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Filmmaker Susanne Bier, Seeking 'A Better World'
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
This year's Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and the Golden Globe
for Best Foreign Film went to the Danish movie "In a Better World." The
film begins opening in U.S. theaters April 1.
My guest is the film's director, Susanne Bier. Her other movies include
"After the Wedding" and "Brothers," which was remade into an American
film starring Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman. She
made one English-language film, "Things We Lost in the Fire."
For one of Bier's films, she followed the Dogme Manifesto that was
written in 1995 by the Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas
Vinterberg, creating a set of rules for making movies without
embellishments like props and special effects.
Bier's new film, "In a Better World," is set in Denmark and Africa. One
of the characters it follows is a doctor who lives in Denmark but works
part of each year in a medical clinic at an African refugee camp, where
some of his patients are the victims of a warlord's sadistic acts of
The doctor is so caught up in his work, he doesn't comprehend how his
son's life is being dramatically altered by the boys who have been
bullying him at school. The new student, who becomes his protector, is
out for revenge and may be more dangerous than the bullies.
Susanne Bier, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on your Oscar
and your Golden Globe.
Ms. SUSANNE BIER (Director, "In a Better World"): Thank you very much.
It's a pleasure to be here.
GROSS: Now, your new movie, "In a Better World," compares acts of
revenge and violence and the difficulty of finding forgiveness in an
African warzone and at home, at home where children are bullying each
other and where adults are bullying each other. What made you think
about that comparison between bullying at home and acts of, you know,
really sadistic violence in an African warzone?
Ms. BIER: I guess that the whole point was to sort of communicate that
the standards of living or the conditions of living in Africa, like in a
refugee camp in Africa and in a privileged town or part of Denmark,
couldn't be more different. But the actual human nature is so similar.
So it's kind of like, in a way, showing the same story but in two
GROSS: Now, in the African refugee camp there are some monstrous crimes
being committed. In fact, if you're listening with a child now, you
might want to just tune out for a few seconds because I'm going to
describe one of the crimes.
There's a warlord, the big man, who bets on pregnant women, on whether
they're carrying a boy or a girl. And in order to see if he's right and
if he's won his bet, he slits them open.
And the doctor in your movie, the doctor from Denmark who works in a - I
imagine in a Doctors Without Borders kind of organization and who works
in this refugee camp, sometimes has to try to save a pregnant woman who
is in this position and who is slit open.
Have you heard of such a crime? Is this based on something?
Ms. BIER: Actually, it's actually based on a real story that one of the
- we did talk a lot with Doctors Without Borders, and this one doctor
told me that she had encountered a patient coming in who was a known
warlord, and all the people at a refugee camp were terrified of him, and
he was known to do this.
He was known to take around gangs of young guys and bet as to whether
the sex of the infant in the womb was a boy or a girl. And in most cases
both the infant and the mother would die, because it's very, very hard
to save them.
And she was faced with that sort of - should she â he had - he'd been
hurt in an accident. Should she save him, or should she not save him?
And eventually he disappeared.
But it was just such an interesting story, and it's one of the few
stories which is actually built on a real thing in the movie.
GROSS: Yes, and in your movie, the doctor in your movie has to decide
when the big man comes to him with a horrible leg wound whether the
doctor's going to try to save him or not. And I won't give away what
happens with that.
Meanwhile, back at home in Denmark, the son of the doctor, who is
probably around 12, is being bullied at school because he appears wimpy,
and he's from Sweden, not Denmark, so he's called a Swede, an ugly
And here you have - you know, it's kids in a middle-class school, and to
an American there's not a huge difference between a Swede and somebody
from Denmark, you know, that...
Ms. BIER: (Unintelligible) either. That's actually - that's actually one
of the points, is that - it's also kind of a point about racism. It's
also showing how stupid racism is because, I mean, Swedes and Danes are
very - I mean couldn't be more similar.
So it's also kind of pointing at the - I mean how idiotic racism is in
GROSS: But even in marriage - there are problems within marriages in
your movie too. Even people who love each other are having trouble
Ms. BIER: Yes. The boy that you are mentioning, Elias, is the son of a
doctor, and his mother's in fact also a doctor. And the parents are
separating because of his infidelity, and he's being bullied at school
because he is insecure and not like a really forceful boy.
