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Interview

Q & A with Rabbi Dr. Barbara Thiede about her book Rape Culture in the House of David: A Company of Men

The latest volume in our Routledge Focus Series is out! It joins a string of carefully focused examinations of how rape culture and religion intersect. The focus of this volume by Rabbi Dr. Barbara Thiede is on the characters of the David story in the Hebrew Bible’s Books of Samuel. More volumes will follow later in the year. If you would like to propose a volume, please read more about our series here, and contact Johanna (j.stiebert@leeds.ac.uk).

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

I am a professor of Judaic Studies at UNC Charlotte in North Carolina (USA) and an ordained rabbi. My work studies the male alliances, friendships, and networks that undergird biblical hegemonic masculinity. My first bookMale Friendship, Homosociality, and Women in the Hebrew Bible: Malignant Fraternities, explores how male relationships are engendered by the sexual use and abuse of women’s bodies. 

Rape Culture in the House of David: A Company of Men focuses specifically on the many men — from kings, princes, and courtiers, to generals, counsellors, and servants — who are complicit in the taking and raping of women in the Books of Samuel. I also examine male-on-male sexualized violence in biblical rape culture.

My next book, Yhwh’s Emotional and Sexual Life in the Books of Samuel: How the Deity Acts the Man, will be published with Bloomsbury Press. In that work, I directly address a topic that I began exploring in my previous books: the Israelite deity’s emotionally fraught and sexually charged relationships with his chosen men.

What are the key arguments of your book? 

I argue that the Books of Samuel present the reader with a powerful depiction of an ancient rape culture, in which the best king proves his right to the throne through powerful and exhibitionist displays of sexual violence. I contend that rapists in the Hebrew Bible do not act alone; they are enabled and supported by a company of men.

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

I hope readers will feel empowered to call out these texts for the rape culture they depict. If they can do so with the Bible, they will be better able to identify any and all depictions or enactments of dominant, exploitative masculinity in our own time. It is equally important to me that readers become conscious of the ways in which biblical literature has legitimized toxic forms of masculinity.

Please give us a quotation that captures something significant about your book and will make readers want to read the rest. 

“[M]en of the texts, who aspire to honor their rulers, must emulate, support, collude, and enable them. The taking and raping of female characters and the intentional sexual humiliation of male ones do not constitute merely a backdrop to political events. Such deeds are political. They constitute the core of the narratives… Rapists are supported by a company of men, even an army of them.”

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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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New Book!

We are thrilled to announce the imminent publication of a new book in the Routledge Focus series ‘Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible’, a series inspired by the Shiloh Project. The author is Ericka Shawndricka Dunbar and her book has the title Trafficking Hadassah: Collective Trauma, Cultural Memory, and Identity in the Book of Esther and in the African Diaspora. 

This is a searing book, that turns its direct and unwavering gaze to some of the most pressing and distressing gendered and racialized atrocities of our time. Moreover, it roots these atrocities in both ancient and more recent history and urges us to break harmful cycles that inflict disproportionate suffering on African(a) girls and women. (The word ‘African(a)’ refers to both African persons and persons who are African-descended.)

Trafficking Hadassah is available for pre-order and is shipped from 12 November 2021. The book is available in hardback and eBook versions. (Find out more here.)

We also have an interview with Ericka and a sneak-peek at an excerpt from the book.

Tell us about yourself, Ericka. 

I’m Ericka Shawndricka Dunbar, Visiting Professor of Hebrew Bible at Payne Theological Seminary, Wilberforce, Ohio, in the USA.

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

The book sheds light on sexualized and gender-based violence, specifically against African(a) girls and women across ancient and contemporary contexts. This project is an expansion of my scholarly-activist work of children’s advocacy and activism to dismantle intersectional violence and oppression. 

This book is a condensed version of my doctoral dissertation.   

What are the key arguments of your book?

I interpret the first two chapters of the biblical book of Esther through a contemporary lens of sex trafficking. I argue that sexualized and gender-based violence are initiated in the first chapter with the treatment and abuse of Queen Vashti. This systematic abuse is expanded to include large-scale legalized sexual trafficking of young virgin girls who are gathered from locales across the Persian Empire, which spans from India to Ethiopia. I then put this interpretation into dialogue with the sexual abuse and enslavement of African(a) girls and women during and after the Maafa,* identifying the abuse as a collective, cultural trauma. I identify and critique social and cultural attitudes that have been embraced and asserted to justify such abuse and outline physical and psychological consequences of sexual trafficking on individual and collective bodies and identities. Additionally, I challenge biblical readers to engage in morally and ethically responsible biblical interpretation by giving attention to intersectionality, polyvocality and the euphemisms and silences often embedded in both texts and traditional interpretations of texts. 

