Thursday, March 27, 2014

Whose side are you on? Morality World Vision & Righteous Minds

Feeding Children in South Africa



World Vision made waves earlier in the week when they announced plans to hire same-sex married couples. Multiple news sources carried stories and blog posts were filled with comments from irate donors. To be sure, there were supportive comments as well. After a few days, World Vision announced a change of heart. They issued an apology to their upset supporters. And reversed their policy. The wide variety of remarks offers a trove of data to illustrate how people focus on different aspects of a situation when reaching a moral decision. In this post I will draw on the work of Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues to frame the six dimensions of morality.


First, several researchers have written about how the mind works when thinking about anything—including morality. One of the best summaries of thinking is the book by Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Fast thinking is automatic. A part of the brain manages a great deal of daily tasks that require little thought such as breathing, walking, and so forth. But a lot of other things become automatic as well. Once we learn to bike, drive, and engage in chit chat, these functions become automatic as well. In addition, we make quick decisions on very small samples of behavior. We hope that experts have a refined “gut reaction” when it comes to medical diagnoses. And we find that artists know great music and paintings but sometimes have difficulty explaining the bases for their decision. A lot of morality works like that too. Most of us don’t need laws to tell us it’s wrong to commit murder, steal from our neighbors, and abuse children. We respond quickly to situations partly based on innate responses to care and protect others from harm. And sometimes our automatic responses are so much a part of our culture that we may not even consider the morality of an act until someone brings it to our awareness.

Sometimes we struggle to know what is right. Some situations are complex and we need to move into slow thinking mode in order to solve a problem. But slow thinking has a price. Our brains require additional energy to think carefully about a situation. It takes time and it takes concentrated effort to think about the consequences of a course of action. Sometimes we hire experts to solve complex problems. Sometimes we work it out ourselves. Some complex decisions are about life and death as in medical decisions or going to war. These can overlap with moral decisions. The WV decision to hire same-sex married persons had immediate and profound consequences. How might companies weigh such decisions? And the reversal will also have consequences.


Haidt and his colleagues (see Haidt, The Righteous Mind) have discovered six moral dimensions. Each dimension has two poles. And analyses of responses to moral dilemmas helped researchers find that conservatives and liberals rely on different dimensions to form their morality. For the most part, the responses that fall into these categories are driven by fast, emotion-driven, decisions-- fast thinking. The language appears more like a servant to the emotions rather than the product of a carefully reasoned response. Just look at the comments on Facebook or in response to news posts about the WV policy change.

Here's how liberal and conservative minds appear to differ:

The liberal mind tends to emphasize 1) Care/harm, 2) Liberty/oppression, and 3) fairness/cheating.
The conservative mind tends to give close to equal weighting to the above three but also considers 4) Loyalty/ betrayal, 5) Authority/subversion, and 6) Sanctity/degradation.


I will provide the quotes, link to sources, and comment on the key words or phrases indicating the moral dimensions. I’ll add boldface for the key words. After a little practice, I think you will see how Haidt's research can be applied to moral messages.

Care/ harm
Liberty/ oppression


A Few Quotes

SB Russell Moore  “At stake is the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Moore said. “If sexual activity outside of a biblical definition of marriage is morally neutral, then, yes, we should avoid making an issue of it. If, though, what the Bible clearly teaches and what the church has held for 2,000 years is true, then refusing to call for repentance is unspeakably cruel.”

“There’s an entire corps of people out there who make their living off of evangelicals but who are wanting to ‘evolve’ on the sexuality issue without alienating their base,” Moore said. “I don’t mind people switching sides and standing up for things that they believe in.
Authority = Scripture, tradition

Harm = “cruel” in the sense of eternity perhaps?

Loyalty/betrayal = “switching sides.” It is as if WV became a traitor to the tribe.