GROSS: The doctor who works at the African refugee camp part-time, he's
risking his life to save lives. He's really a hero at work. But at home
he's separating from his wife. He's really not there for his son, and
his son really misses him and at points in this movie desperately needs
his father to be there.
Do you think that some people who are really quite heroic in their work
have a home life that's falling apart because of it, they're really not
quite a hero at home?
Ms. BIER: I think it's extremely difficult consistently being a decent
human being. And I think what he does in Africa is undeniable,
resourceful and heroic. I don't think he - he's got no ill will at home.
It's not as if he doesn't care.
I think there is probably a level to a human's capacity and in that case
probably he is not there enough for his son. But I don't - I mean, I
think the movie clearly does not judge him, and nor do I. I just think
it's - you know, probably it is - that is the case, and I think probably
many of us can look at our own lives and recognize that we might be
incredibly resourceful in certain areas and less so in other areas. And
that's - I think modern lives have so many demands on us, and we can't
fulfill them all.
GROSS: In Denmark, where your film was initially released, the title
translates to "Revenge." In America the film has been titled "In A
Better World." Does that say something about the difference between
movies in Denmark and movies in America?
Ms. BIER: Actually, it just says something about my timing because I was
never really happy with the title "Revenge," but by the time I caught on
to the title "In a Better World," which I much prefer, it was too late
to change the Danish title.
I feel that "In a Better World" points to what's the hopefulness of the
film, whereas "Revenge" points to what's the severeness. And I prefer
emphasizing the hopefulness.
GROSS: Now, I've seen two of your films that deal with war, and - you
know, "Brothers" and "In a Better World." Can you talk about how war has
figured into your family life?
Ms. BIER: I mean, none of my movies are autobiographical. It's not as if
I had personally experienced war. I'm Jewish, and my family is Jewish,
and I think that I've always had a very distinct recognition of war
being a possibility, of imminent catastrophe being a plausible real
thing. And therefore I think in a way it's been very natural for me to
place some of my movies in war-like situations.
GROSS: Now, I know that your family had to flee Denmark after the Nazi
invasion. Correct me if I'm getting any of this wrong.
Ms. BIER: It's in '43. They invaded earlier than that, but yes, you're
GROSS: And they had fled to Denmark from other places. So what brought
your family to Denmark in the first place?
Ms. BIER: Well, I mean, Denmark has always been known to be - they had
very, very early, like (unintelligible) like 16th century, they had laws
which were permitting Jews to live there. And they had â they were
always pretty friendly to strangers.
So my mother's family came after the pogrom in Russia, and my father's
family came when Hitler reached power in '33 - they came to Denmark.
GROSS: Your father was living in Germany.
Ms. BIER: Their family was living in Berlin, yes. And then they had to
escape. In '43, the - actually, the Jews in Denmark were not being taken
to concentration camps for a long, long time. Denmark was invaded, but
for a long time they were allowed to live there.
And then in '43 the Germans decided to capture all the Jews and take
them into concentration camps, but most of them escaped because they
were warned by the Danish government and they managed to escape to
GROSS: How? How did your family escape?
Ms. BIER: Well, they - most of them, there's a very narrow sea between
Sweden and Denmark, and most of them were taken by sailors or even by
small rowing boats, were crossing the sea. And it was pretty - it's a
pretty heroic part of Danish history because actually there were many,
many families that were helping the Jewish families.
And my family, my Jewish family, when my grandparents were still alive
until very recently, had maintained very, very close contact with the
family that helped them during the war.
GROSS: So how old were you when your parents or grandparents started
telling you this story? And how did they color it? Did they tell it to
you in a frightening way or in as neutral a way as possible so as not to
scare you too much?
Ms. BIER: Look, stories are only boring if they are neutral. And I think
that any parent would try and tell stories in a sort of - possibly not
in a threatening way but in a dramatic way. And actually, both of my
parents' stories very individually stayed with me.
