Monday, August 3, 2009

Sex in the Bible

I don't think I've ever done "book review" before, but in this case I'll make an exception. You see, I'm doing a paper for a seminary class on sex and marriage in the Old Testament and as part of my research I've been reading a book titled Sex in the Bible: A New Consideration by J. Harold Ellens. According to his biography, Dr. Ellens is "a retired Presbyterian theologian, an ordained minister, a retired U.S. Army colonel (chaplain), and a retired professor of philosophy, theology, and psychology." One would think that a person with such an impressive resume would have some worthwhile things to say on a number of theological issues, right? At least, that's what I thought - until I read his book.

Ellens' main purpose in writing this book is to point out that many Christian assumptions regarding sexuality are misguided, misunderstood or misinterpreted. He attempts to "set the record straight" on such topics as polygamy, homosexuality, adultery, and morality. So far, so good. In fact, such a work would be a welcome addition as an attempt to integrate one's faith in daily living. But Ellens goes far beyond that noble goal by injecting his own brand of morality, making assumptions that lack biblical support or evidence, and by sexualizing biblical passages that strain the credulity of any astute reader. Allow me to quote some passages from the book:

"The most interesting thing about sex in the Bible is the fact that the Bible does not moralize sex. It simply takes a matter-of-fact view of sex as a central human reality, like eating, sleeping, hunting, gathering, building, and worshipping. That is, the Bible thinks of sexuality as a common form of human creative expression. You could even say that the Bible simply thinks of sex as a valuable form of human communication and connection, and that is all there is to it."

"The Bible... assumes that sexual communion between consenting adults who have a meaningful friendship is a natural, normal, and desirable form of communication and sharing."

"The Bible... is aggressively against... promiscuous sex, incest, pedophilia, necrophilia, bestiality, adultery, homosexual behavior by heterosexual persons, and rape. It almost never mentions all other kinds of sexual behavior and assumes they are being practiced by humankind, universally, and are essential to life of God's Shalom: peace and prosperity. These would include sexual union within marriage, sexual communion between unmarried consenting adults within a meaningful friendship, and premarital sexuality between persons exploring the possibility of, or engaged in a potential marriage contract."

"The Bible says nothing about sexual relationship between two unmarried adults who have a meaningful friendship but do not intend engagement or marriage. The Bible assumes it is taking place in that it is normal; as natural a thing for humans to do as are any other forms of intimate communication."

The problem with these statements is that Ellens never qualifies them. That is, he never gives any biblical (or other) rationale for why he believes these things to be true - he just puts them out there and I guess we're all supposed to be persuaded by the weight of his many degrees and life experience. I will concede that the Bible does appear to be silent on the issue of premarital sex - at least in the New Testament, since the definition of "fornication" can be debated - but this hardly means that one can just "assume" that God is in favor of it. In the OT, premarital sex was analogous to marriage; that is, if you had sex with a virgin, you were obligated to marry her (Ex. 22:16, Deut. 22:28-29). There was an implied commitment with sleeping together that assumes that lifelong marriage is intended. Indeed, for a woman to be found not to be a virgin at the time of her wedding was grounds for her stoning (Deut. 22:1321), since such promiscuity was seen to be a disgraceful thing.

By contrast, Ellens seems to adopt the "silence is consent" method of morality - that is, unless something is expressly forbidden, it must be okay. He seems to conveniently overlook the fact that many of the modern moral dilemmas faced by us today have no mention in Scripture simply because such things as in-vitro fertilization, cloning, euthanasia, etc. were not envisioned by biblical writers. Other issues such as masturbation and abortion are not expressly mentioned either. This doesn't mean we can't uncover moral guidelines that pertain to these issues, but we don't necessarily look to the Bible to address them specifically. Ellens neatly sidesteps the moral quandary he may find himself in by simply referring to a lack of explicit biblical criticism, then shrugging his shoulders as if to say, "It must not matter then." As to where he gets this whole "meaningful relationship" thing - and what that means exactly - I have no idea.

One of the most preposterous statements made by Ellens is his claim that "obviously...heaven is a setting of holy promiscuity, where we shall enjoy total union with everyone who really delights us." He reaches this conclusion by recounting the story in Mark 12:18-27 where the Sadducees came to Jesus with the story about the widow and her seven husbands, asking whose wife she would be at the resurrection. Jesus replied, "when the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven." Call me unenlightened, but this doesn't seem to be an "obvious" conclusion to make in this case.

I won't go into his whole chapter on homosexuality, but one claim he makes at the outset is quite telling. He says that "Recent brain tissue studies persuade us that sexual orientation is inborn and preset at conception." Since one of the key arguments in favor of legitimizing homosexuality has long been that they were merely "born that way," it is obviously in their favor to find some evidence to support this assertion. But in Ellens' case, of course, he cites no particular study to buttress this argument - he just throws it out there and hopes (again) that no one will notice his lack of scholarly support.

In case it isn't immediately obvious by now, I found this whole book to be an exercise in frustration. No doubt there are some good and healthy views to be gleaned from its pages, but they are overshadowed (in my view) by the specious claims of the author whose effort, if not his intent, is to make Christian sexuality no different from the ambiguous morality of the surrounding culture.

Thanks, but no thanks.


Philip Kledzik said...

I agree with you. "Thanks but no thanks." I've not read the book, but from all the passages that you quoted in it, I don't think I even want to. I feel sorry for this man for the wrath he'll receive for deceiving God's sheep in this way. Another way to look at his "absence must mean consent" view is in the New Testament. When Christ is talking about how adultery isn't just the physical sexual action, but "looking upon a woman with lust in your heart" is adultery. Wouldn't that be inclusive instead of exclusive when discussing this issue? Christ makes it a matter for the heart, not just for our physical bodies.
Thanks for the heads up on this book, I will definately stear clear and advise others to do the same.
Philip Kledzik

be603 said...

tortured logic. twisted doctrine.

reminds me of my teen years trying to find a way to rationalize from Scripture the desire to go "just a bit further."

Pornea is what it is.

thanks for the wave off of this book.

Curtis said...

Teacher at Wayne State sort of has the same cachet as Archbishop of Canterbury. Why would anybody read a word written by either of the current incumbents? Sex, the Bible and morality in modern times used to be, for me, somewhat like the Hippocratic Oath; do no harm. Since I'm a simple fellow that boiled down to having sex with women; not with Catholic priests or little boys or little girls or other guys. It was one of those unspoken, everybody agrees means to have sex. Then we got modern and started to get the leftist educated bastards in the priestly class and they started a long slog to convince everybody who believes that any sex is good sex. I wonder if we have reached the point where some priest somewhere could read the words, "Play the man Ridley" and assume that it was one priest exhorting another to bugger him.

I've given up reading modern texts on morality, religion or philosophy. Not only is it painful, it is pointless. They are written by people who hold no genuine beliefs or conviction but are simply writing to impress their friends, sycophants and fellow travelers.

Anonymous said...

Good review! The argument from silence is always dangerous, and especially so when we apply it to theology. But in this case, it doesn't sound like he's even truly arguing from silence, much as he might claim "the Bible says nothing about this" - he's arguing from deliberately muzzling the portions of the Bible that might contradict what he wants to believe.

It's always a mistake to let your hormones do your theology for you. More and more, the arguments related to sexuality & Christianity seem to stem from the statement, "But telling people their sexual practices are sinful makes people feel sad & marginalized, and God never wants people to feel sad and marginalized, so they must not be sinful..." Unfortunately for them, the Bible deliberately states that living for Christ is hard & sin _does_ separate you from God and should, ideally, make you feel sad!