SB Albert Mohler: Stearns insists that he is not compromising biblical authority even as he undermines confidence that the church can understand and trust what the Bible reveals about same-sex sexuality.
Referring to 1 Correlation 6: 11 “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified…”

Authority = obviously bible as authority for moral actions

Sanctity = washed, sanctified- a common theme when sex is viewed as pure or dirty

Rachel Held Evans: “Finally, all this overdramatic “farewelling” over non-essential issues is getting tiresome. It’s shutting the door of the Kingdom in people’s faces. It’s tying up heavy burdens and placing them on people’s backs.”

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that in rejecting the poor, the hungry, the marginalized, the outcast, and “the least of these,” these brothers and sisters have essentially “farewelled” Christ Himself. What a lonely world they have created!

RHE post reversal: “Honestly, it feels like a betrayal from every side.”

Liberty/oppression = burdens on same-sex oriented persons

Loyalty/betrayal = conservatives betraying Christ by defunding those Jesus cared for.

Feeling of betrayal experienced after WV reversed their decision.

Trevin Wax: “No matter what you think about this decision, I hope you feel a sense of grief… for the children. This is a story of deep and lasting significance, because there are children’s lives at stake in how we respond.”

Care/harm = concern for children- and their lives

Notes: SB- Southern Baptist; WV- World Vision


There are so many more comments to read and analyze but it does not take long to identify the common themes. In addition to the themes, I noticed the order of appearance of the themes. If you are interested, click on the links and see which themes appear before the others. Conservatives were clearly outraged about the lack of respect for biblical teaching about homosexuality and considered the decision of WV a breach of trust—an act of disloyalty—a profound betrayal. Notice where the care for children theme appeared for conservative and liberal voices.

Both liberals and conservatives mentioned concern for the potential harm to the children. Conservatives encouraged funding conservative organizations. Liberals appealed to liberals to replace the loss. A number of comments by Rachel Held Evans fit the liberal mold but I included her challenge to the loyalty of conservatives as quite different from a traditional liberal response.

Another matter that comes into play is how fundamentalists interpret Scripture. For more on how fundamentalists use Scripture as a guide, see my post about the principle of intratextuality.

I wonder how the decision-makers at World Vision reached their first decision about hiring people in same-sex marriages? Their quick reversal of policy suggests they did not consider the strength and the nature of the moral foundation within the minds of a large number of their supporters. Can an apology reverse the damage? Will they be forgiven? Take a look at my post on effective apologies. What do you think about their apology?

This World Vision-Same-Sex-Marriage topic may still be too hot to permit rational analysis. I hope by understanding how conservatives and liberals approach moral matters that we might somehow promote more courteous discourse when we disagree. Judging by some comments on social media sites and blogs, I am not too optimistic.

"Morality binds and blinds."
Jonathan Haidt in
The Righteous Mind

I'm inclined to agree with Haidt's view that "morality binds and blinds." After reading Joshua Greene's Moral Tribes, I find his quest for a metamorality not only appealing but crucial to more cooperation and less hostility in the future. It is rare to see people sincerely care for the welfare of others who do not belong to their religious or political tribe. At best, they cooperate on a common project. Entry to any tribe comes at the cost of personal freedom.

Read more about sexuality, morality, and Christian cultures in A House Divided available from the publisher PICKWICK and other stores e.g.,  AMAZON


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Godly Love and Pentecostal-Charismatic Spirituality


I was intrigued by the writings of researchers who are exploring what they call the Science of Godly Love. A Templeton Foundation Report from last year (2013) featured some findings by researchers Matthew T. Lee, Margaret M. Poloma, and Stephen G. Post. Here are some quotes from the report:

Ø  Almost half of all Americans feel God’s love at least once a day
Ø  Eight out of ten have this experience at least once in a while.
Ø A similar number have felt God’s love prompting their compassion for others at least occasionally, with almost a third feeling this compassion daily or more often.
Ø  Millions of Americans frequently experience divine love and for them this sense of God’s love not only enhances existential well-being, but underlies a sense of personal meaning and purpose and enlivens compassion for others…(Matthew T. Lee)

An interesting phrase is what the authors call the pentecostalization of Christianity. Here’s what they mean: “an emotional experience of faith that might include physical and emotional healing, miracles, and hearing directly from God. It is found in all denominations and is more important than any other factor in accounting for experiences of divine love.”

