Monday, November 29, 2010

Review: God and Sex

When a book is titled, or as in this case subtitled, what the bible really says that usually does not bode well. I say usually because Michael Coogan's book is a delightful exception to that rule. First off, he has chosen a fascinating topic. Second, Coogan is an excellent First Testament scholar. And thirdly, this is the perfect book to tie into my ongoing series on the theology of marriage.

Not only is sex a hot topic, it is the source of many a heated debate. Coogan does not skirt around any of this. His focus is clearly on what is in the text and he carefully steers us away from the culture wars so that we can give the texts a chance to speak. That is a good thing. But it is also a hard thing as the texts do not consistently present the values we cherish in our society. Over and over again Coogan points to the horrendous treatment of women in Scripture. This highlights his critique of the use of Scripture in the contemporary culture wars - that we all pick and choose what to highlight and what to ignore. If you are looking for a how to guide for Biblical sex, then you are probably not the kind of person who would be reading this book. But if you are looking for a careful study of what is actually in the texts themselves regarding human (and divine) sexuality, this is a great resource.

It is clear that Coogan's strengths are in First, sometimes called Old, Testament scholarship. (Funny note, at a few points I was reminded of the work of popular historian Thomas Cahill only to find Cahill mentioned in the Acknowledgments. It was a feeling I had based on Coogan's style. I found Coogan as easy to read as Cahill who is a very engaging writer.) He draws the reader into the scope of the text like an archeologist carefully unearths a site of antiquity. His forays into the New Testament are good, but somehow not nearly as engaging. Most of the chapters did leave me wanting more though, simply because everything is so interesting.

It is curious though that despite focusing heavily on the treatment of women, Coogan does not mention an important First Testament cultural challenge at the end of Job. In fact it is one of the few things that marks Job as being changed by his experience - the way he treats his new daughters. Here is where Coogan's insistance that we need to let the text speak as a whole becomes so important. But perhaps I find this important because it is foundational to my own strategy of working with Scriptural text. Coogan's proposed strategy is that the texts should be in dialogue with the people of faith and not simply taken as normative - otherwise we should treat women horribly and reinstate slavery. At least we should if we want to be faithful to all of Scripture.

In terms of my series Towards a Theology of Marriage. Coogan provides an excellent overview of Biblical views on marriage. And it is a mess. The following, according to the Bible, should be acceptable: women are merely property and are distributed in power broker type arrangements, a woman who is raped is not important it is an offense against her owner, married men as not prohibited from seeing prostitutes even though they may not let their daughters be prostitutes, polygamy is really the norm and if there were more women in the garden than Eve you can bet Adam would be depicted as procreating with them as well because as soon as this was an option (according to pre-historical texts) it was the norm. Of course none of this will support a high view of covenant such as I am proposing. But the good news is that we do not read Scripture this way. Even the hyper-literalists navigate their way through scripture using their preconceptions about what it 'should' say. This is why Coogan's proposal for Scripture in faith communities is so important.

If you are looking for an engaging read on a fascinating subject then look no further. If you want to read something that supports your already established notions of what the Bible says about sex - you might want to avoid this one. It will only make you mad. But for those of us who care about the text, this book is a great read.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

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