Exegetical malpractice in -- of all places -- Newsweek

For a religion reporter editor of a major magazine, Lisa Miller of Newsweek can be woefully undereducated about some religion basics. Such as the Old and New Testaments. The unintentionally hilarious headline of her recent piece is "What the Bible Really Says About Sex." In it she writes that the Bible is a jumbled mess of patriarchy and contradictions but that it approves of premarital sex and so you should feel free to engage in that. Or something. Anyway, she begins with a basic tale from the Song of Solomon and then informs us that, sit down, it's from the Song of Solomon IN THE BIBLE. Really:

This ode to sexual consummation can be found in -- of all places -- the Bible.

In the Bible? Why mercy me! Who knew such things were in the Bible? When did this "Bible" book become available for public consumption? I wonder what other untold shockers are in it. And what do you have to do to gain access to these naughty bits? Miller lets fly with such nuggets of wisdom, available to every single young Christian who has gone through a basic catechism class, a weekend lock-in in the church basement, or, heck, a third-grade Sunday School class on the right week of the church year.

The piece is obviously not going to teach you anything you didn't know, assuming you're even mildly familiar with the Bible or even some of the less respected Biblical scholars of recent decades (the ones that claim to know that King David was totally gay and had gay sex with Jonathan). But let me say this much: After her piece on how the Bible loves same-sex marriage was ridiculed all over the place, she at least quoted some people in this piece who disagree with her. It's sad that this is an improvement, but improvements should be noted. Right up at the top Richard Muow, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, is quoted. But then she goes right back at it:

These battles over the "right" interpretation are, of course, as old as the Bible itself. In today's culture wars, the Bible--specifically a "one man, one woman" argument from the Book of Genesis--is employed by the Christian right to oppose gay marriage.

If you're wondering about those old battles for same-sex marriage that are as old as the Bible itself, you won't find any substantiation in the piece. In fact, you won't learn how consistently the church has taught regarding the heterosexual basis of marriage. But you will be told that "many" people respond to the idea that sex should be enjoyed solely within marriage by believing the Bible just doesn't speak for them. How many? Who needs substantiation? This is Newsweek! Instead we learn that the Bible doesn't have a word to say about "traditional marriage." Perhaps Newsweek's copy of the Bible doesn't include passages such as this one where Jesus says:

And He answered and said to them, "Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate."

I don't know, maybe the Gospel of Matthew and the words of Jesus are too obscure for a piece on what the Bible "really" says about sex. Anyway, from there she lays out the arguments of two authors of recent books. As mentioned, if you were alive in the 1980, 1990s or thereabouts, you're probably familiar with many of these arguments: The Bible is an ancient text, inapplicable in its particulars to the modern world. It's patriarchal. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah had nothing at all to do with homosexuality. Some of it goes into territory that would get much higher marks for blasphemy than exegesis, such as one author's assertion that Jesus had sex with the woman who washes his feet in the Gospel of Luke. The passage about Sodom and Gomorrah even explains that back "in the biblical world" people actually believed in angels? Can you imagine what silly people these folks were?

The piece ends with a quote from "eminent Bible historian" Elaine Pagels, as you probably could have predicted if I'd asked you "Guess who is quoted in the final paragraph of this piece." But before that, we get this quote that is included in the piece without any obvious irony:

A person alone on her couch with Scripture can also come to some dangerous conclusions: the Bible has, at certain times in history, been read to support slavery, wife-beating, kidnapping, child abuse, racism, and polygamy. That's why Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, that citadel of Christian conservatism, concludes that one's Bible reading must be overseen by the proper authorities. Just because everyone should read the Bible "doesn't mean that everyone's equally qualified to read it, and it doesn't mean that the text is just to be used as a mirror for ourselves," he says. "All kinds of heresies come from people who read the Bible and recklessly believe that they've understood it correctly."

For his part, Mohler says that's not what he said. He said his point was not that the church needs authorities to oversee Bible reading but that "just any interpretation of the Bible will not do. The authority in this issue is that of the Bible itself. Those who read it as bearing the very authority of God will read the Bible quite differently than those who see it as a human book conditioned and warped by human frailty and fallibility."

Quoting more than one side is a start, but you want to make sure you actually understand and accurately reflect what they're saying. Call it journalism 101. And while this piece is also better than that abominable previous example of exegetical malpractice (which is saying nothing, really), it fails to inform readers about the topic at hand.

In presenting the arguments from two recent books, Miller inaccurately presents the arguments as new. The piece (which attempts to expose contradictions in the Bible) also has too many contradictions and curiosities that are left unexplained. Is the Bible wrong or is it just the interpretations that are wrong? And if the Bible is an ancient, patriarchal, awful text, why are we arguing that it embraces gay sex, premarital sex, etc? And why are we saying that's a good thing if, again, the Bible is this awful, patriarchal mess of incohesion?

I bet the authors actually have a response to these questions. Perhaps it would be better, when attempting to take down traditional Biblical arguments regarding sex and marriage, if we could get a reporter who would ask a few meatier questions. It would do everyone a service. It's like in the Newsweek piece when there's this big "gotcha" moment of learning that in the Old Testament, divorce is permitted. But in the New Testament, Jesus frowns on it. I get that this is news, sadly, to Lisa Miller and the other folks at Newsweek. But obviously this isn't a gotcha moment to anyone who's been Biblically literate in the last 2000 years. Either way, it's presented as a contradiction. Many brilliant academics have written on just this topic and "contradiction" is not really scratching the surface of what they have to say about it. It's not even scratching the surface of what the least interested or educated 8th-grader in my catechism class would have had to say about it.

I get that these national "news" weeklies have to dumb down stuff for a general audience, but I even the average student could handle a ton more complexity and scholarship than this piece offered. But if you were hoping to learn anything about what the Bible has to say about sex or marriage, this piece wouldn't even rank on an extremely long list of things you should read. It doesn't just do a poor job of explaining what the Christian church teaches and has taught on these matters so much as just not even address the question in any meaningful way. What the Bible "really" has to say about sex would make for a great article. This article doesn't even come close. That it comes from the magazine's religion editor, of all people, is a sad statement for Newsweek and the product they're failing to push.

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