Sex and the Single Savior: On Reading the Biblical Text, Part 1

i. Some Preliminaries
A few months ago, on a post dealing with biblical literalism, Aric from Mined Splatterings pointed me to a book by Dale Martin entitled Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation. Upon Aric's recommendation I got the book, read it, and would like to devote a couple of posts to it.

Martin holds the Woolsey Professorship of Religious Studies at Yale University. Sex and Single Savior is a collection of some of Martin's published work with three new essays written for the volume.

Most of the essays, Chapters 3-9, in Sex and the Single Savior give us Martin's scholarship on a variety of biblical texts dealing with sexuality. Across these chapters Martin gives us a queer (pro-gay) reading of scripture.

I should probably clarify that the phrase "queer reading" is a technical term. Queer readings of texts are often grouped with Marxist and feminist readings. What these readings have in common is that they read texts from the stance of marginalized groups (e.g., the gay community, women, the poor). The main reading strategy is the use of a hermeneutics of suspicion. Specifically, texts are read as acts of power, investing power with some and taking it away from others. Thus, we read texts noting that they are tools in a power struggle. Generally, "established" texts tend to serve the status quo. To read a text from the queer, feminist or Marxist vantage is to ask, "What power structure is the author trying to protect and propagate? Who gains power from this text and who is power being taken away from?" This is the suspicious stance, the questioning of the motives of the author and asking how the text is functioning in power struggles. We don't read the text naively, but suspiciously, asking the question Cui bono? Who benefits?

Immediately some may object that Martin's approach isn't going to yield faithful readings. We are to approach the bible trustingly and not suspiciously. So let me be quick to note that Martin would not probably characterize his hermeneutic as suspicious. Late in the book Martin states that the bible should be interpreted by an hermeneutic of love. But love does have to do with power relations and how these power relations are lovingly managed or dismantled. But I'm getting ahead of myself. For now just note that Martin is reading the biblical texts on sexuality from a pro-gay position.

As I said, most of Sex and the Single Savior is comprised of standalone essays giving us Martin's previously published papers. One of the essays (Chapter 3) is online. It is Martin's word study of arsenokoites and malakos. If you are like me (i.e., not a biblical scholar), after you read the essay you'll be intrigued but feel somewhat stymied in your ability to evaluate the piece. I don't have the historical-critical toolkit to make a proper evaluation. Regardless, it is interesting reading.

However, I'd like to put aside, for the purposes of this series, Martin's work on the biblical texts. I would rather like to focus on Chapters 1, 2, 10, and 11, the first and last two chapters of the book. These chapters were written for a general audience and they focus on the larger issue of how we read the bible. Obviously, how we read the bible crucially bears upon Martin's scholarly project but his work in these four chapters can be read and considered independently of Chapters 3-9.

ii. Do texts "speak"?
Martin begins Sex and the Single Saviour with a precis of his scholarly project:

"One of the central goals of much of my writing over the past several years has been to undermine a common assumption, common among lay Christians as well as scholars: that the Bible 'speaks' and our job is just to 'listen.' Repeatedly we encounter biblical scholars talking as if the text of the Bible contains certain, identifiable 'meaning' that it 'communicates' to us, and our task is to be as passive as possible and 'receive' that message without distorting it too much. My scholarship, on the other hand, has attempted to highlight the activities of interpretation by which people 'make meaning' of the biblical texts. I have insisted that the texts don't 'speak'--except in the most tenuous of metaphorical senses of that term--and that we humans have to do lots of hard work to interpret the text before they have any meaning at all." (p. 1)

Martin's main target is what he calls foundationalism. Martin points out that foundationalism is different from fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is the belief in biblical inerrancy. Foundationalism is a bit more sophisticated and doesn't entail a commitment to inerrancy (although it can). Specifically, foundationalism believes that the meaning of the text can be secured by building your interpretive method on a firm and solid "foundation." The idea is that the meaning of the text exists "inside" the text. Thus, we just need to approach the text in the proper manner and the meaning comes out all objective and clean. As Martin states, "Foundationalism...holds that the Bible provides, or should provide, a secure basis for doctrine and ethics, at least if we interpret it by appropriate methods." (p. 3) Martin compares this to how scientists approach nature. That is, with the proper method--the Scientific Method--we can extract objective results from nature. There must, foundationalists contend, be a similar "scientific method" to extract objective meaning from scripture.

But, and here is the rub, what is the "proper method"? And who gets to say what this method is?

You can see Martin's point. There is a text and there is a method of interpretation. Meaning comes from the interface of the two. Meaning isn't "in" the text. Meaning is an "event," the product of human agency working and interfacing with the text.

