For those wrestling with the question of what a Christian position on the issue of homosexuality should look like, Dale Martin’s new book Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation could be a valuable resource.
Unlike most who have written books on this subject, Martin (Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University) focuses much of his attention on how we interpret the Bible. As he likes to point out, the Bible, being an inanimate object, doesn’t say anything; it’s the reader that brings meaning to the text based on his or her experiences, preconceptions and cultural baggage. The historical-critical method of interpretation favored by most modern theologians, though useful when regarded as one tool among many, falls far short of being able to pinpoint the one “right” interpretation of any given text that so many turn to it for, and can in fact produce contradictory results even when used correctly.
Martin does spend two chapters addressing the New Testament “clobber passages,” exposing the bias that colors the “traditional” interpretations of those verses, and another chapter examining Paul’s view of human sexuality and how vastly it (and the majority of historical Christian opinion) differs from the modern Christian perspective. He also provides compelling evidence that suggests that neither Jesus nor Paul would have been cheerleaders for the “traditional” family so highly revered by the religious right, and demonstrates how Jesus’ prohibition against divorce was far more radical than anything any modern Christian would be willing to accept. Martin closes by proposing a more holistic method for reading and interpreting the Bible.
Some of the essays included in Sex and the Single Savior have appeared elsewhere, but the whole book provides a lot to consider and reflect on for Christians of all stripes. He puts forward his most direct challenge at the end of his chapter on the meanings of malakoi and arsenokoitai:
…I take my stand with a quotation from an impeccably traditional 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 of 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 “non-biblical” 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 of our neighbor”? (pgs. 49-50)