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Vocation and Violence: The Church and #MeToo

Miryam Clough’s book, Vocation and Violence: The Church and #MeToo is part of the Routledge Focus series (Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible) and it hits the bookshelves this week! In her work, Miryam interviews survivors and church leaders to explore the impact of clergy sexual misconduct on women’s careers and vocational aspirations.

Tell us about yourself, Miryam

I am a Postdoctoral Fellow at St John’s Theological College in Auckland (New Zealand) and a tutor at Ōrongonui, the regional training programme for Te Hui Amorangi ki te Tai Tokerau – a diocese of Te Hāhi Mihingare (the Māori Anglican Church). I have two adult daughters and recently was present at the birth of my first granddaughter in Australia via video call from lockdown here in Aotearoa. Prior to the pandemic I’d lived in the UK since 1990, where I was practicing as a homeopath and working in homeopathic education. I completed a PhD in Theology and Religious Studies at Bristol University/Trinity College Bristol in 2014.

How did this book come about and how does it relate to your work as a whole?

I’d published my first book (Shame, the Church and the Regulation of Female Sexuality) in 2017 and was looking for another theology project. A couple of conversations got me thinking about my experience of the church as a young person with a sense of vocation and I decided to explore this further. I was offered a visiting scholarship at St John’s College in early 2019 and was subsequently invited to return in 2020. I didn’t anticipate writing about clergy misconduct – my project was about the experiences of women in the Anglican Church in Aotearoa more broadly – but this subject kept coming up as being pivotal for me and a factor in the lives of other women in the church. Once the book title ‘landed’, I felt compelled to run with it.

In terms of my work overall, my key academic interest is shame – the subject of my PhD – both in terms of how it affects the lives of those who are susceptible to it, and how it is utilised in groups, organisations, and even on an international scale as a means of control. The book is part of a wider research focus on shame in Aotearoa, with particular application to the church and gender violence in various forms.

I realised during my doctoral research, which focused on an Irish Catholic setting (the Magdalen laundries), that it was necessary to look at the national shame caused by colonisation to understand the shame that was inflicted on women in the socio-religious context. In Aotearoa, colonisation continues to be a huge source of shame and intergenerational trauma and some of this is expressed very clearly in gendered relationships and gender violence, including within the church.

Several things particularly captivate me about shame. One is that it is a primary cause of aggression and violence on micro and macro levels (James Gilligan (2003) and Thomas Scheff and Suzanne Retzinger (2001) write about this); another is that it signifies a breakdown in social relationships – which is why it is so debilitating; and a third is that it pulls us away from the things that really matter to us – it can set us on the wrong path. Silvan Tomkins (in Sedgwick and Frank 1995) describes this as an interruption of interest. Each of these aspects of shame is prevalent in the ongoing trauma of both colonisation and gender violence. On a positive note, shame is healed when we are brought back into relationship and this is where churches have a key role to play through restorative action and fostering right relationship.

What are the key arguments of your book?

Essentially, I see clergy abuse as a structural issue which affects the church’s credibility in an increasingly secular world, so I look at the contexts within the church that allow abuse to flourish and at the wider public perception of the church.The church sees itself as welcoming and inclusive, but it has often been adept at pushing people away, especially over issues related to gender or sexuality – whether that’s been women with vocations, members of the LGBTQ+ community, unmarried mothers, or victims of abuse. This is totally at odds with the Gospel and what Jesus was about. While churches will often deny that they are excluding people, the lived experience of those people who feel hurt and unvalued is very real. There’s a fear of contamination of all kinds that underpins much of the church’s thinking throughout history and this goes hand in hand with a kind of moral superiority or self-righteousness. Both fly in the face of the inclusiveness modelled by Jesus in the gospels.

I left the church after a period of clergy abuse because of my own sense of shame and failure, which was fuelled by the way some people in the church reacted to this abuse. Some years later, one of my daughters said to me, “Mum, the church didn’t just lose you – they lost our whole family”. I think this is often the case when people are hurt and leave – others leave with them. When we treat people badly or exclude them, we’re not just hurting those individuals, our actions also affect those who care about them. Certainly, that’s been the case for many victims of clergy abuse, and it’s been similar for women and for the LGBTQ+ community. People are disillusioned with churches because they see churches taking the moral high ground and they see people being hurt. If churches want to build up their membership and have more of a role in contemporary society – and I think it’s essential now, more than ever, that they do – they need to be transparent about who they are and demonstrate that they are working hard to put things right. They also need to be truly inclusive. There’s no room for discrimination. There’s a tendency to a kind of self-satisfaction when churches make tiny steps – look, we’ve done this (ordained a woman as bishop or agreed to bless the relationship of a gay couple), so we can rest on our laurels and go back to business as usual, forgetting that the gender balance in our leadership and governance groups is still heavily skewed in favour of men, that gay clergy are expected to be celibate, that gay couples can’t marry in church, that lay women are overworked and undervalued, and that we’re still, in some of the language of the church, sons of God and brothers in Christ irrespective of our gender. All these issues, which also include clericalism, complementarianism, and purity culture, feed into and support what is essentially a culture of toxic masculinity that enables sexual abuse to go undetected, and to not be adequately addressed when it is disclosed.

The book also speaks to the integrity of the Anglican Church here in Aotearoa in wanting to address the issue of clergy abuse and to change, not least in that two of its bishops, Bishop Te Kitohi Pikaahu and Archbishop Philip Richardson, have actively supported my research. I think this demonstrates an impressive openness, both personally and on behalf of the church, to move forward with this issue. Archbishop Richardson, for example, was willing to give me some concrete examples of situations he is aware of or has had to manage that really demonstrate how attitudes and responses can and have changed, and how our approaches need to be and can be considered and compassionate. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. We need to keep the humanness and fragility of all parties to the fore and be open to exploring what’s really going on, while also holding abusers to account in clear and appropriate ways. In the past the approach has been to silence and ostracise victims, protect abusers, and try to keep the topic out of the public square, and this does no one any favours.

The book has felt timely as Aotearoa is in the middle of its Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care, so churches are having to rethink their approaches and to be upfront about their history. It’s really common for survivors to take many years before speaking up about abuse, and this has been my experience, too. I think having that distance gives perspective and we can be kinder to our younger selves when we are able to be more objective and analytical about the factors that shaped the society we were part of back then. Hearing other people’s stories helps significantly.

Towards the end of the book, I talk about what I see as the way forward – that is, the importance of respectful relationships. Conversely, the absence of respect shows itself in prejudice of all kinds, in theologies that privilege men over others, in purity culture which defines women through a sexual lens, in clericalism which continues to privilege clergy over lay people and gives them a kind of moral immunity. Some of the book concentrates on describing how this plays out, including how I saw it play out in Aotearoa when I was a young ordinand in the 1980s. Paradoxically, in some respects, little has changed.

It was really helpful for me to explore the broader context of my own experience as a young woman in the church and to realise that this was very much a shared experience. So, I focus a lot on language – the language and discourse that shapes our theologies and our actions. Having left Aotearoa in the late 1980s when we were making inroads into the language of the church becoming more inclusive, it was a real surprise to return in 2019 and find a significant slippage in this area, particularly among younger people.

What do you hope your readers will take from this book?

One emphasis which is articulated very clearly by both Archbishop Richardson and Dr Emily Colgan, who I interviewed for the book, is the need for education and training across church communities. Policy changes alone won’t make a difference. In Aotearoa there is some excellent training available through the programme that Dr Colgan discusses in the final chapter, and I hope the book may prompt more churches to take it up.

One of my main hopes for the book is that it will promote more honest and open discussion about the nature of the church and its shortcomings, as well as about its aspirations and strengths. The exciting thing about this book for me is the interviews. They model this honesty and openness so well and I hope this will be encouraging for people.  People’s stories illustrate the main concerns of the book so beautifully. The interviews are pretty much verbatim, and the stories and experiences are really evocative. You get the immediacy of the situation in the way that a more theoretical perspective can’t deliver. So really, this has been a collaborative project with some amazing people, and I’m so grateful to them for being willing to share their stories and perspectives. They’ve helped me to work through my own experiences and I think they will help others too. We’ve tended not to talk publicly about abuse in the church. I think it’s vitally important to be open about this issue, or nothing will change. We also need to be honest about our failings because people outside the church see what’s going on and don’t appreciate the hypocrisy.