*The word ‘Maafa’ is derived from a Swahili word meaning something like ‘Great Calamity’. It refers to the atrocities of the slave trade and slavery.

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

I hope that readers will begin to apply intersectionality and polyvocality as frameworks for reading and interpreting biblical texts like the book of Esther, so that their analyses of what is depicted can be deepened and expanded. I hope that readers will wrestle with discerning meaning for those who are embedded within but not often considered in interpretations of this story. I hope they will come to consider how minoritized identities are impacted by the story and by subsequent interpretations of it. I truly hope that people will wrestle with the portrayal and meaning of such widespread and largely uncontested sexualized and gender-based violence in the ancient context and allow this wrestling to inspire action to dismantle and eradicate it in contemporary contexts.

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

“When the treatment of the virgin girls depicted in the second chapter [of the book of Esther] is assessed alongside the treatment of Vashti, it becomes clear that gender and ethnicity intersect and play a major role in othering foreign, minoritized females. Othered, these girls are rendered exploitable and consequently trafficked. Accordingly, the king’s dismissal of Vashti is only a first step in a more elaborate process of imperially sanctioned patriarchy that also feeds sexual trafficking. By this process, the seeking out of girls is legitimated, as is their transport, custody, subjection to a year-long beautification process, and sexual abuse and exploitation by the king (2:1–9). The Persian king and his imperial team target African and other virgin girls for sexual trafficking. In its deployment of this political strategy, the text depicts Africana girls and women as expendable, commodifiable, and rapable. Such intentional displacement, colonization, and sexual exploitation of Africana girls and women are not, however, restricted to the pages of this biblical text, but have been practiced throughout much of history, leading to collective cultural trauma.”

_______________________________________________________________________________________

Thank you, Ericka. We hope your book will find many readers and much acclaim and lead on to inspire effective resistance to the multiple and widespread oppressions and exploitations to which you draw attention. 

Please help us spread the word about this important publication and please order a copy for your library.

Picture update (10 December 2021)

Ericka S. Dunbar with her new book – hot off the press. (Images courtesy of Ericka)

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Shiloh Project Interview with Dr CL Nash, Founder of M2M

Please read all about M2M – Misogynoir to Mishpat.

You are invited to the project’s inaugural seminar in the series ‘Decolonizing God’ by Prof. Esther Mombo. The title is: Decolonizing God: African Women’s Epistemic Challenges to Patriarchal Jesus.

This event has now been rescheduled for Thursday 13 May, 16:00-17:30h. Please join via this Teams link.

Launch of the MISOGYNOIR TO MISHPAT RESEARCH NETWORK, and of the seminar series “Decolonising God” (organiser: CRPL Fellow Dr C.L. Nash).

1) Dr CL Nash, tell us a little bit about who you are, and what drives you. Also, what is M2M, which you’ve launched recently?

I am a woman from the U.S. and an independent scholar at the Centre for Religion and Public Life of the University of Leeds, where I manage two research projects. One project deals with religiously ensconced nationalism; and the other, amplifies the religious epistemologies of women of African descent.

This second project has the name ‘Misogynoir to Mishpat’. ‘Misogynoir’ refers to misogyny directed towards Black women, and ‘Mishpat’ is a Hebrew word used in the Bible, which means ‘justice.’ The project is necessary, because the ability and capacity of people of African descent to produce knowledge – such as conducting research, writing and publishing – is often overlooked, pushed to the peripheries, obstructed, or denied. This is especially true for women of African descent. ‘Misogynoir to Mishpat,’ ‘M2M’ for short, will serve as a corrective by resisting and filling this gap in knowledge production. The very title says a lot about who we are and what we strive to do: we strive to move away from the hatred and discrimination of Black women toward fulfilment and social justice.

The challenges for women of African descent are stark, unsettling and undeniable. In my home country, the U.S., for instance, it has recently been revealed that even when all things are comparable (education, training, number of years in work, etc.), African-descended women earn staggeringly less by retirement than their white female counterparts.[i] While there has been a great deal of discourse about the gendered pay gap – and there should be! – African-descended women are doubly discriminated against, and consistently left behind.

