Newsweek’s biblically illiterate article

Newsweek's graphic for article on Bible and sex. Not nearly as exciting as you think.

A friend asked me to look at the provocatively titled article, “What the Bible Really Says About Sex,” in the latest issue of Newsweek. The article included an illustration of a Bible with the the letters “XXX” emblazoned below the words “Holy Bible.” Since I’ve read the Bible, I shouldn’t be surprised that nothing in the article was news to me. But I am surprised at how badly written and reported the article is.

It begins: “The poem describes two young lovers aching with desire. The obsessions is mutual, carnal, complete.” The reporter imagines, I suppose, that the average Newsweek reader will be shocked to discover that this erotic love poem, Song of Solomon, is found in the Bible—the Bible! Given the tone of the article, however, the average Newsweek reader may be surprised to learn that modern Bible scholars didn’t recently discover that Song of Solomon was about sex.

Everyone always knew Song of Solomon was at least a graphic love poem. Whether it has any additional, allegorical meanings doesn’t obscure the fact that the book celebrates sex. Even “conservative Christians,” who seemingly fail to grasp truth about sex in the Bible, know that. They also know about polygamy, prostitution, adultery, incest, and other assorted sexual weirdness in the ancient words of scripture.

After all, these things are not hidden in the text, beyond the grasp of an average Bible reader. They are there for anyone to see.

Christians—”conservative” or otherwise—are not crazy, in spite of the article’s implication, to affirm, along with the president of Fuller Theological Seminary, that sexual intimacy “outside of a public, lifelong commitment between a man a woman is not in accordance with God’s creating or redeeming purposes.” (For that matter, most Christian pacifists are well aware of divinely sanctioned killing and warfare in the Old Testament, yet they believe that their pacifism is faithful to scripture. Are they crazy, too?)

Most Christians who seriously read the Bible understand that it’s complex and multifaceted. It rarely says “one thing” about any subject. At times it’s messy. At times it’s frustratingly obscure. At times it’s NC-17-rated. But it also has overarching themes, motifs, and narratives that enable us to interpret more difficult passages in light of passages that are clearer. More than anything, we interpret all of scripture in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. On this basis, I would argue that the Bible is coherent on sex and marriage.

One thing’s for sure: the Bible is mostly a book for literate adults. Maybe it’s beyond the grasp of the average Newsweek reader? The writer of this article seems to think so.

Before I end this post, let me point out a few specific things in the article that bug me:

  1. This sentence: “Reading it in the context of the Christian tradition, and with an awareness that the text is ‘divinely inspired’—that is, given to people directly by God…” What on earth does that mean: “given… directly by God”? Dictated by God, word for word? Written on golden plates by the hand of God, a la Joseph Smith? Regardless, this is not a classic Christian understanding of the inspiration of scripture. God’s Word is found in the Bible, but it is mediated through human authors who lived in a certain place and time, and understood the world in a particular way. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit speaks to us today through our reading and preaching of the Bible. Inspiration doesn’t imply a one-time event in the past, at the time of composition. Christians are therefore under no burden to believe that scripture must be absolutely consistent in all respects in order to believe in its inspiration. Only a thoroughly modern view of the authority of scripture disagrees with this.
  2. As a way of pointing out scripture’s patriarchal view of women: “Deuteronomy proposes death for female adulterers…” That’s true, but the command itself (in Deuteronomy 22:22) was directed first to male adulterers, who were also to be killed. I’m not saying the Bible isn’t replete with time-bound patriarchal attitudes that we rightly reject today, but come on! This doesn’t count as evidence, unless the Bible is also anti-male.
  3. “Foot”= penis. Yes, as anyone who’s taken a survey course on Old Testament knows, the word foot is often a euphemism for a private part. By all means, Ruth chapter 3, next to Song of Solomon, is the steamiest passage in the Bible. But no one, no one, no one—not one scholar I’ve ever read or heard—believes that the woman who kisses and washes Jesus’ feet is doing anything other than that! It’s a ridiculous suggestion.
  4. No one knows for sure what the exact nature of the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah are, but it’s hardly true that “everyone knows” that the story is “God’s judgment against homosexuality,” etc. In other words, many people are well aware that that interpretation is disputed. Consult any average study Bible or commentary and you’ll probably see a few interpretations. And this is the problem with the way pop culture portrays the world of academia: In the world of scholarship, Bible or otherwise, nearly everything is disputed. Questions are rarely settled—which is convenient, since academics have to have new things to write about in papers and books.
  5. On that note, the reporter cites a Bible scholar who says that Sodom and Gomorrah is about the danger of human beings having sex with angels. The reporter writes, “In the biblical world, people believed in angels, and they feared them, for sex with angels led inevitably to death and destruction.” People believed in angels. Yes, we modern people are so much more sophisticated than our gullible ancestors! None of us believes that angels exist now, right?
  6. This sentence: “Knust also argues—provocatively—that King David ‘enjoyed sexual satisfaction’ with his soulmate, Jonathan. ‘Your love to me was wonderful,’ laments David at Jonathan’s death, ‘passing the love of women.'” I suspect that Knust isn’t actually arguing that David had a homosexual relationship with Jonathan, only that he had passionate and intense feelings for Jonathan that today would be construed as erotic. Whatever. Men in antiquity weren’t “friends” with women. They didn’t date them. They didn’t court them, fall in love with them, and marry them. They often didn’t spend much time with them, beyond the necessary time to procreate. Men hung out with men, and women hung out with women. Their worlds didn’t overlap much. I’m sure many men didn’t develop relationships with women (outside of the mother-son relationship, which was the strongest bond in that world) that compared to male friendships in intensity. Regardless, this is clearly a case of reading ancient literature through a modern lens.