Give us one quotation from the book that you think will make a reader go and read the rest.

It’s a bit harsh, but I quite like this one:

When we put real women into the frame and examine their experiences in the context of a theology and ecclesiology that continues to undermine them, and that makes women primarily responsible for sex, including sex that is coercive or non-consensual, we begin to gradually chip away at an edifice that has cloaked the liberating message of the gospel in a miserable shell of misogyny and dishonesty.

For me it sums up the systemic nature of clergy abuse and this is the crux of it. We need to acknowledge that clergy abuse is absolutely systemic and that it is the product of toxic masculinity. It’s supported by the language, theology, and structure of the church and until this changes, abuse will be with us. When people speak out about their experiences, as several – women and men – have generously and courageously done in this book, they help to create a better future.

References:

Gilligan, J., 2003. ‘Shame, Guilt, and Violence’. Social Research 70:4, 1149–1180.

Scheff, T.J. and Retzinger, S.M., 2001. Emotions and Violence: Shame and Rage in Destructive Conflicts. Author’s Guild Backinprint.com ed. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse.com.

Sedgwick, E.K. and Frank, A. (eds), 1995. Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader. Durham: Duke University Press.

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16 Days of Celebrating Activism… The Publication “When Did We See You Naked?”

Today we celebrate an extraordinary book, published earlier this year. The book has the title When Did We See You Naked? Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse (London: SCM, 2021), and is edited by Jayme R. Reaves (one of our 2018 activists), David Tombs (one of our activists from 2017), and Rocio Figueroa (interviewed by the Shiloh Project in 2019).

The book focuses unflinchingly on a distressing detail present in the biblical text of the New Testament gospels—namely the aggressive public stripping of Jesus during his prolonged torture. It calls this what it is: sexual abuse. 

In times past, usually stemming from antisemitic and Judeophobic ideology, the Jewishness of Jesus was more commonly played down, or even denied, than it is today (though see here). And yet, the Jewishness of Jesus is all too clear in the gospels. Jesus, after all, is circumcised, goes to Temple, cites Jewish scripture, and celebrates Pesach. It is no longer controversial to refer to Jesus as Jewish. But in times present, the sexual abuse of Jesus is rarely recognised, let alone called by its name, or discussed. Drawing attention to it is still widely perceived as provocative and sometimes even as offensive.

This book probes first, why the sexualised dimensions of Jesus’s degradation have mostly been hidden in plain sight; and second, why, when they are pointed out, this is often met with resistance, denial, hostility, even repulsion.

There are some helpful resources—a recording of the book launch (featuring the three editors and Mitzi J. Smith, who contributed a powerful chapter to the volume), a link to an extract, another link to a blog post—available here. At the launch, the editors discussed how what is relatively new, is not the descriptions of abuse in the accounts of Jesus’s torture but the application of the language of sexual abuse to these descriptions. 

Screen capture from the book launch (see: scmpress.hymnsam.co.uk)

When language of sexual abuse is applied to the experiences endured by Jesus, reactions can be ones of intense discomfort. Sometimes this is because, as David Tombs explains at the book’s launch, the notion of Jesus as sexually abused is readily equated with Jesus being lessened. Several chapters in the book dig down into this idea, talking back to the notion that victims and survivors of abuse are lessened. It is not, emphatically, the abused who are shameful or lessened—not Jesus, not any victim or survivor of sexual abuse. 

As the book also discusses, when the reasons for discomfort and unease are explored with compassion, acknowledgement and embracing of Jesus as victim of abuse, can bring and has brought comfort and healing to other victims and survivors of sexual abuse.

The book arrives into a wider context where the massive scale of sexual abuse, including in church-run institutions and by church leaders, is becoming ever clearer. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Australia and the Independent Inquiry Child Sexual Abuse in the UK are just two sources exposing the scale and extent of such trauma.

This book is a brave book. It is brave, because it shines a light not only on sexual abuse itself, but on the abuse that derives from denial of sexual abuse and from the stigma wrongly and damagingly attached to sexual abuse. 

The book contains a remarkable diversity of contributors, including many from the Global South. It is also diverse in its responses, with sections on ‘Biblical and Textual Studies’, ‘Stations of the Cross’, ‘Parsing Culture, Context and Perspectives’ and ‘Sexual Abuse, Trauma and the Personal’. Many of the chapters pack a punch and leave you pensive for a long time after you finish reading them. 

This is a book that provokes reaction and action. It is a book that can make us feel conscious, and also consciously kinder. Thank you.

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Meet Erin Sessions

Our post today is an interview with Erin Martine Sessions, the Quality and Inclusion Officer at the Australian College of Theology, and a PhD candidate working on violence and the Song of Songs.

Tell us about yourself and about how your work is compatible with the aims of the Shiloh Project? 

The first thing to know about me is I do things in the wrong order. Breakfast is my favourite meal of the day; if it’s not at breakfast time. I make trees out of old books (see the picture!). And I haven’t had a “traditional career trajectory.” That last one might resonate with a few of you. My Doktorvater jokes I’m not keeping balls in the air, I’m juggling chainsaws. And they’re on fire. The complete chaos of single parenting, sessional lecturing, fitting my thesis into the interstices, going for ordination, and harbouring not-so-secret desires to be poet laureate (even though Australia doesn’t have one), makes for the opposite of order. But actually, it’s less “things in the wrong order” and more gatekeeping, middle-aged white men telling me I do things in the wrong order…

This year I found myself in possession of the holy grail of higher education employment (especially for the disordered* with unfinished PhDs): a permanent full-time job! Thankfully, the thesis and the job intersect, and both align with the objectives of the Shiloh Project. I’m currently working on a training module for students and staff which targets first, the prevention of sexual assault and sexual harassment (SASH) and, second, when it does occur, a response that is appropriate and effective. Preventing SASH looks a lot like preventing domestic and family violence (DFV), and that’s what my thesis is devoted to (but more on that later). For now, I want to unequivocally say that I am committed to dismantling rape culture—that is, dismantling gendered power structures that sideline and discredit women and minority groups, dismantling societal systems that foster and perpetuate inequality, and calling out the blaming of women and minorities for the very systems and structures that victimise and disempower them. 

*pun intended, I’m neurodivergent.

Can you tell us more about rape culture and religion in the context of Australia?

Allow me to give you some context by (briefly!) answering this question in two parts: first, addressing rape culture in Australia more broadly, and then looking at the relationship between rape culture and religion, particularly Christianity, in Australia. 

We know that rape culture exists the world over: beliefs and practices which regulate and shame women and gender-diverse people, that promote, accept, minimise, or ignore violence, and then trivialise the resulting trauma. This violence is perpetrated against women and girls regardless of age, dis/ability, ethnicity, level of education, location, religion, sexuality, or socioeconomic status. Australia is no different. Yet, we also know that along with the gendered drivers of violence come reinforcing factors which make certain minoritised people groups—like Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander women—more likely to experience abuse. 

Rape culture in Australia is particularly pernicious with its potent combination of: high rates of violence, shocking inaction, our history of (colonial) violence, and a lack of data and research. Australia has significantly higher prevalence rates of intimate partner violence and sexual violence than western Europe or North America. It’s a well-worn statistic that one woman a week is killed by a current or former partner, and we’ve become complacent. Even though DFV is a national crisis, and even though each egregious act of violence is followed by vigils, intense discussions, and calls for reform and further research, there is little change. 

Early on in my research journey, my psychologist gave me a fittingly crass (and memorable!) lesson: “Abusers have the same toolkit, but their choice of tools varies, and the way each victim-survivor gets screwed is personal.” The same can be said of rape culture. Instructing us women to change the way we dress, speak, and walk home at night, with no equivalent instructions for men (to take responsibility for their behaviour) can be observed almost universally, but each context, community, and individual will have their own unique experiences.

Much like my disordered career (chaotic calling?) might be similar to yours in some ways, I’m willing to bet you also recognise these all-too-familiar failings of (Christian) faith communities: wives being told to submit to their husbands—irrespective of abuse and with no mention of mutual submission; women being urged to forgive their abusers—often at the expense of their safety and without corresponding compunction for the perpetrator to stop abusing; and victim-survivors being re-traumatised by (male) leadership who do not understand the dynamics of, or what constitutes abuse and are ill-equipped to refer women at risk to specialist services. This Lausanne piece (July 2021) has the title “Gender-Based Violence and the Church.” One thing that makes it so poignant is that it has global relevance and urgency.