Not only are their work contributions valued less and paid less, but there is also other workplace discrimination: such as bullying and other exclusionary practices, including being refused opportunities for promotion, often a consequence of racial biases. African-descended women in the U.S. (to give an example from the setting I’m most familiar with) are significantly economically disadvantaged, as they are also the group who bears the heaviest student loan debt. This means that African-descended women are often precluded from wealth acquisition strategies, such as home purchases, and are also less able to help defray the cost of higher education for their own children, such as via home equity loans. In short, this creates a downward racial-gender spiral.

As an African-descended woman academic, it is concerning to me how invisible we are. A 2017 article, ‘Black Women Professors in the UK,’ shows that white women and women from certain other ethnic minorities are gaining some measure of presence and visibility in universities. But we represent less than 1% of the British academy. Figures in the U.S. are only slightly better.[ii]

While it is good to see diversity increase, with better representation by South Asian women, for example, as an African-descended woman academic, it is concerning to me that our invisibility persists. When we African-descended women are made invisible, so is our research and our writing. In the course of this, the public declarations of universities wanting greater inclusion, are overshadowed by the private resignation to a status quo which continues to deny our relevance and importance.

‘Misogynoir to Mishpat’ deliberately alludes to ‘Mishpat’, a biblical word, because much of the resistance to inequality is grounded in religious institutions, particularly within the Christian faith. Mishpat, ‘justice,’ is a term which occurs in the Bible over 400 times. It is the primary standard by which the Bible writers understood God to evaluate their faithfulness and righteousness as people of God.

Misogynoir is a portmanteau word which combines ‘misogyny,’ or ‘hatred of women,’ with ‘noir,’ which is ‘Black’ in French. The word is apt for me, because it refers openly to the recognition that women of African descent are prejudiced against and nearly non-existent when it comes to representation in the academic study of religions. In the UK, because the term ‘Black’ has often been expanded to include non-African-descended women (that is, ‘anyone “of color”’), the situation of erasure becomes even more acute and problematic.

Through M2M, we are working to cultivate a strong relationship with churches and community activists who share our concerns. There are many issues to address, from lack of representation in politics and higher education, to poverty and over-incarceration, to lack of mental health and other medical resources, and environmental racism – all of which plague African-descended women disproportionately. To give one example, in the U.S. approximately 70,000 Black women and girls are ‘missing.’[iii]This is a staggering statistic. It might point to other crimes: some may have run away from abusive relationships, others may have been kidnapped, murdered, or sex trafficked. But these women and girls matter. They belong to families and communities who feel their absence and need their loss to be acknowledged and addressed to make them feel whole again. M2M has worked to form partnerships with women in various countries including: Kenya, the Netherlands, Ghana, the UK, the US, France, and South Africa. We want to work with African-descended women in religious academia and religious leadership across the globe: women in the World Council of Churches, women who are local pastors, and lecturers and professors in biblical studies, theology and ethics. We are seeking to strengthen the contributions of them all.

2) What are your aims, vision and hopes for M2M?

@Dorret (15/365BLM)

Postgraduate students of color often wish to engage in research which amplifies their own backgrounds and cultures. But these students will disproportionately fail to complete their degrees, or go on to fail their viva. And sometimes – I would venture to say, often – this is because universities do not have qualified academics who can engage with, supervise or examine such research. An examiner may decide that a student is inadequate, because they, as examiner, lack knowledge of what the student has outlined in their research. This means that not only are academics of color under-represented but postgraduates of color also stay under-represented.

Our research network seeks to draw attention to such gaps, so that we can walk alongside and support postgraduate students, in particular African-descended women postgraduates. We can assist in creating mentorship and visibility for them – even when they do not have scholars of color in their institutions. We also want to ensure that the research agendas of African-descended students are supported, that they are hired in full-time tenured posts, and that their work is valued in the university system.

We are proactively engaged in the current funding cycle, with the intention of being able to provide such support. Currently, African-descended women (few as they are) are much more represented as independent scholars than as scholars in stable, permanent posts. This marginalization is exacerbated by institutions not considering them for, or not involving them in, significant grants, or in training on how to make an application for a grant. Moreover, such grants are often not even open to, or actively publicized among, independent scholars. Currently, programs like Marie Currie, for instance, which are highly competitive, in my view effectively bypass people of color without any accountability. This must stop.