My father's story was that they were taken first - he was, for the first
time in his life his father was - my father's father was a very stoic
and very sort of aristocratic gentleman, and he did not particularly
deal with his kids. But for the first time in his life, my father was
being collected at school by his father, and that was because they had
And they were then hiding in a - somewhere in the countryside, and then
they were taken by car to where the boat was going. But the car came to
a stop right at the German headquarters where they were all hiding
underneath the floor of the car.
And so there is this frightening moment which I've always perceived as
incredibly traumatic, of my grandparents and the kids hiding in the car
right in front of the German headquarters in Copenhagen. But the
soldiers didn't stop them, and they were just allowed to continue, and
they came to Sweden.
And my mother's story was more a story of â yes, they were going to
escape. It was the night of the Jewish new year, and they had like a big
goose in the oven because of Jewish new year, and they had to escape.
And they escaped to Sweden, and when they came back three years later,
the goose was still in the oven. So my mother's mother were never able
to eat goose anymore.
GROSS: Wow, it must have been some rotten goose when they returned.
Ms. BIER: But also, you know, there's a certain things which stays,
which is like mythology in your family. And this is like - this sort of
image of a huge big goose being in the oven for three years while the
family were escaping was sort of a very striking image.
GROSS: Do you think that'll end up in a movie of yours sometime?
Ms. BIER: Maybe in a different shape.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. BIER: I don't - you know, I've kind of pretty consistently used the
dramatic elements but not the autobiographical details. I kind of feel
that I can't treat that material at complete liberty, which I like to do
when I work, if I use the sort of concrete memories.
GROSS: You're obviously interested in how people behave in war or in
crisis, the things that they're capable of doing, either violent or
heroic, that they didn't think they were capable of. Does that question
kind of haunt you about yourself? Like: What would you do in a situation
that your parents and grandparents were in or in a situation that you've
placed your characters in?
Ms. BIER: Well, it's funny because the writer, Anders Thomas Jensen, and
I always have these discussions. It's like part of the fun we have
working with one another is sort of provoking each other as to what we
would have done in certain situations. Like: Have you been - had you
been on Titanic, what would you have done? Or - and I think part of our
artistic collaboration, is sort of putting up those questions about
one's moral habits and then trying to address them.
GROSS: So when you play that little game with each other, are you
usually heroic, or do you think you'd quite often back down?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. BIER: Quite - I mean, it's kind of - it's almost like a little bit
sort of - you know, we're both a bit ashamed of realizing that probably
we would not have been that heroic.
GROSS: My guest is Danish film director Susanne Bier. Her film "In a
Better World" won this year's Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Foreign
Film. It begins opening in U.S. theaters April 1. We'll talk more after
a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is film director Susanne
Bier. She lives in Denmark. Her film, "In a Better World," won the Oscar
for Best Foreign Film this year, as well as the Golden Globe.
Part of "In a Better World" is shot in a refugee camp in Africa. I'm not
sure which country it is. And you were obviously there on location. Were
you actually in a refugee camp, shooting?
Ms. BIER: It's shot in Kenya, and it's not exactly a refugee camp. It's
a camp for people who've lost their land. So they're not refugees from
some sort of atrocity, but they are people who are homeless. And it's
shot in kind of a refugee camp that we then extended.
The medical facility, which is in the movie, is something we built, and
part of the extras in the film are people who are actually living in the
camp, and part of the extras are people we brought in. And the people
who are playing nurses are real nurses. It's a kind of mix of actors and
people who are used to working in refugee camps and people who live in
GROSS: Did you have to make tough decisions about whether to help the
people who lived in this camp or just, you know, go about your business,
shoot the scenes, pay the extras, and move on?
Ms. BIER: No, the elders of the camp made a very firm arrangement with
the producers for us working there. And they wanted, like, us to build a
schoolroom. And that was a deal we made with them, which was really a
very healthy and sensible deal.
And they were very happy about it, and we were very happy about it
because it seemed very meaningful and was incredibly efficient.
GROSS: So the people who built the sets for your film also built this
schoolroom for the camp?
Ms. BIER: Yes. I think that they were - some of the builders were
employed by the producers and then building the other facilities that
the camp had asked for.
GROSS: What were some of the things you were exposed to at this camp
where you were filming in Africa that surprised you and that you
wouldn't have known about and that you incorporated into the film?
