Sex, Shame, and the Bible

It might seem like a funny way to start out: I’m sharing my least favorite Robert Frost poem with you. Stick with me.

Frost himself described “The Subverted Flower” in a 1960 Paris Review interview as one he would not like read widely. When pressed, he said it was about “the frigidity of women.” The poem, a romantic encounter between a man and woman in a field of “goldenrod and brake,” begins as flirtation and desire but devolves into shame—not for the woman but for the man, who is literally reduced to a beast when she hesitates on his gesture:

She drew back; he was calm:
‘It is this that had the power.’
And he lashed his open palm
With the tender-hearted flower.
He smiled for her to smile,
But she was either blind
Or willfully unkind.

………….

… her mother’s call
Made her steal a look of fear
To see if he could hear
And would pounce to end it all
Before her mother came.
She looked and saw the shame:
A hand hung like a paw,
An arm worked like a saw
As if to be persuasive,
An ingratiating laugh
That cut the snout in half,
An eye become evasive.
A girl could only see
That a flower had marred a man,
But what she could not see
Was that the flower might be
Other than base and fetid:
That the flower had done but part,
And what the flower began,
Her own too meager heart
Had terribly completed.

“The Subverted Flower,” A Witness Tree, 1942

Sometimes we read a poem not because we like it but because it captures an emotion. Even as I resent the man’s inability to empathize with the “girl,” I appreciate the precariousness of his attempt to cross into intimacy. The failure, at once subtle and devastating, actually undermines both partners' understanding of the man as human, as though he "should" have known how to woo her in a way that wouldn't expose her power to fell him with a look. Shame and vulnerability expert Brené Brown recently recounted a similar story of a man who approached her at a book signing and urged her to broaden her research on shame to include men, saying, “Men experience shame, too, deep shame. And before you start bringing up too-tough fathers and so on … my wife and daughters would rather see me die on my white horse than fall off of it.”

Many years of research later, Brown locates this shame in the tendency for people, both men and women, to derive power from the specific roles they hold for one another. When one person exposes his vulnerability to the other, it can fundamentally alter the dynamic between them. How can we deal with this in a healthy, affirming way? One answer suggested by Brown is to become more willing to live with discomfort, without assuming we will ever “get good at it” to such a degree that we actually “like” the discomfort. As we become sensitive to our own continuous attempts to draw our power from others, we become better able to sit longer with the discomfort that results. We begin to recognize that roles can change and our relationships with friends, coworkers, parents, lovers, etc., can survive and even improve.

Unprotected Texts Knust

This article is part of a series on Unprotected Texts by Jennifer Wright Knust.

In a way, this is a softening of my comments about Buddhist meditation from a couple weeks ago. Handling discomfort is one skill meditation teaches. Speaking from more than ten years’ experience with cross-cultural and interfaith work, I can vouch for the fact that this skill doesn’t get easier, only more necessary. So this week when I picked up Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire by biblical studies scholar and American Baptist minister Jennifer Wright Knust, I was elated to discover a kindred spirit who is unwilling to let the Bible’s enormous variety of attitudes toward sexuality—with all the related facets of shame, vulnerability, and self control—go unnoticed.

Knust in no way attacks the Bible or Christians. Rather, she asks readers to begin with the text itself, to learn what it actually says, and to consider in what sense we want to be guided by what we find. She opens with a personal story about the bullying she experienced as a sexually inexperienced twelve-year-old who nevertheless was pegged the school “slut.”

As studies of the slut phenomenon in American high schools have shown, when it comes to being called a slut, the story is pretty much the same: A girl who is a misfit for one reason or another is selected (she’s the new girl, she develops breasts earlier than the other girls, her hair is different—whatever). Then the stories start, irrespective of what the girl has or has not done. … My experience at twelve taught me that, when it comes to sex, people never simply report what others are doing or even what they themselves are doing. … Sex, I have since discovered, can be used as a public weapon. (2)

People who don’t read the Bible stories closely, or who learned to hurry past uncomfortable passages, may not realize just how diverse the Bible’s approaches to sex and sexuality really are. Maybe I’m being too euphemistic when I say that. Let’s face it. Some people undeniably know about that diversity but pretend it doesn’t exist. Knust confronts that issue, too. Countering the existence of such a thing as “biblical standards” of sex, she presents this helpful overview:

