Love- Sacrifice- and How it Relates to Lent

  8. I am very interested in reading what she has to say. Thank God a strong, intelligent, accomplished woman has chosen to write a book on this subject. I’m in if you’ll send one accross the border!

    Lazy Silly Girl

  9. Reading this post has made me feel uncomfortable in a whole lot of positions. As Michelle suggested, I’d read this book with the Bible in the other hand.

    I’d love a copy.

  10. First, abusing others with religion or sex or a baseball bat is sin. I agree. I agree that we should love others. I will agree that there were some pretty screwed up sexual activities in the Old Testament. I agree woman have great value, and that the idea of them being an object is wrong.

    In terms of woman being objects, should I expect to see a protest in front to Victoria’s Secret? They are profitable because it’s been popular since Jane Russell was on the big screen.

    Honestly, there are too many “the Bible is” followed by a “but” in her responses. Paul is very clear about fornication. I don’t think that the Bible gives mixed messages about that.

    “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.”

    Again, all this, “and the Holy Spirit” Jesus said do what you see the Father doing, and do that. Society has tried to get it right since the beginning. They can’t, they need Jesus. When I start seeing the term ethics used instead of morality, I see a mixture of biblical principals and some other source; I find this troubling.

    Finally, I’m sorry, claiming to not be able to sum up the basic sexual morality of the Bible, that concerns me. She has a doctorate in theology and it’s above her pay grade?

    How about sex with your spouse is God’s best. Of course there are emotional, and spiritual issues in marriage which also need to be addressed. The aspects of relationship must work together.

    And the show-stopper: “Well, it depends how you are defining sin.” (Galatians 5:19) Sin is not a community or cultural issue, it’s a spiritual issue.
    David recently posted..Fixing the Church from Your Pew – Part 4 of Many

  11. I’d love a copy of this book, so let me know if I should just stop begging and order one, but it’s going on the list. 😉 I’d love to hear what she says about same-sex unions and other timely relationship topics as well. I’m sure she looks at Esther too, it has always bothered me how Christians who are retentive about so many sexually charged topics look at this story with fondness, talking mostly about how great it was that Esther was so submissive to all of the men in her life, starting with her uncle. But he encouraged her to participate in a most unchaste way of being “selected” as wife. Thanks for bringing this book to our attention, Matt!

  12. Knowing (some of) the differences between my personal theology and that of American Baptists, it’d be interesting to see what she says about a lot of things.
    Princess Leia recently posted..Shoeboxes!

  13. From the interview, it looks to me like she had the conclusions she wanted to reach and so she went about trying to prove the conclusion. That might not be the way the book is written but her answers leave that impression.
    Jason recently posted..Day 62- No go

  14. I am interested in reading what she has to say so I’m putting my name in the hat too.

  15. What I was raised to believe about this topic was rarely introduced with scripture, but rather with general moral principles attributed to Christianity.

    Although I do not support sex before marriage and believe Christianity should maintain this principle, I would like to hear about all the perspectives the Bible has to offer, especially in light of the spectrum of beliefs about issues such as dating within Christianity.

    Also, this occurred to me recently; the expectation to abstain from sex before marriage is very difficult (duh), and I’ve decided that this is partially because no one “dated” in the Bible like we do. While I’m not a fan of the legalism of “courting” a la Joshua Harris, we have made things a little more difficult for ourselves as social norms have changed…

  16. I would be very interested in reading her book.

    I’m not sure what to make of the issue, but I would feel better about commenting on it after I actually read her whole argument. I think it’s interesting and good that someone is talking about this, but I don’t know if I will agree with her.

    To me the Bible seems increasingly unclear on a lot of stuff, and I’m not so sure my “traditional” way of reading it is the only way one can have “good” ethics and positive behaviors in life.

  17. For a minute there, I thought this was going to be about sexting…

    I completely agree that there is a double standard between boys and girls, staring before puberty hits and lasting until an “I do” is said. Much as with another moderately-controversial book that has been discussed at length, I think that there may be more within the pages of this text that questions – lovingly – preconceived and jammed-into-our-skulls teachings that we have accepted blindly without feeling comfortable enough to debate openly before.

    Ultimately, she is saying that love wins.

    And please drop my name in the Sorting Hat as well. :)
    Sonny Lemmons recently posted..Confession- I Suck at Being a Christian

  18. I was disappointed in her responses to Matt’s well-constructed questions. It was as though she didn’t understand or ‘get’ his point. This fact alone makes me wary about her ability to decipher Hebrew and Greek translations of the Bible– in an effort to satisfy her thesis– as surely she would want to start there in order to translate context, characters, and purpose of Scripture.
    Anyway, if she can’t satisfy the questions posed in the blog interview, how can I even expect more from the book?
    Here’s hoping.

