Promoting a Righteous Sexuality
A Review of
The Bible and Sexuality: A Course Reader
Paperback: Contemplatio Publishing, 2020
Buy Now: [ IndieBound ] [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]
Reviewed by Tim Otto
The Bible and Sexuality Affirms Both Gay Marriage and Sex within Marriage
I rank Karen Keen’s first book, Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships, the best read for members of my church as we consider our posture on gay relationships.
I’ve read dozens of books on the topic, and Keen’s book—which advocates the affirmation of LGBT relationships and identities—is the most concise, well-reasoned, and generous to her opponents. For a book clocking in at a slender 114 pages, it covers not only the relevant Biblical passages and the most salient arguments, it also provides a helpful context as it surveys the history of Christian thought on the topic. Each chapter includes a summary at the end making it easy to trace and remember Keen’s reasoning.
As my church’s discussion of LGBT sexuality unfolds, it has uncovered other areas of disagreement about sexual ethics. I realize we need an ethical framework that is compelling for everyone in the church. With this in mind, I noticed that Keen has also published The Bible and Sexuality. I bought it hoping that it would articulate the affirming perspective within a robust Christian sexual ethic of covenantal fidelity.
The short answer is: it succeeds in that mission. I realized, however, that I hadn’t noticed the subtitle, “A course reader.” The Bible and Sexuality is intended as the reading for a class offered by Keen on sexual ethics. As such, it doesn’t have the polished flow of a book. And, despite its more general title, it focuses primarily on LGBT sexuality. Even so, it is a worthwhile resource for anyone who wants to think deeply about Christian sexual ethics. In this review, I’ll look at some of its strengths and then interact with one possible weakness.
As in her first book, Keen begins with an overview of Judeo-Christian thought on sexual ethics. Her survey reveals both stability and change in the Biblical witness. Faithful marriage to one man was always the ethic for women but in the Old Testament men were permitted to have sex with slaves, concubines, and to have multiple wives. Keen traces the way the tradition evolved and why. Her overview gives perspective to the current debate and leaves us with this question: at the end of the New Testament did the Christian sexual ethic solidify into its final and unalterable form? Or, given how we see ethics change in scripture, might the Christian tradition continue to evolve in response to the Spirit’s work in our time?
Following the historical overview, Keen offers a chapter entitled “Bible Verses on Same Sex-Relations: A Quick Guide.” As in her other book, it is one of the fairest and succinct summaries available. In the next chapter, on interpreting scripture, Keen lays out seven simple principles such as “proof-texting leads to misinterpretation.” This chapter is incredibly useful since the disagreements over sexuality usually stem from people using different lenses to interpret scripture. As we identify these, we can get to the root of what we are really arguing about.
In the second section of The Bible and Sexuality, Keen explores the principles from scripture that should form our sexual ethic. She nails these. The first one, for instance, is “sex is connected to community wellbeing.” In our radically individualist culture, scripture invites us into the community of “church,” and asks us to see our body as connected to others—indeed, as part of the body of Christ. I remember how, after an affair happened in my church that caused great devastation, a friend remarked, “It’s like the proverbial f-bomb went off among us.” Our sexual lives affect others.
Keen asserts that there must be a better way of promoting a righteous sexuality than through shame and rules. She cites the apostle Paul’s words, “While we were in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the Law, were at work in our members” and “Sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead” (Rom 7:5, 8). Rather than policing people through shame and rules, Keen claims that we have the best chance of living holy sexual lives as we live the life of the Spirit (characterized by love, truthfulness, humility, wisdom, and perseverance) through the power of the Spirit.
I’m am very sympathetic to this approach. In my own life I’ve felt the lure to violate the “taboos” and I’ve gotten in trouble for doing so. Shame has caused much devastation in my life, and has helped fuel some of the ways I’ve sinned sexually. Because of that, I’m drawn to this virtue ethics approach, which emphasizes the development of character over a system of rules. Even so, I hear the damning refrain from the book of Judges, “all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” Are there really no rules?
Although Keen cautions against shame and rules, given the Biblical principles she offers, I suspect she would agree to some fundamental rules such as rules against adultery and coercive sex. Beyond that, there is a whole arena of questions around topics such as sex and dating, masturbation, pornography, etc.
I think, for instance, of my sister and her three kids, all adolescent boys. As my sister talks to them about dating, is she to give them a little pep talk about the presence of the Spirit and the virtues of love, truthfulness, humility, wisdom and perseverance? That would certainly be better than nothing. But I suspect that given their age and development, it would be better to say, “The wisdom of God, as we understand it as your parents, is that you respect these sexual boundaries . . . “
I’m wondering, is there some kind of space between abstractions about virtue and legalistic rules? Just as the adolescent Israel needed the Torah, don’t most of us need specific sexual limits to discipline and direct our sexual drives? Although Torah can be translated as law, Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis suggests that it is best translated as instruction. Perhaps if we understand scripture in that spirit, we might benefit from its wisdom without rebelling against it as “law.”
Might it be good for families and church communities, to formulate specific “wise instructions” based on scripture about sexual ethics? I say this not only for the sake of my hormone-ridden nephews but for myself. In the area of sex, I’m tempted to rationalize and self-justify. I can imagine that a set of “wise instructions” formulated by my church community might serve as a way for me and others to call ourselves into question. If I violate that guidance, it’s an indication to check in with the Holy Spirit and others. I offer this concern about Keen’s suspicion of rules as a genuine question that the book raises for me.
Keen’s penultimate chapter in the book treats the question of what marriage is and whether it is possible for gay people. While this may seem a narrow question, it causes Keen to grapple with the historic Christian understanding that marriage is for procreation. Keen argues that the goals of Christian marriage are better understood as kinship, covenant, and sanctification.
Keen’s final chapter responds to the Nashville Statement, a document authored by conservative Christians against homosexuality and “transgenderism” in 2017. With sentences like, “WE DENY that adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption” I remember it as a self-righteous assertion of “truth” that was traumatizing to the LGBT community. I wondered why Keen would conclude by considering such Pharisaical logorrhea.
As I held my nose, however, and made my way through the last chapter, Keen’s keen analysis (sorry, couldn’t resist!) of the Nashville statement proves the worth of all that went before. Through her careful logic, and attentiveness to her opponents, Karen Keen shows how the underlying presuppositions of the authors (based on the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy) skew their reading of scripture with interpretive principles such as: “When writing Scripture, the biblical authors were in a perfected state akin to pre-fall Adam and Jesus.” The Nashville Statement is exhibit A for why we need a book like Keen’s. We need a book that offers solid interpretive guides, a historical perspective on sexual ethics in scripture, and one that gleans the Biblical principles for sexual ethics today. While this course reader may lack the polish of a book, it more than makes up for it in wisdom on sexual ethics.
Tim Otto is the author of Oriented to Faith: Transforming the Conflict over Gay Relationships and may be followed at @Tim_Otto.