William LOADER. Making Sense of Sex: Attitudes towards Sexuality in Early Jewish and Christian Literature. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013. 176 pages. $24.00. ISBN 978-0-8028-7095-7. Reviewed by Karen Monique GREGG, University of Saint Francis, Fort Wayne, Indiana 46808.
Sex is part of who we are, as much a part of our head or heart as what is between our legs. So begins Loader’s recent summary of his ten years of research spent on listening to what the ancient texts were saying from the period of 300 B. C. E. to around 100 C. E. He acknowledges that many things shape our attitudes about sex: our experiences, families, friends, communities, but most importantly for this analysis, the ancient religious texts.
In his examination of these texts, Loader’s task is to help us understand the “attitudes,” of the times which he defines as, “how people saw, treated, approached matters related to sexuality” (2). What does Loader mean by “sex,” or “sexuality?” He uses these terms broadly to mean “everything which had to do with sex, even if only indirectly, from marriage and divorce, which are about much more than sex, to all kinds of practices which were forbidden or spurned” (2).
With his purpose and terms defined, each chapter unfolds with one conclusion after another about sundry themes of sexuality parsed from the ancient texts: adultery, pre-marital sex, pederasty, same-sex relations, incest, prostitution, inter-marriage, eunuchs (whether castrated or not), priestly sexuality and/or celibacy, rape, bestiality, anal sex, nocturnal emissions, menstruation, and masturbation. As Loader meanders back and forth through a number of texts, he grapples with the meanings of the period associated with this myriad of sexual practices. And although he does not give each theme equal treatment, the reader does come away with a somewhat better understanding, if not sensitivity, to the complexity of human relations in defining human sexuality of the time.
There is something to be learned in every chapter. In Ch. 1, In the Beginning, I learned that some civilizations developed a positive view towards human sexuality, while others did not. This stemmed from which of two myths, in common circulation, the society followed: the myth of creation found in Genesis 1-2, and 3 or the myth of the Watchers. Loader’s Ch. 2, Households¸ expertly describes social norms and mores concerning marriage practices and household social relations structured in the period under examination. In other words, this chapter was more implicit, rather than explicit about sexuality than would be expected. Nevertheless, one comes away with a deeper understanding of gender relations within the social institution of family. Ch. 3, Sacred Space, sheds light on early societies’ obsession with purification rituals aimed at being in good order with God. The different views on the end of times (or second coming) and being in a state of purity in order to be in God’s presence was very enlightening, explaining not only the origin of beliefs about celibacy, but also beliefs about sexual intercourse (or lack thereof) in the afterlife. Ch. 4, Passions and Persons, examines the effects of cultural diffusion and notions of sexuality.
The conclusion takes a refreshing look at today versus the period covered in this compendium of human sexuality. By juxtaposing today’s social context, including values, ideas, and attitudes, with those of the period covered in his analysis, Loader encourages us to respect distance, remain open to proximity, and respect the otherness of the period he covers. Only in doing so will we be able to listen with an open heart and open mind to what the ancient texts were saying about human sexuality.
I have only mild criticisms of this book. The author tends to over-focus in his summary of his five volumes on a few select authors: Paul, Philo, and Josephus, but perhaps, of course, this may be because they had the most to say. Nevertheless, these are his go-to men for explanations of sexuality in the period. Loader also uses terms that may or may not accurately depict the period in question, “marriage,” “wife,” “toilet?” Finally, a word of caution is in order for the female reader. Throughout the book, the treatment of women is ghastly and hard on the contemporary feminist ear and eye, but alas, these were different times and different social contexts. We should therefore heed Loader’s prompt in the introduction and try to consider the texts by simply listening to what the authors are saying, not what we wish they said.
This book is a conversation starter – not the end of the conversation. This is what makes this distillation of five volumes readable for a number of audiences: those interested in an introduction to sexuality of the period, but also undergraduates in theology (especially Ch. 1 In the Beginning and Ch. 4 Passions and Persons), sociology (especially Ch. 3 Sacred Space) or a marriage and family course at a Christian college (especially Ch. 2 Households). To delve more deeply into the discussions of Loader’s ten years of research, one must tackle the hard work of exploring Loader’s other published works. To aid in this process, in Making Sense of Sex, Loader provides a handy index which helps the reader trace his steps to the conclusions he draws.