I received a preview copy of Colby Martin‘s new book UnClobber: Rethinking Our Misuse of the Bible on Homosexuality (Westminster Knox Press: Sept 28, 2016) and was asked to write an honest review. UnClobber is really two books in one: First it is an attempt to dissuade people that The Bible does not condemn homosexuality and there are logically sound and biblically grounded reasons for this position; second, it is the story of Martin’s journey over the last two decades arriving at a new understanding of The Bible, the teachings of Jesus, and losing/finding/creating a fellowship community. Just as the book is divided into two parts, so too shall this review be divided in twain. Similarly, taking a page from Martin’s book, this review weaves a little of my own biography throughout.
I grew up gay in a town where many of my peers were becoming “born again.” As a result, my earliest steps in the coming out process involved a lot of research to dissuade my peers that homosexuality is wrong. Martin’s discussion of biblical verses here (the so called “Clobber Passages”) was not new to me. Martin’s voice adds a degree of levity to this discussion as he uses approachable language and parables showing how the passages are either mistranslated or misunderstood. Martin embodies a version of Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride saying to his readers, “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.” Thus, Martin is successful in engaging the reader with the text and its origins.
If this is your first time looking at these passages, Martin offers a safe starting point with approachable language and useful examples to help you put these passages in a new context. As a gay man, I am predisposed to agree with Martin, but even still there are a few places in this work where I was forced to fill in gaps in Martin’s logic. UnClobber is a good primer to prepare new readers to seek other authors who have used more academic rigor to discuss these passages. Martin does include a list of some additional sources those who may wish to learn more can pursue in further unpacking these passages. However, on its own, UnClobber is not comprehensive enough to convince those who are predisposed to disagree with Martin.
The second element of Martin’s book is that of his biography. I have been an acquaintance of Martin’s since we attended the same junior high. Early in UnClobber, Martin offers apologies to all those who knew him when he first became “oversaved.” His awakening into Evangelical Christianity coincided with my journey coming out of the closet. Though he and I had never been close, we ran in similar crowds and our opinions in regards to homosexuality were known to each other—needless to say, at the time they were not in alignment. UnClobber chronicles Martin’s journey from oversaved youth to affirming Christian. The book details his conflict with conservative Christianity and his attempts to bring his life into alignment. The search for honesty and integrity to the self and others is a key focus in his journey. Martin’s journey of exclusion from the fellowship of his congregations is one that many gay Christians might find parallels to in their own lives. His story is woven throughout his attempts to UnClobber the Clobber passages and speaks to a form of Christianity that is more about helping and loving neighbors than condemnation of our fellow humans. The alignment of head and heart and faith that Martin lays out may speak to many Evangelicals who have begun to question the teachings of their churches.
The two stories Martin tells in UnClobber are written accessibly and may offer insights to others who have started to take the same journey. This move is important and I hope more Evangelicals can move towards the same positions as Martin. I am worried that much of the impetus for this change of heart comes from a position that the Bible has merely been misunderstood. I would challenge Martin and all Christians to ask themselves what it might mean for them even if the Bible wasn’t misunderstood and still offered six passages that condemned homosexuality. Would their head and heart still be in misalignment? What would it mean for them to hold viewpoints that are contrary to these passages? My hope is that they would be Christ-like and welcome the outcasts into their flocks and treat them only with love and kindness. While finding that the Bible “does not mean what you think it means” may offer comfort once one realizes this, there are greater concerns here than simply justifying the position that LGBTQ people deserve love and respect because it isn’t forbidden by whichever translation of the Bible one happens to own. My hope is that Martin’s newfound alignment and fellowship community would find that being Christ-like sometimes means even questioning the disciples and doing that which is right to their fellow humans.
On a final note, Martin begins his book with a series of people for whom it might be written; unfortunately, I do not fall in those audiences. I was raised Lutheran (ELCA) and attended an Episcopalian college, so many of the components of Evangelical Christianity were unfamiliar to my more liturgical background. My churches also had (and continue to have) many of the debates decades ago that Martin is discussing here. Martin also co-opts much of the language around coming out and gay identity in ways that made me uneasy as a gay man. I imagine this was a rhetorical device and meant to show that his life has also shared some of the same struggles with the church as the LGBTQ community, but the two experiences, though similar, are vastly different. His easy adoption of these terms and experiences erases a long history of struggle for the LGBTQ community. That said, Martin’s unfortunate story of broken fellowship is compelling and may resonate with many readers who attempt to become more open and affirming or reconcile their sexuality with Christianity. UnClobber is a wonderful starting point in realigning faith, community, and LGBTQ peoples grounded in the experience of one sojourner. I suspect if the mission of his church continues as it has, the world will be a better place for it, and this book will be one small part of that change.