Ms. BIER: It's a kind of weird thing to say, but the strongest surprise
was the climate, like the wind. The wind was crazy, and there was, like,
the wind, which was full of sand.
And you can tell it in the movie because it's really beautiful, but it
was almost impossible to film there. You know, we have sand coming into
all the technical equipment, and it was pretty difficult to actually
shoot the scenes.
I think that was probably our biggest surprise because all of the other
elements were something we were pretty thoroughly prepared for, and they
were - I mean, they were so nice, and they were so nice to work with,
and they had a great - like those extras that were, like, sitting,
waiting, they had a great sense of humor.
They were kind of a little bit like laughing at us because we were
running around trying to get things done, and they were sitting there
smiling, thinking we were a little bit nuts.
GROSS: Now, the character of Big Man, who is the very sadistic warlord,
he's blind in one eye, and you could see that his eye is damaged. It's
very visibly damaged. Who was the person playing Big Man, and was that
his real eye?
Ms. BIER: That was his real eye.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. BIER: And it was - this one actor came in to a casting in Nairobi.
It's a Kenyan actor. And I was just so fascinated by the way he looked.
And I was kind of thinking: I'm going to have him play the part even if
his audition is bad because I just think he's such a fascinating
character. And then his audition were fine. So it was alright.
You know, it's those rare sort of gifts you get when you are in reality
of shooting, is that you get these surprises because, you know, I don't
think I would have thought of making him - his eye look like that. But
because he came as a real thing, that was just the way it came out.
GROSS: One of the many things that your film deals with is coping with
death. And without giving too much away, one character says to another
character at one point: It's like there's a veil between you and death,
and when someone dies, that veil temporarily slips away.
And I thought: That's such a good description. And I was wondering - I
know you collaborated on the screenplay with Anders Thomas Jensen, whose
name I hope I pronounced correctly.
Ms. BIER: Yes.
GROSS: But I wonder, like, if you collaborated on that line and what
that line means to you and to your experience of being close to someone
who has died.
Ms. BIER: Actually, somebody told us a line, or somebody said that he
had lost his brother. And he told us of that - exactly what it felt
like. And we were so touched by it. And it had, like, an eerie accuracy.
And so we thought that â that that would describe a very significant
moment in the movie. And so we used it. I'm not - I can't remember
whether it was exactly like that. Anders Thomas Jensen is a great
writer. So he probably rephrased it in a slightly more poetic manner.
But the notion was there from somebody who had experienced it.
GROSS: My guest, Susanne Bier, will be back in the second half of the
show. Her new film, "In a Better World," begins opening in the U.S.
April 1. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Danish director
Susanne Bier. Her film "In a Better World" won this year's Oscar and
Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. It begins opening in U.S. theaters
Her other films include "After the Wedding" and "Brothers," which was
remade into an American film starring Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Bier made one English-language film, "Things We Lost in the Fire."
During part of your career as a film director, you were part of the
Dogme movement. And this is a movement of filmmakers co-founded by Lars
von Trier and was actually a manifesto of moviemaking, which was also
known as the Vow of Chastity. So before we talk about the Vow of
Chastity, when in your career where you a part of this?
Ms. BIER: I had done a few movies and most of all I had done an
incredibly successful romantic comedy, which was - which actually I
think almost all Danes have seen. It has like - it's gone into the
language of, you know, kids in schoolyards are citing - still talking
lines from that comedy. It's like an iconic Danish comedy. And I had
done that prior to getting involved with the Dogme movement. I did, I
think I did my Dogme film in 2001, I think, I can't remember exactly.
GROSS: Well, let me read...
Ms. BIER: It was "Open Hearts."
GROSS: That was the one that became so famous?
Ms. BIER: "Open Hearts" was â no....
GROSS: Oh, "Open Hearts" was the Dogme one. Yes. OK.
Ms. BIER: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: OK. So let me read some of the rules from the Dogme Manifesto:
Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought
in. Two: The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice
versa. Three: The camera must be hand-held. Four: The film must be in
color. Special lighting is not acceptable. Five: Optical work and
filters are forbidden. Six: The film must not contain superficial
action. Murders, weapons etcetera must not occur. And the rules go on:
Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden - that is to say the
film takes place here and now. Genre movies are not acceptable and the
film format must be 35 mm.