So, what makes the relationship between rape culture and religion unique in Australia? Up until recently, I would have (again) cited shocking (church) inaction and a lack of research (into religion and violence), especially when compared to similarly developed nations. The tide is slowly turning as more research is being done in, with, and by religious organisations, and as they work to redress the damage done, and to prevent further violence. But there is still a long way to go. Recent studies suggest that the incidence of DFV is higher in the Anglican church than in the general population. And, devastatingly, we (Australians and the church) have not reckoned with Australia’s violent history and church culpability in violence. The racist, heteropatriarchal cultural legacy—as Gender Violence in Australia: Historical Perspectives makes clear—is a country that has rationalised violent behaviours over time and allowed rape culture to flourish.

Why and how do you read the Song of Songs alongside gender-based violence?

I love this question! Churches don’t include the Song of Songs in their services too often, and the Australian church is none too fond of talking constructively about gender-based violence. So, as you can imagine, my invitations to write and speak on the Song and violence aren’t exactly bursting through my door like letters from Hogwarts. The long story short is victim-survivors stated that using religious texts to promote gender equality will prevent gender-based violence in faith communities. What better text to use than the Song of Songs, where the poetic protagonist is a woman of colour, who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to speak truth to power? 

This topic is at the heart of my ongoing PhD research. I have published an article on this question, too, with the title “Watching the Watchmen: How Does the Violence in Song of Songs 5:7 Speak to Australia’s Problem with Violence against Women and vice versa?” Journal for the Academic Study of Religion 34/1 (2021), a special issue on Religion and Violence.

You can read more of Erin Martine Sessions’ work on the Song and violence here and you can email her: esessions@actheology.edu.au   

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Jewish and Christian Women in the Ancient Mediterranean – New Book!

Jewish and Christian Women in the Ancient Mediterranean

Sara Parks, Shayna Sheinfeld and Meredith J. C. Warren have a new book, Jewish and Christian Women in the Ancient Mediterranean. It is an engaging and accessible textbook that provides an introduction to the study of ancient Jewish and Christian women in their Hellenistic and Roman contexts. The book has a virtual launch on the 13th December, and those interested in finding out more can register here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/book-launch-jewish-and-christian-women-in-the-ancient-mediterranean-tickets-204368731377 We caught up with them to ask them to find out more.

Congratulations on your new book! Thank you for taking the time to be part of our interview.

Thank you for letting us tell you more about it! This is something that we’ve developed in collaboration over many years of research and feedback from our students, and we really believe it will be a warmly welcomed resource in a broad range of classrooms and communities.

Tell us about yourselves. How does your book relate to your work as a whole and how did this book come about?

Sara Parks is Assistant Professor in Biblical Studies (New Testament) at Dublin City University, Ireland. Sara’s recent book Gender in the Rhetoric of Jesus: Women in Q argues that Jesus’ earliest sayings point to a respect towards women in varieties of early Judaism, which eroded as Christianity developed. Sara just finished a Leverhulme working on the intersection of misogyny and anti-Judaism in early Christianity.

Shayna Sheinfeld is currently a Fellow at the Frankel Institute for Judaic Studies, University of Michigan, USA. She’s working on a book called Big Tent Judaism that examines diversity in Jewish leadership by challenging androcentric ideas of authority in both ancient sources and contemporary scholarship; she includes women, enslaved, and other marginalised people, as well as marginalised sources, in her work. She has also organised two conferences on gender in antiquity through the Enoch Seminar, one volume of which was recently published as Gender and Second-Temple Judaism.

Meredith Warren is Senior Lecturer at the University of Sheffield, UK, where she is Director of the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies and editor in chief of the open-access Journal for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies. She has written often on food and taste in antiquity, for example, her 2020 book Food and Transformation in Ancient Mediterranean. She has also written about Rape Culture and Revelation for both an academic audience and for the Shiloh Project blog and the #SheToo podcast, and is working on an article on slut shaming the Samaritan Woman.

So we are all working on different aspects of gender and ancient Mediterranean religion, especially early Judaism and early Christianity. But the book really started almost 10 years ago, when we were all graduate students together. Sara had pitched a module called “Reading Women in Greco-Roman Judaism and Early Christianity,” not expecting it to be accepted because there were so many post-grads and only one or two teaching slots per year. But the module was approved! Together we pooled our collective expertise in Greek and Roman religions, the early Jesus movement, early Jewish literature and religion, and later antiquity. Our powers combined resulted in a really great class and we got invited to teach it again the next year. We’ve all been teaching versions of it whenever we can ever since. But setting it up those first years was really difficult because there were no text books or set readings then, just sourcebooks, and these were too compartmentalised, treating either Judaism or Christianity or Greek and Roman religions. We had to compile our own collection of sources, activities, and readings about method and gender, basically from scratch.

Then in 2015 we were all attending the SBL in Atlanta, and Meredith was approached by Routledge Press asking about her future book projects. Instead of mentioning her own next monograph ideas, Meredith was suddenly inspired to pitch a co-authored textbook on ancient women, with Sara and Shayna (which was a surprise not only to them, but to Meredith herself)! We had a contract not long after, and we likely would have had the book done a bit sooner if we hadn’t had a couple of other monographs and a pandemic in the meantime.

The origins of the textbook in a spirit of collaboration stuck with us as we completed it. Shayna managed to get some money to hire student research assistants at one point, and she used them for our book rather than her own research; Sara used some of the Leverhulme funding to hire an indexer for it; and Meredith used some research funding from Sheffield to hire a PhD student to work on the images and copyrights. The only reason this book exists is because we did our best to reject the isolation and competition that is so typical in academia, and instead to be conscious of trying to create a collaborative community, not just with each other, but on down the line. Each of those decisions—to share rather than hoard whenever we’ve gotten a leg up—is now going to result in a wonderful teaching resource.

What are the key goals of this book?

We had a few main goals, aside from creating a resource for teaching about women and gender in ancient religion. We also wanted to approach the question of methodology directly in the introductory chapters. This arose from our own experiences where none of us was exposed to using theory or made to articulate our own methods until late undergraduate or even Masters work. We wanted to be deliberate about promoting conscious use of methods as early as possible, which is how we teach. So we set out to include a variety of approaches, in an accessible way, up-front, and then give students examples and chances to practice them in every subsequent chapter. This is part of our aim of decentralising the historical-critical method as the only way to do proper scholarship, which some people maintain. We wanted people to see it instead as just one tool in a big toolbox with lots of other ways of learning about antiquity and interpreting textual and material evidence.

We included methods from a variety of fields because we wanted the textbook to be interdisciplinary, and readily usable for colleagues in a number of disciplines. This resource is not only meant for theology or biblical studies departments; it’s for any department within arts and humanities. We’ve designed it so there’s no previous knowledge of the time-period or of gender theory required. We wanted it to be not only accessible to students, but also to diverse instructors.

Another thing that is really important in all our work is to treat Judaism, Christianity, and ‘pagan’ women together, rather than tidily separate from one another, as if everyone weren’t mixing and talking to each other in antiquity. When we treat, for instance, female protagonists of novels, women rulers, or women religious leaders, we don’t separate them out using anachronistic concepts based on contemporary canons and categories, but instead divide them by other types of proximity, whether geographical, temporal, or generic. We always want to help our readers see just how blurry the boundaries are, perhaps especially where someone has tried really hard to draw a firm line between things.

What ideas emerge in the book that will be of particular interest to Shiloh readers?

We do talk about sexual violence and rape culture in the book (with ‘difficult topic flags’), and cover sexual violence against men as well, using some research by Shiloh Project members. We also approach the material in the book in a way that I think will resonate with a lot of Shiloh readers. We try to take an intersectional approach, and encourage our readers, and in particular any students using the textbook, to practice looking out for the multiple ways that power, gender, status, and race intersect in the evidence we have from antiquity. We use the Samaritan woman in John 4 as a recurring example to demonstrate how various methods might be used, from Marxist to queer to post-colonial criticism, encouraging people to think about women’s lives and gender as social construct in a way that isn’t isolating and that is reflective of the multiple facets of ancient (and contemporary!) identities. We include examples of non-binary figures from antiquity where we can, from rabbinic discussions of six different genders and Greco-Roman ‘one gender’ (rather than binary) models, to the figure of the Gallus priest in Roman religion, to the common idea found in antiquity of women ‘becoming men.’

