Atheist students at a Texas university are offering porn in exchange for Bibles arguing, "same diff." Inflammatory, to be sure, but are they right? The Bible is indeed full of racy material, from its very first book on. Robert Crumb's Genesis in graphic novel form warns on the cover that adult supervision is recommended. The Song of Solomon's highly suggestive erotic poetry is inspiration for a line of Christian sex toys that you can buy at Book22.com (in one Christian ordering of the books, it is the 22nd). In the New Testament, Paul explicitly lists some of the ways that people "got off" in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Revelation, the final book of Christian canon, describes in gory (albeit symbolic) detail the whoring of Babylon. And that's just a wee sampling of the sex. But pornography isn't just about sex, is it? There's something more that makes it what it is... and so difficult to define. There's something of the forbidden and shameful about it. There's the debasing and humiliating, the using and abusing of others for a temporary pleasure that drives porn. Violence and the horrors that lay a person out raw, which we watch hungrily, disaffected and complicit. Isn't that combination -- the repulsive and our inability to tear our eyes away from it -- porn, too?
Wouldn't it be nice to say that the Bible includes no such narratives, images, and invitations? But it does. Saul is castigated for showing mercy to a vanquished king, so we watch smugly as he carries out the righteous act of butchering Agag. We watch as a nameless woman, gang-raped and left for dead, is cut into eleven pieces to rally the Israelite tribes against their own. The prophet Ezekiel likens the capital cities of Samaria and Jerusalem to two young women and proceeds to subject them to graphic humiliations and abuse. We watch comfortably even titillated, knowing that "they deserved it." Doesn't Jesus's crucifixion -- an innocent submitting to a twisted power of the state, of hatred and fear, brutally humiliated and strung up in bloody torture... and accepted as somehow right and good -- meet the criteria for porn? Paul's stern rebukes (whether they came from him or became attributed to him) of women thinking, acting, and speaking with equal humanity as men, and the ways in which those texts have denied women their fullest expressions of humanity... is that porn? Or when biblical texts serve the purposes of the powerful to circumscribe individual growth and even to dehumanize the other... well, a case could be made.
Finally, though, the Bible is isn't the same as the porn those university students are handing out. It is far more rich and nuanced. It is also full of the very things that lead us to push back against the arrogance of brutality and to cringe and to cry out in sympathy and compassion for the oppressed and abused. Even while it throws into our faces the ugliness of hatred and fear, violence and humiliation, it invites us to challenge (demands that we do!) whatever is life-denying to the least of these, the poorest, and most vulnerable. For that's finally what each of us is, what we all are. Hannah's song becomes Mary's Magnificat. Power is overturned and the weak become the strong. Expectations and assumptions are derailed and reborn in compassion and joy.
If we loose our grip on what the Bible can and cannot do, on what we allow that the Bible says and doesn't say, then maybe we'll witness the Bible embrace what seems pornographic only to assimilate and transform it into a mandate for the fully realized life for all beings in a family at home on this breathing earth.