So how did you feel after having made a successful film having to bow to
this set of rigid rules?
Ms. BIER: Well, I think, I mean...
GROSS: Let me put that this way: Why would you want to do that?
Ms. BIER: Because I actually believe in rules. I actually believe in
artistic limitations, and I always have. I've always thought that
setting out a set of rules before you start, and then being completely
consistent with them is the only way to make a really good film. And
these particular set of rules - it's kind of they are austerity rules.
They forces you to deal with the storyline and the characters, and
that's it. And I thought it was a real challenge like in a positive way.
And I actually think that if you - there was a number of good films
coming out from this set of rules.
And I think, I mean, if I were to add something I think those rules came
at a point where European filmmaking was trying to copy American
filmmaking. And, you know, we didn't have the skills. We didn't have the
technical skills. But even more important so, we did not have the
So we, you know, you would find that like half of the movie's budget
would be spent on a lightening up an entire street for one shooting. It
was ridiculous. And then those rules came and it forced the filmmakers
to deal with character and storyline and that's it. And that was very
healthy and incredibly inferential.
GROSS: So of all the rules that I read, which were the ones that you
actually found it helpful to follow?
Ms. BIER: I actually did find them all helpful to follow. I think the
one which I think is the most opposed to the core nature of moviemaking
is that the sound needs to go with the image, because part of
moviemaking is really that you can have a different sound or a different
image. But I still thought it was really fun obeying to them.
GROSS: That includes having music. You wouldn't be allowed to have a
score behind a scene.
Ms. BIER: No. you can have music if it's in the scene. And from my...
GROSS: Right. If somebody turns on the radio or is, you know, listening
to their, you know, iPod or something you can have music.
Ms. BIER: Yeah, that's what I had in my film. My movie was "Open Hearts"
and the female main character had like an iPod with music in and that
was the music that was then used in the film.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. So one more thing about this: Like, when you say you did
a Dogme film, does that mean that you just follow the rules or that you
became an official member of the Dogme group and you met with Lars von
Trier. And I mean, could I have made a Dogme film without even being in
Denmark or had spoken to any of you? If I just followed rules could I
say, this is a Dogme film?
Ms. BIER: You actually sign a document. I mean you sign on to the Vows
of Chastity. And by the way, I am very friendly with Lars von Trier and
I do talk with him and our kids are friends and so it, you know, yeah,
you, I mean I never belonged to a group but Denmark or the Scandinavian
film community is tiny so we all know each other and we are sort of for
most part friendly.
GROSS: Now I just want to read one final thing from the pledge. I swear
as a director to refrain from personal taste. I am no longer an artist.
I swear to refrain from creating a quote, "work," unquote, as I regard
the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to
force the truth out of my characters and settings.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So what did that mean to you to swear to refrain from personal
taste and to say I am no longer an artist?
Ms. BIER: I mean honestly?
Ms. BIER: I mean, do you buy it? I mean here's the thing, so "The
Celebration," first, which is a masterpiece, is that not a piece of art?
And did Thomas Vinterberg not, is he not the artist who made that movie?
I mean, I think the truth about letting the movie be the characters'
movies works because of all the austerity within the Vows of Chastity,
but there's no â even if, you know, the - on Dogme film the director is
not credited. That's part of it. You're not credited. But everybody
knows who does the movies anyway. And so I think it is a genius stroke
of advertising in many ways but that - I think that's also partly what
GROSS: Right. Now since you won both the Golden Globe and the Oscar for
best foreign film this year for "In a Better World," you got to make two
acceptance speeches and you got to practice at the Golden Globe and then
do it again...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: ...at the Oscars. So what did you learn the first time around
that you put into practice the second time around?