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

 We hope they will appreciate just how diverse religion in antiquity was, and how many different ways there were to participate in religion. We hope readers will see the interrelatedness of Judaism, Christianity, and other religions of the ancient Mediterranean, and see how common trends, for example in types of leadership options for women, changed in sync over the period. We want our readers to think more broadly about where they look for evidence–not only in canons, and not only in written texts–and to pay more attention to marginalised experiences wherever we can find them in antiquity. We want them to imagine alternatives to the normative expectations of elite men from the various traditions. We also want readers to feel enabled to think directly and speak explicitly about their positionality and their use of methodology to approach their own research, and to perhaps apply the methods we explore in the book to other corpora, other time periods, and other geographies.

Give us one quotation from your book that you think will make readers want to go and read the rest.

P 232: Some texts and artefacts (like coins) from the ancient world include descriptions of sexual violence when they use symbolic women to “think with.” Sexual violence against these women-as-symbols acts as a means of reinforcing what the author is presenting as “correct” behaviour. The authors either use the image as a trope to describe misbehaviour being “punished” (sexually, and by a man), or they picture the violent acts to illustrate one entity’s submission to another (using a female symbol of submission and a male symbol of authority). When such texts fall within biblical canons, they pose a problem for people who hold that canon as sacred; responsible and ethical interpreters of scripture ask whether these texts condone—or even encourage—sexual assault and gendered violence. One might think that a fictional Babylon pictured as whore, or a fictional nation of Israel portrayed as an unfaithful wife, are obviously not “real women,” and therefore using violent imagery against them is acceptable as it is only being done symbolically. This view misses several important points. Just because these women might be literary fictions and “flat” characters with which ancient authors are tackling other issues doesn’t mean that the choice of women as the “sinners” and sexual violence as their “punishment” has any less impact on ancient and contemporary readers. In fact, the choice of these literary symbols tells us dreadful things about the ancient societies where these narratives took shape, as well as—importantly—those groups that up to today continue to adopt, use, or accept such literary representations without questioning them.

Plus the activity box that accompanies this section:

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Clothed in strength and dignity? The use and misuse of the Proverbs 31 woman

Today’s post comes from Esther Zarifi and focuses on the use and misuse of the Proverbs 31 woman. Esther completed her MA in Religions and Theology (Distinction) at the University of Manchester in 2020 and was awarded the department’s Leonard Hassé Memorial Prize for her MA Dissertation, from which this blog is drawn. Esther, formerly a Religious Studies teacher, is now Head of Curriculum for Religious Studies for the examination board, AQA.


The book of Proverbs – a collection of age-old wisdom, compiled circa the 8th – 5th centuries BCE – closes its 31 chapters with a striking poem in praise of a woman, the ʾēšet ḥayil.[1] It is debated by biblical scholars whether this woman is ‘real’ or an allegory, with some suggesting she is a metaphorical wisdom figure or composite. Either way, the woman of this ancient text has had (and is still having) a very real impact on actual women.

Fast-forward 2500 years from the scribes’ writings… and on entering ‘Proverbs 31’ into a search engine you’ll find mugs, t-shirts, keyrings, shopping bags… – ancient verses printed on to 21st century merchandise.

Rachel Held Evans describes how growing up in an evangelical subculture she got to know this ‘Proverbs 31 woman’ well. Presented as God’s ideal for women, she is a mainstay of women’s conferences and Christian bookstores.[2] While biblical ‘merch’ may not be an uncommon sight growing up in church circles, it is still rather niche to see women wearing t-shirts bearing phrases such as ‘clothed in strength and dignity,’ or ‘more precious than rubies.’ At first glance, it all seems very empowering and liberative.  

Arguably though, there is far more going on here. I’d suggest that these supposedly positive affirmations are working within the paradigm of an unmistakeably patriarchal structure.

The twenty-one verses, an acrostic of the Hebrew alphabet, present something of an A-Z of the ʾēšet ḥayil; she is the total package!The poem opens by asking, ‘A capable wife, who can find? She is far more precious than jewels’ (Proverbs 31:10, NRSV).

On the one hand, we could read this as saying she is precious and to be valued. On the other, is the woman here being given a price-tag? Is it actually rare to find a capable woman with ḥayil? Throughout the Hebrew Bible many men are afforded ḥayil for reasons such as having courage, physical strength and wealth. Christine Yoder encapsulates these descriptions by calling them ‘persons of substance’[3] and so translates ʾēšet ḥayil as ‘Woman of Substance.’ Despite the abundance of these men of substance, only thrice is ḥayil used in relation to female characters (alongside Proverbs 31, see Ruth 3:11 and Proverbs 12:4). Perhaps in the minds of the ancient sages, women with ḥayil were indeed rarer than jewels.

Following the rhetorical opening verse, the Woman of Substance in Proverbs 31 is praised for an incredible list of achievements and attributes including: hard work (v.13), buying land (v.16), strength (v.17), helping those in need (v.20), making and selling clothing (v.24), wisdom (v.26) and being God-fearing (v.30). In contrast to the frequently seen wife and/or mother motifs of ancient texts, the ʾēšet ḥayil really stands out as an industrious over-achiever.  

This woman has it all – career, family, wealth – and it is easy to see why this enigmatic figure has become an inspirational and aspirational emblem for ‘biblical womanhood.’

But, while she may be an aspirational role model, she is also perhaps an unrealistic ‘gold standard’ for women to attain and for men to seek. Proverbs’ foremost focus is, after all, cultivating wisdom in men, so this chapter still has male concerns uppermost in its mind’s eye. Notwithstanding all her activities and achievements, her husband appears in no fewer than five verses of the poem and is the only character to speak (v.29). What he does say, however, is in praise of his wife (hurrah!). But … in this praise he compares her to other women who have also ‘done excellently’ – if he said this today, he may find himself the subject of a social media storm for his ‘backhanded compliment’!

Nevertheless, this woman is active and has agency, demonstrating that women could/can hold power and authority in some spaces. The Hebrew bêtah (‘household’) in verses 21 and 27 has a feminine pronominal suffix, thus designating the house as hers. Yet, she remains anonymous with no name and no direct voice, framed in reference to her husband from the outset (vv.10-11). The woman at the heart of this biblical poem could easily be viewed as a mixed blessing; she may be a tribute to the lives and work of actual women but is still, ultimately, an objectification.[4] Hence, her role is complicit with a male-dominated system – she holds a prominent place but conveys and promotes male interests and fulfils a traditional heteronormative role.

The ʾēšet ḥayil has agency as a woman, but she is also a symbol of ‘Woman.’ These two categories – women, who are real people with varying degrees of agency within different social situations, and Woman, a symbolic construction of sex, gender and sexuality, comprised of allegory and male fantasy – can be used to examine a variety of sources.[5] Here the symbolic wise Woman of Proverbs 31 is divinely legitimated and eternal through her place in the scriptures, but she can also shape the lives of actual women up until today. Through cultural understandings of Woman, lived realities can be shaped (and vice versa), therefore the symbolic Woman can/should be reimagined and critiqued. This approach could certainly problematise not only the Proverbs 31 Woman image, but also the ways she is presented as an agent when viewed as a symbol for female empowerment.

As a popular passage of scripture, the ‘mixed blessing’ of Proverbs 31 begins to outwork itself in contemporary lives, not only in the positive affirmations of t-shirt slogans, but at times in the form of complementarianism. This theology of patriarchal subordination can be said to misuse the biblical text to fulfil its traditionalist, heteronormative aims. The wise and industrious woman here becomes a symbol of a model wife and ‘biblical Woman.’ This symbolic treatment of Woman could also manifest itself in the furthering of rape culture and its very real outworking.

It may be surprising however, that our Proverbs 31 woman is used in this way not just by Christian men seeking ideal wives, but is advocated by women themselves. Contemporary postfeminist appropriations of her are made by women using their agency to adhere, in some sense, to the patriarchal construction of Woman. On to women’s bodies, here the ideal Christian ‘capable wife’ is mapped, via the symbol of the ʾēšet ḥayil.

