Religion and Sex in the Bible when Viewed Through the Lenses of Liberal Presuppositions, Or, Nick Kristof Needs to Read More than One Book on This Controverted Topic
I have long enjoyed reading about the globe-trotting adventures of Nick Kristof, arch-liberal and New York Times columnist. Whatever his political ideology, he has literally given his own blood to save lives and shelled out his own cash to buy two girls out of sexual slavery. Sure, he did all this in front of the cameras… but I’m not that cynical. I think he has a heart of real compassion for oppressed people, a heart that conservatives should have, too.
But Kristof is indeed driven by an ideology, and it is nowhere more clear than in a recent column, a “Religion and Sex Quiz.” He buys all of the liberal arguments on sexuality in Scripture—and even some ugly innuendos against Bible characters like David and Ruth. This is simply irresponsible coming from an internationally renowned journalist writing for the “newspaper of record.” His regurgitation of liberal theology (he cites this book by Jennifer Wright Knust as his source) was not fit to print.
I’ll quote each of his points and then provide some brief evaluation. Note that I make no public policy recommendations in this particular blog post; my argument is about faithful interpretation of the Bible.
“The Bible’s position on abortion is…never mentioned as such.”
The “as such” reveals the problem with Kristof’s argument here. Identity theft is never mentioned as such, but theft is. Aborting unborn babies is never mentioned as such, but unjustified killing of humans is. The Bible at times makes general statements meant to apply to the always changing human situation. This is not a surprise to any mature Christian.
“The Bible suggests ‘marriage’ is… a.) The lifelong union of one man and one woman. b.) The union of one man and up to 700 wives. c.) Often undesirable, because it distracts from service to the Lord.” Kristof says it’s all three, A, B, and C. He points to the example of Solomon (1 Kings 11:3) and, of course, Paul’s words encouraging singleness in 1 Cor 7 and Jesus’ words about men who are eunuchs for the kingdom in Matt 19:12.
Narratives don’t have to come out and say explicitly what their morals are; the results of Solomon’s choices will show the moral of the story. In this case, however, the Bible does give the moral explicitly. And all Kristof had to do was read to the end of the very verse he cites: “And his wives turned away his heart” (1 Kgs 11:3b). And this is exactly what Deuteronomy 17:17 warns against: “[The king] shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away” (Deut 17:17).
As for Jesus’ and Paul’s praise of singleness, there are difficulties, but there are answers. Liberals often criticize conservatives for using “gotcha” arguments from Scripture without being more aware of context. And sometimes conservatives are indeed guilty of this sin! But here Kristof is the one who fails to read sympathetically. He wants to find contradictions; he wants to find confirmation of his worldview. It’s no surprise when his Bible-trotting journey ends where he always planned for it to go.
“The Bible says of homosexuality…. a.) Leviticus describes male sexual pairing as an abomination. [&] c.) There’s plenty of ambiguity and no indication of physical intimacy, but some readers point to Ruth and Naomi’s love as suspiciously close, or to King David declaring to Jonathan: ‘Your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women’ (II Samuel 1:23-26).”
If there’s plenty of ambiguity and no indication of physical intimacy, why imprint on ancient Jewish culture our culture’s suspicion that same-sex friendship has to be erotic (at least in a repressed way)? Are resolutely heterosexual male friends allowed to love one another in some respect surpassing their love for their wives? The words of Anthony Esolen in his article “A Requiem for Friendship” have rung in my ears ever since I read them:
What do the [homosexual] paraders achieve, with their public promotion of homosexuality? They come out of the closet, and hustle a lot of good and natural feelings back in. They indulge in garrulity, and consequently tie the tongues and chill the hearts of men, who can no longer feel what they ought, or speak what they feel.
“In the Bible, erotic writing is… exemplified by ‘Song of Songs,’ which celebrates sex for its own sake.”
