A Christian reviews a new book claiming sexual contradictions in the Bible make it irrelevant.
Jennifer Wright Knust, Baptist pastor and professor of religion at Boston University, makes a number of shocking and unorthodox claims in her new book, Unprotected Texts: The Bible's Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire (Harper One). Her primary arguments are more than jarring, and even go so far as to challenge fundamental parts of the Christian faith.
She retells classical Bible stories, such as those of Ruth and King David, and reinterprets them to be stories of seduction and scandal. She argues that Ruth snagged Boaz as her husband by having sex with him one night, and that God blessed their union. She claims that David—as in King David, the one who killed Goliath with a slingshot—obtained his kingship by having a homoerotic relationship with Jonathan, the prince. Once again, she believes that God's blessing was upon him in this instance. A New Study Seeks Genetic Clues To Homosexuality
Yet, the most baffling part of all is that Knust concludes her study by declaring that in light of those arguments, the Bible can no longer be seen as an authoritative reference point for anything. She writes:
"Looking to the Bible for straightforward answers about anything, including sex, can only be a disappointment. When read as a whole, the Bible provides neither clear nor consistent advice about sex... If one biblical writer condemns those who engage in sex before marriage, others present premarital sex as central to God's plan. Just about every biblical commandment is broken, and not only by biblical villains... It is therefore a mistake to pretend that the Bible can define our ethics for us in any kind of straightforward way."
Ouch. As someone who strongly believes that the Bible is God's word to his people, reading Knust's assertions really stung. But more than that, I was left feeling utterly confused. Why would a Baptist pastor who had dedicated her entire life to studying religion want to undermine all that she was seemingly devoted to?
It made little sense until I remembered the introductory chapter of her book. In it, she tells the story of how she and her family moved to a different state when she was twelve, and how the girls at her new school picked on her. They labeled her a slut for absolutely no reason and, to this day, she said it makes her empathize with others who are marginalized and mistreated by self-righteous religious groups. Knust writes, "It is a tragedy, not a triumph, every time some young person somewhere is crushed by the weight of taunting and shame inspired by cruelty masquerading as righteousness."
Cruelty masquerading as righteousness. Ohhhh... That's what all of this is about, isn't it?
For centuries, people have used the Bible to justify any number of inhumane acts—things like slavery, gay-bashing, bombing of abortion clinics, and even genocide. I'm guessing this: Knust seems to think that if she proves the Bible is fallible and untrustworthy, people will no longer be able to use it as an excuse for their monstrous behavior. She speaks of how it was written and translated by men with various political agendas, and that we cannot discount the amount of errors and bias they could have potentially infused into it.
Granted, she is not the first person to make this argument, and I doubt she will be the last. In How to Read The Bible for All Its Worth, authors Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart acknowledge the Bible's obvious human authorship, yet recognize that it was also divinely inspired by God. They write, "Historically, the church has understood the nature of Scripture much the same as it has understood the person of Christ—The Bible is at the same time both human and divine."
Specific passages from the Bible lay testament to this as well:
II Timothy 3:16 states, "All scripture is given by inspiration of God" (NKJ version).
II Peter 1:20-21 says clearly, "No prophesy of scripture is of private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit" (NKJ version).
Hebrews 4:12 states, "For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitude of the heart" (NIV version).
Fee and Stuart do, however, agree that the Bible has what they call "historical particularity," meaning that it is conditioned by language, time, and culture. When reading and interpreting the Bible, they say it is important to first consider the way it was intended for its original audience, and then move into speculation as to how and why it's relevant today.
With this in mind, I could refute many of Knust's arguments by quoting biblical commentaries, pastors, and sermon notes that show how Ruth's encounter with Boaz was not a seduction scene, but a business arrangement. The very idea of it being a seduction does not fit within the larger context of the story, and the story itself likely wasn't meant to be an endorsement of premarital sex.
I could also quote Pastor Darren Rouanzoin, of The Garden Church in Long Beach, Calif., who argues that David and Jonathan could not have been anything more than friends because Jewish culture never would have supported it, and certainly wouldn't have recorded and celebrated their sexual union. In fact, the Life Application Bible says that homosexuality was subject to the death penalty at that point in Jewish history. I Left Islam And Converted To Judaism — For Love
Perhaps the Bible doesn't contradict itself nearly as much as Knust thought.
However, in arguing against Knust's claims, I also want to be sensitive to her overarching premise—that the Bible needs to stop being misused in the name of "cruelty masquerading as righteousness." And truly, it does. But that was never God's intention for it.
Let's look at Knust's injustice—being labeled a slut. Throughout all four of the Gospels, we see Jesus encountering prostitutes and adulterers. Never once does he call any of them sluts. On the contrary, he shows them great mercy and tells them their sins are forgiven on account of their faith in him. When a crowd wanted Jesus to condemn an adulterous woman, he forgives her instead: "'If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her'" (John 8:7 NIV). When no one steps forward, he continues: "'Neither do I condemn you,' Jesus declared. 'Go now and leave your life of sin'" (v. 11).
Jesus also never forces his ideas down anyone's throat. You will not find him manipulating or begging people to believe in him, and he certainly isn't in the business of controlling their behavior. In Matthew Chapter 7, Jesus makes it clear that if a person insists he wants nothing to do with his teachings, he will honor that person's request. But if a person wants the the light of life, he must simply ask: "'Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you'" (Matthew 7:7, NIV). Jesus shares with people his knowledge and tells them they would be wise to listen and obey. Then, he gives them space to either follow him or walk away. But above all, his approach is love. Is This You? 10 Personality Types Who Struggle To Find True Love
In 1 Corinthians 13, it says that love is patient and kind and that it does not keep a record of wrongs. It says that love forgives all things. If God is love, as the Bible says he is, then he regards all people with a loving attitude—even when we make poor decisions, when we ignore his word, or when we mess up. He shows us love, and that is what he expects us to show each other.
Oddly enough, Knust spends 248 pages discussing sex, desire, marriage, and celibacy, but she never once mentions anything about love. However, love is what I think she is ultimately referring to when she suggests that we stop using the Bible to justify the mistreatment of others. Rather than trying to discredit the Bible as a whole, perhaps Knust should have illustrated this: That it's not the word of God that's fallible, but the people who interpret it that are.
Consider this scene where Jesus is questioned about the greatest commandment of all—the one the whole of humankind should always remember. He gives two: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself'" (Matthew 22:37-39, NIV).
Love your neighbor as yourself. Notice it's not "judge your neighbor if you don't agree with him" or "openly condemn your neighbor's actions..." Love. Jesus likens loving your neighbor to loving the God of the universe.
If ever a biblical interpretation leads people to act unloving towards each other, then there's something wrong with their interpretation. Make no mistake, Jesus is a proponent of love. He is love.
So what about Knust's book? Well, the takeaway of it, for me, is this: Greet everyone you meet with love. Even if we don't agree with the gay lifestyle, or having premarital sex, or getting abortions, we must regard people who partake in them with a spirit of kindness, humility, and love. That, I think, is what Knust was ultimately trying to do and say in her book. And although I may find fault with the majority of her other claims, on that particular point, I wholeheartedly agree.