What do theologians do when they go away to an academic conference?
The answer presumably involves someone in conference planning who doesn’t keep alert to online jargon (definitions two and three).
My response to Dale Martin’s Sex and the Single Savior follows in the extended link at the bottom of this post. The session was delightful; it began with Daniel Boyarin looking up and down the dais at Amy Hollywood, Stephen Moore, Dale Martin, Serene Jones, Jon Berquist, and me — and saying, “I love being on a panels like this. It’s like Cheers.” He also got off the zinger of the evening when Serene suggested that Dale wrote with a disingenuous irony comparable to that of the Bush regime: “The only difference between George W. Bush and Dale Martin is that Dale is actually from Texas.” Dale shocked a number of audience members (and some panelists) by asserting his unwavering commitment to doctrinal orthodoxy.
Yesterday was devoted mostly to mop-up shopping (I bought my copy of Robert Jewett’s monumental Romans commentary, to packing and to travel, though I ran into B.J. and Rodney at the departure gate at National Airport and pitched to them an idea for a book series. On the book production front, both Faithful Interpretation and Reading Scripture With the Church sold out at their respective display booths, and Faithful Interpretation received a favorable short notice in the Christian Century.
I Did Not Have Sex With That Man
On the other hand, this book is only about sex as a presenting symptom of deeper and more far-reaching problems of biblical interpretation. If someone were to stand up this evening and denounce Martin for speculating about Jesus’s sexuality, or for challenging the practice of marriage, or for submitting that the historical Jesus probably forbade his married disciples to divorce, such a denunciator would have missed the most instructive reading of the book. Sex and the Single Savior is no more about sex than Genesis 1-3 is “about sex” or the Epistle to the Romans is “about sex”; that is to say, readings that identify “sex” as the most important topic of these texts strike me, and the readers I most respect, as unsatisfactorily superficial and forced. Rather, I suggest that Sex and the Single Savior (and Genesis 1-3 and Romans) treats of sex in the context of much broader, richer human efforts to recognize, embody, and make known God’s way.
Yet that broader context itself concerns sex, inasmuch as the word “sex” provides an apposite example of textual opacity — that is, of the reader’s inescapable agency in construing meaning from contextual markers. Martin discusses this phenomenon as “the myth of textual agency,” the mistaken supposition that texts may speak or compel or require. This [mostly consistent] emphasis delighted me inasmuch as I’ve fought the same struggle from a different angle, arguing against “the myth of subsistent meaning,” the literalized metaphor by whose terms “meaning” constitutes a quality immanent in texts, an invisible but nonetheless subsistent characteristic of texts. To the contrary, as Martin emphasizes at several inflection points in his argument, texts don’t do things. People do things with texts, or in conjunction with texts, or on the basis of texts, but the text remains inactive.
In the sense, then, that it’s hard to get “texts,” it likewise is hard to get “sex,” however much the existence of a class of professionals proposes to resolve that problem with oversimplified provision of meaning. There’s no single thing that simply is “sex.” The “sex” about which we speak can’t satisfactorily be demarcated by restriction to particular maneuvers with particular body parts. Our meeting place — I dare not, under the circumstances, say “our congress” even though “congress” doesn’t really mean “sex,” although recent revelations about Congress might incline us to make a stronger connection between them — our meeting place in Washington, D.C., might remind us of President Clinton’s notorious equivocations about what constitutes sex, or it might remind us further of the confrontation between Anita Hill and the Senate Judiciary Committee over how we specify “sexual harassment.” English-speakers use the word “sex” in a vast range of contexts for a vast range of activities. If I were to join 1 Peter in urging you to greet one another with a kiss of love, would I intend something sexual by it? Look around; you can see some people here whose kisses you might welcome, and others whose kisses you might regard as intrusively, unwelcomely sexual at such a time. And the cultured despisers of the early church showed no hesitancy in spotting the sexual overtones to our exhortation to love one another, to kiss our sisters and brothers, bathing one another, anointing one another. Indeed, to the extent that while reading this book we’re tempted at times to rush in with defensive assurances that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, to the extent that sometimes a kiss on the lips is just a greeting, to the extent that sometimes the command to penetrate with a finger is just a tactile aid to belief — to that extent, Martin’s book concerns “sex” on every page, even where it’s not apparently about sex. The interlocking spheres of culture, language, practice, marketplace, church, academy, articulate “sex” differently at different times, depending who’s involved, how old they are, how well we know them, and whether they support the legislative aims with which we sympathize. We need not sing along with Tom Lehrer that “when correctly viewed / everything is lewd” to acknowledge, grudgingly, that we can communicate sexuality by a flicker of the eyes, by a tone of voice, by the offer to light a cigarette. “Sex” is not a single thing.