Ms. BIER: Well, I didn't, as anybody who'd seen both of them, I didn't
learn that much. Here's the thing, because you are a film director you
are not necessarily like a natural public speaker and particularly in a
situation like that, which is so emotionally loaded. So I must admit,
you know, it's - both those, it's an intimidating room and it's an
And I had written - for the Oscars, I had a speech in my hand, and I
just knew if I was going to open the piece of paper, I was would be
unable to read it. So I just thought, I'm just going to say, as
coherently as I can whatever I can. And it's not, you know, I was very,
I was incredibly grateful and happy and paralyzed, and I could not...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. BIER: I could not have done it any different even if I really wanted
GROSS: So what did you say at the Oscars?
Ms. BIER: No, I guess I said that I was very happy, and I guess that I
managed to thank like 8 percent of the people that I really meant to
thank, and I hope that the rest 92 percent have forgiven me...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. BIER: ...because I was obviously overwhelmed.
GROSS: Well, Susanne Bier, thank you so much for talking with us.
Congratulations on the Oscar and the Golden Globe.
Ms. BIER: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Susanne Bier's new film "In a Better World" begins opening in the
U.S. April 1st.
Coming up, religion scholar and Baptist pastor Jennifer Knust talks
about her new book "Unprotected Texts: The Bible's Surprising
Contradictions About Sex and Desire."
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
'Unprotected Texts': The Bible On Sex And Marriage
TERRY GROSS, host:
As a Bible scholar, ordained Baptist pastor and professor of religion
Jennifer Knust says she's tired of watching those who are supposed to
care about the Bible reducing it to slogans. For example, she says you
can't use the Bible as a straightforward guide to sexual morality
because the Bible fails to offer a consistent message regarding sexual
morals and God's priorities.
Her new book is called "Unprotected Texts: The Bible's Surprising
Contradictions About Sex and Desire." Knust is an assistant professor of
religion at Boston University. She's also the author of "Abandoned to
Lust: Sexual Slander and Ancient Christianity."
Jennifer Wright Knust, welcome to FRESH AIR. When it comes to marriage
and the Bible, the Bible is cited most often, I think it's fair to say,
when it comes to gay marriage. And it's usually cited in opposition to
Professor JENNIFER WRIGHT KNUST (Author, "Unprotected Texts"; Boston
GROSS: But your book, you know, deals with that but it also deals with
many other aspects of heterosexual marriage.
Prof. KNUST: Yeah.
GROSS: What do you find most interesting and maybe most anachronistic
about what the Bible has to say about marriage?
Prof. KNUST: Yeah, I think I was really careful not to address gay
marriage explicitly in the book. I really didn't want the book to be
about whether or not we should approve of gay marriage because it seems
to me that whatever the Bible says regarding homoerotic-sexual intimacy
is folded within a very large Biblical conversation about sexuality in
general. And so to pull out a particular verse and say, oh well this
solves our position on, you know, gay marriage is such a mistake, given
that the Bible says a lot of things about sexuality. And many of those
things we would reject today, so why we are lifting out gay marriage
when we've clearly rejected things like slavery and stoning women who
aren't virgins at first marriage.
So I, in fact, wanted to show that claims about sexuality first of all
are entirely contradictory and second of all, are made with many other
assumptions in mind that have nothing to do with homosexuality and
heterosexuality at all.
GROSS: What's an example of one of the contradictory claims about
Prof. KNUST: Well, the obvious one is, you know, polygamist marriage is
the assumption by many of the texts in the Hebrew Bible and don't get
married at all is the assumption of the majority of the New Testament,
so that's just easy. I mean that's just an obvious contradiction right
there. Gosh, there's so many other ones.
GROSS: Well, let me stop you. In what way does the New Testament say
don't get married at all?
Prof. KNUST: Well, there's a fantastic passage in Matthew in which Jesus
says to his disciples that some people should be eunuchs for the kingdom
of heaven. So the way this gets received by early Christians is that
Jesus is recommending celibacy which would make sense, given that he
says elsewhere that we shouldn't get married, that we should be focusing
our attention on spreading the gospel. So the idea that be eunuch for
the kingdom of heaven means be celibate would make sense. However,
interestingly enough, some Christians took this literally and there are
cases of early Christians castrating themselves for the purpose of
GROSS: When Paul talks about celibacy, is he speaking to people who are
disciples of Christ or who are committing to the priesthood or is he
Prof. KNUST: He is addressing everybody. Paul is clearly addressing
everyone because Paul clearly believes that the kingdom of heaven is
going to happen in his lifetime. And so it's emergency time for him. I
mean Christ is going to return and there is no time for marriage. We
need to be celibate and be focusing on spreading the gospel. That is
clearly Paul's perspective.
