The latest Grove Biblical booklet is by Dr Richard Briggs, Lecturer in Old Testament at the University of Durham and Director of Biblical Studies at Cranmer Hall. The title is Fairer Sex and the blurb runs as follows:
The church is often accused of being obsessed with sex—and contemporary discussion is often contentious and has a very narrow focus. But Scripture has a lot more to say about sex, love and gender relations. In this fascinating and engaging study, we encounter a spiritual reading of some well-known episodes in the Old Testament which have surprising and striking relevance to the wider questions we face today.
This review of the booklet is by John Grayston, former Director of Theology and Hermeneutics at Scripture Union. The chief virtue of the review is that it makes no mention of tribunals, clergy discipline or bishops’ guidelines. I think it has some other merits too…
Discussions about the Bible and sex have arguably reached an impasse; all too often what purport to be new insights are merely the old arguments repeated, and not always in new ways. So does Fairer Sex have anything new to offer? I think it does. Richard Briggs’ thesis that a wider range of texts needs to inform the discussion may open fresh possibilities.
Who, for example, would start a discussion on the Bible and sex with Samson and Delilah? But if, as he suggests, the (ab)use of sex either as domination or manipulation leads to the conclusion that ‘sex makes a rubbish god’, much contemporary thinking on sexuality is subverted. Our debates are too often predicated on the assumption that sex is a right rather than a gift. When a discussion of Ruth focuses not on Ruth and Boaz (and there was I wanting a definitive answer as to what was, or was not, going on at the threshing floor) but on the notoriously difficult to translate Hebrew chesed and the relationship between Ruth and Naomi, we are encouraged to think about loyalty and commitment – to the other and to God – before we ever start to think about sex.
So there is at least the possibility of another way. But there is something of equal interest here – the way in which the texts are handled.
They … deserve attention in a way that does not lock them up in the technical world of Old Testament specialists. So I have tried to write what might be thought of as a series of spiritual readings.
Now, it may just be because I have spent so much of my life involved in one capacity or another in the production of daily Bible reading notes that I find this so congenial. But is it not what those of us who handle Scripture week by week are about—bringing an ancient text to life in our world in ways that are life giving and life changing? Here we have four models that in their freshness and creativy are in ways that are challenging and suggestive. The text and its world and the readers and their world are taken seriously. The technical stuff is not neglected. But there is added extra and I suspect that what makes the difference is that Richard also has in his hermeneutical tool bag two tools that are sometimes in short supply – imagination and humour.
I shall never view Jephthah in the same way again. We travel with him in his stagecoach (?), as he exults in his Spirit-empowered victory over the Ammonites and envisages all the future possibilities it opens up, but with a vow ‘weighing heavy on his heart’. We are invited to enter the story and relive the emotions and the questions and to experience the darkness of the narrative. We are reassured that ‘when we find ourselves in those darkest places’, ‘holy Scripture is there ahead of us’. By the way, when did you last hear a sermon on Jephthah? When did you last preach a sermon on Jephthah? Of course, we believe all Scripture is inspired and useful, but… Users of the lectionary are excused this implied criticism as, surprise, surprise, Judges 11 does not appear (actually from what I can see there is only one reading from Judges in the three years).
Imagination enables us to see the bloodied-sheet-as-proof-of virginity, as ‘some kind of protection for the woman’ on the grounds that it could be easily faked – at least in a world which knew nothing of DNA tests. This is not to take the text of Deuteronomy lightly but to view it from a different place. We are encouraged to interrogate the text from different angles and are permitted to come up with some unexpected answers. We are reminded that we are in the world of legal judgment rather than romantic love. While we wait to get into an examination of the material on sex, we are entertained with a discussion on weights and measures.
Humour abounds throughout; Richard expresses a concern that discussion of sex in our world is too often left to the stand-up comedians, and he seems determined to play them at their own game. While we have seen a resurgence of interest in Christians and humour – only last week LICC ran an interview with Milton Jones and the BBC had a clip of a Christian comic – probably most of us still find sermons humourless. This seems something of a shame given that Jesus was pretty good at it, and one of the best ways of dethroning false gods is laughter. Not everyone will enjoy the humour of Fairer Sex – some may even find it too flippant – but it has to be better than some of the bland fare that is regularly dished up.
To earth the text in a different world requires immersion in a range of cultures, and I am in awe of the breadth of cultural references. Ally McBeal (‘Samson is a man who thinks with his dumbstick’) and John Milton are reference within the space of seven lines, with bedroom farce, Tom Jones and Sweeney Todd sandwiched in between. Try that in next Sunday’s sermon!
Now a confession; I feel something of a fraud. This being a review I feel the need to provide something critical, but can’t. There is just too much to like. It opens up new possibilities in our thinking about the Bible’s wisdom on sex and relationships. It provides four models of imaginative, creative, earthed (and sometimes earthy) explorations of the text. But let Richard Briggs have the last word himself, ’A loving reader takes time to listen, reflect, and engage respectfully. A hermeneutic of love may be an altogether worthwhile Christian goal.’ Yes!
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