The Bible does not speak with one voice when it comes to marriage, women’s roles, sexy clothes, and the importance of remaining a pure virgin for one’s (future) spouse. According to Genesis, a woman who sleeps with her father-in-law can be a heroine. Visits to prostitutes are also not a problem, so long as the prostitute in question is not a proper Israelite woman. According to the Song of Songs, a beautiful girl who enjoys making love can fulfill her desires outside of marriage and still be honored both by God and by her larger community. Sex is a good thing, and sexual desire is a blessing, not an embarrassment. Yet according to Exodus and Deuteronomy, sex is a matter of male property. Men can have sex with as many women as they like, so long as these women are their wives, slaves, or prostitutes, but a woman must guard her virginity for the sake of her father and then remain sexually faithful to one man after marriage. First Timothy offers yet another perspective: a woman must marry not so that she can express her desires appropriately but so that she can become pregnant and suffer the pangs of childbirth. God requires women to suffer in this way, and has demanded labor pains from them since Eve first sinned in Eden. Nevertheless, other New Testament books argue that the faithful followers of Jesus should avoid marriage if possible, in anticipation of a time when sexual intercourse will be eliminated altogether. Could one imagine a more contradictory set of teachings collected within one set of sacred texts? (8)

Sitting with these texts is a risky pursuit. It puts us in a position of discomfort, especially those of us who were raised with a “biblical standard of sex” mentality (whether or not we still adhere to it). I hope that you will join me, first of all, in reading this book over the next few weeks, and second, in testing some new, perhaps more vulnerable responses to today’s debates on this subject.

By the way, Brené Brown made one other point about vulnerability: it most often appears in situations that require a virtue we can all admire—courage.

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Cassandra Farrin Dec 2014 smCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history. 

Marcus Borg: A Collection of Tributes

Learn more about Marcus BorgDear Westar Community,

It is with sadness that we received the news of Marcus Borg’s death on January 21. Marcus Borg was a major contributor to the work of the Jesus Seminar in its seminal period.  In his career, he modeled the ideal of a Westar Fellow. Marcus ably bridged the gap between the academic guild and the general public. His books are cherished by Westar associates for their clarity and honesty. We at Westar will miss him terribly. Our sympathies go out to his family.

From Marcus

"Me and Jesus, the Journey Home"
Marcus Borg, The Fourth R

A few years ago I received an invitation from an Episcopal group in the San Francisco Bay area. “We want you to talk to us about Jesus,” they said, “and we want you to make it personal.” Nobody had ever asked me to “make it personal” before. Trying to figure out what to say, I wrote the words “Me and Jesus” on a page. I reflected on those words. What emerged was the story of “me and Jesus”—of what I could remember about Jesus from my childhood, adolescence, early adulthood all the way to the present. I see now that my “personal and academic pilgrimage” has been tied to the figure of Jesus from the very beginning...

Tributes to Marcus 

We have been overwhelmed by the number of tributes poured out to Marcus across social media, news sites, and blogs, a selection of which appears below.

"Much will be said, and deservedly so, of Marcus Borg’s career and contributions," wrote Westar Fellow Arthur Dewey. "No one can forget that his writings and lectures spoke to people far beyond the scholarly pale. But I cannot forget that notebook he forever carried to catch something unexpected, nor that shuttle ride to Atlanta’s airport, when he gently detailed his personal quest for his Christian roots. As he finished, I looked into that gentle face and found compassion again, as if for the first time."

Looking for a place to share your own response? We invite you to contribute here or on the Westar Institute/Jesus Seminar Facebook page, where there is already a growing collection of anecdotes, favorite quotes, and expressions of gratitude for his work.

Memorial to a Beloved Advisor, and Friend - Marcus Borg
Fred Plumer, ProgressiveChristianity.org

It will be impossible to ascertain just how big of an influence Marcus has had on the Progressive Christian movement, but I believe his biggest gift was the fact that he was a consummate teacher. It did not matter if it was one of his books, one of his lectures or if you were lucky enough to experience it, one of his quiet conversations, he always wanted to communicate in such a way you would get it...