Our new M2M website will amplify the voices of women of African descent who are religious leaders or scholars or students of religion and theology by: highlighting their achievements (promotions, PhD awards, new pastoral posts), sharing career and information resources (including publications, but also collegial opportunities, such as funding or grant writing possibilities) and disseminating teaching resources, such as ‘video shorts,’ of 3-5 minutes in length. Taken together, these will explain more about, promote, and celebrate African-descended women’s contributions to academia and religious communities. This will include the ongoing work of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians (‘the ‘Circle’) and by womanist scholars.

We will post monthly profiles of women. Please see our profiles for Mitzi Smith and Esther Mombo! We also have a new M2M blog series: ‘Conversations in Race, Gender and Religion’ (the call for contributions is here) where we examine our intersectionality more closely. We ask, for instance, ‘In what ways can women in Kenya find synergy with women in Sheffield, England? How might their goals differ? How are their goals compatible?’ And this is just one example of what we hope to grow and nurture into a richly diverse resource.

By balancing these needs of religious leadership and academic religious thinkers with community objectives, I hope we will make a significant difference in the lives of African-descended women and girls.

3) The Shiloh Project is focused on intersections between ‘rape culture’, ‘religion’ and ‘the Bible’. There are some synergies with M2M, particularly given the shocking vulnerabilities of Africana (that is, African-descended) women to gender-based and other forms of violence, including in biblical texts and in religious or religiously influenced communities, right up to the present. How can we support each other’s projects and endeavours? 

It’s true that we have a bit of intersection. There are many social issues that womanist scholars, for example, seek to address – and women who emerge from vulnerable communities frequently emphasize wanting to increase the agency of members of their communities.

Historically, Black American women, as one example, have struggled against ‘Christian’ assumptions of the sexual availability of the Black female body. In other words, women and girls who are African-descended, were regularly raped with impunity. Yet, the rhetoric created was that slave holders were ‘bewitched’ by these vulnerable people. White men could rape Black women and girls without being criminalized for it. Instead, the victims were blamed. Christian theology was not guiltless in this.

During the Antebellum, pregnant Black women thought to ‘require’ severe beatings, could be and were beaten, and sometimes beaten to death. A hole was dug into the ground and the woman was placed over the hole with her belly inserted into the ground. This was done to ‘protect’ the soul of the unborn child while the woman’s flesh was beaten from her body, her blood soaking the ground around her.

In Christian teachings, there is sometimes this ‘Platonic’ assumption that ‘the spirit’ and ‘the flesh’ are antithetical to and separate from each another. So, according to this, the body can be destroyed and the spirit spared. But the assumption that a person’s spirit is not aggrieved at the evil of destroying that same person’s flesh, as if we can physically torture the body without causing trauma to the person’s very spirit…

I must visit Toni Morrison’s Beloved to tease this out a bit further. Baby Suggs, a character in the novel, walks with other African-descended people into a clearing in the woods. This is significant, because the woods were frequently regarded as ‘wilderness,’ or as a ‘wild and dangerous’ sphere of uncivilized society.

Baby Suggs preaches a sermon in that forest which tells the members present to revalue their flesh. She encourages them to take every inch of who they are, and to find something there to love – and to love it fiercely. Black beauty was all but an oxymoron to most in 19th century America. To be beautiful, lovable, intelligent, human was to be white. But Baby Suggs encourages people to create a new theology of self love which renounces the hatred espoused by the dominant majority culture.

With that in mind, women who have been abused need to touch those harmed and swollen joints, the discolored limbs, and love themselves. Those who have had body parts torn and bloodied through rape and other forms of assault, must practise looking at themselves, touching and loving themselves. Just as Baby Suggs encourages her congregants to touch the spaces between the grooves of fleshly abuse, so also we, in M2M and Shiloh, need to encourage people to touch and reclaim all those spaces which were stolen. And, like Baby Suggs did, we need to encourage people to love their bodies, hearts and minds.

In fact, M2M can be summed up in this way: Black women from every land and every religion, are summoned to come and kneel at the altar of self acceptance. We want to encourage all of them to love themselves fiercely – body, mind and spirit. And, for those who are academics, we urge them to share that love of mind and spirit in their research and writing. We will walk alongside you. We only ask that when your legs get strong, you do not run away, but you turn to your left or your right, and you walk alongside someone else. As you stand with us, we also will stand with and support the amazing work of the Shiloh Project.

Indeed, we may kneel as hundreds, but we will stand as tens of thousands.

