When Pastor Charles Worley made the remark in a sermon that all “the homosexuals” should be put behind “an electrified fence” (a link can be found below), the blogosphere exploded in reaction. And, indeed, his words were crazy, unacceptable, immoral, stupid, hateful, and frightening. However, I noted the alleged foundation to his argument: “The Bible’s again[st] it.” This statement is familiar to many who have been inundated by this debate (all of us?), to be sure, but notice the subject of this sentence and the active verb that follows. The Bible (an inanimate object) is (an active verb) against it (a stance on the issue of “homosexuality”). According to Pastor Worley, the Bible has the ability to determine actively, on its own, a position on a particular issue.
However, I have found the liberal Christian response to such claims equally frustrating, because they also gravitate toward that same justification. When one underscores an argument with the preface “the Bible says” or “Ezekiel remarks,” they fail to advance the argument to a more productive place. Indeed, the liberal argument is tethered to a “fundamental” and therefore does not allow them to make the leap to a reading strategy based on individual “experience” (i.e. People’s views on same-sex marriage change as they meet LGBTQ folks). I propose another possibility (though I’m definitely not the first), that liberal Christians must instead shift their biblical argument in favor of same-sex marriage to one that understands biblical texts as texts that speak only when the reader engages them.
Before proceeding I also want to provide full disclosure on two points. First of all, I am a firm supporter and advocate for marriage equality in the United States. My critique of liberal Christians comes from a position of similarity! Second, I recognize that at least one of my posts from this blog contains a title that might seem misleading given the content of this post. That title, containing the phrase, “Says Genesis 2,” was intentional and written self-consciously. In part, that post was addressing this very phenomenon in which the fundamentalist claim is made that that passage can say anything at all, on its own, regarding marriage.
Problems with the Agency Argument
In short, giving the Bible agency serves to reinforce binaries that delegitimize the other, in much the same way the LGBTQ community has been delegitimized over the past century. Take, for example, the problem of homophobia and the Sodom and Gomorrah story. In response to Worley’s interpretation of these two cities’ destruction, Jay Michaelson countered, “The Bible is quite clear as to the sin of Sodom.” While he continues, articulately claiming that the story is about “pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness,” again quoting a biblical book in the same way, he fails to account for the fact that his very need to argue this interpretation points to the lack of clarity in the biblical narrative! While people like Michaelson may make their biblical claims eloquently and touch on many important issues, their use of the Bible as an unspeaking speaker simply serves to solidify the binary division between them and those with whom they disagree.
Rather, what we see in the phenomenon of biblical agency are not instances of the Bible speaking on its own, but of different people using these texts to support their claim; they are using it as a tool. And, while there is nothing necessarily wrong with using the Bible as a utility, they are unclear about that usage. That is, by asserting a foundation to one’s interpretation with “the Bible says,” the interpreter simply hides their reading and understanding process. The result? more creative interpretations of scripture are limited, as liberal and conservative Christians alike refuse to engage scripture as something created within a context and constantly recreated within infinite other contexts.
So, How Can the Bible Be Used?
For years, many interpreters have used scripture creatively, sometimes within scripture itself! Take, for instance the author of Mark’s use of Psalm 22 in Jesus’ dying words on the cross (Mark 15:34). Today LGBTQ bloggers are bringing their experience to bear on scripture; and singer-songwriters, such as John Darnielle of the Mountain goats have openly interpreted scripture in their music. In each instance, these interpreters have been inspired by their life and by biblical texts and have thusly enriched those very texts through their interpretation. However, this is done only because the readers have added their own voices.
Whatever the case, no interpretation of scripture demonstrates the ability of the Bible to speak, but only the need of interpreters to speak for it. And this reality can only be part of an exciting, liberating, and creative process. It seems to me that the issue of same-sex marriage can benefit and has benefited in much the same way.