What is Pentecostal-Charismatic Spirituality?

A few years ago, I worked with some colleagues to develop ways of measuring godly love and other aspects of Christian spirituality. We were familiar with the writings of Margaret Poloma and her colleagues about the model of Godly love—the idea that a strong, vibrant love for God would be linked to love of others. That’s a lot like the Luke 10:27 idea.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself. (NIV)

What might it mean to add Pentecostal-Charismatic spirituality to explaining how people love others? Ev Worthington and I consulted New Testament scholar Marty Mittelstadt and wrote several items for a questionnaire. Kayla Jordan, Ev Worthington, and I sampled nearly 400 students who ranged in age from 18 to 62 at a Pentecostal school and discovered three coherent groups of items, which we called: Service, Healing, and Gifting. The items we wrote were derived from the biblical texts of high importance to Pentecostals and Charismatics- Acts and chapters 12 and 14 of 1 Corinthians.
Here’s a few examples of the 12 items for each group:

}  SERVICE:  I am an effective leader or administrator in a church or small group.
}  HEALING: I have prayed for the sick and they’ve been healed.
}  GIFTING:  I speak in tongues.

Linking Pentecostal-Charismatic Spirituality to Traditional Christian Spirituality
            If our measure of Pentecostal-Charismatic Spirituality is going to work, it should be linked to other dimensions of Christian spirituality. It worked pretty well in our sample. Here’s what we found:
SERVICE was significantly linked to
Close relationship to God
Secure attachment to God
Inner spirituality
 HEALING was significantly linked to
          Close relationship to God
          Secure attachment to God
          Inner spirituality
           GIFTING was significantly linked to
           Close relationship to God
           Inner spirituality

Does Pentecostal-Charismatic Spirituality Make a Difference?
      We thought about measuring loving others in two ways- Forgiveness and Compassion. And we found that all three factors of Pentecostal-Charismatic Spirituality (Service, Healing, Gifting)  were significantly related to both Compassion and Forgiveness.
Assemblies of God School, Kenya


So far it looks like there is some support for the idea that godly love is linked to love of others. At least, our sample responded in a way that fits what the godly love researchers have hypothesized. And we found that our set of questions about Pentecostal-Charismatic Spirituality works in our sample. We won’t know if it holds up elsewhere unless more research is done.

There’s a lot of evidence that religious beliefs are linked to hateful comments and actions toward other persons. But there is some evidence that people who experience a close and loving relationship with God are inclined toward a forgiving and compassionate response toward their neighbors. And there is some evidence that the pentecostalization of Christianity referred to by the researchers mentioned above may add to an understanding that a vibrant Christianity is not just about a personal feel-good experience. At least some people are motivated to consider the well-being of others.


Technical notes

Significance. The Pearson correlations among the measures of the variables mentioned were significant at the 0.01 level.

PCS Factors. We divided the sample into two groups. The results of an EFA with direct oblimin rotation on the first group yielded 3-factors for 12 items. Then we ran a CFA on the second group, which confirmed the 3-factors.

The scales we used to measure the variables were: Avoidance = Attachment to God Inventory, Avoidance Subscale; Anxiety = Attachment to God Inventory, Anxiety Subscale; IER = Intrinsic/ Extrinsic Religiosity Scale Revised (Intrinsic, Extrinsic Social and Extrinsic Personal subscales); Hope = Dispositional Hope Scale; PCS = Pentecostal-Charismatic Spirituality (Service, Healing, and Gifting subscales).

We are presenting the results at a conference in April 2014-- the reference is below. We hope to publish the study later this year.

Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Restoration

Many authors write about these expressions of love in African, Canadian, and U.S. communities

Amazon Kindle and Paperback


Beck, R., & McDonald, A. (2004). Attachment to God: The Attachment to God Inventory, tests of working model correspondence, and an exploration of faith group differences. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 32, 92-103.