Evangelical celebrity pastors, such as Priscilla Shirer, guide thousands of women through the study of scripture in their books, videos, and conferences.[6] Shirer is an example of a prominent church leader who advocates a complementarian position and does not identify as ‘feminist.’ In her aptly titled book, A Jewel in His Crown: Rediscovering Your Value as a Woman of Excellence (2004), Shirer writes, ‘Satan will do everything in his power to get us to take the lead in our homes …. He wants to make us resent our husband’s position of authority so that wewill begin to usurp it. … Women need to pray for God to renew a spirit ofsubmission in their hearts.’[7]

Through blogs, books and sermons, some Christian women are encouraging a complementarian theology by their appropriation of the Proverbs 31 woman. Here they can be found to advocate a new traditionalist postfeminist ideology – caught between a contemporary, liberal rhetoric of empowerment and a neo-conservative narrative of traditional gender roles, these women exemplify the same double-entanglement found within the biblical text itself. Praised and honoured, hardworking and influential – the Woman of Substance presents an empowering image of domestic life that is called upon by women’s ministries to illustrate the liberating choice of ‘biblical womanhood.’ Thus, women agents in the end seem to conform to the male psyche’s Woman symbol. This ‘double entanglement’ means that although these female agents are free of the symbolic construction of Woman, they are also controlled by it, perhaps unconsciously, through the paradigmatic patriarchal forces of history and tradition. It seems that there is a need to continue interrogating the gender ideologies present in the biblical text and their ongoing influence on the construction of societal norms.

Readers, we must ask, what does the ‘mixed blessing’ of the Woman of Substance mean for actual women today?

References

Held Evans, Rachel. A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master.” Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012.

Sered, Susan Starr. “Woman as Symbol and Women as Agents: Gendered Religious Discourses and Practices.” In Revisioning Gender, edited by Myra Marx Ferree, Judith Lorber, and Beth B. Hess, 193-221.Thousand Oaks, California: Sage, 1999.

Shirer, Priscilla. A Jewel in His Crown: Rediscovering Your Value as a Woman of Excellence.  Chicago: Moody, 2004.

Woods, Robert H., ed. Evangelicals and Popular Culture: Pop Goes the Gospel (Vol. 2), Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Publishing, 2013. 

Yoder, Christine. “The Woman of Substance: A Socioeconomic Reading of Proverbs 31:10-31.” Journal of Biblical Literature 122, no. 3 (2003): 427-447.

Yoder, Christine. Proverbs. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009. 


[1] The word pairing ʾēšet ḥayil is translated ‘capable wife’ in the NRSV, but in various other ways elsewhere: such as, ‘virtuous woman’ (KJV), ‘wife of noble character’ (NIV), ‘virtuous and capable wife’ (NLT), and ‘good woman’ (The Message)).

[2] Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, p.74.

[3] Christine Yoder, Proverbs, p.292.

[4] Christine Yoder, ‘The Woman of Substance: A Socioeconomic Reading of Proverbs 31:10-31.’ Journal of Biblical Literature 122/3 (2003): 427–447.

[5] Susan Starr Sered, ‘Woman as Symbol and Women as Agents: Gendered Religious Discourses and Practices.’ In Revisioning Gender, ed. Myra Marx Ferree et al. (1999), p.194.

[6] Kathleen Sindorf, ‘Evangelical Women’s Movements and Leaders.’ In Evangelicals and Popular Culture: Pop Goes the Gospel (Vol. 2), Robert H. Woods Jnr (2013). (See also: Mary Worthen, ‘Housewives of God,’ New York Times Magazine. Available online: https://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/14/magazine/14evangelicals-t.html; Kate Bowler, The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities (2019).)

[7] Priscilla Shirer, A Jewel in His Crown: Rediscovering Your Value as a Woman of Excellence, 74

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New Book: Transgressive Devotion, by Natalie Wigg-Stevenson.

Today’s blog post is a short interview with Natalie Wigg-Stevenson (@nataliews), who has recently published Transgressive Devotion: Theology as Performance Art¸ where she articulates her vision for a new genre of theology drawing from performance art. You can find out more about her book here.  

Congratulations on your new book! What ideas emerge in the book that will be of particular interest to Shiloh readers? 

One of the faith crises I grapple with in the book is what it means to trust that God won’t harm me in the intimacy of prayer, and how much some of the most beautiful Christian traditions have drawn connections between this prayerful intimacy and sexual intimacy. So, for example, I think of how the Annunciation has shaped the Christian imagination around prayer, and how impossible it is to trust that that Mary really had the space to consent to God when the power differential is so immeasurable. It’s very easy now to interpret the Annunciation as an act of sexual violence.  And I didn’t want to take the easy/ish liberal answer of just dismissing that narrative as a false mythology or an irrelevant metaphor. But how do I stay Christian when faced with the possibility that God can so easily appear as sexually violent?

There is a strong and surprisingly mainstream sense in contemporary theology that sexual desire and desire for God are inextricably intertwined. Sarah Coakley has argued that this fact is most acutely recognized when we’re on our knees before God in prayer. People following this line of thinking seem mostly to skirt the issue of the power differential by doubling down on the idea that God is good and we have to trust ‘him’. So first, I wanted to grapple with the possibility that if we take the complexity of the Annunciation story seriously, perhaps we shouldn’t actually trust God in that moment. And then I wanted to explore the shape of what that trust should look like if we decide to consent to it.

One of the performance artworks I engage around these questions is Vito Acconci’s Seedbed, which is a very dangerous work that has frequently been interpreted as a form of sexual violence. I’ve done this to highlight how difficult these conversations can be. And while I’ve tried so hard to engage the issues with love and care so that the writing can offer something meaningful for the survivors of sexual violence, I, of course, remain in fear that my engagement might also further harm.

Tell us about yourself. How does your book relate to your work as a whole and how did this book come about? 

At the scholarly level, Transgressive Devotion has grown out of fieldwork I did about 10 years ago in the church where I served as a minister. At that time, I was really interested in the relationship between what we might call everyday and academic theologies.  With this new book I wanted to complicate that nexus further by adding the dimension of theological affect. The book is written at the place where the Christian traditions have shaped what we feel about God’s presence and absence in our lives.

As I finished my doctoral work, I realized more and more that my relationship with God was shaped by too many competing parts of my ‘self’: the charismatic evangelical self that had shaped my desire for God; the self of being an ordained Southern Baptist minister; and my training as a feminist, queer, bi-racial, theologian with a disability (the markers of most of these identities being pretty invisible on the surface, which produces a whole other set of issues). But these are not modes of a religious self that can play nice with each other! And my attempts at trying to get them to play nice led to a serious faith crisis. So it’s sort of playful but also very true to say that this book is the result of no longer playing nice…on the personal level, it’s about letting all those parts of myself – and the Divine that animates each one – play naughty instead.

What are the key arguments of this book? 

The undergirding argument of the book is to show how theological fieldwork and/or personal experience has the power to rupture the kinds of theological imaginaries that our Christian traditions produce and rearrange them into something new.

The book is written as a type of performance art rather than as a scholarly argument, per se. Jacques Rancière, the aesthetic theorist, argues that art doesn’t merely represent reality to us but, rather, art ruptures and rearranges reality. In this way, our capacities to perceive that reality are transformed. Transformation becomes a mechanism for revelation in this argument. So, I argue that theology done in this mode — as a form of performance art – can use fieldwork, experience, practice, etc., to rupture and rearrange our theological imaginaries. Through our theological writing, then, we make these ‘performative utterances’ (to follow Austin’s theory of language), that invoke God or, even, write scripts for God’s own performance.

In one example, the first chapter is about the Father God being diagnosed with dementia, which circles back in the final chapter to a theological anthropology of humanity as God’s caregivers. I’m not arguing that God has dementia. I’m not arguing that God necessarily needs our care. But when I had my own faith crisis, it very much felt like God had forgotten me, and any assurances people tried to give me along the lines of, “even when you feel forgotten, God always remembers you” weren’t all that helpful to me pastorally.  Instead, I wanted to write the theological feeling of being forgotten, precisely by deploying the affective structure of the Christian traditions to do so.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book? 

It’s really easy to see the transgressive parts of the book. They’re on the surface to such a degree that they’re practically screaming in your face at times. But for me, writing it was also an intense act of devotion. So, what I want readers to take from it is that transgression and devotion aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, it’s in their tension that I finally found my way back to God; or better, that God finally found her way back to me.

Give us one quotation from your book that you think will make readers want to go and read the rest. 

