Some Further Thoughts on Avaren Ipsen's Sex Working and the Bible

Several people have asked whether I might say a bit more about biblical scholar Avaren Ipsen's recent book, Sex Working and the Bible, which I began to discuss in a recent post, so I will go ahead and do so here: Ipsen's basic approach is to provide agency for marginalized readers of the Bible not only on account of their marginality but also on account of their paying the price for problematic or even destructive attitudes that other readers of the Bible have encouraged. More specifically, Ipsen is not only a scholar but an activist for sex workers, and she gathered a group of sex workers in Berkeley to read the Bible together, focusing on stories of sex work. Ipsen argues that the perspectives of sex workers help unlock important meanings in those stories because they share in the kind of labor to which scripture is referring, and because sex workers have been subject to the kind of dangerous attitudes about sex work that the Bible has had a hand in fostering. Why not leave the interpretation of sex work in the Bible to the scholars, even feminist scholars? Ipsen adopts feminist standpoint theory to argue that all readings of the Bible are given from interested and contextualized perspectives, therefore all readings potentially participate in the ideologies of the readers and a fruitful and frank exchange of readings, where standpoints are increasingly foregrounded, is a useful way to get to readings of scripture that are more freeing for more readers. There is a somewhat buried theological point here that is never fully explicated: that on its own best terms and as penance for the wrong it has enabled, the Bible deserves to be read as a document that enables truly "good news" for its readers and all those influenced by its readers. One cannot understand "good news" a-contextually; the adoption of a standpoint, which only comes through awareness of the socially conflicted character of one's position in the world and as a reader, keeps any single definition of "good news" from prevailing ahistorically and anti-contextually. So Ipsen reads the stories of Rahab (Joshua 2 and Joshua 6:22-25), Solomon and the prostitutes (1 Kings 3:16-28), the "anointing woman" (John 12:1-8; Luke 7:36-50; Mark 14:3-9; Matthew 26:6-13); and the "whore Babylon" (Revelation 17:1-19:10). She reads them together with sex workers in Berkeley and they try to make sense of these stories from the sex worker standpoint, and they ask what is "good news" in these stories -- and what is "bad news." Along the way, she compares sex worker interpretations to the readings of scholars, mostly scholars from biblical studies and feminist systematic and constructive theology, and liberation theology. She finds that quite often, the scholars have failed to notice their own "standpoint" of protecting "decency," which is a kind of bourgeois heterosexist theology that finds sex (in scripture or real life) shameful or marginal to religious meaning, or that finds sex working embarrassing or sex workers purely victims whose circumstances are already understood in advance by liberal scholars. Indeed, the interpretations that the sex workers in Ipsen's book provide are often illuminating, and frequently no more fanciful than what scholars come up with. And this is the point: all Bible reading is coming from a standpoint and doing ideological and religious work related to people's sense of their circumstances. Most impressive to me is that she works with some of the insights of the sex workers and lets them create her research agenda for each of the stories treated. This yields some fascinating results, including the possible role of the ancient Aphrodite cult behind the "anointing woman" stories and the ancient "pharmakon" ritual of casting out a member of the group to heal the community, which is a ritual that may be in the background not only of the "whore Babylon" image, but of the stories of Jesus' saving death -- and also of the violence that prostitutes endure in the name of "cleaning up society." It is useful to remember how little we actually know, in any given situation, about what these biblical stories really mean. Scholars and pastoral workers can become overconfident in handling these materials, as any of a zillion daily proof-texts, conservative to liberal, show. Ipsen takes us back to the question of who is reading, why, and to what end, and at what cost. I wish the book had been more thoroughly edited before publication. There are numerous misspellings and awkward phrasings. That said, I was captivated from start to finish. I hope the book will help foster a deeper sense among Christians of learned ignorance and of a taste for justice in reading. Tom Beaudoin Hastings-on-Hudson, New York
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Beth Cioffoletti
6 years 8 months ago
" ...role of the ancient Aphrodite cult behind the "anointing woman" stories and the ancient "pharmakon" ritual of casting out a member of the group to heal the community, which is a ritual that may be in the background not only of the "whore Babylon" image, but of the stories of Jesus' saving death - and also of the violence that prostitutes endure in the name of "cleaning up society."..."

This sounds an awful lot like Rene Girard's "scapegoating", whereby violence (sacrifice) is necessary for the unity of the tribe.  I think Girard says that the violence of Jesus' death broke open this myth, rendering it empty because now it is God who has been sacrificed.  (I hope I have expressed this somewhat accurately).  Jesus' identity is with the victims.
6 years 8 months ago
Got to love the trendy theological jargon: ''bourgeois heterosexist theology,'' which I would assume is a is a bad thing.  Too bad our theology isn't more economically marginalized and transgendered.  But we live in hope!
Joseph Quigley
6 years 8 months ago
The children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. Luke 16:8.
I am reminded of the axiom of The Schoolmen: Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur.
So I am not surprised that a sex worker would have a different reaction to the word prostitute (and a different take on the exploits of such a person) from those of an uptight celibate septuagenarian.
Well done, Avaren Ipsen!


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