Someone else noticed how horrible Newsweek’s piece was here.

4 thoughts on “Newsweek’s biblically illiterate article”

  1. A few random thoughts:

    1) Please forgive me if I don’t read the actual Newsweek article. Your analysis (and Mollie’s) convince me that it’s not worth my time.

    2) From your point #1:

    That’s a fairly common phrase in “conservative” Christendom. If I had to guess, I’d say that Miller was just parroting it. Also if I had to guess, I’d say that the person she parroted it from has no more idea what it means than Miller does.

    3) I think it highly appropriate that a pastor’s analysis would focus on Biblical illiteracy while a journalist’s would focus on embarrassingly poor journalism.

    4) Having said that, Mollie’s article takes some of the “zing” out of this next thought; but do you really think that’s going to stop me? 😉

    Re: SoS, its “racy” content, and the fact that it’s (gasp) in the Bible, and assuming (and I don’t think this is a stretch) that the average Newsweek reader *would* be surprised …

    Is part of the surprise not so much the fault of the illiterate as it is the fault of Christendom (to some extent) and more specifically “conservative” Christendom (to a larger extent). It seems that, in many circles, SoS is Christianity’s dirty little secret — like life would be seen as a lot less messy by many people if God had just kept that one to Himself.

    When Driscoll preached through SoS, he was decried left and right. Many of his most vociferous detractors may have actually had a point about how over the top he went, but their arguments were so over the top, that they lost most of the thinking audience.

    (Don’t even get me started on those that utilized lies to further their point.)

    But the “amen corner” (commenters on blogs) took the issue even further. For a lot of them, when you stripped off the veneer of their alleged righteous indignation, it boiled down to the fact that they were upset that Driscoll had the gall to preach SoS at all. And sometimes, one didn’t even have to strip the veneer — one commenter simply stated that there were 65 other books in the Bible.

    1. The Newsweek article is not worth anyone’s time. I think Miller is actually the religion editor at Snoozeweek, right? So she shouldn’t be simply parroting anyone. She should take it upon herself to learn the basics of the religion that she’s covering.

      I don’t ever see myself preaching SoS, but I’m not against anyone who does. To me, if it’s in the Bible, it’s fair game. I’m skeptical of the allegorical argument. If it’s only about sex, then that suits me fine. But there’s a venerable tradition with both Judaism and Christianity that interprets it allegorically, and I don’t discount that. The fact remains at a bare minimum it’s about God’s wonderful gift of sex.

      I still think the question she should have asked the authors of those two books is: Why do the vast majority Christians thinkers from the past two millennia of church history uphold a traditional view of sex and marriage, in spite of these things in the Bible? Do you believe that they were just dumb?

      An unsupportable premise of modernity is that people who lived in antiquity were dumb and gullible. This article reflects that bias. I don’t know whether or to what extent the two books that Miller covers reflects that bias. I can only go by what Miller says.

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