My Friend, Marcus Borg
Rev. Barkley Thompson, God in the Midst of the City (blog)

Unlike so many other writers in the field of religion (on both ends of the spectrum), Marcus was humble. Once one of my parishioners asked him during Q&A, “But how do you know that you’re right?” He paused, looked at her thoughtfully, and said, "I don’t know. I don’t know that I’m right." ...

Marcus Borg, leading liberal theologian and historical Jesus scholar, dies at 72
David Gibson, Religion News Service, The Washington Post

Borg emerged in the 1980s just as academics and theologians were bringing new energy to the so-called “quest for the historical Jesus,” the centuries-old effort to disentangle fact from myth in the Gospels. Alongside scholars such as John Dominic Crossan, Borg was a leader in the Jesus Seminar, which brought a skeptical eye to the Scriptures and in particular to supernatural claims about Jesus’ miracles and his resurrection from the dead...

In Honor of Marcus Borg
Brian D. McLaren (blog)

Hardly the hard-bitten “liberal theologian” out to eviscerate Christianity of any actual faith, Marcus Borg impressed me as a fellow Christian seeking an honest, thoughtful, and vital faith, ready to dialogue respectfully with people who see things differently. ... Some friends of mine wrote about Marcus somewhat uncharitably on a few occasions. I remember a dinner where he asked me many questions about them, utterly non-defensive, sincerely trying to understand where they were coming from and how he could still seek common ground with them, something I wish his critics had done more earnestly with him...

Beloved Bestselling Author Marcus Borg
HarperOne, on Patheos

Marcus Borg was an internationally revered speaker and scholar who authored or co‐authored 21 books, some which were New York Times and national bestsellers. His books have won multiple awards and been translated into twelve languages. The New York Times called him, "a leading figure in his generation of Jesus scholars." ...

Marcus Borg Reintroduced Me to Jesus
Katherine Willis Pershey, Christian Century

Marcus Borg modeled how to doubt faithfully, how to believe rationally, and—most importantly—how to move “beyond belief (and beyond doubt and disbelief) to an understanding of the Christian life as a relationship with the Spirit of God.” Though his progressive take on scripture was anathema to many, to others it was a revelation...

Local Renowned OSU Jesus Scholar Marcus Borg Dies at 72
Anthony Rimel, Corvallis Gazette-Times

Borg’s scholarship was aimed to make Jesus a figure of the present that people can have a relationship with, rather than focusing on literalist interpretations of the Bible...

Marcus Borg didn't just study Scripture; he lived its message
Maureen Fiedler, National Catholic Reporter

I interview a lot of people -- wonderful people -- for "Interfaith Voices." Many are outstanding scholars and people of deep faith. But sometimes, someone really stands out. That was the way it was with Marcus Borg. Memories of my interviews with him came rushing back when I got the news that he had passed away on Wednesday...

4 Commandments for a New Christian History (Gnosticism series)

This is the final post in the blog series on Karen King's What Is Gnosticism? Up until this point I've followed along with King's critique of existing methods of doing Christian history. But of course no one wants to stop at criticism. The whole point of King's book is to encourage us to try out new strategies while mindful of past mistakes. In her final chapters King presents a range of experiments recent scholars have attempted, and gives specific advice for doing Christian history in a new way.

Credit: Pixgood.com

For today's blog, then, I have set her advice into guidelines, updated somewhat by the recent conclusions of the Christianity Seminar. Let's call them commandments, because we need to take them seriously for a while. It's too easy to sink back into what's familiar.

Guidelines for a New History of Christianity

  • Thou shalt not assume books of the New Testament are more historically important than other early Christian texts.

We actually don't know which texts came first, and in most cases there is healthy scholarly debate even around the exact dating of books within the Bible, ranging from within a couple decades of the death of Jesus to the late second century. Nag Hammadi and other texts have an equally wide range of possible dates of composition. Let's not confuse the theological importance of a text with its historical importance.

  • Thou shalt pick an audience.