Thank you, Dr Nash. Thank you for telling us about your important work. We look forward to watching M2M grow and thrive.

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Dr CL Nash recommends the following sites for further reading:

‘Black Then,’ a website to address American Black History, here

‘Black Women’s Experiences in Slavery’ (chapter 2), here

‘Word to the Wise: African American/Black Women and Their Fight for Reproductive Justice,’ here


[i] See the Pew Research Center, which reports the staggering pay differences that can add up to in excess of $1M by the time of retirement. You can see more here and also look at this reference about Black women’s lack of fair pay. For another perspective, see also here. For more statistics on the sharp disparities along color lines, see also this.

[ii] Dr. Nicola Rollock indicates that there are only twenty-five Black female professors (see here). According to her research, this is due to such issues as Black women being bullied, feeling forced to work harder and, ultimately, being drained when working as academics. The Guardian supports her findings. See ‘Black women must deal with bullying to win’, here.

[iii] For more information on the missing Black women and girls in the U.S., please see this reference by the Women’s Media Center. Also, please see the Black and Missing Foundation (here), which also explores the issue of Black Americans missing – an under-reported phenomenon. Because a portion of those missing are presumed to be sex-trafficked, there are activist groups, which are also monitoring and aiding with that situation. Check out Black Women’s Blueprint as one example (here).

@Dorret (15/365BLM)

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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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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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Clergy Abuse and Women’s Vocations

Miryam Clough’s doctoral thesis and first monograph (Shame, the Church and the Regulation of Female Sexuality, Routledge 2017) focussed on Ireland’s Magdalen laundries to examine the way Christian churches have used shame to control women, to displace men’s ambivalence about sex, and to excuse men for abuse. Her second book will address the effects of clergy sexual misconduct on women’s vocations in the church.

What led you to do this work?

In 2019, I was the recipient of a visiting scholarship at St John’s Theological College in New Zealand, where I had trained as a young ordinand in the 1980s. My project was to research women’s experiences in the Anglican Church in Aotearoa New Zealand since 1960. In part this was a personal quest, sparked by a conversation a few months before with a friend I had studied with when I began my first theology degree. As he and I reconnected after three decades and each of us related the key events of those intervening years, I was struck by the differences in our journeys – despite their shared starting point. He has had a long and fruitful ministry in the church; I have had a life-long vocation to ministry that I have yet to fulfil.

This conversation had taken place around the time I was invited to contribute a chapter to Letters to a Broken Church (Fife and Gilo 2019), a response to the clergy abuse crisis in the Church of England. As I pondered the events that led to me leaving New Zealand in 1988 at the end of my ordination training, and eventually putting the idea of ordination to one side, I began to reconsider the impact of clergy sexual misconduct on my life and vocation. This time however, I looked at it through two different lenses: 1) the lens of a registered health professional and educator working within strict ethical guidelines and 2) that of the mother of young women in their twenties who have bumped up against sexual harassment at university and in their jobs and careers.

As I imagined my daughters in the situations I had found myself in at their respective ages, I began to identify more fully the impact that the exploitative behaviour of much older male clergy had on my life and my vocation in the church. Imagining my daughters – whose wellbeing, happiness and fulfilment are absolute priorities for me – having to cope with the things that I encountered at their ages left me angry. Angry at the behaviour of those men and at the church which should have offered a safe environment for me as a young person and as an ordinand. Angry that the very clergy who claimed to support me in my vocation had actually grossly undermined and sabotaged it.

Having either directly encountered or been aware of a number of clergy abusers, I was suspicious of the context that produced such behaviour, and which appeared to facilitate it, or at least did nothing to address or prevent it.

On the one hand, I was incredulous that Christian priests, including fathers of daughters, would act to undermine the vocation of any young person. On the other, I was very aware that I, and many other women, had lacked the support and mentoring that most young men received from the experienced clergy responsible for their pastoral welfare and training. Given the wider hostility to women seeking leadership roles in the church at the time, this was perhaps unsurprising.

Next, I endeavoured to put myself into the shoes of the offending priests and to wonder what motivated them. I tried to imagine the sense of entitlement that would lead them to violate pastoral and sexual boundaries. Then, I mapped the code of conduct I work under as a health professional onto their actions. As I did so, my perspective – long one of self-blame and failure – shifted.  I began to see that at the very least, those clergy had acted in ways that were deeply unprofessional. I also began to consider the broader structural context of those scenarios, and this is what I determined to research. Having either directly encountered or been aware of a number of clergy abusers, I was suspicious of the context that produced such behaviour, and which appeared to facilitate it, or at least did nothing to address or prevent it.