“The hyper-fragmentation and proliferation of academic theological sub-disciplines belies the fact that each one needs the goods of the others. But the solution here is not to try to integrate them back into a single discipline. Disciplinary fragmentation and incoherence do not necessarily make for inauthentic theology.” (p.9)

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Bearing the burden

Today’s post is an honest and moving piece by Stephen Pihlaja (@StephenPihlaja) and examines the personal experiential journey of purity culture as a man who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian environment in the USA. Stephen recounts his experience of purity culture in the Japanese church in comparison.

Stephen Pihlaja teaches and researches Language and Religion at Newman University in Birmingham, UK. His latest book Talk about Faith: how conversation and debate shape belief (Cambridge University Press) explores how changes in belief emerge from interaction between people of faith.


In the past several years, increasing critical attention has come to Evangelical Christian teaching on ‘purity’, and its particular focus on abstinence from sex before marriage. A recent New York Times article highlighted the pressures this placed on young Christians, and young women specifically, to avoid sexual expression, to keep both themselves and others free from sexual sin. Joshua Harris, the author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which outlined the ideology of abstinence and pressured young Christians to consider romantic relationships only in the context of a potential marriage partner, has since denounced the book and pulled it from circulation, The Times reports — Harris himself is no longer a Christian.

Highlighted in The Times’ reporting are stories of personal experiences of the Evangelical church and of the damaging effects of its theology. These are brought to the forefront and highlighted by such figures as Blake Chastain and Chrissy Stroop. The attention in reporting about purity culture has rightly focused on the pain and trauma this teaching inflicts on young women in the church, because they bear the burden of both keeping themselves pure from sexual sin, but also not appearing as a temptation for the men in their community. The complementarian, patriarchal teaching of sexuality in these contexts sees women as subservient to men in the home and in the church, but also as responsible for sexual sin. These teachings understand sexuality in women as primarily oriented towards men — sex is what men want and it is the role of women to withhold it or give it.

The consequences of this teaching aren’t, however, limited to young women in the church. As a young man, I, too, attempted to kiss dating goodbye. Having grown up homeschooled in the USA, in a fundamentalist home in the nineties, sexuality was something that we avoided entirely — you changed the channel when the joking turned sexual, you didn’t watch movies with sex in them. My friend couldn’t watch any films for a year after he secretly saw Titanic because there was nudity in it.

At the same time, the older I got, the sexual prosperity gospel offered a way out — if you were faithful, God would bless you with an incredible sex life once you got married. In books like Every Young Man’s Battle, we were told the reward for abstinence was a kind of sexual fulfilment that couldn’t be found outside of marriage, a fulfilment that would make any part of the struggle to stay pure pale in comparison. So, I was focused on marriage, even when I was sixteen, accepting that this was the only acceptable way to express my sexuality.

In my final year in high school, I began a relationship with someone in the church youth group. Both of us had read Harris’ book and committed to dating ‘intentionally’ (as we would have said). We looked at wedding rings and discussed how big our family would be. I remember having just turned 18, asking her father, who was far less religious than I was and much more pragmatic, for his daughter’s hand in marriage. He told me it really wasn’t his decision, I could do what I wanted, but his suggestion was that I wait a year, at least. What was the rush.

The rush was, of course, sex. We were in a liminal space that no one seemed to account for in their theologies: we were supposed to be married, but we were too young to be married. Our sexual desire was from God, it was a good thing, but acting on it was not. The relationship couldn’t withstand these contradictions — we were teenagers. I exercised an unreasonable amount of authority and arrogance because it was my role — I would question how she dressed, what she did with her friends, all the while feeling the crushing guilt as our relationship grew closer and we slipped up or went too far more often. I became sick from the guilt in my first year of college — I went through a series of tests for chronic pain in my stomach and eventually, inevitably, we broke up.

Two years passed and I graduated college and felt called to the mission field. A friend of mine in the church had been asked to go to Japan to teach English at a church and was looking for someone to potentially go with him. I could go then and have an accountability partner, someone to help me avoid temptation and still serve the church. I found myself serving in a small church for a year, teaching free English lessons and leading Bible studies, which the students attended in exchange for the free English lessons.

Purity Culture in the Japanese Church

The church in Japan remains small — in the early 2000s we were told that only 1% of the population was Christian — and predominately female. The message of purity in the Japanese church that I experienced was different suddenly, much less focused on whether you were sexually impure (as there were far fewer teenagers in the churches), but more on when you would marry and start a family. The teaching in the Japanese church around this was against marriage to non-Christians, seemingly for understandable reasons: if a woman married a non-Christian, her in-laws would pressure her and the children to take part in Shinto and Buddhist religious ceremonies and eventually to leave the church.

But the churches always had a much higher number of Christian women than men. This led to a situation where Christian women were encouraged to marry and have kids (this being their primary purpose) but were unable to find Christian spouses. The ageing church leaders encouraged marriage in the same way as in the States, but with fewer options, the relationships between potential partners had one prerequisite: that you were both Christians and would have Christian kids. You could have, essentially, arranged marriages, where the basis wasn’t love or mutual attraction, but perceived fit in terms of religious belief, because what the church needed more than anything was more people.

I was oblivious to this cultural nuance and history, listening instead to the other American missionaries around me. Mostly, they were men married to American women and steeped in deeply racist and sexist understandings of Asian culture. They talked about marriage as a kind of service to the Japanese church, one which led to mutual blessings: that same sexual prosperity gospel, where if you were willing to step out and have faith to get married, God would bless you. It fit with the message I had heard in the American church, the same story: marriage was the only appropriate way to express sexuality, and marriage would bring blessings to you, because God intended it that way.

These two cultural expressions of the same purity myth touched in a predictable way — I met the woman who would become my wife and we were married within less than a year. Our first child was born ten months and seven days later. Any doubt about the success of the relationship was swallowed up in a belief about God’s will, and the truth that by doing the right thing, blessings would follow. When they did not, when both myths turned out to be wrong, the disappointment, anger, and depression stayed lodged within the relationship, affecting everything about our lives even after we had identified it as a set of irreconcilable false beliefs. You can stop believing anything, but it doesn’t stop living in you.

I, like Harris, couldn’t keep these contradictions from affecting my theology and I eventually left the faith. Now, fifteen years later, I’ve come to understand in my own life and through my research into religious discourse, how worlds of meaning are created by what you say about feelings and actions in the social world, and, more importantly, how the myths that emerge out of particular systems of power serve those systems.

Theologies do not exist in a vacuum, and religious belief which is not applicable without creating trauma in the real world needs to be rejected. The control exerted over sexual expression in the Evangelical church objectifies and shames women, erases gay and trans people, and demands that all men participate in the system without question. Everyone, including believers, benefits from its critical examination and deconstruction.


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Kissing Purity Culture Goodbye

Hannah Baylor

Today’s post is from Hannah Baylor.  Hannah Baylor is a PhD student in theology and Christian ethics at Oxford researching sexual consent and a Church of England ordinand. You can hear more about Hannah’s work here: Theology Slam: Hannah Barr on Theology and the #MeToo movement – YouTube


When people find out that I research sexual consent, it usually elicits three responses:

Ooo, that’s so important! (I think so!)

Have you seen that brilliant cup of tea video? (That cup of tea video is terrible; here is my ten-points reason why…)

Or, they tell me their story. It is an absolute privilege to be trusted with stories that have often never been told aloud; it’s a gift which I treasure.  

Being immersed in a topic consisting of painful stories, abuses of power, damaging rhetoric, and continual threats to human flourishing, is often all-consuming and it can be hard to switch off from that. But recent events have had me questioning whether it is right to want to switch off, or whether vigilance is a habit to cultivate.

I recently began to do some research into purity culture in the UK. My initial thoughts were that purity culture wasn’t such a big deal over here, compared with the US with its sub-culture of daddy-daughter balls and abstinence-only education in schools. But as people shared their stories, my illusions were shattered. I discovered friends who had signed purity pledges and wore purity rings and people who had done the True Love Waits and Pure courses. So many people had devoured I Kissed Dating Goodbye; a Coptic friend said her church had really pushed that book on its young people. Purity culture in the UK is not just for evangelicals. The more I learned, the more people shared their stories, the more I realised that purity culture makes its mark on impressionable young Christians here in the UK.[1]

Wedding Rings

And then my memories returned. The sermons where ‘promiscuous’ girls were compared with chewing gum and un-sticky Sellotape. The unhelpful notions I had about dating that I’d acquired through osmosis. The church leader who shamed me over my body and called me a stumbling block. The email I had drafted to my rector, saying I couldn’t continue to help with the youth work, because the youth leader owned and taught from The Collected Works of Soul-Destroying Purity Culture and I didn’t have the power to challenge him but I wasn’t going to collude with him either in teaching harmful ideas. And finally, the memory of a throwaway line someone said to me at theological college, which I’d disregarded at the time, but then realised it was solid gold purity culture.

