|zeborah (zeborah) wrote,|
@ 2010-07-18 06:02 pm UTC
|Entry tags:||bible, reviews, sex|
by L. William Countryman
I've forgotten who it was who mentioned this book to me, but thank you! It's absolutely awesome to be able to read a book which lays out such a clear, evidence-based, and persuasive account of what the Bible actually tells us about Jesus' teaching and God's will in matters of sexuality.
Countryman divides the book into three parts:
Dirt focuses on the purity code of the Torah - this is "clean", that is "unclean" - - eg all that Leviticus stuff about not wearing clothes made from two kinds of material, or eating pork or shellfish, or men having sex with men. He begins by citing Mary Douglas: "dirt is essentially disorder" or "matter out of place" - ie coffee in the cup is clean, but spilled on the floor is dirty (pp. 12-13). He makes use of Douglas's interpretation that "God's holiness [...] means wholeness and completeness" and illustrates with the laws on leprosy: if you've got one leprous spot you're unclean, but if your entire body is covered with it then you're clean (pp. 24-25). In this sense, then, homosexuality is "a man lying with a male 'the lyings of a woman'. The male who fulfills the 'female' role is a combination of kinds and therefore unclean." (p. 26)
The term "abomination" he glosses also as "disgusting thing" and says "This is not to suggest that they are exceptionally horid in terms of the purity system" (p. 30) - at about this point I suddenly thought of the term "squick".
But a really important thing is that "unclean" doesn't mean "sinful". The purity system was specifically for the Israelites; in fact, it was part of what separated the Israelites from other nations (p. 39 et seq.) and made the Gentiles themselves unclean.
Countryman moves on to talk about purity in 1st century C.E. Judaism (ch. 3), in particular the views of the Sadducees, Essenes, Pharisees, and the "Fourth Philosophy". Very basically, lots of strict rules to try and keep separate from any possible contamination by uncleanness -- especially from Gentiles. This was the context where Christianity arose, with its radical view that God has made all things clean. Chapters 4-7 talk about this,
- first from a historical perspective (with a hefty focus on Peter's vision of God telling him not to call unclean what God has called clean, and the subsequent acceptance by the early church of uncircumcised Gentiles),
- then looking at the Gospels (where eg "Luke's Jesus [...] subordinates [physical purity] to another, metaphorical kind of purity or impurity, consisting of the intent to do good or to do harm" p. 82),
- then at Paul (who "Once he had become convinced that he must rely on another source of righteousness, he was no longer tied to the law, but could use it or not in accordance with the now dominant concerns associated with the 'righteousness that comes through Christ's faith.'" (p. 100),
- then the rest of the NT ("With the possible exception of Jude and Revelation, all the documents that dealt with physical purity at all agreed in rejecting it as an authoritative ethic for Christians as such." p. 138 - Jewish Christians might be expected to keep it as part of their identity, but definitely not Gentiles).
Random quotes of love:
- "there is little evidence, if any, that virginity was considered especially pure in ancient Israel" (p. 78)
- "it becomes clear that the Gospels dismiss purity, not selectively, but across the board. They do not isolate some one aspect of it (food laws) for repudiation while tacitly retaining other aspects (leprosy, say, or circumcision, or sex). It is physical purity as such, in all its ramifications, that they set aside." (p. 96)
- a great discussion on the terms malakoi and arsenokoitai - the former meaning 'soft' and the latter... well, no-one knows, but if you claim that it means 'homosexuals' then you get a great clobber passage (pp. 117-120, especially the conclusion that "Paul regarded [homosexuality] as unclean but not therefore sinful".)
Greed focuses on the sexual property ethic - with particular reference to women and children as property of the paterfamilias. This is the ethic behind requiring a woman to be a virgin when she marries, and not to have sex with other men afterwards. It's not purely about the woman as a sex toy; there's also the woman as incubator, and as someone who can provide labour in her own right. And in defense of the worldview, men who waste their inheritance on prostitutes are despised too: people aren't individuals, they're part of a family which they have a responsibility to.
"What was wrong with prostitution, from the perspective of ancient Israel, was not so much the giving or receiving of payment for sexual intercourse as it was the removal of sexual intercourse from the framework of property and hierarchy which normally contained it and ensured that it was placed at the service of the family." (p. 164)
And Jesus pretty much destroyed this idea of family. He tells his followers they must be ready to abandon their families; he says men can no longer divorce women; he holds up children as an ideal; he as teacher takes on the role of a slave in washing his disciples' feet. And "In the teaching of Jesus, we found that this kind of negation of family was associated with a positive view of women." (p. 223)
Countryman goes on to talk about Paul's views on sexual property, then the other writers of the New Testament; James sounds like a particularly cool guy re the equality of male and female, though some of the others were rather less so, and perhaps more concerned with "[making] it hard for outsiders to find a complaint against Christians [...]. A conservative family life was one essential bulwark of respectability." (p. 225)
Quotes of love:
- "The modern moralism which attacks the independent female prostitute and says little against those who patronize her is a world removed from the Scriptures of Israel. (p. 166)
- "The difference of these two modes of enquiry [ie the Corinthians enquiring of Paul] suggests that the congregation as a whole was less perturbed by the libertines than by the ascetics" (p. 196)
- "it is significant that Paul recognized the satisfaction of sexual desire as a legitimate and sufficient reason for entering into [marriage]." (p. 206)
Sex is the final chapter, summing up the author's conclusions on "New Testament sexual ethics and today's world". He sees the Bible as still totally relevant - but we need to understand the cultural differences.