Martin tells us how he illustrates this point in his classes:

"I put the Bible in the middle of the room or on the speaker's podium, step back, and say, 'Okay, let's see what it says. Listen!' After a few seconds of uncomfortable silence and some snickers, I say, 'Apparently, the Bible can't talk.' This is not the frivolous gimmick it may initially seem. Our language about 'what texts say' tends to make us forget that the expression is a metaphor. Texts don't 'say' anything; they must be read. And even in the reading process, interpretation has already begun." (p. 5)

Now this may seem to be a minor issue, but for Martin the issue is deep and has important implications for ethics. Specifically, according to Martin, by refusing to acknowledge that we have interpreted the text we can hide behind the text. We can avoid moral responsibility by placing that load on the text. For example,

"One regularly comes across a certain tone in debates about Christian ethics, a tone by which one or both parties in the debate seem to say, 'Don't blame me! I'm not opposed to gay people (or the ordination of women, or name your issue). The Bible is. The Bible tells us..." Such people never admit that the Bible doesn't actually talk. They do not acknowledge their own interpretive processes by which they have arrived at what they think the Bible 'says.' People throughout history, therefore, have committed grave ethical offenses--supporting slavery, oppressing women, fighting unjust wars, killing, torturing, and harming their fellow human beings--under the cover of 'the Bible says.' As long as the text itself is thought to provide its own interpretation or to constrain or direct its own meaning, the ethical and political responsibility of interpreters can be masked, denied, or slighted. Immoral interpretations can be--and have been--blamed on the text rather than the interpreter." (p. 2)

I think we can appreciate the cogency of this argument. We've all seen the Bible used in unethical ways. And we've all been frustrated with how people extract those "meanings" from the Bible. The frustration comes because our argument with them can't be adjudicated by the text. Our argument is about interpretation and these modes of interpretation are extra-biblical (and often unstated). It's a hermeneutical argument and its hard to determine which method is more "proper." So, we just angrily throw Bible verses at each other. To little effect.

But an anxiety quickly emerges. If Martin's argument holds are there ANY constraints on the text? Is NOTHING out of bounds? Can the meaning of the text EVER be determined?

I'll pick up on Martin's answers to those questions in the next post.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

7 thoughts on “Sex and the Single Savior: On Reading the Biblical Text, Part 1”

  1. Wow. I'm incredibly flattered. I can count on one hand the number of times I've recommended a book to someone and they actually read it. Book Recommendations come cheap in the blogosphere. It's great to see you've read and are engaging so thoroughly with the book. I look forward to your thoughts.

    As for this post, I think you sum up his primary argument very well. I felt that this was the strength of the book, but I was not completely impressed with his answers to the questions you raise right here at the end. I felt like his method had the same flaws and many postmodern/postfoundationalist methods which is that it is very good at deconstruction and not so great at doing anything productive besides.

  2. Reading this makes me wonder, does Martin believe that reading is necessarily a more interpretive act than listening to someone talk? I mean, I would think that if the writers of the Bible had had recording technology and so we were listening to them say the same things, it wouldn't be any easier to understand what they meant. It sounds like what he's really getting at is that the bible doesn't speak to us, i.e. have us in mind when formulating its words in the way someone in our presence would do. (Not that that necessarily leads to perfect communication either!) Would that be a fair characterization?

  3. Hey Richard,

    One need only look online at recent Optimist letters to the editor and subsequent comments to understand exactly what you are saying about throwing verses at each other rather than looking at interpretive strategies.

    I look forward to your next post.

  4. Yes, indeed! You should look at those letters and their subsequent comments! I'm thinking of one nifty letter in particular. =>

    "Can the meaning of the text EVER be determined?"

    I'm guessing this is a bad question to ask, since only a *foundationalist* would suppose that there is any such thing as *the* meaning of the text. The problem with that, though, is that you have to tell a new story about how we got the text, and what, if anything, it has to do with God.

  5. Aric,
    It is a very good book and I’m grateful for the recommendation. I agree that Martin does leave us with some puzzles, but, I must admit, so do the foundationalists. It’s a muddle all around.

    Camassia,
    Today, as I pondered the post, I was wondering the same thing. Here is my best guess as to what I think Martin would say:

    1.) Even in oral communication, like a person listening to a sermon, we all take away different meanings. We interpret.
    2.) Also, in oral communication we can ask questions in a Socratic fashion gaining clarity and perhaps unanimity along the way. But the biblical writers cannot be interrogated in that fashion.
    3.) Oral communication is always in the present. Thus, temporal disjoints aren’t too much of a problem. Texts, however, age and, as a consequence, their meanings are “lost” or don’t “age” very well.
    4.) Finally, in listening to a sermon I have to deal with one speaker and his/her meaning. But the bible is a chorus, a polyphonic (dissonant?) text. How do I meld those voices into a homogeneous “message”? Can I meld? Should I?

    I’m just guessing Martin would say something along those lines.

    Cole and Matthew,
    For outsiders as to what Cole and Matthew are referring to, here is a link to what they are talking about: A bit of debate going on about female participation in our chapel services. For outsiders, it’s a nice sample of some ecclesial behavior.

    Cole, as I said to Aric, Martin’s account isn’t wholly satisfactory but I like some of the issues and metaphors he brings up. Matt, I, for one, loved your letter. I smiled very big when I saw it.

  6. Thanks, Richard. There is a school of thought that says that listening is in fact a more inherently passive activity, while reading encourages detachment and abstract analysis. There was a discussion of it in the New Yorker recently (http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2007/12/24/071224crat_atlarge_crain?currentPage=all). I don't know if I believe it, since as you say, we can interrogate people talking to us but books can take on an air of omniscience. However, a lot of people read the Bible who don't otherwise like to read, so perhaps the language of it "speaking" says something about how they process it.

  7. For anyone who likes Martin but is annoyed at deconstruction without reconstruction, check out his book "The Corinthian Body." He comes to more conclusions in that one. :) I'll have to read "Sex and the Single Saviour," it looks interesting.

Leave a Reply