Gorsuch, R. L., & McPherson, S. E. (1989). Intrinsic/extrinsic measurement: I/E-Revised and single-item scales. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 28, 348-354. doi:10.2307/1386745

Hwang, J., Plante, T., & Lackey, K. (2008). The development of the Santa Clara Brief Compassion Scale: An abbreviation of Sprecher and Fehr's Compassionate Love Scale. Pastoral Psychology, 56, 421-428. doi:10.1007/s11089-008-0117-2

Lee, M. T., & Yong, A. (Eds.). (2012). Godly love: Impediments and possibilities. New York: Lexington.

Poloma, M. M., & Green, J. C. (2010). The Assemblies of God: Godly love and the revitalization of American Pentecostalism. New York: New York University Press.

Snyder, C. R., Harris, C., Anderson, J. R., Holleran, S. A., Irving, L. M., Sigmon, S. T., Yoshinoba, L., Gibb, J., Langelle, C., &  Harney, P. (1991). The will and the ways: Development and validation of an individual-differences measure of hope. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 570-585. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.60.4.570

Sutton, G. W. (2011), The Assemblies of God: Godly Love and the Revitalization of American Pentecostalism – By Margaret M. Poloma and John C. Green. Religious Studies Review, 37: 185. doi: 10.1111/j.1748-0922.2011.01528_4.x

Sutton, G. W. (2013). [Review of the books Godly Love: Impediments & possibilities by Matthew T. Lee and Amos Yong]. Pneuma, 35, 1. DOI: 10.1163/15700747-12341361

Sutton, G. W. (2013). [Review of the book The science and theology of godly love by Matthew T. Lee and Amos Yong]. Pneuma, 35, 2. DOI: 10.1163/15700747-12341361

Sutton, G. W., & Mittelstadt, M. W. (2012). Loving God and loving others: Learning about love from psychological science and Pentecostal perspectives. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 31, 157-166.

Sutton, G. W., Worthington, E.L. Jr., & Jordan, K. (2014, April). Contributions of Attachment, Hope, and Spirituality to Understanding Benevolence. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Christian Association for PsychologicalStudies, International Conference, Atlanta, Georgia.

Yong, A. (2012). Godly love—What is it and why is there not more of in around: An interdisciplinary exploration. In M. T. Lee & A. Yong (Eds.), Godly love: Impediments and possibilities (pp. 1-20). New York: Lexington.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

How much do people love God?


Nobody comforts a crying baby like mom or dad. Infants, toddlers, and small children desperately seek human comfort when any distress comes along. And parents naturally cradle and cuddle their little ones. Usually the child is soothed and able to venture forth—as long as mom or dad remains nearby.


Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul
and with all your mind and with all your strength. (Mark 12:30: NIV)

What does it mean to love God? Jesus summary of the law, often reduced to “love God and love your neighbor,” may seem trite. But the short quotation has been unpacked by many Christian clergy and teachers who offer suggestions focused on a deep commitment to God and all of humanity—especially when combined with examples from the life of Jesus.


Psychologists have studied the loving and caring relationship between parents and children for years. Clinicians who work with abused and neglected children learn to observe how the children interact with their parents and other caregivers. Who does the child go to for comfort and support? How is the child balancing a need for support and nurturance versus the ability to act with a sense of confidence and independence?
Most psychologists are familiar with the early work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. As research progressed, it became clear that the caring bond between an infant and a parent could explain adult attachments as well. Lee Kirkpatrick thought that the idea of human attachment could also describe the relationship between people and God. Like children, people can feel distant from God and many feel distressed when separated from God. Conversely, many Christians speak about their relationship with God in terms of distance (feeling close to God) and security (feeling safe in the arms of God). These images work well for many Christians given biblical images of a parent-child relationship.

