It is easy to label Jennifer Knust, the author of Unprotected Texts: The Bible's Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire, a theological renegade. And she does say the sorts of things in this book -- about premarital sex and abortion and gay marriage -- that make conservatives shudder. But in one respect at least, Knust, who teaches down the road from me in the School of Theology at Boston University, is a throwback.
Long ago and in a place far away, Christians used to actually fear God. They saw a yawning gap between their limited intelligence and the mind of God. So they were exceedingly careful about presuming what God had to say about almost anything. "He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts," wrote the Protestant Reformer John Calvin, "he should go elsewhere" than the biblical text.
Today many supposedly conservative Christians have no trouble pontificating on what Jesus would do about the deficit or what the Bible says about war and peace, or sex and the solar system. Knust, who is in addition to a professor an ordained American Baptist pastor, thinks that this confidence is not only preposterous but perhaps idolatrous as well.
We sat down a few days ago, as people increasingly sit down nowadays (in front of our respective computers), to discuss her new book:
Stephen Prothero: Why another book on the Bible and sex? What does your book have to tell us that we don't already know?
Jennifer Knust: Because the Bible continues to be invoked in today's public debates as if it should have the last word on contemporary American sexual morals. The only way the Bible can be a sexual rulebook is if no one reads it. Unprotected Texts seeks to offer a comprehensive, accessible discussion of the Bible in its entirety, demonstrating the contradictory nature of the biblical witness and encouraging readers to take responsibility for their interpretations of it.
Prothero: But everybody knows the Bible is against abortion and gay marriage and premarital sex. Is everybody really wrong?
Knust: Yes. The Bible does not comment on abortion and gay marriage. Some biblical writers argue against premarital or extramarital sex, especially for women, but other biblical writers present premarital sex as a source of God's blessing.
Prothero: Really? Where does the Bible give a green light to premarital sex?
Knust: Perhaps the most striking example is in the story of Ruth, though there are other examples as well. According to the Book of Ruth, when the recently widowed Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi were faced with a famine in Ruth's homeland Moab, they returned to Israel impoverished and with little hope of survival. Ruth took to gleaning in the fields to find food for herself and Naomi. The owner of the fields, a relative of Naomi named Boaz, saw Ruth and was pleased by her. When Naomi heard about it, she encouraged Ruth to adorn herself and approach Boaz at night while he was sleeping to see what would happen. Ruth took this advice, resting with him until morning after first "uncovering his feet" (in Hebrew, "feet" can be a euphemism for male genitals). The next day, Boaz goes to town to find out whether he can marry her, and, luckily, another man with a claim to Ruth agrees to release her. They do marry and together they produce Obed, the grandfather of King David.
None of this would have been possible if Ruth had not set out to seduce Boaz in a field, without the benefit of marriage.
Prothero: You say the Bible can't be used as a sexual rulebook. Can it be used as a rulebook for anything? Are Christians left to make moral choices without any guidance from Biblical sources?
Knust: We can certainly turn to the Bible for guidance on moral issues, but we should not expect to find simple answers to the moral questions we are asking. Sometimes biblical conclusions are patently immoral. Sometimes they are deeply inspiring. In either case, we are left with the responsibility for determining what we will believe and affirm.
Prothero: OK, but what about Jesus? Can we appeal to him on these questions? Wasn't he opposed to divorce, for example? And what does his decision not to marry tell us today?
Knust: Certainly Christians should try to understand how Jesus might respond to a concern or problem they are facing. But Jesus' words do not come to us un-interpreted. Preserved within Gospels written several decades after his death, they have been reshaped in light of the experiences of the Gospel writers. Also, those who have transmitted these sayings to us have left their own mark, sometimes editing and changing Jesus' words. This is particularly true when it comes to Jesus' teachings on divorce. As I show in my book, Jesus' sayings on divorce were presented in diverse, contradictory ways, though remarriage was universally forbidden. The prohibition against remarriage, however, makes sense when it comes to the Gospels. All the Gospel writers believed that Jesus would soon return to bring the kingdom of heaven, making marriage irrelevant.
Prothero: In my Religious Literacy book I argued that American politicians often use the Bible without knowing what it really says. Is Biblical illiteracy a problem in U.S. politics in your view?
Knust: Yes. In political contexts, the Bible is repeatedly invoked as if it can support one particular view, though, upon a closer examination, it is quite clear that the passages mentioned (if any are mentioned) say little to nothing about the topic at hand. The most egregious example is the citation of the Epistle to the Ephesians as a support for "biblical marriage," which supposedly means marriage between one man and one woman for the purpose of procreation. Ephesians simply does not endorse this form of marriage. Instead, Ephesians recommends that a man love his wife and children and be kind to his slaves. In a world where slaves could not marry and where their own sexual lives were entirely determined by their masters, this teaching endorses a hierarchical household where only certain men have access to the privileges of marriage, (human) property and children.
Prothero: When it comes to the Bible and sex, who in your view gets it MOST wrong? And who gets it MOST right?
Knust: I'm not interested in judging who gets things wrong or right. Instead I would like to convince all of us to take responsibility for the interpretations we are promoting. I would like us to stop pretending that the Bible has been dictating our conclusions to us so that we can evaluate the implications of what we are defending. The question for me is not whether an interpretation is valid but whether it is valuable, and to whom.
Prothero: Why in your view are Americans so obsessed about sex? Why does religion collapse so readily into morality and morality into bedroom issues?
Knust: That is a great question. I wish I knew! Perhaps focusing on
morality, especially morality in the bedroom, makes it possible for us to avoid facing other, more intractable problems. Perhaps speaking incessantly about sexual morals allows some to assert a position of moral superiority, thereby promoting both their own brand of righteousness at the expense of someone else's. Or perhaps people are simply longing for certainty about a topic that impacts everyone, since every human person desires to be touched and loved. Every human body is vulnerable and sexual difference is one of the fundamental ways in which we experience being human. Absolute certainty about these matters would therefore be nice, if it were available. As even the Bible can teach us, it isn't.
Prothero: One last question. You have spoken of "taking responsibility" repeatedly in this interview. You want us to "take responsibility" for our interpretations. But isn't that precisely the rub in this debate? People who cite the Bible do so to call down the authority of God on their behalf. They are asking God to take responsibility for their interpretations, because they believe that those interpretations come from God. What makes you so sure they are wrong?
Knust: Because we are human beings, not God. By claiming that we can be certain about matters that we only partially understand, we are placing ourselves in the role of God. From a Christian perspective anyway, this is a serious sin. Certainty is not granted to us. As an American Baptist, an heir to both the radical Reformation and abolitionist American Protestantism, I would affirm the interpretive perspective adopted by anti-slavery activists in the 18th and 19th centuries and insist that loving one's neighbor is God's chief requirement. I would defend this principle vigorously and I deeply value its implications. Still, I cannot claim that the Bible made me reach this conclusion. Some biblical passages can support my point of view. Others do not. So, as firmly as I believe that "love your neighbor" can capture God's point of view, I cannot be certain that I am right.