Purity culture in the US signals its presence. Bells, whistles, gaudy merchandise, political fanfare – you can’t miss it! In the UK, however, purity culture has a far more insidious character. It doesn’t necessarily announce its arrival; it seeps into church teaching through more obscure ways. What I recognise as particularly damaging from my own teenage Christian experiences is when legitimate Christian teaching and purity culture ideals were taught together, making harmful ideas harder to notice and reject. This is why I was so alarmed when I realised how casually and innocuously lines from the purity culture script were spoken by those who would otherwise absolutely reject its premise.

I’m training to be a Church of England priest. I will shortly be in possession of an awkward combination of power and authority: the power of ordination as an office, the power that other people confer upon a person in a dog collar and in a pulpit, the not-really-real power that is being a curate at the bottom of the Church of England hierarchy, and the power that the Holy Spirit gifts in her wisdom. And one of the many terrifying things about that power is the potential to cause pain. The last thing I want to do with my power as a soon-to-be ordained person is to say or teach something, which is not only wrong but is abjectly harmful.

I spoke to a variety of Church of England ordinands and curates who had been raised on purity culture. Some continue to identify as evangelicals, albeit often with a long list of caveats; others have eschewed it. I asked them about the interplay between their experiences of purity culture and the power they now have as ordained, or soon-to-be ordained, ministers. There was a uniform reluctance to preach on sexual ethics generally, and often this was to do with wanting to avoid saying the wrong thing and causing someone pain and shame. Another common reflection was how narrow purity culture’s focus is, obsessing over abstinence until marriage, and how this meant the vastness of issues of dating and inter-personal relationships was overlooked. Certainly, I find myself in the corner of every church debate about sexual ethics, shouting into the void that it would be nice if sexual consent got a look in, you know, for the sake of human flourishing and all that.

One person I spoke to said what they lamented about purity culture was it presented everything as black and white; as an ethical system, it’s an attractive one, because it sets up a dichotomy between right and wrong and then unstintingly upholds it. As an ethicist, I am naturally wary of ethical systems, which present themselves as catch-all solutions. I think such systems force us to abdicate our responsibility in the ethical life and leave those with the most power unaccountable for how they wield it. Purity culture is concerned with rendering its adherents powerless and its enforcers absorbing all of the power. 

People shared their stories with me, and it was, as ever, a gift to be trusted with them.

And what no-one wanted was to cause anybody any harm.

For people like myself who grew up with purity culture spooned into our Christian diet in ways we were not always cognisant of, untangling our sexual ethics is an on-going process. I have spoken elsewhere about the need for power literacy,  particularly for those of us inhabiting roles replete with multifaceted power; this is a skill that we must never be complacent about.

Power isn’t static, but this doesn’t mean that it is necessarily unstable; in fact, the opposite is true, the more static power is, the more unstable it is. We must remain vigilant to the potency of our power and when it is accumulating, and allow ourselves to be challenged on it and to dismantle it. It also requires awareness of the things we don’t condone but which may still have shaped us, and critically interrogate our stances on certain issues to ensure that we are not perpetuating a cycle of harm and shame.

I didn’t relish being proved wrong about the prevalence of purity culture in the UK. It has been uncomfortable to reckon with my own experiences of it and to realise that I and many of my friends are not as unscathed by it as we might have originally thought. But the awareness that it has raised within me at a point where I am on the cusp of receiving a significant amount of power, is invaluable.

So, here’s to kissing purity culture goodbye and power literacy hello.


[1] I highly recommend Vicky Walker’s book Relatable: Exploring God, Love, and Connection in the Age of Choice (Malcolm Down Publishing, 2019) for empirical studies with Christians in the UK and their experiences of purity culture.

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Traumatised People are not your “Mission Field”

"Jesus Saves" street sign.

Today’s post comes from Dr Karen O’Donnell (Coordinator of Centre for Contemporary Spirituality, Sarum College) and Dr Katie Cross (Lecturer in Practical Theology, University of Aberdeen).

As theologians working in the field of trauma, we make a very conscious choice to use, as much as possible, the language of those who themselves experience trauma. This means that we usually refer to people who have experienced trauma as “trauma survivors” rather than “victims.” We also avoid language of “recovery” or “healing” because trauma survivors often say that this is not what they are doing in the aftermath of trauma. Rather, they are engaged in work of post-traumatic “remaking,” an act of creation that may last a lifetime. The language of “recovery” and “healing” has long been noted as unhelpful by trauma survivors. So, it is concerning to us to see this kind of language being used in a number of recent Christian initiatives and publications about trauma. For example, a recent initiative by the Bible Society called “Navigating Trauma” intends to provide Christian-based courses run in churches or other Christian organisations. It will “use scripture to accompany participants in their journey through the effects of trauma towards a place of peace.”

What is the use of the word “trauma” in these recent initiatives and publications intended to convey? In much of the literature surrounding these initiatives and publications, there seems to be little, if any, distinction between traumatic experiences and suffering more generally. The wide range of research, from both medical perspectives and socio-cultural perspectives, indicates that such a collapsing of experiences is unhelpful, unclear and unlikely to put people in a place that is conducive to their flourishing. People who experience trauma do not simply have an ongoing reaction to an experience of suffering. Rather, they experience rupture in specific ways, and have very particular types of reactions to internal and external stimuli. Trauma is not the same as suffering, and yet trauma is a word people have taken ownership of and used in a variety of ways. It is not our intention to gatekeep people’s experiences, or to deem who is “traumatised” and who is not. However, the hyper-flexible use of the term has negative implications for those who are experiencing traumatic-response reactions that have a dramatic impact on their lives. Given that the Bible Society indicates that anyone who is clearly experiencing an ongoing mental health crisis – as many trauma survivors may do – will be signposted to professional help, who is this course actually for? Who will actually be helped if it is not for those who are experiencing traumatic-reaction responses in real-time?

Programmes such as “Navigating Trauma” discuss what to do when people with trauma come to church. They do not address what should be done when people’s trauma comes from church. The ways in which Scripture and church practices are weaponised in spiritual abuse are largely overlooked. Our previous work in Feminist Trauma Theologies (SCM Press, 2020) highlights some of the different ways that the church can actively induce or theologically legitimise trauma. The #ChurchToo movement has drawn attention to the church’s role in harbouring and covering up sexual abuse. Too often, victims exist within a culture of blame, with their trauma ascribed to their perceived spiritual faultiness and “sinful” nature (Cross, 2020). Churches can induce trauma by exclusion, turning away minority groups on the basis of gender identity and/or sexuality (Robinson, 2020). In Ghost Ship, Azariah France-Williams highlights the trauma that Black and minority ethnic Christians face while working and worshipping in institutionally racist churches (France-Williams, 2020).

Common church practices can also be distressing for those living with complex trauma. In her book Trauma and Grace (2019), theologian Serene Jones describes an encounter with “Leah.” During a communion service in their church, something in the liturgy provokes a traumatic reaction for Leah, who physically removes herself from the church building. Later, she describes her reaction to Jones in this way:

It happens to me, sometimes. I’m listening to the pastor, thinking about God and love, when suddenly I hear or see something, and it’s as if a button gets pushed inside of me. In an instant, I’m terrified; I feel like I’m going to die or get hurt very badly. My body tells me to run away, but instead, I just freeze… It was the part about Jesus’ blood and body. There was a flash in my head, and I couldn’t tell the difference between Jesus and me, and then I saw blood everywhere, and broken body parts, and I got so afraid I just disappeared.

(Jones, p.7)

As trauma theologians, we recognise Leah’s story as one that is all too common. What is needed here is a clearer understanding that the church can often be a difficult place for traumatised people to navigate.

Because the church can be complicit in both creating and provoking trauma, the insistence that Scripture and practice are the best route to “healing” is misguided. It’s also important to note that routes to healing are not always possible in the ways that they are promised by new church trauma programmes. Many people who experience trauma will be engaged in some form of post-traumatic remaking for the rest of their lives. The process is one that is ongoing, complex, iterative, and chaotic. Part of the problem with a course like the one the Bible Society is providing is that it will last a certain number of weeks and then finish, with an expectation that something will have been accomplished in that time period. An informed understanding of trauma indicates that this is unlikely to be the case.