Amen! God created sex to be enjoyed. And I’ll admit something Kristof seems to imply, that the Song of Songs does not specifically say that sex is reserved for married couples—even though other parts of the Bible do say this. As someone who presupposes by faith that the Bible is a unified document I see no contradiction here. As someone who presupposes by faith that adults should be allowed to do in their bedrooms whatever they mutually want to do—and that no god should be allowed to intrude—of course Kristof will read the evidence differently. But it’s our presuppositions that determine our respective perspectives (!) on the Song of Songs, not merely the text itself.
“Jesus says that divorce is permitted… [both] b.) Never. and c.) Only to men whose wives have been unfaithful.” He explains that “Jesus in Mark 10:11-12 condemns divorce generally, but in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 suggests that a man can divorce his wife if she is guilty of sexual immorality.”
I would say that these passages are complementary, not contradictory. Again, I’ll admit that we have some difficulties here. But again I’ll say that Kristof presupposes that harmonization is impossible—and, for him, undesirable.
“Among sexual behavior that is forbidden is… a.) Adultery. b.) Incest. c.) Sex with angels.”
Kristof is trading on our culture’s materialism: the enlightened people who read the Times don’t believe in supernatural beings like angels. But I will say that C. is obscure. It isn’t even clear that the two passages Kristof cites, Genesis 6 and Jude 6, are talking about the same thing. Genesis 6 doesn’t say “angels” but “sons of God.” As a Bible believer, I am not committed to saying that all of God’s word is equally clear to everyone; the Bible itself says that parts of it are difficult to understand (2 Pet 3:16)—and that some people, even if they do understand, won’t accept what they read until they are enlightened by God’s Spirit (1 Cor 2:14).
“The people of Sodom were condemned principally for… lack of compassion for the poor and needy [not homosexuality].”
Kristof cites Ezekiel 16:49, which indeed indicts Sodom for sins other than homosexuality. But the very next verse, 16:50, says that they also committed “an abomination” before God. A straightforward reading of the Genesis text (Gen 19:4-5) leaves no doubt that the men surrounding Lot’s house were driven by homosexual desire. Just because Ezekiel does not make this explicit does not mean that God (or later Jews) had a change of mind about homosexuality. Kristof again fails to make genre distinctions: narratives make their points implicitly, prophetic passages explicitly.
Kristof writes of the book from which he drew his column,
Professor Knust’s point is that the Bible’s teachings about sexuality are murky and inconsistent and prone to being hijacked by ideologues (this quiz involves some cherry-picking of my own). There’s also lots we just don’t understand: What exactly is the offense of “arsenokoitai” or “man beds” that St. Paul proscribes? It is often translated as a reference to homosexuality, but it more plausibly relates to male prostitution or pimping. Ambiguity is everywhere, which is why some of you will surely harrumph at my quiz answers.
I could say that these arguments have been answered again and again. And they certainly have (try this scholar, for starters). But Kristof is an opinion writer; he’s not required to read the other side—even if on a hot-button issue like this it would behoove him to do so.
But there’s a deeper issue here. Kristof has an agenda, and so do you and I. Each of us is going to read Scripture in line with that agenda. Kristof’s presuppositions turn the Bible into a rhetorical tool for him to unsettle Christian conservatives. He has a pragmatic goal he wants to achieve. He doesn’t personally care what the Bible says. Holy writ is, for him, only a bludgeon to be picked up when needed.
God forbid that Christians would use it the same way. We should not wield Scripture as merely a tool to help us do things we want; instead, through Scripture God stands over us with absolute authority. If the Bible really does not condemn homosexual behavior, it would be best for Christians to admit it now. Many American Christians were wrong about issues of race and only too late repented of their sin.
But if the God of the universe says homosexuality is morally wrong—just like all other forms of sexual activity outside monogamous heterosexual marriage (and just like gossip, lying, and numbers of other sins; cf. Rom 1)—then we will have to endure and patiently answer Religion and Sex quizzes at the New York Times.