At this point, I had not come across the body of literature on clergy sexual abuse of adult women and had no idea of its extent, assuming (despite my own experience) that most victims of clergy abuse were children and that most clergy abusers were Roman Catholic priests. I was shocked to learn that an estimated 90-95% of victims of clergy sexual abuse are female congregants (Boobal Batchelor 2013, xv). Moreover, as Richard Sipe (2007, xv) notes, the Roman Catholic Church does not have a monopoly on clergy abuse, it is just further down the track in terms of exposure.

I began my project with a broad research outline, looking at a number of issues that have affected women in the Anglican church in Aotearoa New Zealand in my lifetime. Clergy sexual abuse was not my main focus, however it kept jumping out at me. I was directed to Louise Deans’ book Whistleblower (2001) at the outset of my scholarship. Here Deans describes her experiences as an ordinand training for ministry with serial abuser Canon Rob McCullough, and outlines the protracted and traumatic process she and other clergywomen went through to seek support and redress from the church hierarchy for the abuse they experienced.[i]

Deans first made the abuse by McCullough public after it was revealed in the media that a conference of ordained Anglican women in New Zealand in 1989 had felt it necessary to offer a workshop on sexual harassment. I had left New Zealand less than a year earlier, in part in an effort to remove myself from a situation with a much older priest that I could see no other way out of. There is much in Deans’ book that resonates with my experience, both in New Zealand and more particularly later in the UK, with a priest who seemed remarkably like McCullough in character. Diana Garland (2013, 122 citing Friberg and Laaser 1998) suggests that ‘the most common offender is a man who is reasonably successful and has a combination of narcissism, sexual compulsion, and need for affirmation’.

What have you learned since beginning this research?

That I am not alone. #MeToo’s sister movement #ChurchToo demonstrates that women are all too familiar with sexual harassment from male church leaders. This is not to deny that some abusers are women or that some victims of clergy sexual abuse are adult men or children, simply that the majority of clergy abusers in reported cases are heterosexual males and the majority of victims are heterosexual females (Fortune 2013, 15).

That it was not my fault. Until this point, I had taken responsibility for what had occurred and had not considered my own experiences in the church against the concept of fiduciary duty – that is, the legal or ethical obligation of a person with a duty of care or in a professional relationship of trust to act in the best interest of their client, congregant or counselee. Nor was I aware of the now established view among experts in the field that within the implicit relationship of power that exists between a priest and a congregant, meaningful consent to a sexual relationship is not possible. A sexual relationship between a priest and a congregant is not an ‘affair’ and cannot be regarded as consensual (Fortune 2013, 15, 19).

That breaches of professional boundaries by clergy create unhealthy precedents, increase the vulnerability of victims, and pave the way for further or more serious harm (Stephens 2013, 28). I now realise that my early experiences of clergy misconduct had predisposed me to further exploitation. Furthermore, over the years I had seen and heard of a number of clergy breaching professional and sexual boundaries, while those with greater authority looked on and failed to act, effectively normalising such behaviour.

That, in the grip of clergy abuse, victims can lose their moral compass. Caught up in the dynamic of wrongdoing and shame, we do what we need to do to survive and get through. This is not what we would choose to do at healthier times in our lives. Additionally, because congregants are conditioned to respect clergy and to see them as authority figures in spiritual and moral matters, they can be easily influenced by them (Fortune 1999, xii).

That clergy abuse is isolating for victims and prevents them accessing meaningful sources of support. Lured into a ‘counselling’ relationship as an ordinand, for example, I failed to get the support I needed.

That clergy abuse often follows predictable patterns of behaviour. Clergy may groom their victims over a period of time, singling them out for special treatment, sometimes on the pretext of mentoring them in their vocation, gradually breaking down any resistance and isolating them through insisting on secrecy (Cooper-White 2013, 73-74; Fortune 1999, xi). Such coercive behaviour is ultimately as damaging as more overt forms of abuse.

Guido Reni, Susanna and the Elders, Image courtesy of Jean Louise Mazieres on Flickr (https://flic.kr/p/2eGnXfG)

What do you hope readers will take away from your research when it is published?