  19. Consider my name dropped in the hat.
    SethC recently posted..Diverse

  20. Interesting… would love to see what the book says.

  21. I agree that there are double standards for girls and young women within the church. However, the problem does not lie with encouraging girls to deny themselves and serve others. The problem lies with encouraging only girls to deny themselves and serve others.

    Christ Himself is our example. Our attitude should be that of Christ Jesus, and the man is to honor and serve His wife in the same way that Christ honored and served the church, giving His life up for her.

    Looking to serve other’s needs is just as much a part of biblical manhood as it is biblical womanhood.

    Consider my name (and 2 cents) dropped!
    Jo_of_TSN recently posted..The Rational Economic Actor 2

  22. Very interesting! I heard about this book a few months ago but haven’t gotten around to finding a copy. The author’s responses are very thought-provoking. As a Christian single, I am curious to see whether there is another biblical interpretation of celibacy, abstinence, and marital sex. It does seem like the church has a selective response when it comes to sexual sin, some being worse than others or never addressed at all.
    HopefulLeigh recently posted..8- Did Dessert Die

  23. David and Jo pretty much said what I was thinking, but I would also like to include something else:

    During the times I was addicted to pornography as well as watching many TV shows and movies (which I have been watching fewer) I noticed/have been noticing that more and more males are treated as objects and assuming more of the traditional feminine roles. There are even books about it (such as “Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture” … I was a college textbook store manager for a while, too).

    Two things have really happened: 1) The wrong kind of feminists have been in control of feminism while not only declaring equal rights and priveleges with men but also more rights and priveleges; 2) the Church has stopped impacting the Culture in Western societies, and, as Jo said, we are not teaching that we are to submit to each other (all people, all ethnicities, both genders … and I guess “other” as well!) in love (which is not to say we become doormats).

    I have been noticing more women ogling men more than men ogling women for a while. I am not saying men are doing it less, but women are definitely doing it more. I also frequently hear the argument “It is okay, because we are women.” I have told more than my share of people “Seriously? That is like saying “It’s okay that I stole your sandwich because I’m bigger than you” (or insert any other word).

    Sorry if I went on a bit of a rant!
    Daniel M. Klem recently posted..Uncoupled Love

  24. Oh boy. I was expecting so much more from her answers. I fear that her answers are first formed in the world and then she goes to the Bible and tries to back them up, instead of searching the Bible first. But she did state that the Bible isn’t the only authority on sex and relationships, so she probably doesn’t think we need to look at the Bible first for answers.

    Like I said, I was a bit disappointed with with her responses. They were short and vague and left one questioning biblical morals at best, and at worst gave Christians and excuse to explore premarital sex. I am a married woman who is committed to being a Christian wife. I serve Christ and I serve my husband, and I serve others because that is what Christ calls us to do. However there was a time in my life that when “serving my husband” was the farthest thing from my mind. I was a passionate feminist and a lukewarm Christian for most of my early twenties. I believed in sexual freedom for woman while attempting to save myself for my future husband. I was all about women’s rights and equality but ardently pro-life. I was fiercely independent and had no desire to be submissive to a man, ever. It was probably this mindset that led me to say a quick “prayer” asking God’s permission to have premarital sex. Really I was asking my own permission and looking for away out of my many abstinence pledges. However, after recommitting my life to Christ my mind set began to change. When I first started seriously reading the Bible Ephesians 5:22-24 made me really uncomfortable. I even had a friend try to get me to discuss this passage, and I refused because it (the Bible) went against my own ideology, an ideology formed outside the Bible. However, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit I learned to lose the ideas of the world that had filled my mind for years and fully grasp and adhere to Biblical principals. It was a painful process, but the outcome has been beautiful. Ephesians 5 was actually read at my wedding, not only because of its instructions for husbands and wives, but because it was symbol of my own transformation. You see, before I didn’t want to submit to or serve a man, or anyone, so I didn’t want to submit to or serve Christ. Now I understand what that truly means. And I must say this, the more I read the Bible while I was practicing premarital sex the more the Bible practically screamed at me that God didn’t want me to practice premarital sex. So I’m not sure where the contradiction and confusion that she is talking about comes from. I was desperate for a way to make my sin not a sin, but the Bible wasn’t letting me off the hook- because I wasn’t trying to form scripture to fit my ideology. I have yet to witness premarital sex that hasn’t in the end, hurt females, so if we are looking to protect women, we should probably encourage the purity of both men and women. Perhaps she is trying to encourage the church to not condemn those who have been practicing sexual depravity. I agree with that, Jesus summed up the entire law with love, and we should love everyone and judge no one. But love does not mean we bend the truth to ease the pain of our choices. I must also say that in my Christian marriage I serve my husband, and he serves me and I never feel like an object. In fact, my marriage, based on Christian principals makes me feel beautiful, sexy, and empowered.

    In closing, I have to include the other Scripture from my wedding. It’s from Genesis 2.

