Dale Martin’s Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation

I thought it worthwhile to begin with this extended quote, representative of the book as a whole, and the most powerfully distilled argument I’ve yet come across while reading. One of Howard Thurman’s seminary professors told him not to waste his time with any book he could read faster than twenty pages in an hour. This one falls into that category for me. My comments follow, so as not to disrupt the momentum Martin builds.

Dale B. Martin, Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox), pp. 49-50 of the paperback:

My goal is not to deny that Paul condemned homosexual acts but to highlight the ideological contexts in which such discussions have taken place. My goal is to dispute appeals to “what the Bible says” as a foundation for Christian ethical arguments. It really is time to cut the Gordian knot of fundamentalism. And do not be fooled: any argument that tries to defend its ethical position by an appeal to “what the Bible says” without explicitly acknowledging the agency and contingency of the interpreter is fundamentalism, whether it comes from a right-wing Southern Baptist or a moderate Presbyterian. We must simply stop giving this kind of argument any credibility. Furthermore, we will not find the answers merely by becoming better historians or exegetes. The test for whether an interpretation is Christian or not does not hang on whether it is historically accurate or exegetically nuanced. The touchstone is not the historically reconstructed meaning in the past, nor is it the fancifully imagined, modernly constructed intentions of the Biblical writers. Nor can any responsible Christian–after the revolutionary change in Christian thought in the past twenty years, much less in the past three hundred–maintain that Christian interpretations are those conforming to Christian tradition. The traditions, all of them, have changed too much and are far too open to cynical manipulation to be taken as foundations for gauging the ethical value of a reading of Scripture.
The only recourse in our radical contingency is to accept our contingency and look for guidance within the discourse that we occupy and that forms our very selves. The best place to find criteria for talking about ethics and interpretation will be in Christian discourse itself, which includes Scripture and tradition but not in a “foundational” sense. Nor do I mean that Christian discourse can itself furnish a stable base on which to secure ethical positions; it is merely the context in which those positions are formed and discussed. Conscious of this precarious contingency, and looking for guiding lights within the discourse, I take my stand with a quotation from an impeccably traditioned witness, Augustine, who wrote, “Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and our neighbor does not understand it at all” (Christian Doctrine 1.35.40).
By this light, any interpretation of Scripture that hurts people, oppresses people, or destroys people cannot be the right interpretation, no matter how traditional, historical, or exegetically respectable. There can be no debate about the fact that the church’s stand on homosexuality has caused oppression, loneliness, self-hatred, violence, sickness, and suicide for millions of people. If the church wishes to continue with its traditional interpretation it must demonstrate, not just claim, that it is more loving to condemn homosexuality than to affirm homosexuals. Can the church show that same-sex loving relationships damage those involved in them? Can the church give compelling reasons to believe that it really would be better for all lesbian and gay Christians to live alone, without the joy of intimate touch, without hearing a lover’s voice when they go to sleep or awake? Is it really better for lesbian and gay teenagers to despise themselves and endlessly pray that their very personalities be reconstructed so that they may experience romance like their straight friends? Is it really more loving for the church to continue its worship of “heterosexual fulfillment” (a “nonbiblical” concept, by the way) while consigning thousands of its members to a life of either celibacy or endless psychological manipulations that masquerade as “healing”?
The burden of proof in the last twenty years has shifted. There are too many of us who are not sick, or inverted, or perverted, or even “effeminate,” but who just have a knack for falling in love with people of our own sex. When we have been damaged, it has not been due to our homosexuality but to others’ and our own denial of it. The burden of proof now is not on us, to show that we are not sick, but rather on those who insist that we would be better off going back into the closet. What will “build the double love of God and neighbor”?
I have tried to illustrate how all appeals to “what the Bible says” are ideological and problematic. But in the end, all appeals, whether to the Bible or anything else, must submit to the test of love. To people who say this is simplistic, I say, far from it. There are no easy answers. “Love” will not work as a foundation for ethics in a prescriptive or predictable fashion either–as can be seen by all the injustices, imperialisms, and violence committed in the name of love. But rather than expecting the answer to come from a particular method of reading the Bible, we at least push the discussion to where it ought to be: into the realm of debates about Christian love, rather than into either fundamentalism or modern historicism.
We ask the question that must be asked: “What is the loving thing to do?

1) Martin’s aim is indeed “not to deny that Paul condemned homosexual acts.” Instead, Martin argues that the way the Church has turned to Scripture as foundational for its ethics is flawed, because (according to him) foundationalism is a flawed and naive way to read any text, including the Scriptures. He himself is a near-complete postmodern, and his guiding lights within postmodern critical theory are (at least at the halfway point of the book) Michel Foucault and reader-response theory. Very briefly, reader-response theory claims that the meaning of the text resides not in the text itself but in the reading community’s experience of the text. Foucauldian analysis names the power and politics at work in the formation of texts, communities, and the discourse within those communities, including the formation of churches, interpretive traditions, individual scholars, and Christian ethics.

