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Sex, Lies and Exegesis

Definition: exegesis [ek-si-jee-sis]: critical explanation or interpretation of a text or portion of a text, especially of the Bible.
Painting by He Qi, a prominent artist from China who focuses on Christian themes. This piece is inspired by The Song of Solomon.
In his May 21 column, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof stirred up a hornets’ nest. His column wasn’t really a column, it was a quiz, titled “Religion and Sex Quiz.” The questions and what he provided as the answers were provocative, to say the least.

We would later learn, in his follow-up, a post to the Times online in the afternoon of the same day, “Reader Comments on my Religion Quiz,” that the information that was used to create the quiz came with the help of Bible scholars, “including Jennifer Knust, whose book inspired [the quiz], and … Mark Jordan of Harvard Divinity School.” Kristof doesn’t name Knust’s book, but a quick googling reveals that it must certainly be Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire which is the latest book by Knust, an American Baptist pastor and New Testament professor at Boston University.

Liberal-Christian blogger Hugo Schwyzer tells us about Knust’s book in his post “Sex, Lies and Exegesis” [a title so clever I've kiped it for THIS HERE blogpost, the very one that you have your eyes on right this minute.  Only, unlike Schwyzer, I am making no judgment of what might be true],
Knust is writing for those of us who take the Bible seriously. If there’s a consistent charge thrown by theological conservatives against their liberal brethren, it’s that those of us who advocate for an inclusive sexual ethic don’t take a sufficiently rigorous or reverent approach to Scripture. Knust dismisses that charge, reminding her readers in the introduction that
…the Bible is not only contradictory but complex…biblical teachings regarding desire, marriage, and the human body are entirely inconsistent and yet thoroughly fascinating. The Bible does not offer a systematic set of teachings or a single sexual code, but it does reveal sometimes conflicting attempts on the part of people and groups to define sexual morality, and to do so in the name of God.
I am sure that Knust and her book, along with Rob Bell and his controversial book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, are driving many conservative Christians batty. The underpinnings of conservative Christianity are under assault since both these books do not go gentle into that dark night of a fight. Both writers get their licks in at conservatives' understanding of the Bible, using a cudgel and a thick fist.

From a comment to Kristof’s follow-up column, a scholarly reader informs us that Aramaic has just 400 words! This is the basis of the great difficulty in getting a solid, absolutely-accurate translation of the Bible. The English language, in contrast, has something like 200,000 words allowing us to be very nuanced and precise in what we say. Not so Aramaic, a simple language that can leave what’s said to be easily misunderstood.  Anyway, that is why there are a great many translations of the Bible.

Nowadays, thanks to technology and globalizion, those that study the original wording of the Bible's texts  such people are called exegetes  are in a whirlwind; they are being inundated with massive amounts of new information and a colossal amount of data, passed to them from everywhere, that they are able to fit together, using computers, to understand [they think, anyway] what the Bible really, truly says and means.

Now, back to Kristof’s original Sunday column. Here is some of what’s revealed [only some of which is controversial, maybe]:
  • The Bible never mentions abortion.
  • The people of Sodom were condemned, not for homosexuality or blasphemy, but for idolatry, threatening words and a lack of compassion. Says the quiz answer sheet: “'Sodomy' as a term for gay male sex began to be commonly used only in the 11th century and would have surprised early religious commentators. They attributed Sodom’s problems with God to many different causes, including idolatry, threats toward strangers and general lack of compassion for the downtrodden. Ezekiel 16:49 suggests that Sodomites “had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”
  • The Bible limits women to one husband, but other than that is all over the map. Mark 10 envisions a lifelong marriage of one man and one woman. But King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines (I Kings 11:3). And Matthew (Matthew 19:10-12) and St. Paul (I Corinthians 7) both seem to suggest that the ideal approach is to remain celibate and avoid marriage if possible, while focusing on serving God. Jesus (Matthew 19:12) even seems to suggest that men make themselves eunuchs, leading the early church to ban enthusiasts from self-castration.
It is perhaps the case that the most controversial element in all this is whether or not the Bible is internally contradictory.  Conservative Christians insist it is not, whereas their liberal brethren seem wholly inclined to find contradictions and interpret the Bible in a manner that is, perhaps, more freewheeling  if that's the right word.
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Notes:
"Sex, Lies and Exegesis" is a riff on the title of a popular movie in 1989, Sex, Lies and Videotape.
Knust's book title, Unprotected Text, is a riff on the common phrase unprotected sex.

According to the Oxford Dictionaries website:
The Second Edition of the 20-volume  Oxford English Dictionary [OED] contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries. Over half of these words are nouns, about a quarter adjectives, and about a seventh verbs; the rest is made up of exclamations, conjunctions, prepositions, suffixes, etc. And these figures don't take account of entries with senses for different word classes (such as noun and adjective).
This suggests that there are, at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words, excluding inflections, and words from technical and regional vocabulary not covered by the OED, or words not yet added to the published dictionary, of which perhaps 20 per cent are no longer in current use. If distinct senses were counted, the total would probably approach three quarters of a million.

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