    22And the rib or part of his side which the Lord God had taken from the man He built up and made into a woman, and He brought her to the man. 23Then Adam said, This [creature] is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of a man. 24Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and shall become united and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.

    It sounds pretty clear to me that God’s original plan was for one man and one woman to be joined. No prostitutes, no premarital sex. The two become one.

    I hesitantly put my name in the hat for the book.
    Carla recently posted..Better off without Jesus

  25. I have not read the book, but I do have difficulty with the method of Biblical analysis which takes what the Bible actually says and tries to extrapolate unrelated points from what the text is actually saying.

    I would however love a copy of this book.

  26. The Bible is not a “sex manual”.

    It is a love story. A resue story. For those caught in ‘sin’ (all of us).
    Steve Martin recently posted..Mission- Universalism- Salvation

  27. Some of her responses are a bit iffy. I’m not sure if she is dodging specific answers or what, but I’d need to read the book to be sure.

    Also, I feel if she views the Bible to give little ethics on sex, she needs to do a study on Song of Solomon.
    Brooklyn Cravens recently posted..Sorry- but I’m too busy for you

    • Some of the most appalling teaching I’ve heard have come from Song of Solomon. The top of that list is that when the Shulamite wife refused to come to the door and Solomon went away, she went to find him. In 5:6, some watchmen found her and hit her, which was presented as God’s justice for women who refused intimacy with their husbands. Whether or not you believe that this is accurate teaching is not as important as recognizing that sometimes we can look at the same text and arrive at different lessons. To says that if she wants to learn about sexual ethics she needs to go to the same place the authors of the teaching above went might be a bit simplistic.

      • I’m sorry, it seems you’ve heard some chauvinistic pastors. I have heard plenty of other, consistent intepretations of verse seven, but that is besides the point.

        In the same way you find the wrong interpretations of the book to mean my suggestion is simplistic, I find Dr. Knust’s interpretation of the Bible not being sufficient for sex ethics and her implied suggestion that she holds the answer in her book to be simplistic as well, if not inaccurate.

        Anyways, I didn’t mean to offend you with my original post. God bless.
        Brooklyn Cravens recently posted..Sorry- but I’m too busy for you

        • Actually, you’re kind of making my point. Your statement that she should read Song of Solomon and it would clearly lay it out is demonstrably untrue by the fact that we’ve heard it two completely different ways.

          And I don’t think that chauvinism is the worst part of the teaching I heard. When someone can teach that God’s justice is displayed by whacking us after we’ve already repented for something is a misunderstanding of God, not of men or women. You didn’t offend me, I just want us to understand that there are different ways to approach scriptures when we’re trying to learn things that are not as simple as 1+1=2. That’s why I think her book is worth reading. If I end up disagreeing with everything, I guarantee it will be after studying, praying and thinking about it in a different way than I do now.

  28. I would need to read the book, else reserve judgment. Hame in hat.
    vanilla recently posted..Health Takes Priority

  29. It seems to me, based on what I have read above, is that her underlying assumption is that “If it is in the Bible, then God must be saying that the behavior is approved by Him.” If I am wrong, please correct me. If that is her assumption, then she is misled. I believe that the purpose of the whole Old Testament, where you and Dr. Knust seem to hang out most in the interview, to present a compilation of overwhelming evidence for humanity’s need for a Savior provided by God. The New Testament, comprised of Jesus’ life, teachings and death on the cross as the Sacrificial Lamb, as well as all other writings in the New Testament explaining the gospel, all point to sexual abstinence outside of marriage as God’s plan. In Matthew 5:27-28, Jesus even claims that if anyone (not limited to husbands) looks lustfully at another woman, he has committed adultery with her in his heart. That is a pretty clear, unequivocal statement about sex. It is also a summary of all the Levitical laws in the Old Testament. So God’s standards of conduct haven’t changed ever.

    This is where I agree with Dr. Knust: “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 is also what I teach my kids. In addition, I also teach them to try and honor God with their thoughts, words and deeds AND to rely on God’s grace when they fail.

    No need to put my name in a hat. I will be happy to let someone else win this prize.
    tandemingtroll recently posted..Die- Germs- Die!

  30. Thank so much for featuring Ms. Knust on your blog. This really is a controversial book and I enjoyed reading the comments on it.

  31. “They therefore have a responsibility to treat others with care and concern even as they honor their own lives, bodies and desires.” Seems to me the ultimate responsibility of a sexual congress is to do so within the confines of an accountable and definite commitment (aka marriage). Blurring the edges of the importance of a marriage relationship to relational security is dangerous ground.
    Andrew recently posted..Cutting to the chase of humility

  32. I really enjoyed hearing more from Dr. Knust regarding her controversial book. Thanks for being on the tour!

  33. I will be happy to let someone else win this prize. I was all about women’s rights and equality but ardently pro-life. I’d love a copy. But love does not mean we bend the truth to ease the pain of our choices.