Measuring Attachment to God

One scale I came across at a conference was the Attachment to God Inventory developed by Richard Beck of Abilene Christian University and Angie McDonald of Palm Beach Atlantic University. It was simply called the Attachment to God Inventory and had two scales, which included questions about the avoidant and anxiety dimensions of attachment. By answering questions, respondents could express how distant they felt toward God and how anxious they felt about their relationship with God. Lower scores reflect a more secure relationship between a believer and God. The authors reported the results of three studies, which included college students and a community sample.

One year I developed a course project as a way of teaching research methods to graduate students.  In  one study we were looking at several issues of interest. One of the issues was the importance of Attachment to God to personal spirituality and forgiveness. So, we included the Attachment to God Inventory to see how attachment to God might be related to a measure of spiritual strength and a measure of forgiveness. We found that both of the Attachment to God Inventory (AGI) dimensions of Avoidance and Anxiety yielded consistent scores in our university student sample.

We measured spiritual strength using a questionnaire developed by Tom Plante and his colleagues. It is a five-item questionnaire that has produced consistent scores in the past so we had some confidence it would work for us as well. This scale is the Abbreviated Santa Clara Strength of Religious Faith Questionnaire (ASCSRFQ).

When we looked at the relationship between spirituality (ASCSRFQ) and attachment (AGI) we found no relationship between feeling anxious toward God and spiritual strength but we did find a significant relationship between high spiritual strength and low avoidance of God.

What about attachment to God and forgiveness? There are so many ways to measure forgiveness. At that time we chose a measure of dispositional forgiveness called The Willingness to Forgive Scale, which was developed by Lise DeShea. In the language of psychology, a disposition is like a personality trait—something more durable than say a temporary mood state. DeShea had prepared mini-scenarios relevant to college life. In the questionnaire, she asked how willing respondents would be to forgive someone for a given action. One again we found no significant relationship for the anxiety dimension but when people felt more distant from God they were also less willing to forgive others.


And Other Religions

Attachment might not include all of the things we mean when we speak about love. But the bond that binds parents and children carries through life. Following the death of a beloved parent, people often speak of how close they were to their mother or father. Closeness matters in relationships. And it seems closeness matters for Christians as well. Christians who feel distant from God also respond as if they lack spiritual strength and are less willing to forgive others. As Beck and McDonald noted in their article, it is hard to say what attachment might mean in religious traditions other than Christianity. Christians relate to God in a personal way. And are even encouraged to view God as a loving father. And we have some evidence here and in many other studies that attachment to God, spirituality, and forgiveness can be measured.

So I wonder if clergy and counselors consider measuring these and other aspects of spirituality when faith appears to be a factor in personal adjustment and well-being? For some, spirituality or formal religion does not matter much. But for billions of people faith matters. And understanding attachment may be important to understanding spiritual well-being.

Read more about love and attachment in Christian Cultures

Other related posts


Ainsworth, M. S. (1989). Attachments beyond infancy. American Psychologist, 44, 709-716.

Beck, R., & McDonald, A. (2004). Attachment to God: The Attachment to God Inventory, tests of working model correspondence, and an exploration of faith group differences. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 32, 92-103.

DeShea, L. (2003). A scenario-based scale of willingness to forgive. Individual Differences Research, 1, 201-217.

Kilpatrick, L. A. (2012). Attachment theory and the evolutionary psychology of religion. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 22, 231-241. doi: 10.1080/10508619.2012.679556

Kirkpatrick, L. A., & Shaver, P. R. (1990). Attachment theory and religion: Childhood attachments, religious beliefs, and conversion. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 29, 315–334.

Plante, T., Vallaeys, C. L., Sherman, A. C., & Wallston, K. A. (2002). The development of a brief version of the Santa Clara Strength of Religious Faith Questionnaire. Pastoral Psychology, 50, 359-368.

