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Sex and holiness: two ‘throughly compatible realities’

By Raymond F. Collins
Herder & Herder, 200 pages, $17.95


Fasten your seat belts and prepare for a rare intellectual ride. Fr. Raymond F. Collins’ new book is the quintessential first research source for anyone seeking New Testament understandings of human sexuality. That, of course, should be all of us.

His work proves the adage, “Clear thinking makes for concise writing.” In less than 200 pages Collins presents a masterful analysis of what the New Testament says about human sexuality:

  • Do you know that 21 of the 27 texts of the New Testament address issues of sexuality in some way?
  • Do you know that the teaching attributed to Jesus about gouging out your right eye and cutting off your right hand (Matthew 5:29-30) is about adultery?
  • Do you know that New Testament exhortations against sexual immorality constitute but a handful of the total 110 vices warned against?

If you do not, this book is for you. If you do, this book is for you. These questions are but a very partial teasing out of the wealth of information and insights packed within this volume.

Collins states clearly he is not presenting a systematic sexual ethic and for good reason. The New Testament itself does not do so. What readers will find instead are passage-by-passage analyses by a renowned biblical scholar and educator.

For example, the first episode treated is the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 7:53-8:11). Collins presents not only a point-by-point analysis of its vocabulary and style but also its origins and the cultural, societal, religious and historical context of the passage. Incisive examination of a passage’s form, organization, literary style and vocabulary, putting it into perspective from no less than five angles -- this is one of Collins’ finest scholarly gifts to us and a hallmark of the entire book.

The author offers readers not his own personal opinions about a passage’s meanings and messages and contemporary applications, but rather draws our attention to what the text itself is saying. For instance, regarding the woman discovered in adultery, Collins sheds light on many important conclusions -- especially that adultery is a serious and grave wrongdoing, but it is forgivable. (Indeed, later in the book he shows that in lists of vices adultery is given no more special attention than is drunkenness.) For that conclusion, and the others throughout this work, Collins treats readers to an overwhelmingly supported argument, presented with lucid prose, engaging style, wit and humor.

Be aware: Though this book is wisely written to address a wide audience it is nevertheless a sophisticated New Testament study. Collins’ vocabulary is bracing and may stretch readers. Terms such as tefillin, hortatory, neologism and parenesis are probably not part of most peoples’ usual vocabulary. If such words are unfamiliar, then one has the great fun of discovering what they mean. Collins also offers us the opportunity to expand our Greek word power, presenting such words throughout his book and identifying key New Testament vocabulary regarding sexuality.

The author brilliantly and forcefully brings out the theme that sexuality and holiness are thoroughly compatible realities -- in fact, Christians are called to both. A good deal of Christianity’s history includes sustained efforts to separate human sexuality and holiness. This book provides a healing balm for such wounds.

Collins gives us a rare foundational source for beginning our reflections on sexuality, holiness and life. He admirably lays out what these texts most probably meant in their original historical context. The task is now up to us to discern what they may mean for us today.

I told you to fasten your seat belts.

William F. McInerny is a professor of theology and religious studies at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo.

National Catholic Reporter, July 14, 2000