My own perspective shifted significantly when I began to consider my experiences through older and more objective eyes. This, together with the broader understanding of clergy sexual abuse I’ve gained during the course of my research and the support I have received for this work, has done much to heal the shame of my own experiences and the grief attached to the loss of my vocation.

It is over fifteen years since I began my doctoral research on shame. One conclusion I reached early on in that work was that having our shame stories heard with empathy can lead to healing. I have had several opportunities to share my work and to tell my story. These have been overwhelmingly positive experiences, with people affirming the importance and value of the work and listening to my personal narrative in non-judging, empathic and thoughtful ways.

The discourses of purity culture, complementarianism and male headship facilitate clergy abuse, which is a systemic issue.

Having said that, I have been somewhat selective about my audiences and my experience to date is that resistance comes from those (including women) who operate within more hierarchical and masculinist frameworks. Indeed, the evidence is strong that these are the structures which facilitate abuse in the first place. The discourses of purity culture, complementarianism and male headship facilitate clergy abuse, which is a systemic issue. This will not change without a significant degree of honest conversation, and a willingness to engage with the voices of survivors and to address the structural inequities within the churches – including those perpetuated by masculinist and misogynist interpretations of scripture and tradition.

As with any situation that is propelled or sustained by shame and secrecy, clergy sexual abuse will only stop if those affected by it speak out. For this reason, I work with autoethnographic and narrative research methods. Autoethnography situates the researcher in their research context as an active participant rather than a so-called ‘objective’ observer, resists theoretical abstractions and places value on the way individuals and groups find meaning. It is an apt methodological approach to challenging social and interpersonal phenomena where more conventional methods may serve to reinscribe oppression.

My hope in contributing to the increasing body of literature on clergy abuse through telling my own story and creating a space for other women to tell theirs, is that churches will achieve a greater understanding of the dynamics of abuse, and of the impact it has on women’s vocations in the church. In turn, engagement with this issue may lead to churches and seminaries finding healthier ways to speak about sex and power, to more effective screening of prospective clergy, and to more compassionate, honest, thoughtful, and effective ways of managing clergy abuse when it arises.

Feature image “Can You Hear Me Now? #MeToo” by alecperkins on Flickr (https://flic.kr/p/23BStNh)

References:

Boobal Batchelor, Valli ed. ‘Editor’s Introduction’ in When Pastors Prey. Geneva. World Council of Churches Publishing. Xv-xix.

Cooper-White, Pamela. 2013. ‘Clergy Sexual Abuse of Adults’ in Valli Boobal Batchelor ed. When Pastors Prey. Geneva. World Council of Churches Publishing. 58-81.

Deans, Louise. 2001. Whistleblower. Abuse of Power in the Church, A New Zealand Story. Auckland. Tandem Press.

Fife, Janet and Gilo, eds. 2019. Letters to a Broken Church. London. Ekklesia.

Fortune, Marie. 2013. ‘Sexual Abuse by Religious Leaders’ in Valli Boobal Batchelor ed. When Pastors Prey. Geneva. World Council of Churches Publishing. 14-21.

Fortune, Marie. 1999. ‘Foreword’ in Nancy Werking Poling ed. Victim to Survivor. Women Recovering from Clergy Sexual Abuse. Cleveland, Ohio. United Church Press. ix-xvi.

Garland, Diana. 2013. ‘Don’t Call it an Affair: Understanding and Preventing Clergy Sexual Misconduct with Adults’ in Claire M. Renzetti and Sandra Yocum eds. Clergy Sexual Abuse: Social Science Perspectives. Boston. Northeastern University Press. 118-143.

Sipe, A. W. Richard. 2007. ‘Introduction’ in A. Shupe, Spoils of the Kingdom. Clergy Misconduct and Religious Community. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. Xv-xxvii.


[i] Deans does not name McCullough in her book, however he was subsequently identified in legal proceedings. TVNZ. 2003. ‘Church to pay out for sex abuse’. Thursday March 06. http://tvnz.co.nz/content/173269/4202557/article.html, accessed 24.09.2020

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Introducing…The Shiloh Podcast!

The Shiloh Podcast logo.

The Shiloh Podcast has arrived!

Rosie Dawson, award-winning journalist, theologian, and host of The Shiloh Podcast shines a light on the stories and practices of religion that either contribute to or resist rape culture. Through conversations with scholars and practitioners, the podcast invites us all to think about ways that we can challenge and dismantle rape culture in our own communities.