Knowing your audience will help you decide how to choose what problems you tackle and what terms you use to define them. If you are a pastor speaking to a conservative-leaning mainline congregation, or a guest speaker at a Unitarian Universalist gathering, words like "gnostic" and even "Christian" might hold different meanings. Likewise, an academic writing a paper for New Testament scholars in one context maybe needs to take a different approach to the topic of early Christian history when engaging with classicists or patristics scholars. King quotes Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza on this point: "Scholarship, current and past, is always produced by and for people with certain experiences, values, and goals. Hence one must investigate the implicit interests and articulated goals of scholarship, its degree of conscious responsibility, and its accountability" (245, quoting Rhetoric and Ethic).

  • Thou shalt not seek the "origin" of "faulty" teachings.

First, what makes a teaching faulty? By whose standard? Second, all religions are derivative in the sense that they are all a mixture of traits of the religions that came before them. For example, Christianity inherited traits of Judaism, Greek mystery cults, and the philosophy and sciences of the times. If Christianity, even at its most traditional, is built upon the religious beliefs and practices of its predecessors, we shouldn't be concerned that non-traditional varieties of Christianity or related movements are somehow inferior simply because they also borrowed from other systems. Syncretism, writes King, "is 'an aspect of religious interaction over time'; it is about change, about the dynamics of religious beliefs and practices through time and across geographical and cultural space" (223, quoting Peter Van der Veer, "Syncretism, Multiculturalism, and the Discourse of Tolerance"). We must not assume truth always comes before error (228), or that truth is pure and unified while mixing is contamination (229).

  • Thou shalt become curious about ancient Christian literary production and social formation.

If you're not trying to find the "origin" of a religious movement, then what are you doing? You have a lot of options here. King (p. 190) suggests literary production and social formation. Let's become curious about how people invented and reworked the stories of their communities. Rather than saying we only care about the most original and earliest version of a text, let's become interested in what sort of community or person wrote a given text. For instance, who would want to take Paul's understanding of baptism as a ritual for Gentiles to be adopted into the people of God, and change it into a ritual for awakening the hidden, divine self? Both the adoption community and the divine-self community are surely interesting groups of people.

May we all go forth and re-tell the story.

This is the final post in a blog series on Karen L. King's book, What Is Gnosticism? This book formed the basis of the Fall 2014 Christianity Seminar in San Diego concurrent with the Society of Biblical Literature conference. Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.

Radicalism and Christianity

roots racine

As many people know, the word radical comes from the Latin word radix, which in French became racine, which means root. In French, Rue Racine can be translated to English as Main Street.

So, in effect, “radical” in its definition is not really radical. It just means the root or main meaning of something.

However, getting down to the root or core of something can be a radical act. If, for example, we want to get down to social equality, we have to enact justice. If the pathway to justice is blocked by cultural or institutional prejudice, then the activity of equality can involve social protest or other acts of civil disobedience. It is the history of trying to get down to the basics against those powers that block the way that has added “revolutionary” to the meaning of the word radical.

Faces of Radicalism in Christianity

The history of Christian radicalism is the history of theologians or theological movements attempting to get back to the root of the gospel despite and often against the institutional tradition of the church. There are many radical thinkers and movements in Christian history. Some we might consider conservative and some we might consider liberal.

Francis of Assisi was radical in his time (1182–1226). He understood the gospel to be about equality, identification with the poor, humility, and compassion. These were his root directives, we could say, and by them he practiced a type of Christianity virtually unheard of among his contemporaries: non-violent, inter-religious, and universalistic.

Martin Luther (1483–1546) was radical in his day because he stood against the institutional church and its corruption. His root directive was a proper understanding of and adherence to faith, scripture, and Christ. He translated the Bible into the language of common people and he denounced the autocratic powers of the Pope. Politically, Luther stood against the 1525 Peasant Revolt in Germany and was in this sense conservative. Yet, because of his scholarly approach to the Bible and his stance against the institutional church, he is commonly thought of as liberal.

A theologian who stood against Luther and with the peasants was Thomas Muntzer (1488–1525). He identified the gospel with the cause of social revolution. He accused Luther of believing in a honey sweet Jesus. Eventually, he was captured, tortured, and executed. Muntzer was politically radical in his time, yet his radicalism was rooted in apocalyptic vision. Today, due to his biblical literalism, we would likely call Muntzer conservative.