Sutton, G. W., McLeland, K. C., Weaks, K. L., Cogswell, P. E., & Miphouvieng, R. N. (2007). Does gender matter: Relationship of gender, spousal support, spirituality, and dispositional forgiveness to pastoral restoration, Pastoral Psychology, 55, 645-663. doi: 10.1007/s11089-007-0072-3

Sutton, G. W., & Mittelstadt, M. W. (2012). Loving God and loving others: Learning about love from psychological science and Pentecostal perspectives. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 31, 157-166. 

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment. New York: Basic Books.

Sunday, March 9, 2014


SEX  in  the BIBLE 

A few decades ago, discussions about biblical perspectives on sexuality were few and far between—at least as far as popular books are concerned. Mark and Grace Driscoll authored a New York Times best seller, Real Marriage, which contains frank discussions about sex from a conservative American Evangelical perspective. A 7 March 2014 report by Christianity Today, describes its rise to become a best seller as controversial. Religious scholars (e.g., Michael Coogan, Jennifer Knust, Teresa Hornsby) have also produced recent works offering alternatives to conservative perspectives on the Bible’s sex texts. In this post I look at some of the biblical euphemisms for sex and note some reasons why people reach different conclusions about the Bible and sex.


Some Christians take pride in doing personal Bible study and trusting God to guide them into truth. Insights are often shared in study groups. But which translation do they use when contemplating the meaning of an ancient law or story? And why do different groups of translators use different words or phrases for a text? A look at modern translations gives us a hint about the difficulties faced by any group of translators who seek to offer us clues about the difficulties they face.

Some footnotes explain differences due to missing words or phrases.
Some footnotes explain that different historical documents contain different words or phrases.
Some footnotes include alternate English words or phrases that might be used for the words or phrases in the biblical language.

And if we compare different translations of the same biblical text we find that different groups of translators settled upon different words or phrases than did other groups.

These few notes only scratch the surface of the problems translators face when trying to offer a plausible modern language equivalent of an ancient text. The fact is, scholars often disagree on the best way to translate different texts.

Every translation is influenced by the knowledge and culture of the people performing the translation. Translations reflect the beliefs of translators about what current words and phrases capture the meaning of an ancient text. And those beliefs matter.


The Christian religion is the largest religion on earth with more than two billion adherents. A belief that the bible teaches against birth control can influence the population of the world and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Christian beliefs about sexual relations influence laws about marriage and divorce. Christian beliefs about nakedness influence what counts as art and what counts as pornography. Christian beliefs about sex can influence billions of people directly or indirectly.


Why do people reach different conclusions when considering the same or similar Bible translations? Explaining the meaning of texts does not end with the problem of translation. Read any translation and you are still left with the problem of understanding what the author meant. Christians who want to apply lessons from ancient stories or laws face an even larger challenge. So it is no surprise that Bible scholars and ordinary Christians reach different conclusions about biblical views of sex.

Humility. Suppose people are willing to be humble when it comes to reading biblical texts. By humble I mean they are willing to consider that their personal understanding might be wrong or at least the ideas of another group might be worth considering. That’s probably too optimistic. People cling to the teachings of childhood as if they were gospel. Yet surely the variety of translations, newly discovered texts, and improved knowledge about the biblical world suggests that a humble stance is more appropriate than an arrogant stance when it comes to understanding what was written.

Knowledge. Knowledge about ancient cultures has increased as a result of new discoveries of ancient texts and cultural objects. Today’s Bible scholars know more about the languages of the Bible and the customs of ancient Israel. They also know more about the culture of the Roman world, which provided the context for the collection of writings by the apostle Paul. In addition, scientists have contributed to a better understanding of human nature. And relevant to this post, scientists know more about human sexuality. Knowledge influences how ancient words and phrases are translated and interpreted.

Biases. People of good will (and of ill will) offer varied guidance about contraception, abortion, premarital sex, masturbation, pornography, same-sex marriage, and a plethora of other hot button sex matters based on their ideas about the plain meaning of biblical texts. It should be no surprise that those who translate and interpret biblical texts have organizational and personal biases. Scholars and general readers come to the texts from different Christian traditions. Most have a history of learning what the Bible teaches about sex and morality since childhood. And people who are employed by a church or Christian organization that states an official position about a specific issue—sex-related or otherwise—is not exactly in the best position to disagree with the organization’s official teaching. People lose their jobs when they express views that are too different from those of their employer. This problem is especially true in matters of sex.

