Our interview to mark the Day 10 of the 16 Days of Activism is from Hugh Pyper, Professor of Biblical Interpretation at the University of Sheffield.
Tell us about yourself…who are you and what do you do?
I am Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Sheffield University, where I have worked for the last 14 years. My interests are varied but I am always intrigued by how biblical language and ways of thought continue to influence contemporary debates, often without the awareness of those involved. The way in which children’s encounters with the Bible shape their adult perceptions, again often unconsciously, is a case in point, but the wider cultural legacy of the Bible is all-pervasive.
What’s your involvement with The Shiloh Project?
Biblical Studies staff at Sheffield have for decades been among the pioneers in researching the impact of these texts on questions of gender and ideology. Even if I had not had an interest in these matters, I could not have been unaffected by the work of so many brave colleagues over the years at Sheffield and beyond. My own experience growing up gay in the late 1960s and 70s makes me aware both of what has been achieved in the face of violent pressure to conform to cultural expectations of gender roles and of how much more needs to be done.
The models of masculinity and femininity which are often labelled ‘biblical’ are damaging to women, to men and to those who cannot accept such binary categories for themselves. The Shiloh Project is a timely enterprise in exposing just how damaging these models can be and, more positively, in exploring the cultural resources within religious traditions that might help us to imagine ourselves and our relationships differently.
How does The Shiloh Project relate to your work?
I have a particular interest in how the structures of patriarchy in the Bible are predicated on the fragility of male identities and the anxiety that underlies masculinity in such a system. Violence and discrimination are rooted in fear and the Bible gives us much food for thought on how the oppression of women and gender minorities relates to the insecurity of men who feel obliged to embody the impossible demands of acting as a patriarch.
My own recent work has looked at the way in which conventional readings of male figures in the Bible tend to be complicit with the text’s strategies of deflecting attention from the anxiety of masculinity. Reading with different assumptions about gender roles can both expose and perhaps alleviate the anxious responses that give rise to violent suppression of the threat supposedly posed by femininity and effeminacy.
How do you think The Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to discussion about gender activism today?
First, it is important to lay bare how the Bible has been and can be used to endorse the attitudes that lead to a culture of rape. Secondly, however, alternative readings of the Bible can model potentially more positive understandings of gender and sexuality that can counter and contain such violence.
What’s next for your work with The Shiloh Project?
I want to continue my project of reading biblical texts about men and their relationships against the grain. Notoriously, Jane Austen begins Pride and Prejudice with the claim ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ Nowadays, that might not be so universally accepted; indeed, Austen was quite clever enough a satirist to know herself that a truth universally acknowledged is not necessarily universally true. Yet even though many contemporary readers might agree that there may be single men in possession of good fortune whose aspirations are rather different, there is still a heteronormative default position when we read. ‘Boy meets girl’ continues to be a norm. Reading about a character, we expect and usually find that the writer introduces various potential partners of the opposite sex and that part at least of the story will revolve around the outcome of those attachments. We look out for those encounters and expect to be induced to speculate on them.
It is an intriguing experiment, then, to try to read biblical stories homonormatively rather than heteronormatively or, in other words, to look for the possible implications of incidents where ‘boy meets boy’ and ‘girl meets girl’ in the story, although these terms themselves need to be critiqued. What transpires is that biblical texts are often less anxious about such relationships than later readers have assumed them to be and are thus less staunch allies for contemporary manifestations of patriarchy than those who rely on them would like. Looking at these relationships can also remind us that men too can be the victims of a culture which relies on violence to police its gendered norms. Pointing this out may contribute something to challenging the fears that underlie a culture of rape. Look out for some provocative takes on Joseph and Daniel, among others!