Unprotected Texts by Jennifer Wright Knust

I admit it, I was seduced by a book title. When asked if I wanted to review Unprotected Texts by Jennifer Wright Knust I almost couldn’t pass up a book with such a clever title. This book, subtitled The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire, Unprotected Texts looks at just that, the ways in which the Bible and the writers of the books of the Bible are frequently contradictory in terms of sex and sexual morality.

Once I read the introduction, I was sure I was going to love this book. Part of the inspiration for this book came from the fact that she was repeatedly called a slut in middle school, even though the people calling her that didn’t know what her sexual activities were. Jennifer was not a “slut” as society defines the term, but anyway, was being a “slut” really so bad? So Knust decides to analyze what the Bible actually says about sex.

Two things are keeping me from giving this book a good review and neither of them are really Knust’s fault. First, this book ended up not being anything like I imagined and second I am not the targeted audience for this book. So let’s deal with the first problem. I thought that this book was more a social commentary informed by what the Bible actually says, rather than an in depth analysis of Biblical passages. Unfortunately, there was little social commentary in this book at all. Knust does sometimes address major political figures, like Jerry Falwell, but only talks vaguely about more common problems within evangelical Christian sects when it comes to sex, virginity, marriage and gender inequality.

Second, I’m really not the targeted audience for this book. While I’m very interested in Christian history and the Bible as literature, I’m not exactly interested in it as a moral guideline. Though I grew up in the Christian/Catholic tradition, I am nonpracticing and am not what you would call a believer. I don’t think that Knust’s book is necessarily only for believers, but I am just not as interested in the amount of biblical detail that Knust provided. I want more commentary rather than analysis of the specific Biblical passages. How is what Knust finds going to influence society? Is it going to change anything?

When Knust did talk about modern society in relation to the biblical, I was very impressed. I wish the whole book were like this quote:

Whatever I am teaching, however, I usually begin by asking participants what they wish the Bible said about the topic at hand. Do we wish that the Bible would reject war as a political strategy? Or perhaps we believe that the Bible should support defensive if not offensive wars. Do we wish that the Bible would confirm gay marriage, instead of rejecting it as so many Christians insist? Or perhaps our concern has to do with the role of women. Perhaps we wish that Paul had not told women to be silent and learn from their husbands at home, especially since talkative and independent women can be found throughout the Bible just as often as silent, obedient women. Whatever we wish for, I point out, probably can be found somewhere in the Bible, which is why it is so important to admit that we have wishes, whatever they may be. We are not passive recipients of what the Bible says, but active interpreters who make decisions about what we will believe and what we will affirm. Admitting that we have wishes, and that our wishes matter, is therefore the first step to developing an honest and faithful interpretation.

Once upon a time, the followers of Jesus knew that they were interpreting the Bible, not simply extracting truth from a set of divinely inspired texts. (241)

I think that Knust has a brave, important thesis: the Bible is so contradictory about sex and sexual morality that we cannot know or judge based on what we believe the Bible to say. Almost any opinion can be supported by a passage in the Bible. As such, those who are quoting the Bible to justify what they are doing, need to back up and think again. It’s very clear, from the length of the bibliography and notes alone (almost the same length as the actual text of the book) that she knows her stuff. She is a Biblical scholar, minister and professor at Boston University.

Unfortunately, I just don’t know that this book really has the power to change people’s opinion. I sincerely hope that it does get some people thinking and maybe even inspire the book I actually wanted to read.

Like I said, ultimately, none of this is really Knust’s fault, just the unfortunate experience of expectations unmet.

Proud Book Nerd also wrote a post about Unprotected Texts.  Did you? Let me know in the comments and I’ll add you to this list.

Special thanks to TLC Book Tours for sending me this book to review. For more information about the tour, click here.

A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle

Is it too repetitive to tell you that A Wrinkle in Time changed my life?  It opened up the world for me, both the world of literature and my life.  I was camping, with my parents, right before my sister was born, and I remember trying to explain to my mother what A Wrinkle in Time was like.  She is not a reader and I think she was baffled, but she nodded and smiled as I described to her what it was like to be in Meg’s world.  I want to read everything she has written, but I don’t ever want to run out.  Slowly I’m reading her books that I’ve never read.

In any case, when I found myself wandering around a used bookstore a few weeks ago and I found a large portion of the shelf devoted to Madeleine L’Engle books, I purchased almost their entire stock.  Included were the first two books of The Crosswicks Journals, A Circle of Quiet being the first one.

This book was like sitting down with Madeleine L’Engle and having a conversation.  She talked about everything, from society, to her past and present life with her husband and children, to sex and marriage, to religion.  She states very plainly at the beginning of the memoir, “I will undoubtedly contradict myself, and that I will mean both things” (32) and I took that to heart throughout the reading, because L’Engle often contradicts herself or believes contradictory things, but she never apologizes for it.  And reminds us that “an acceptance of contradiction is no excuse for fuzzy thinking.  We do have to use our minds as far as they will  take us, yet acknowledging that they cannot take us all the way” (32).