And there are the customers too. Suppose a translator wants to use a new word or phrase that departs from tradition and suppose her colleagues agree that the change ought to be made. But who would buy the controversial translation? What publisher is willing to print a translation that is so different that the sales of the Bible would be dead on arrival?

Sensitivities. Despite the relative openness about sex in contemporary Western cultures, many people remain sensitive when it comes to words and phrases describing sex. Ironically, the Bible contains some pretty graphic stories when it comes to sexual activity. Yet even with the explicit language in the Bible, the texts contain words and phrases that are difficult to translate—it seems even in ancient cultures, people used oblique references to genitals and sexual activity. The problem of clarity is quite complex!

Biblical authors used cultural references to sex that are indirect- euphemisms.

Translators and publishers choose words –sometimes modern euphemisms--that express the meaning of ancient texts using words that will not offend contemporary conservative American readers.

As an example of sensitivity to sex, Michael Coogan reported that the Song of Solomon (aka Song of Songs) had been cut out of the Bibles where he studied at a Catholic seminary. The Song of Solomon contains graphic references to sexual activity using local imagery of flowers, trees, fruits and so forth.

Purity bias. Conservative Christians have focused on purity when it comes to sexual behavior. For a long time sex was linked to dirtiness. Pictures of naked people were considered dirty pictures-- something to be crossed out, removed, rated with an X. A friend of mine who taught at a Christian college told me that the teachers at his school could not use a textbook for a course in human sexuality for many years because of the pictures. The idea that the Holy Bible would contain stories about sex in a favorable manner does not make sense for people who view sex with disdain. Times are changing but what counts as purity when it comes to sex is still an issue. I suspect the purity-dirty associations with sex interfere with how people translate, read, interpret, and think about sex and the Bible. I hypothesize that a high purity bias will limit a reader's ability to perceive and understand the Bible's references to sex.


Here’s a few biblical euphemisms that might affect how you read biblical texts.

Eating and words about appetite sometimes refer to sexual activity in the Bible. See Proverbs 30:20 for one example about the ways of a female adulterer. And see references to oral sex in the Song of Songs (2:3).

Feet- a substitute for genitals as in "uncovering feet" —especially the penis. Ruth uncovered the feet of Boaz (3:7). "Covering his feet"-  a tough to translate phrase- see Judges 3:24. "Between the feet" Genesis 49:10. Zipporah’s act of circumcising her son and touching Moses’ feet. Exodus 4: 24-26.

Flesh- a substitute for genitals when referring to discharges from a woman’s or man’s flesh. See Genesis 17:14 flesh substituted for penis (NIV); Leviticus 15:1-3.

Fruit and seeds- After the creation of Adam and Eve, God tells them to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28). Agricultural metaphors abound in the Bible. Fruitful people have a lot of sex and a lot of children. Men plant their seeds in women. Women who do not become pregnant are like barren lands (Deuteronomy 7:14; Psalm 113:9). If God does not answer a woman's prayers for children, something is wrong with her. Many men were very fruitful as they had several wives and numerous children. The Song of Songs is full of references to fruit as substitute words for male and female sex organs.

Garden- the woman’s body is often depicted as a garden—a place where children grow. The woman’s genitals are clearly in view in Song of Songs (e.g., 4:12 – 5:1). It does not take much imagination to think of round fruits as breasts and a tree as a penis.

Know, to know – to have sex. Lot speaking about his virgin daughters (Genesis 19:8). David did not know Abishag 1 Kings 1:1-4

lie with- to have sex with- close to the contemporary euphemism, to sleep with. For example Genesis 19:32; 30:15.