The Social Gospel

Though born in the 19th century the Social Gospel was the first radical movement in Christianity in the 20th century. It dealt comprehensively with the question of a revolutionary change in society. It was rooted in the Christian vision of the Kingdom of God on earth.

The Social Gospel was radical because it rejected traditional Christian moral teaching and traditional Christian beliefs. In the eyes of social gospellers, traditional Christianity was both otherworldly and irrelevant to the social crises of the day. According to Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918), the doctrinal history of the church (concern for beliefs such as the incarnation and justification by faith) had hidden from the church the gospel of Jesus, which concerns the kingdom of God. The true point or aim of the Christian message is to reconcile heaven and earth, that is, to re-create earth as the dwelling place of God.

The Death of God

The Death of God movement, like the Social Gospel movement, emphasized this world and rejected the supernatural traditional of Christianity. It’s reasoning, however, was not directly related to the question of justice in society. Rather, it was a crisis in the credibility of Christianity in light of modern science and philosophy that ignited the Death of God movement.

The Death of God is an expression taken directly from the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) who, in turn, drew the expression from G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831). In Nietzsche’s understanding the idea of God represents the long, transcendental or supernatural tradition of western thought. Simply put, unchanging and eternal truth rests up in the sky with God and is not to be found on earth. Nietzsche claimed that this notion of truth as otherworldly has died in our time. That is the death of God.

Theologians who took Nietzsche and modern science seriously also claimed that God had died in our time, but they linked this to a different image. Taking the key from Colossians, theologians like Thomas Altizer (1927–) emphasized the idea of kenosis or emptying. God in effect had left heaven or died to reside completely on earth. Indeed, there is no distinction between the earth and its history and God. This is a theology of radical incarnation: Altizer states, “It is [the otherworldly] God himself who is the transcendent enemy of the fullness and the passion of [hu]man[ity]’s life in the world, and only through God’s death can humanity be liberated.”

Concluding Remarks

Radical movements in Christianity usually come about in response to a perceived crisis, whether social or individual. Radicalism is significant to everyone, for human beings do not normally change their lifestyles except in response to a crisis. A medical doctor may tell us that unless we stop smoking or drinking, our life is in danger. The knowledge of that crisis can change us.

Radical is also an ambiguous word because it often means extremism. Sometimes what is perceived as extreme is right and just. Martin Luther King, Jr., was frequently judged extreme yet today his non-violent movement for racial equality is accepted internationally as a remarkable achievement. But other forms of extremism are dangerous and unjust. The racism that defined Nazi Germany and that continues to emerge in society today is an obviously harmful form of radical extremism.

In relation to Christianity and radicalism two points can be made. The first is that a radical person or movement often re-defines Christianity according to a basic insight. The second point is that the person or the movement is often responding to a crisis.

Today, the future of Christianity and, indeed, the future of God is a radical question with extreme responses. The extreme on the negative side involves religion with violence because such forms of extremism are based on the desire to control coupled with the fear of change. The negative and radical response to change is the use of violence to control. It is a type of religious psychosis or even sociopathology.

But a second extreme response can be judged positively. This is the response that sees a crisis and that knows change is inevitable. In the face of change, the response is to address root directives that can enable change for the good. Christianity, in its history, has examples of “good” radicalism when the inevitable of a new situation is faced with hope and courage.

The Modern situation for Christian theology includes vastly improved understandings of history—especially the history of the Bible, vastly advanced understandings of the universe, and vastly deeper understandings of human psychology. Add to this, a fourth: a vastly realistic understanding of religion as a human cultural creation. None of these major elements existed when the Bible was written. None were present when Francis of Assisi imagined his universalist form of Christian practice, and only an inclining of what was ahead was available to 19th Century thinkers still comfortably set in societies of male privilege. What all this means to contemporary, positive Christian radicals is the new challenge of re-imagining religion and, in this, asking a very difficult question: does religion have a future with humanity? Is it still possible to have religion or religiosity in a manner that makes a genuine contribution to the human future? Or is it the case that with the death of God must also come the death of religion for human’s sake?[divider style="hr-dotted-double"]

David Galston

David Galston, Ph.D., McGill University, is a University Chaplain, Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Academic Director at Westar Institute, and academic adviser to the SnowStar Institute in Canada. He is the author of Embracing the Human Jesus (2012).

