One of the joys of returning to South Carolina for a visit (my home state) is a stop at Chick-fil-A. Their plain old chicken sandwich and a sweet tea can send me to heaven. I've always known they were owned by a Christian family and, frankly, I like that they close on Sundays. I'm old enough to remember when more stores did (of course, that often was enforced by law) and I think a voluntary day off from shopping and commercialism isn't too much to ask. But I was sad to hear the company recently donated food to an anti-gay marriage group. Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy said the contribution was made because the company believes in a "Biblical definition of marriage."
Mr. Cathy ought to read Unprotected Texts: The Bible's Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire, the new book from Boston University's Jennifer Wright Knust. This American Baptist pastor and scholar notes that: "When it comes to marriage, biblical laws are almost entirely contradictory." In short, the one "Biblical definition of marriage" that Chick-fil-A wants to promote doesn't exist.
As I've preached, how we read the Bible matters. It is not to be taken literally. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, argued that Christian faith required one to bring Scripture, reason, experience and tradition to the table when trying to discern the will of God. Chick-fil-A is offering fast-food theology to a world that needs more than a bumper sticker understanding of the divine.
In a recent post for The Washington Post's "On Faith" blog, Knust wrote:
If we do take the time to read the Bible, we are likely to discover that the biblical writers do not agree with us, whatever version of sexual morality we are seeking to promote. Written more than 2,000 years ago at a significant historical and cultural distance, the Bible gathers together a diverse collection of ancient books, edited over time, not a coherent, divinely inspired set of instructions that can easily be applied. Tracing even a few, limited topics from one biblical book to another can make the point: If one book forbids marriage between foreigners and Israelites, the next depicts such marriages as a source of blessing, not only to Israel but to all of humankind. If one insists that women are saved by childbearing, the next recommends that women avoid childbearing altogether in order to devote themselves more fully to God. If one suggests that sex with a relative, the wife of another man, or with a male lover will certainly lead to the nation's downfall, the next depicts heroic kings engaging in precisely these forms of sex. And these are just a few examples.
Knust offers the same argument in her book -- with more detail (including a series of charts that compare teachings on marriage and divorce in Mark, Matthew and Luke).
And if fundamentalist believers find themselves shocked to read what Knust writes about marriage ("Collected together, diverse sayings on divorce, remarriage, adultery, husbands, and wives in Mark, Matthew and Luke offer not one teaching but several"), they'll be even more shocked to learn that sex can be, well, fun and that it doesn't even need to be between two married people or even between people of the same gender (read the "love affair' of Ruth and Naomi) Yep, that's in Holy Scripture.
Knust notes the sexual imagery in the Song of Songs...
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!
For your love is better than wine,
your anointing oils are fragrant,
your name is perfume poured out;
therefore the maidens love you.
-- Song of Songs 1:2-3 9NRSV
The Song of Songs is a poem, and, as such, interpretation is left open ... Nevertheless, both the poem's beauty and its force of depend upon sensual arousal and the awakening of erotic sentiments. And interestingly enough, once awakened, desire -- not marriage or childbearing -- remains the focus. Voluntary intimacy and pleasure are the goal of these lovers, and social norms appear to be irrelevant to the delight they intend to pursue.
Knust writes, "The Bible is complicated enough, ancient enough, and flexible enough to support an almost endless set of interpretive agendas." That may be true, in part. Taken as a whole, the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament offer (for me) a vision of covenant. My sense is that covenant includes within our relationships between one another and with God that we should, in Paul's words, be subject to one another out of love. That doesn't mean we have an anything-goes faith without rules or boundaries. In fact, the opposite is true. You cannot, for example, abandon your family and remain in covenant with God or your relatives. Justice and compassion are central to Christanity. Yet, not all teachings from scripture should be practiced today (if they were, we'd still own slaves, as sanctioned in the Bible).
Knust encourages interpretation:
Nowadays, the sense that reading scripture is a creative, imaginative act has too often been lost, despite the creativity it took for New Testament writers and early Christians to claim that the law and the prophets are, when read correctly, all about Jesus Christ. Paul, Matthew, Inenaeus, and Origen came to the Bible with convictions about what should be found in its pages and, employing a variety of interpretative methods, they found what they wanted. But, unlike many contemporary readers, they did not attempt to hide their interpretative work. ... They did not assume that quoting a few choice verse out of context could serve as sufficient proof of what the entire Bible says and therefore of what God says as well.
There is so much to learn still from God and Scripture. What is frightening are those voices who claim that all answers have been given, that truth never changes and that they are not interpreting the word of God but simply reporting it. Nothing could be less accurate. But those voices and their churches help set public policy around sex education and marriage, for example, that hurt rather than help and, I believe, strike at the heart of the Greatest Commandment: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: "You shall love your neighbour as yourself" (Matthew 22 NRSV), which should guide all our debates, decisions and personal interactions.
We can all benefit from having our assumptions challenged once and awhile. Chick-fil-A's Dan Cathy ought to read this book. Not because he should agree with it all but because it might help challenge his assumptions about the Bible and marriage and offer him and his company a better understanding of why so many are offended by those who use the Bible to promote legal discrimination against others who may differ from us.
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