Saturday, December 13, 2008

Squinting Through Opacity

Commenting on Lisa Miller's essay in Newsweek that tries to make a Bible-based case for gay marriage, Andrew Sullivan confidently declares:

So a vast document that has only a handful of opaque references to sex between two heterosexuals of the same gender and no concept of homosexuality as such requires interpretation. We cannot resolve this issue by the plain meaning of the text alone. The minute we do this reduction - with, say, the Leviticus proscriptions - we are required to explain further why the prohibition of eating shell-fish is no longer operable. And an attempt to insist on the eternal, literal authority of Scripture with respect to marriage in churches that accept divorce - plainly and clearly ruled illicit by Jesus himself - reveals the deep intellectual confusion among the fundamentalists.
This passage is rife with confusions. Sullivan begins by characterizing the Bible as "opaque" and needing interpretation on the question of homosexuality, only to concede, as he must, that the Bible is actually quite lucid on the matter in Leviticus and elsewhere.

This leaves Sullivan with the fact that a) homosexuality is condemned in the Catholic tradition to which he subscribes and b) homosexuality is condemned in the plain text of the book on which the tradition rests. This seems an odd resting place for a self-labeled keeper of the conservative soul -- agitating to wish away tradition and hoary ancient authority. I am, for what it's worth, perfectly content to come across another telling instance in which the "conservative soul" reveals itself to be a black little fraud.

Seeing the predicament, Sullivan charges headlong into a listing of clear and unmistakable Bible nostrums that modern-day Christians blithely ignore: divorce, shellfish, etc. I have made the same arguments more than once, but always attached to the larger and unambiguous argument that such passages illustrate the severe limitations, if not the utter worthlessness, of the Bible and the tradition it bears. What is Sullivan's larger claim? What does Sullivan's "conservative soul" sing about shellfish and divorce as they're encountered in the Bible? That these are, if we squint hard enough, opaque passages calling for more interpretation? How do we know when we've reached the right interpretation? Why bother in the first place?

I say we squint all the way to this point: until we see no important difference between the books of the Bible and the plays of Shakespeare. All of these belong to the world's literary heritage and none of these are binding on human affairs, though they do express bounded human insight. And whereof they do not speak, we should have the good sense and the courage to look elsewhere for wisdom.

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