The Crosswicks Journals are a series of memoirs that begin with A Circle of Quiet, detailing several summers at the Crosswicks cottage, Madeleine and her husband Hugh’s summer home.  L’Engle repeatedly discusses ontology, something I admit I had to look up:

thephilosophical study of the nature of beingexistence or reality as such, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations (from Wikipedia).

In that sense A Circle of Quiet is an ontological study of L’Engle herself, by herself.  If that sounds self-indulgent, maybe it would be if L’Engle’s thoughts weren’t so interesting.  She has an opinion about everything, and I would be lying if I said I agreed with absolutely everything she wrote about.  I don’t, but I never doubt that if I’d had the chance, we could have had a lively debate with no hard feelings.  I was very interested, as I imagine many readers are, of L’Engle’s religious beliefs.  Unlike other authors, say CS Lewis, who have a distinct doctrine in their texts, L’Engle’s books always had an air of religion, but nothing explicit.  And frankly, if you’re looking for some direct answers, most of L’Engle’s contradictions are when she talks about religion.  But I kind of liked that, because who really has all the answers about something so big as religion or religious beliefs?  If someone says they do, I have to admit, I’m not going to believe them.

Madeleine gives advice throughout the memoir, on everything from relationships and raising children to writing.  I treasured especially her advice to writers, young and old, experienced and inexperienced.  Some of my favorites:

Inspiration does not always precede the act of writing; it often follows it.  I go to my typewriter with reluctance; I check the ribbon; I check my black felt pens; I polish my collection of spectacles; finally I start to put words, almost any words, down on paper.

Usually, then, the words themselves will start to flow; they push me, rather than vice versa. (162)

Why do you write for children?’  My immediate response to this question is, ‘I don’t.’  Of course I don’t.  I don’t suppose most children’s writers do.  But the kids won’t let me off this easily.

If you want to raise my blood pressure, suggest that writers turn to writing children’s books because it’s easier than writing for grownups; so they write children’s books because they can’t make it in the adult field.

If it’s not good enough for adults, it’s not good enough for children.  If a book is going to be marketed for children does not interest me, a grownup, then I am dishonoring the children for whom the book is intended and I am dishonoring books.  And words. (198)

This book was published in the 70s and the world has undoubtedly changed a lot since then.  L’Engle made some predictions for the future and I would love to be able to hear her reactions in relation to those predictions and how the world actually turned out.  I wish I could have known L’Engle.  I wish I had written her a letter when I was that 9 or 10 year old girl whose whole  world changed when she read one slim book.  But this memoir is as close as I’m going to get and I guess I will have to be satisfied with that.  At least I still have two more to read…

A few more favorite quotes:

The language of logical argument, of proofs, is the language of the limited self we know and can manipulate.  But the language of parable and poetry, of storytelling, moves from the imprisoned language of the provable into the freed language of what I must, for lack of another word, continue to call faith. (194)

Probably my favorite passage from the entire book:

During one dinner, Alan mentioned that men who feel  that it is not God who is dead, as some theologians were then saying, but language that is dead.  If language is to be revived or, like the phoenix, born of its own ashes, then violence must be done to it.

This seemed to me to be a distinct threat.  If language is dead, so is my profession.  How can one write books in a dead language?  And what did he mean by “doing violence to language”?  I began to argue heatedly, and in the midst of my own argument I began to see that doing violence to language means precisely the opposite of what I thought it meant.  To do violence to language, in the sense in which he used the phrase, is not to use long words, or strange orders of words, or even to do anything unusual at all with the words in which we attempt to communicate.  It means really speaking to each other, destroying platitudes and jargon and all the safe cushions of small talk with which we insulate ourselves; not being afraid to talk about the things we don’t talk about, the ultimate things that really matter.  It means turning again to the words that affirm meaning, reason, unity, that teach responsible rather than selfish love.  And sometimes, doing violence to language means not using it at all, not being afraid of being silent together, of being silent alone.  Then, through thunderous silence, we may be able to hear a still, small voice, and words will be born anew. (133)

So go read this!: now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR pile

Rebecca Reads also wrote a post about A Circle of Quiet.  Did you?  Let me know in the comments and I’ll add your post here.

Grief and humor in Looking for Bapu

“The wrinkle-nosed woman turns again.  ‘You’re brave to wear your turban, young man.  With all the anxiety!’

Young man?  Mr. Singh must be at least forty.  ‘I’ve been honored to wear this turban for many years,’  he says, holding his head high.  ‘Throughout history people have fought and died for the right to wear it.  I will not take it off  now.’

The woman purses her lips.  ‘Well, you’re very brave.’  She turns ahead  again, and the line begins to move, finally.  I glance sidelong at Dad.  He looks Indian, but he whistles ‘American Pie’ in the shower and reads the Seattle newspaper in the morning.  My dad is not what anyone calls him.  My dad is just my dad.  Is it brave to be what you are, I wonder?  Brave to just be yourself?” (pg 63)

Continue reading