On the other hand, even though sex is not a single thing, “singles” are not asexual. The zones where sex and singleness overlap, or might overlap, provide another theme for Martin’s argument. That possible overlap does not require supposing that a single savior (whom we do not, after all, know singly, but multiply — by faith, not by sight) was, in the terms of contemporary jurisprudence, “sexually active,” as though single people were only latently sexual. Perhaps all the more, the single savior disrupts the stability of systems we devise to constrain sexual expression. A single person might be anything! The single person may be gay, or straight, or bi, or uncertain, or unlucky, or deliberately celibate (for any variety of more or less intelligible reasons) or simply repulsive. Her sexuality, or his, is unmarked by public signs of approbation or disapprobation, so that authority figures rush in to provide the categories that shore up the disturbed stability, and to try to impress them upon underdetermined singles.
Thus the non-single sexuality of singles activates the full force of besetting cultural anxieties about identity, holiness, and rectitude: ours, and Jesus’s. A vast proportion of the participants in our culture respond to questions about sexuality with overdetermined dis-ease, with a distinctive combination of voyeurism and aversion (a combination that supplies the material for 87% of the products our broadcast, film, journalistic, and audio media). The Jesus whom so many love so intensely (not in that way), and whom they imagine so vividly (again, not that way), must for our sakes articulate, and instantiate, the characteristics that will clarify for us some reliable touchstones, foundation, on which we can safely build the edifices of our selves. As Martin points out, in the absence of “textual agency” we can’t determine the precise characteristics that make for safe sex, safe singleness, safe coupling, and their abject opposites, without the intervention of interpretive imagination.
If such is the case of a reader with their text, of a single with their sex, panicked disciples might recoil out of the fear that anything goes, that nothing is true, that we may as well indulge in Oedipodean intercourse and Thyestean feasts. Martin has no use for such futile thinking, the senseless fears that arise in darkened minds; in an exquisite coup de grace, Martin rebuffs his suspicious interlocutors by invoking his spiritual continuity with Augustine of Hippo. Martin’s Augustinian hermeneutic makes room for difference by situating all our interpretive discourses relative to the wideness of God’s mercy: elastic, bounded, but not rigid, and always oriented toward a divine harmony which we have not yet attained.
All that being granted, it’s not an official academic response unless I give you at least a wee bit of a hard time (“minus 50 DKP,” as my gamer friends would say), and the terrain onto which I want to draw you out concerns your hesitancy about “community.” I fully grant you the caution you bring to bear against glib, cozy, insular uses of the concept of “community.” Yes, “community” provides no gilt-edged guaranteed protection against abusive, pernicious interpretations. Still, I’m curious to hear more from you about the production of meaning apart from textual agency — as I think we share some [Wittgensteinian] premises about the positive role communities play in constituting, supporting, nurturing the imagination with which we conceive meaning. I ask this not as a rebuke, but with the expectation that your response will be as satisfying, indeed as brilliant, as your arguments throughout Sex and the Single Savior.
Greetings from Holy Innocents, and happy Thanksgiving!
Just checking in with you to let you know that the blog for Holy Innocents has been re-done to reflect recent changes, and is now accepting comments and trackbacks. We were getting a huge amount of truly nasty porn spam, and so comments had to be completely turned off for the better part of 2 years.
I know that you’ve been struggling with spam in your comments: the solution was to walk away from the older version of MT we were running, and give WordPress a whirl, which my husband had been urging me to try. It was wonderful to see it blow away thousands of comments from the old installation, and make the new comments completely safe and ready to use. The URL for the blog is now
In other news: we’re closing the Holy Innocents building and merging with another nearby Episcopal parish, St Nicholas. I’m keeping the blog running as a community building tool, and eventually a completely new website will be built, and the blog will be a part of that. It’s a difficult time, but we’re trying to put our best face forward. Our vicar is now Fr. Stephen Martz, sharing costs with St Nicholas, as Fr. Ted reluctantly had to accept a position with a bit more job security than we could offer. Both missions will be in the same building together starting in January; our final service in our building will be a Festival Eucharist to celebrate feast of the Holy Innocents, transferred to December 31. Big party afterwards.
I hope that you’ll drop by the blog sometime and see what’s going on, and please feel welcome to drop by in person anytime.