Physical cleanliness has been superceded, so sexual rules that come from the purity code don't matter any more. ("Individual Christians may continue to observe the purity code of their culture, but they may not demand that other Christians do so." p. 241) The importance of family has been superceded by the importance of individualism, so rules that come from property rules don't matter either. But our sexual life, as everything else, is subordinate to the reign of God.
So "the gospel allows no rule against the following, in and of themselves: masturbation, nonvaginal heterosexual intercourse, bestiality, polygamy, homosexual acts, or erotic art and literature" (p. 243):
- polygamy is not important except inasmuch as it affects equality of men and women (p. 244)
- homosexuality is totally natural; "to deny an entire class of human beings the right peaceably and without harming others to pursue the kind of sexuality that corresponds to their nature is a perversion of the gospel" - "it makes the keeping of purity rules a condition of grace"; celibacy is a gift for some and can't be demanded of others (p. 244-245)
- erotica -- so long as it's not degrading, or abusive, or used self-indulgently -- "should be accepted as the powerful ally of any effort to teach the responsible use of so beautiful a thing" (p. 245)
- and quit calling people who do things that squick you "sick".
Moving on to property - whereas in the ancient world, people were property of family, nowadays people own themselves. Thus
"If in antiquity [...] adultery was the characteristic violation of sexual property, in our own age, it has become rape. When committed by a stranger, it violates the victim's freedom of choice; when committed by a family member or presumed friend, it violates the bonds of human community as well. The metaphorical space which surrounds each of us and which we characterize as 'mine' is of the essence of our being human. It offers some protection for the freedom to develop and become what God is calling us to be, which is the principal goal of being human. When it is opened voluntarily to one another, it is also a means of community. But when it is broken into by violence, the very possibility of being human is at least momentarily being denied to us. As there is nothing more precious to us than our humanness, there is no sexual sin more serious than rape." (p. 248)
I kind of want to keep quoting: he goes on to make explicit that not only physical but social, emotional and psychological violence count - harassment and manipulation. And not just against individuals, but also against groups - "Assaults on women or homosexual people, whether as individual attacks or as political and legal campaigns" (p. 249) and also violence based on racial, ethnic and economic lines. And talks about how many Christian denominations "seem to have taken the side of violence themselves" (p. 249).
But he moves on too to other implications of individuals owning themselves, such as the right to contraception. And he's definitive, in terms of abortion, that "[a woman's] health is at least as important as that of an uncertain offspring" (whether that be physical, mental, or emotional health). He's more diffident on abortion-as-birth-control -- he prefers people to use other forms of contraception so that when they're ready they can choose for having a child, rather than to place themselves in the position where they have to decide against having this child. (p. 254-256) I, um, suspect he's overestimating the number of women who would honestly prefer to have regular abortions than to take regular pills or whatever. But basically he seems pro-choice.
He's anti-incest, which is a no-brainer, but points out that whereas in the ancient world incest was bad because it messed up the family hierarchy, nowadays we see that it violates the child's individuality. He also says there's also society's squick response to it, which itself hurts the child, and "Christians have a responsibility to reduce their own inner involvement in this kind of purity response, so that they can deal more constructively with individuals who have experienced incest" (p. 258).
Young adults should be allowed to experiment with sex before marriage because "If marriage is treated in the individual society simply as license to have sex, we can be quite sure that many will choose marriage partners for the most inadequate of reasons and with poor judgement." (p. 259) He points out that where, in the past, marriage was about a transfer of physical property (land and money perhaps, but specifically the woman) nowadays it's about a transfer of less tangible goods: love, trust, etc. You can't verify that this transfer is actually happening, so "what some divorces [...] do is not to end an existing marriage but to announce that [...] no marriage has in fact taken place." Thus he thinks that churches shouldn't bless marriages until the marriage has hung on for some years, and while they're at it there's nothing to stop them blessing homosexual marriages either. (pp. 261-264)
He divides nonmarital liaisons into a) preparatory to marriage; b) meeting legitimate needs; c) exploitative; and only the latter is to be condemned. So he disapproves of exploiting prostitutes but would tolerate "resorting to" one if you can't hook up with someone in a more normal manner; likewise if a woman needs to be a prostitute to survive then he doesn't condemn her at all but if they're doing it by choice and want to be part of the church then "the church would legitimately urge them to accept some other occupation and, if need be, assist them to do so, so that they may honour themselves as sexual beings under the reign of God." (p. 265) Basically he views prostitution = casual sex = libertinism - it's not the sex that's bad, it's that making it central to your life is bad (and contrariwise making non-sex (prudery etc) central to your life is bad), because God should be what's central. (pp. 263-266)
In short: if this is the kind of thing you like, you'll love it. Highly highly recommended.