2) “explicitly acknowledging the agency and contingency of the interpreter”: While I agree that this is necessary, I’m not as convinced that this is a strong definition of fundamentalism. First, it collapses fundamentalism and foundationalism into one. But while Martin wants to sweep away the (for him) illusion of all foundations, among which Christian fundamentalism is one, the technical term “fundamentalism” when applied to Christianity usually includes groups whose theologies profess the limits and bent-, curved-, or broken-ness of human interpreters and interpretive communities. That is, there already is an explicit (although Martin would likely still argue not explicit enough) acknowledgement of the interpreter’s contingency. The other half–agency–does stand. Martin does a tremendous job outlining how Christians tend to deny their own agency in speaking of texts, not only when we say things like “the Bible says,” but in the publications of highly regarded Biblical scholars and theologians (of which Martin provides many examples) and when seminaries continue to teach preaching as “letting the text speak for itself” or “getting out of the way of the text.”

3) “We must simply stop giving this kind of argument any credibility.” This is much more easily said than done. For instance, at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church that just took place in St. Louis, recognized speakers voiced claims (not just conservative claims) based on “what the Bible says” in the flat, non-nuanced way that Martin is talking about. This understanding of reading the Bible and forming theology and Christian ethics seems to be baked into the Christian cake at this point. What does it take to change a cultural understanding of Scripture which is (at least) as old as Protestantism? I’m hoping that Martin will eventually address this question.

4) The rest of Paragraph 1: Here you can see the full diagnosis of the problem of Biblical interpretation as Martin sees it. The text has no meaning apart from its readers, history is of very limited use in aiding our meaning making, and Christian traditions are compromised in their usefulness because they are corrupted by the lust for power, like every other human institution (and this is a Foucauldian analysis, even though others could make a similar argument based on the doctrine of sin). And so we are set for the opening sentence of Paragraph 2.

5) “our radical contingency”: Yes, we are finite people with finite resources for understanding and meaning making, and even what resources we have are suspect.

6) “guidance within the discourse that we occupy and that forms our very selves”: The problem is that this suddenly makes Christian ethics and Christianity itself very individualistic, and it makes me the individual who matters and judges. I have this little spot of sand on which I stand, there is only water on every side, and when I am gone, my little spot of beach will be washed away too. It’s very possible I misunderstand the claims of reader-response theory, but Martin’s particular reading seems to be a trajectory toward shattering every possibility of community or shared meaning, which places it at odds with every form of historical Christianity. (I don’t believe I’m misreading; rather, I wonder how communities can be larger than one if reader-response theory is applied to saturation.)

7) Paragraph three (“By this light”) is the one that cemented for me that this was the passage to share. The primary reason is that I think every person holding to a conservative position on human sexual and gender identity and expression should face some important realities. Second, I am interested in how a foundational claim has now emerged in the midst of an anti-foundational argument. There is a foundation, and it is something like “Do no harm,” eventually reframed in the next paragraph as “Love.”

8) “demonstrate, not just claim”: This is a tremendous challenge. Sin isn’t a violation against God’s arbitrary rules, but something which does actual harm to actual others. An important caveat: just because I cannot see the harm does not make it not sin. More important caveat: I can see that the church has harmed LGBTQIA people. There are some parts of the church that simply hate their queer siblings, and some of those Christians (and this doesn’t make anyone less culpable) have no sense of the motivations for their doctrine and ethics of human sexuality. And there are many other voices and have been voices since the early church who have lived into community, and who have lived complete and fulfilled lives without ever having a sexual partner. (One could attempt to argue that far fewer lesbian and gay teenagers despise themselves and pray for changed sexual identities, but the truth is that there are still more than plenty of Christian teenagers in that situation, and the reason that there are fewer has had much to do with changing views among Christian churches.)

9) “worship of ‘heterosexual fulfillment'” is very real, and, at least in US Protestantism, celibacy (whether or not it’s chosen or out of a sense of vocation or just because life unfolds in unplanned ways) is viewed as somehow weird. That is, heterosexual marriage is viewed as normal, and any other adult life is viewed as abnormal. (The New Testament and most of the global church throughout history have viewed things differently. There are places, communities, and voices which are currently helping us to change, albeit slowly.)

10) The concluding paragraphs and sentence demonstrate why this book continues to be helpful to my thinking, even as I have shown I disagree fundamentally (sic) with the author on some issues. Martin, a Biblical scholar, is convinced that Biblical debates are the mischosen battleground for forming Christian ethics, so that he comes at it slant rather than repeating unhelpful, entrenched positions. Put simply, he seems less stuck than most of us, and he helps me even when I read some of those more entrenched positions.