In much of this work, the traumatised person is referred to as a “mission field” or a “missional opportunity” for the church. In fact, this is not new language. In her 2015 book Suffering and the Heart of God, Diane Langberg writes this disturbing sentence: “I think a look at suffering humanity would lead to the realisation that trauma is perhaps the greatest mission field of the twenty-first century.” Not only is she conflating trauma and suffering too simply here but we have to question how is the term “mission” understood here? Mission is usually understood as primarily an evangelistic term – it is about sharing the gospel of Jesus with people who have not heard it and baptising and teaching new believers. Even in the context of the Church of England’s Five Marks of Mission, the third mark of “responding to human need by loving service” is subordinate to, and shaped and formed by the evangelistic nature of the first two marks (“proclaiming the good news of the kingdom” and to “teach, baptise and nurture new believers”). To view traumatised people as a “mission field” and your work with them as missional is to instrumentalise trauma and colour it with this “good news.” Rushing to a place of healing and resurrection and proclaiming hope in Jesus can be toxic and deadly when working with trauma survivors and takes no account of the lived reality of post-traumatic remaking.

Combined with the undistinguished use of the term “trauma”, this is an opportunistic approach to vulnerable people. Offering care and support, functioning in the very real and powerful role of witnesses to trauma experiences, is an act of love and compassion that needs to be genuinely trauma (not suffering) informed. It should not be an evangelistic opportunity designed to get more people through the doors of your church. Traumatised people are not your mission field.

References

Cross, Katie. ‘“I Have the Power in My Body to Make People Sin’: The Trauma of Purity Culture and the Concept of ‘Body Theodicy’” in Karen O’Donnell and Katie Cross (eds) Feminist Trauma Theologies: Body, Scripture and Church in Critical Perspective. London: SCM Press, 2020, pp.21-39.

France-Williams, A.D.A. Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism and the Church of England. London: SCM Press, 2020.

Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World (Second Edition). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019.

Langberg, Dianne. Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores. Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2015.

O’Donnell, Karen and Katie Cross (eds) Feminist Trauma Theologies: Body, Scripture and Church in Critical Perspective. London: SCM Press, 2020.

Robinson, Leah. “Women in the Pulpit: A History of Oppression and Perseverance” in O’Donnell Karen and Katie Cross (eds) Feminist Trauma Theologies: Body, Scripture and Church in Critical Perspective. London: SCM Press, 2020, pp.161-179.

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Writing Gender Justice: Alternative Icons of Women

Today’s post is an interview with Hilary Willett (she/her) who fights for gender justice by writing icons and reclaiming the lives of biblical women.

Tell us about yourself: who are you and what do you do?

My name is Hilary. I’m from Christchurch, New Zealand and currently living in Auckland. I’m studying to be an Anglican priest in the Diocese of Auckland.

What have you been doing and what are you working on?

I completed a Masters of Theology in 2018, looking at feminism and the Bible. This was a pivotal point in my faith journey. Before doing this thesis, I had believed that both Christians and biblical texts had always generally been fairly supportive of women in positions of leadership. My thesis disrupted this belief and I began to realise the extent to which the Christian church has suppressed or marginalised female leadership.

After finishing my thesis, I felt a call to leadership in the Anglican Church. In 2019, I was discerned to begin training for ordination. I’m now doing a second Masters in Theology, part-time, to aid my leadership formation. In 2020, I did a course on writing icons with Libby Brookbanks, and I discovered that I loved it. So, in my spare time, I’ve been writing icons of women and have recently started selling them and accepting commissions.

Which aspects of your work might be particularly interesting for supporters of the Shiloh Project?

Icons are considered sacred images and used in devotional ways. They are also considered to be a way of communicating orthodox theology, so instead of being “painted” they are written. Every part of an icon has theological significance: the colours used, the gestures of the subject, the gold-leaf/gilding, even the primer used to prepare the surface that will be written on. Everything in an icon has a symbolic meaning.

Traditionally, however, only men are allowed to be iconographers. This means that men have been the only ones allowed to communicate theology about the women and men represented in icons. I feel uncomfortable with this, particularly the idea that in iconography women are only being written by men. So, I started to write icons of women.

How does your work connect to activism?

I came away from my thesis on feminism and Christianity acutely aware of just how many men write the theological narrative. This dominance prevents women from writing themselves and leads to significant theological bias. In icons, this is particularly noticeable. Women are often represented as white (even when the majority of saints depicted are not Caucasian) and delicate (rarely do women look strong or have strong gestures). Women are often dressed in white or have white head-coverings to symbolise their purity. It seems that writers of icons are very keen to uphold purity as a prime virtue in women, which then reinforces this value in individuals who use icons for prayer.

Complex biblical women, such as Jael, Hagar, Delilah, or the woman who bled for twelve years, are very rarely recorded as icons. The few icons I found of the “bleeding woman” (Matt 9:20-22; Mark 5: 25-34; Luke 8:43-38), for example, depicted her as grovelling on her knees before Christ. This representation makes this woman one-dimensional. There is little visual reference in the icon to this woman’s faith or her courage in approaching Christ, despite the customary purity taboos forbidding a woman in her position from touching a rabbi. Her active defiance of the rules and her determination to be healed demonstrate strength and conviction, but these qualities are not represented visually in the bleeding woman’s icon. This is in stark contrast to say, Peter or Paul who, despite their failings, are regularly and reliably represented in icons. They are depicted as standing upright and righteous and are often depicted in a variety of colours. For instance, in a traditional Orthodox church, there is a section of the church called the “Deisis” (prayer/supplication). Peter and Paul are almost always a part of this prominent section of the church. They are written in full colour, venerated as complex and well-rounded individuals. Mary, the pure, is often the only female regularly included in this important section of the church.

I try to correct this bias by writing women differently. I spend some time researching alternative narratives, sometimes going very much against traditional theological presentations of certain women. In writing icons, I include ‘difficult’ characters and characters that are not in scripture or “sainted” by the Church. I write women with different skin tones, different personalities, and different body shapes. I tend to avoid using white clothes for women, unless it is absolutely necessary. One occasion where I did find this necessary, was with Phoebe, the deacon. Her white alb was a part of her official, ceremonial robes that deacons wore in the church. It is necessary for a deacon to wear an alb in their leadership role. In this case, Phoebe’s white clothes felt to be more about her leadership role in the church, which I wanted to highlight, rather than about her purity as a woman.

Phoebe, the Deacon

I also try to bring out the complexity of the women who have been venerated as pure and the humanity of the women who have been marginalised. As noted above, for instance, the ‘bleeding woman’ is usually depicted grovelling before Christ. When I re-wrote her, however, she is standing upright. Christ was not in the icon, as I wanted her to stand in her own right. I re-named her the “Daughter of Faith”.

Daughter of Faith (the woman who bled for 12 years)

I try to find something commendable in each of the women I write, with the view that women are worthy of respect, even if they are complex characters and don’t live up to patriarchal stereotypes. Women do not all need to be the purest of the pure, or the fem-est of the fem, to be admirable.

Finally, I enjoy writing women in contexts that are meaningful to the person who will use the icon. When I wrote Mary as an icon, I placed her in Taranaki (Aotearoa New Zealand) because that where the person who was receiving the icon was from. It felt important that the caring presence of Mary was placed in this own person’s context, making it meaningful and relevant to the person using the icon.

Mary, Mother of God

What has been the response to your icons?

To be honest, it has been overwhelmingly positive; it really has been lovely to see how many people are connecting with these images. Occasionally, some people haven’t understood exactly what an icon is and wonder why I don’t just paint landscapes, but it has been fun explaining this to them. One thing I often try to do is explain the symbolic features of any new icon I write. I think this has helped with the response, as it gives people the tools to “read” exactly what I am “writing”. It has meant that even people who have not been all that interested in icons in the past, are really keen and interested now. It has been a great experience!

Find more of Hilary’s icons at Lumen Icons: https://lumenicons.tarotpoetry.nz/?fbclid=IwAR0IoK0FX-4No_qWeeDlUDHpv8YqUOUH_9Nbvb-64max8SIf–0ZS9ZkmN8

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