I mean later Christians also prefer celibacy for not only the
priesthood, which there really isn't a priesthood at this point, but not
only for example male leaders but, in fact, for everyone. And virginity
becomes a sign of one's true devotion to Christ.
GROSS: So even though the focus of your book is not gay marriage, you
address it in your book. So what are some of the most frequently cited
sections of the Bible used to oppose gay marriage?
Prof. KNUST: Mm-hmm. Well, the two passages I hear cited most often are
the commandments in Leviticus that suggests that a man may not lie with
another man as with a woman and the household codes in Ephesians â
Ephesians is a New Testament letter written in the name of Paul sometime
around the end of the first century. The household codes include a
description of an ideal marriage from the perspective of the author of
GROSS: OK. So let's start with the Old Testament then. So Leviticus, and
I'm paraphrasing here...
Prof. KNUST: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...says that if a man lies with another man in the manner of a
woman, both of them have committed an abomination and they shall be put
Prof. KNUST: Yes.
GROSS: So how do you interpret that? You obviously interpret that
differently than people who use that to oppose gay marriage.
Prof. KNUST: Well, the question I would have about Leviticus is what is
the author of Leviticus attempting to accomplish with these laws? Well,
I think the answer to that question has to do with the context of
Leviticus. Leviticus was written by priests and it can be read as a
critique, in part, of the Davidic monarchy, because if we go and we read
1st and 2nd Samuel, we find out that King David and his heirs violate
pretty much every commandment in Leviticus.
So for example, David has an intimate relationship with the son of King
Saul, whose name is Jonathan, and Jonathan loves David more than he
loves women. Now, we can read that to mean that Jonathan and David had
an intimate partnership in which David was the active or dominant
partner in their relationship, meaning that Jonathan was David's woman,
which from the perspective of 1st and 2nd Samuel means that David could
legitimately inherit the throne that actually belonged to Jonathan as
the son of King Saul. So now Jonathan becomes one of David's wives in a
way and so therefore David can legitimately inherit.
My point is that even Leviticus and 1st and 2nd Samuel disagree about
intimate male partnerships. So to suggest that that one commandment in
Leviticus condemns gay marriage is quite a leap, especially because the
Bible itself doesn't agree on this point.
GROSS: But it still sounds like the bottom line is in spite of John and
Prof. KNUST: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...the Bible advises, the Old Testament advises, against lying
with a man in the manner of a woman.
Prof. KNUST: I think one could argue that the Bible opposes homo-erotic
sexual encounters overall. I think that's true. But that's not the only
thing that the Bible does, as the David and Jonathan example shows. And
interestingly, rabbis and early Christian theologians could imagine
gender much more complicated than we can. So they would imagine, for
example, that they were God's wife and they longed after God and they
longed to be welcomed by God in an erotic embrace. So I'm just trying to
suggest that the story of what's in the Bible regarding homoerotic
encounters is way more fascinating than a soundbite about gay marriage
could possibly suggest.
GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is Jennifer Wright Knust,
and she's the author of the new book "Unprotected Texts: The Bible's
Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire."
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jennifer Wright Knust.
We're talking about her new book, "Unprotected Texts: The Bible's
Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire." She's an ordained
American Baptist pastor, a professor of religion and a Bible scholar.
She teaches at Boston University's School of Theology.
Getting back to the premise of your book, which is that you can't really
use the Bible as a guidebook for marriage or sexuality, what were some
of the codes in the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, for infidelity, for
being married - for a woman getting married when she has already lost
Prof. KNUST: Mm-hmm. Okay, let's start with the first one. A woman
married if she's already lost your virginity - how do we solve that
problem? Well, according to the Sinai Covenant, if a woman is accused of
having sex before marriage, what her family does is produce the sheets
that were bloodied at her wedding night. And if the family can produce
these sheets, then the man is punished by not being allowed to ever
divorce his wife because he has falsely accused her of not being a
virgin at marriage. If, however, the family is not able to produce the
sheets, then the woman is to be stoned on her father's doorstep. The
message seems to be, oh, you know, you bad Israelite father, you should
have kept your daughter in line and made sure that this didn't happen.