The Qur’an in Historical Context

When I was a teenager my grandfather showed me a copy of a Qur'an his father had brought back from military service in the Middle East. It was lovely, with delicate pages just like a Bible and a clothbound cover. Of course it was in Arabic, so I couldn't read it. But it inspired me to try reading an English version of the Qur'an.

I found the experience highly perplexing. The Qur'an contains stories with familiar names from the Hebrew Bible—Moses, Joseph, Ishmael, and so on—but the details are different. For instance, in Genesis 39, Joseph is accused of accosting his Egyptian master Potiphar's wife. Joseph is thrown into prison on that basis and no one ever exonerates him. God turns this situation into a blessing, but the blemish is never removed from Joseph's record, so to speak. In the version of the story found in the Qur'an (Sura 12), from the beginning Potiphar treats Joseph/Yusuf more as an equal than a slave ("perhaps ... we will adopt him as a son"), and Joseph is exonerated on the basis of a rather humorous test:

[Joseph] said, "It was she who sought to seduce me." And a witness from her family testified. "If his shirt is torn from the front, then she has told the truth, and he is of the liars. But if his shirt is torn from the back, then she has lied, and he is of the truthful." So when her husband saw his shirt torn from the back, he said, "Indeed, it is of the women's plan. Indeed, your plan is great. Joseph, ignore this. And, [my wife], ask forgiveness for your sin. Indeed, you were of the sinful."

Happily, Joseph is found innocent, his reputation left untarnished. (In fact, Potiphar's wife is also exonerated. When the women of the city laugh at her for seeking to seduce a "slave boy," she invites them to dinner and has Joseph serve the meal. His good looks enchant the women so much, they forget what they are doing and cut their hands with their dinner knives!)

Had I encountered the Joseph/Yusuf story, I might have kept reading, but I remember distinctly wondering by Sura 2 why the story was in such a big hurry, and why on earth it mattered what color the cow was that the Israelites sacrificed (2:68), and soon abandoned the project. The Bible is no easier to understand, of course, but I didn't have even the equivalent of the minimal context church had given me for that. Perhaps you've shared a similar experience. It took 9/11 and some thoughtful professors to open the Qur'an again.

What happens when we place the Qur'an in historical context instead of plucking bits and pieces from it at random to defend particular views?

Honor Diaries

Raheel Raza is one of several women featured in the award-winning documentary Honor Diaries

Award-winning Muslim activist Raheel Raza addressed the confusion and problems that result from a lack of proper historical understanding of the Qur'an at her presentation Politics, Patriarchy, and Power: When the Word of God Goes Wrong on November 23rd, 2014, at the San Diego Convention Center as part of the Westar Institute Fall 2014 national meeting. Raza has graciously shared an outline of her speech with us, so in this blog post I'm sticking to a few interesting points of connection.

"Islam is in the spotlight, like a deer frozen in the headlights of a car. Since 9/11 especially, there has been no stone left unturned in scrutinizing each aspect of the faith by both experts and pseudo-experts," Raza began. "This work is being done at two levels—one of course is the very important scholarly, academic level ... but what you don't normally see is the work being done at the grassroots level, by the activists ... to light a fire under the feet of religious leadership to bring about change." She goes on to make a critical observation—one that will no doubt sound familiar to Westar members and friends—that activists need the support of critical scholars.

Critical scholarship can challenge assumptions about the past by offering a more nuanced history of religion. Where activists are able to access this information and engage with it, they can in turn have an enormous impact on debates around such issues as environmental ethics, end-of-life care, gender and marriage roles, interfaith relations, institutional violence and poverty. We can acknowledge this without feeling overly critical of Islam. After all, it was (literally) only yesterday that Libby Lane was appointed the first female Bishop in the UK.

