Sex and the Text: A Doctor Reflects on Hermeneutics


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I was doing a pelvic examination as a fourth-year medical student. My patient complained of a vaginal discharge. The resident was carefully observing me from behind my right shoulder. Peering with unusual interest over my left shoulder, her new husband enthusiastically exclaimed, “You guys have the best job in the world!”

I didn’t respond to his inappropriate and absurdly humorous suggestion that there was a sexual thrill associated with the necessary medical examination we were performing on his wife. Instead, the resident and I continued talking with our patient and explaining what we were doing in professional terms. Her naïve husband failed to recognize our ability as human beings to engage in mental compartmentalization.

But, if there was no arousal associated with the examination we were performing (at least on our part), what happened when the resident and I returned home to our spouses? Is it possible to switch back from one mindset to another? Put another way, how can a medical doctor manage to have sex?

This seemingly pedantic question serves as an illustration for deeper issues in biblical studies and hermeneutics.

One of the aspects of Adventist theology with which I deeply resonate is the holistic concept of humanity. Early on in my spiritual life I came to appreciate that since God desires a relationship with our full selves, our lives should not be artificially segregated into spiritual vs. secular, holy vs. profane. However, in order to experience the full spectrum of human experience it is necessary to compartmentalize our thoughts into different mindsets.

Ironically, in order to be wholly human, we must learn to compartmentalize. The assertion that one’s approach to life must be an undivided whole is a fallacy as illustrated by the uncomfortable experience I shared between a set of stirrups.

When applied specifically to the issue of Biblical hermeneutics, this concept may help to free us from fundamentalism. Fundamentalists of all types insist on only one valid perspective, a single hermeneutical lens, from which to interpret the Bible. For conservative Christians, the lens of necessity is the historical-grammatical method. Those with more liberal personalities insist that the best way to read the Bible is through a historical-critical hermeneutic. There are of course others, but these two will suffice for illustration.

Insisting on a single fundamental hermeneutic from which to read the Bible is similar to forcing an unchanging mindset from which to relate to others. My own compartmentalized medical perspective was developed in medical school where I quite literally dissected every detail of the human body during my first year of study. It is readily evident that a medical doctor would quickly become incompetent and downright disturbing if a clinical perspective were maintained at home or vice versa.

A medical perspective is obviously not for everyone and definitely not for every situation. Similarly, a scholarly historical-critical evaluation of the Bible may not be for every member or situation in the body of Christ. Yet, just as a clinical knowledge of the human body is life giving in the proper place and time, the critical perspective provided through scholarly study of the Bible has the potential to enrich and sustain faith for all.

While a critical dissection of the Biblical text seems to some even more disturbing than studying a cadaver, the perspective afforded on the context, culture, communities, and human authors who were woven together by God to bring the Bible into existence provide invaluable insights. In the same way, while an internally referenced, meaning seeking experience with the Bible might be scoffed at by some, the intimacy, relationship, and personal application formed through this interaction with the word of God is irreplaceable. Rather than antagonistic and mutually exclusive, differing perspectives, world views, personalities, and even biblical hermeneutics can and should be interdependent and mutually sustaining.

Brenton Reading writes from Shawnee, KS where he lives with his wife Nola and their three children. He is a pediatric interventional radiologist and a member of the Adventist Forum board.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/3173