And there's all kinds of provisions in the Sinai Covenant for if a woman
is, for example, raped and she's betrothed, what do you do? Well, what
one can do is force her to marry her rapist and never get divorced. It's
a property arrangement. Basically the man who does the raping has
violated the property of the father, so it's up to him to pay a fine to
the father and to marry the woman and therefore make her a good woman.
And he's punished by having to pay the bribe price.
GROSS: In the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, how accepted was
polygamy? Was it assumed that all men would be polygamists? Was it just
a certain class of men that was to be polygamist?
Prof. KNUST: Well, it seems in Genesis, for example, that polygamy was
considered normal and it's what men did. I mean you may remember some of
the patriarchs had multiple wives and also slave wives. And I mean the
12 sons of Jacob are fathered by multiple wives and concubines. In a
subsistence economy, where people are subsistence farmers, the more
wives and children one has, the more prosperous one is, and that seems
to be how Genesis approaches the issue.
In terms of the Sinai Covenant, yes, polygamy is also assumed and the
Sinai Covenant addresses the problem, for example, of a man who takes a
second wife and fails to continue to support his first wife
appropriately, and the covenant says, no, you have to support your first
wife. You can't just stop feeding her and tending to her just because
you've married a second wife. So the assumption is polygamy, and the
kings also have many, many wives, which again seems to be a sign of
their prosperity and wealth. How many wives can you have? How many
children can you have? This shows how fancy and wealthy you are.
By the time you get to the New Testament, Jews have already stopped
practicing polygamy largely. They're usually just having one wife at
that point. There is an interesting marriage contract from the first
century that suggests that polygamy is still happening in Judea at that
time, but it's unusual. So it kind of goes out of fashion as just
history goes forward, culture changes, prosperity and notions of
GROSS: So we've heard you talk about what you have chosen to ignore in
the Bible, things about polygamy, slavery, stoning to death somebody who
wasn't a virgin when she got married, those kinds of things, and things
that you are interpreting differently than people who oppose gay
Prof. KNUST: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: So given that you've thrown out a lot, you're interpreting things
differently than a lot of other people, what do you find in the Bible
that you love? In other words, if you're challenging a lot of the things
that are in the Bible, why does it remain such an important book to you?
Why do you - why are you a pastor if...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: You know, why are you a religion scholar if there's so much that
you think is wrong, like slavery, polygamy, stoning women to death?
Prof. KNUST: You know, I tell a story in the introduction to my book
about growing up with the Bible and with my mom. My mom used to read the
Bible to me before school when I was a little girl. We'd sit on a big
couch and we had a big picture Bible and we read every story in the
Bible. I mean we really did. I was so prepared for seminary. I knew all
the Bible, thanks to my mom. So - and what I remember about that is how
invitational that was and how friendly it was and how warm it was. We
would sit together and we would come up with troubling questions, we
would encounter troubling stories, and we would talk about them. And in
the process of that conversation we would think about how God loves us.
We would think about how we love one another, and we would think about
how we want to be to one another and to the people in our own
You know, when I go to church on Sunday, when I teach the little kids
Sunday school, which I do, I try to keep that lesson in mind, and
therefore the Bible remains infinitely fascinating and infinitely love-
giving and inspiring to me, because I read it as a document produced by
human beings who love God and who are doing the best they can. I'm a
person who also loves God and is doing the best she can, as are the
people at my church, as are the little kids that I work with, as are my
seminary students, as are my college students; we're all doing the best
we can here. And to read the Bible as a kind of invitation to thinking
about what it means to be human and what it means to love God means that
the Bible remains at the center of my reflection in a positive way.
GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us.
Prof. KNUST: Well, thank you very much for talking with me. It's been a
great privilege and an honor to speak with you, Terry.
GROSS: Jennifer Knust is the author of the new book "Unprotected Text:
The Bible's Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire." You can
read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also
download podcasts of our show.
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