The historical study of Islam has not been discussed much at Westar in recent years, so this subject may be as new to you as it is to me. A bit ironically, Westar Fellow Joseph Bessler opens his book A Scandalous Jesus: How Three Historic Quests Changed Theology for the Better with an anecdote about an exchange between Muslim author Salman Rushdie and Bill Moyers on the PBS program Faith & Reason regarding this exact issue:

"Yes," I thought, still somewhat amazed, "he's calling for a study of the historical Muhammad." Lamenting the silencing of public discourse, Rushdie highlights the importance of historical studies as a way of moving Islam toward a more tolerant and open civil society. Such scholarship, implicitly challenging the notion that the Qur'an is a divinely revealed text, would undercut the theological argument by which Islamic states and radical clerics censor and silence public dissent. ... Moyers' interview with Rushdie gives an American audience the opportunity to see the importance of the West's own history of conlflict between traditional assumptions of religious authority and the creation of an open civil society. My own reading of the interview is that Rushdie sees the question of the historical Muhammad not simply as a point of inquiry but as a needed point of leverage for opening up the sphere of public discourse in Muslim societies. (10–11)

So what are some of the issues that contribute to confusion around the Qur'an? Like the Bible, its contents do not appear in chronological order. The books are organized from longest to shortest. The books were composed in two very different locations (Mecca and Medina), and span many years in the life of Muhammad. Another natural problem the Qur'an shares with the Bible is its antiquity; it simply does not address modern issues, at least not directly. These barriers confuse attempts to figure out what the Qur'an can tell us especially about the actual teachings of the historical Muhammad. (Note: I am not addressing here the role of hadith, the collection of sayings and traditions about the prophet, in this quest, but obviously hadith studies are vitally important to the question of the historical Muhammad as well.)

South African Islamicist Farid Esack was once asked about how to handle modern social issues, such as AIDS, that are not mentioned in the Qur'an. Esack encouraged his listeners to engage with these contemporary issues rather than avoid them. "When I read the Qur'an and re-read it ... I have to look at it in the context of today. So I look at the issue of AIDS in the light of compassion and mercy, which is what we are told God is all about." In a fascinating lecture on the subject of Islam and ethics—helpfully, from an Africa-based rather than Western-based perspective—Esack observes that 9/11 has significantly narrowed discussions of Islam in the United States to arguments over whether or not it can be compatible with peace, with the US Constitution, and so on. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to focus on other critical issues such as enslavement and impoverization, and what Islam can offer with regard to that. He found himself having to re-frame his priorities depending on which continent he was doing his scholarly research.

Individuals like Rushdie, Esack, Raza are seeking a more nuanced understanding of Islam in public discourse where it intersects with their respective areas of work. Raza cited multiple examples of places in the Qur'an that complicate claims made about it in the post-9/11 West: "The Qur'an clearly elucidates that is is a message that is to be practiced in conjunction with the messages that came before it," she said. Traditionally, the daily prayers recited by Muslims include a blessing on Abraham and his progeny. For that matter, "Jesus is mentioned more times by name in the Qur'an than Muhammad." We don't hear much about this because from early in the history of Islam, leaders began quoting the Qur'an as an authoritative text for their own purposes (sound familiar?):

Extremists don't relate the history [behind the Qur'an]; they just take one line out of context. ... One of the reasons that the misinterpretation of the Qur'an became so popular after the death of the Prophet is that the early rulers right after the Prophet had so politicized the faith that they used carefully chosen verses to promote their own political agendas. This was the rise of Islamicism as we know it today. ... This was a tragedy that overtook the spiritual message of Islam.

Among the scholars of Islam Raza has found most helpful as an activist include Amina Wadud, author of Qur'an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman's Perspective, and Laleh Bakhtiar, the first woman to translate the Qur'an. Raza has listed these and other role models and mentors on her recommended reading page on her personal website. The information is out there, and the quest for a (post)modern understanding of the Qur'an is truly still in its infancy. We can't let pride get in the way of learning, whether we are engaging with that quest from within or outside that tradition, so it is with that spirit that I will conclude with a piece of light-hearted—not necessarily easy—advice from Raza: "We have to learn to self-critique and laugh at ourselves."

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[divider style="hr-dotted"] Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.