Sex and the Single Savior: On Reading the Biblical Text, Part 4

In the last couple posts we've all been kicking around various metaphors for reading the biblical text. In the final chapter of Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation Dale Martin gives us three.

1. The Bible as Art Museum
The first two metaphors Martin offers involve the bible as a "space" we move through. The first space he envisions is an art museum.

To begin, Martin quickly wants to rescue this metaphor from the quick associations of museums being out-dated, irrelevant, and boring. Martin is a lover of museums and finds them vibrant places, full of life, passion and excitement. I, too, love museums so I share his high view of them. (Plus, have you not seen Night at the Museum? I have. About 100 times with my two boys...)

Here are a few aspects of Martin's bible-as-museum metaphor:

i. Buildings don't communicate.
As we have discussed, Martin does not think that the biblical texts "speak." We, the readers, do all the work of interpretation. The same is true of museums. The museum doesn't have a "message" or a "point." It provides us, rather, with moments of reflection, encounter, and interpretation.

ii. A museum is a collection.
"The Bible" is a collection. Just as an art museum is a collection. Just as the bible takes texts and removes them from their "natural" location (the time, place, and circumstance of the writing), so does an art museum. This is both bad and good. Either way, the juxtapositions and dislocations found both the bible and the museum make for multifarious interpretive encounters.

iii. A Museum offers a hierarchy of interpretation but has populist sensibilities.
Interpretation in an art museum can scale up from a child, to an adult, to a docent, to an art scholar. There is a hierarchy here and the hierarchy can infuse the interpretation with depth, quality, and nuance. We see more things with a good docent by our side. And the docent needs art historians to do the scholarly work that supports the docent. But the interpretations of the scholar and docent do not trump. Each person in an art museum has their own subjective reactions and experiences. And at the end of the day those experiences are taken to be of first importance. If you experience a piece of art in a certain way the docent might try to say that the artist did not, in fact, mean for you to take it that way. Regardless, you do take it that way and are affected and changed by the experience. And your experience is meaningful, significant, and important. Regardless as to what the artist intended.

The point is, biblical scholars and preachers do important work. They infuse good information into the interpretive milieu. But they don't get to tell us what the bible "really means."

iv. Truth isn't the most important thing in a museum.
When we go into a museum we don't go in asking for or looking for "the truth." Rather, we go looking to be affected, deepened, challenged, inspired, troubled, and changed. We don't look at a painting and say "Is it true?" If anything, the artwork questions us: "Are you true?"

In the same way, we err if we approach the bible as the fundamentalists do, expecting the "literal truth". The truths of the bible are of a different, more experiential nature.

2. The Bible as Cathedral
Martin goes on to compare the bible to a cathedral. For this metaphor he adds some associations not found in the museum metaphor. For example, the overall structure of a cathedral communicates meaning while the different spaces and niches within the cathedral have different functions and purposes. Thus, as we move through a cathedral our experience changes accordingly. Also, the shape of the cathedral draws our eyes up, we are infused with a sense of the transcendent. Cathedrals are also inviting places where long time members worship and people off the street can wander in. Each group experiences the space in different ways. Also, the experience of a cathedral is different if you are there alone or if you are worshiping with a congregation. For Martin, all these associations (and more) provide helpful ways of thinking about the bible.

3. The Bible as a Hypertext Virtual Cathedral
Martin sees in the Internet a new way by which the bible is coming to be read. It is an interesting vision, so let me quote Martin (p. 180):

"Let us imagine that we have a hypertext commentary of the Bible. We click on the icon of the Bible and select a page, say the creation story from Genesis 1, or the story of the transfiguration from the Gospel of Luke. When we move the cursor over the text, words light up if there is something there to pursue. We click on a word, or perhaps a verse, and are taken to another place where we may access word studies, find out what the Greek or Hebrew is and its range of meanings. We see links to commentaries on the word or text, certainly modern commentaries, but also premodern commentaries, to read what Meister Eckhart, or Julian of Norwich, or Augustine, or Jerome, or Origen said about the text...Another link, though, might take us to sermons people have preached on this text, again from the ancient period to today. Another takes us to art galleries, where we may study and derive inspiration from the ways artists have depicted the scene, perhaps with commentary on the paintings or sculpture or abstract art itself. Another link brings us to a music room, where we may select from a menu of musical compositions based on or related to the particular biblical text we are studying. We listen to music while browsing through the paintings. Another link takes us to literature: Milton, Shakespeare, Bunyan, T.S. Eliot, Flannery O'Connor, whichever literary sources might help us think about this particular biblical text in a new and challenging way. We could go on to suggest other possible links: perhaps to plays and theater, films, black American spirituals, and folklore."

Martin's vision is to not reduce the meaning of the text but to expand it. Rather than the historical-critical black hole of meaning Martin envisions a supernova: "We now have the technology to move biblical commentary out of the narrow confines of textual comments on the 'original historical meaning' of the text or the 'author's intention' and outward to an expanding vista of ever-newly built rooms, links, evolving commentary. The meaning of the biblical text grows outward, into the whole world and all of history, and inward, into the depths of history, literature, art, and music--and into the infinity of our minds, the limits of which we cannot reach. Why don't we teach biblical studies this way? Wouldn't hypertext be a truer, more theological defensible model of biblical interpretation than the more 'archeological' image of just digging up 'the' true and 'single' meaning of the text, the image of biblical studies that has held hegemonic sway over modern biblical studies?"

I called this a "supernova" of meaning as opposed to a "black hole" singularity of meaning. Personally, I find this image appealing. It suggests that God is still speaking. The text is expanding, evolving, and moving into the future. Further, the bible pulls more and more of human experience into its orbit. The idea, it seems to me, is that the "true meaning of the bible" cannot be determined until it has been filtered through every human heart and every human experience, from now until the end of time. The meaning of the bible is coming. Its true meaning is yet to be. An eschatological view of the text?

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4 thoughts on “Sex and the Single Savior: On Reading the Biblical Text, Part 4”

  1. To have this kind of eschatological view of the text is actually quite an act of faith - it is to rely on the text as having a future horizon, rather than to rely on our capacity to move backwards beyond a past boundary.

  2. Yes, and I've always been sympathetic to Teilhard de Chardin's Omega Point. So it attractive to me to connect that idea to the reading of the biblical text. I do think when we read the text we are standing on the shoulders of past giants but I like to think it is so that we can see farther than they did.

  3. This series is interesting, but I guess my objection to some of Martin's conclusions would be that for a Christian the primary authority is not scripture but Christ himself, and when it comes to finding out about the actual person and teachings of the historical Jesus . . . your method does matter. Martin, and many Christians I have seen with similar views, seem to presuppose a very high view of Scripture (the Bible is the Word of God, written with Christians of all times in mind). Which is fine, but not everyone shares that assumption. So I'm not sure how applicable these styles of interpretation really are to those of us whose faith is not in the texts themselves, but only in a first century Judean peasant and his teachings.

  4. Hi Abigail,
    Actually, it is hard for me to tell how "high" Martin's view of Scripture really is. Some actually see it as a very low view.

    But your point is well taken. These issues/debates/discussions have an "insider" feel, as they presuppose that one takes the bible as Scripture (The Word of God). And not everyone does.

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