Nakedness- a general term referring to male and female genitals. Genesis 9: 22-23. Leviticus 18: 5-7

Loins, thighs, heels- lower body parts, depending on the context, these can be references to genitals. Male genitals were highly valued for the seed-- hence a place for swearing an oath as in Genesis 24:2-3; 47:29.

Spread cloak or skirt over – "covering nakedness"- a euphemism for sexual activity. For example Ruth 3:9; Ezekiel 16:8.

Went into- had sexual intercourse. For example Genesis 16:4; 38:8


Hidden Sex and the Song of Songs. The Song of Songs is unusual among the biblical books. It does not require much imagination to see the frank use of imagery to celebrate the joy of sexual love between a man and a woman. The erotic sex language is only hidden to those who do not allow themselves to consider the sexual imagery portrayed by the poetic words and phrases. How should the text be interpreted? Some see the text as an expression of love between God and his people Israel. In the Hebrew Bible, God is often portrayed as a lover who woos his bride—the nation of Israel. Christians have taken the text to reflect Jesus’ love for his bride—the church. More recently, Christians have seen it as a celebration of sex and an example that God does not condemn sex within the context of a marriage. But scholars like Hornsby observe that God is not present in the text and the text does not indicate the couple is married. Can you interpret a text to have two or more meanings? Do you see the imagery about naked bodies and sexual activity or is this all about fruits and plants?

Killed for Masturbating. Onanism and Christian teaching about masturbation has become a prime example of how Christians misinterpreted an old Israelite story (Genesis 38) about a man named Onan who spilled his semen on the ground. God killed him as punishment. For years Christians warned young men about the sin of masturbation, which was called onanism. Nowadays even conservative Christians view the story as a violation of an ancient cultural norm. Before the laws of Moses, inheritance was passed down through the children. If a woman’s husband died before they had children, it was the responsibility of the husband’s next of kin to have sex with her so their family wealth was preserved. Onan refused to have sex with his brother’s wife and paid the death penalty.

Naked and enslaved forever. Well there is more. Much more. Here's one more challenge. Were Canaan and all his descendants cursed to be slaves forever because his dad (Ham) just saw his grandfather (Noah) naked? Explore the meaning of nakedness in Genesis 9: 21-25. What do you think this curse is about?

Sometimes a banana is just a banana.


Perhaps you know more words and phrases that would be helpful? If so, share your ideas in a comment so we can benefit from your knowledge. Please include references so I and other readers can track your sources.

Coogan, M. (2010). God & sex: What the Bible really says. New York: Hachette Book Group [Michael Coogan includes a section on biblical euphemisms in chapter one. A question and answer article appears in TIME online.]

Driscoll, M. & Driscoll, G. (2012). Real marriage: The truth about sex, friendship & life together. Nashville: Thomas Nelson. [The Driscolls refer to euphemisms throughout their Real Marriage book. They discuss sex openly and offer what I consider a conservative American Evangelical Christian approach. There is a controversy (See CT story) surrounding the best seller status of the book but I am focused on the content and the perspectives of the authors.]

Hornsby, T.J. (2007). Sex texts from the Bible: Selections annotated & explained. Woodstock, Vermont: Skylight Paths Publishing [Teresa Hornsby is a Professor of Religion at Drury University. She covers many topics related to sex by presenting the biblical text and commenting on the verses. She covers euphemisms beginning on page 3 and elsewhere.]

Knust, J.W. (2011). Unprotected texts: The Bible’s surprising contradictions about sex and desire. New York: HarperCollins e-books [Jennifer Wright Knust is a New Testament Professor at Boston University. She covers the meaning of words and phrases as she covers many topics about sex in the Bible.]

I do not consider myself a biblical scholar or a linguist. I am dependent on the scholarly works of others when presenting information about translations of ancient texts. Although I have some knowledge of the problems of translating works from other languages, I am not an expert. I could be biased from my years growing up in fundamentalist and conservative evangelical churches. My views are undoubtedly influenced by psychological science and clinical experience.