Feast your ears on our new trailer and introductory episode, where Rosie discusses the origins of The Shiloh Project with Katie Edwards, until July 2020 one of the project’s co-directors.

Don’t forget to review, rate and subscribe to be notified of new episodes.

https://open.spotify.com/episode/0ZPIZec92xIr5hGJvlBiAm

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Tasia Scrutton’s research and publication on Christianity and Depression

Christianity and Depression book cover by Tasia Scrutton.

Tasia Scrutton’s earlier post on the Shiloh Project blog (‘On Sex and Other Possibilities’) is one of our most widely read. Earlier this year Tasia’s new book Christianity and Depression was published by SCM. This book, on an important topic and written in an accessible style, is likely to be of interest to Shiloh Project audiences. Find out more!

Congratulations on your new book! (It has a very beautiful cover, too.) 

Thank you!

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

Photo of Tasia Scrutton and her dog.

I’ll start with how this book came about….

One of the first times I remember thinking about doing research on Christianity and mental illness was when a friend of mine, who had contended with serious health problems from an early age and who suffered from depression, was told by her church that her depression was the result of her having been sinful. Initially I thought that view must be extremely rare, but as I researched further, it became more apparent that it is quite common in some Christian traditions. At the same time, it also became apparent that something like this view is common outside of Christianity or any religious tradition as well: it’s quite frequent that people (religious or otherwise) try to provide moral reasons or quasi-moral reasons (such as not doing enough exercise) for why one person suffers from a mental illness while another does not.  

It was around then that I started thinking consciously about the ways in which theology and philosophy could engage with these kinds of claims. Having said that, in retrospect, I can now see other things that also led up to it. For example, when I experienced depression myself, I wondered how the idea that salvation is not only an otherworldly affair could be squared with my inability to feel happy – or, more generally, how faith could so spectacularly fail to make one feel better. I didn’t experience ‘sin’ accounts like my friend, but I remember some clergy expressing the view that medications for depression were inadvisable because they would ‘block’ something that could lead to spiritual growth. So, all of those things had been fermenting for a long time.

The academic work I had done previously had also paved the way for me to write something on the topic. For example, I had already written on the problem of evil – one of the points I make in my book is that we might think that good things can come out of evil (for example, that depression has helped some people to become more insightful or compassionate) – but that doesn’t stop depression from being undesirable and so an evil. That sounds like a simple point but it becomes very important in practical contexts, for example in avoiding either the tendency to idealise suffering (just because good can come out of it), or else to write off a period of suffering as necessarily meaningless because suffering is an evil. (Unlike some philosophers of religion, I do think suffering is an evil.) 

What are the key discussion points of your book?

The book is about different interpretations of depression (and, often, mental illness more generally), and how those interpretations affect people’s experience of mental illness. My aim is to help people navigate the different interpretations of depression that are often presented to them, and to help them separate the wheat from the chaff – or good interpretations from bad. I look at interpretations such as that depression is caused by individual sin, by demonic possession or oppression, by God (in order to bring about spiritual growth), by purely biological factors, or by a combination of biological, psychological and social factors. As well as explanatory interpretations, I also look at the idea that depression is potentially transformative – that is, that it can give rise to increased compassion, insight, and a heightened appreciation of beauty. And as well as evaluating existing accounts, I point to some promising emphases for a Christian understanding of depression: the importance of recognising our animality; a social (rather than individual) view of sin and the demonic; hope and the resurrection; and affirming God’s solidarity with those who suffer.  

For a more detailed precis of the book, see here: – but don’t forget to come back and read more on the Shiloh blog ?

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

A therapist friend said people may well get out of the book whatever they want to get out of it at the time – whether or not I think I put it there. So, I’m aware that what I see the important points as being may not be the important points for others.

That said, a recurring theme when I’ve given talks on the book topic is that people tell me they’ve experienced sin interpretations of mental illness themselves (often coupled with other forms of spiritual abuse, such as homophobia), and thank me for taking these interpretations down. (I don’t think that’s too much of a spoiler!) I hope this book will come as a relief to those people who have experienced or are experiencing those interpretations, and closely associated interpretations (such as some demonic accounts). I also hope it will make religious leaders and peers think twice before putting forward damaging interpretations to vulnerable people.

As a corrective to sin interpretations, some people now emphasise the idea that mental illness is purely biological. While I think this is an improvement, another hope is that people will take the biopsychosocial model more seriously as a result of reading my book. That’s important because it’s truer to the evidence we have about the causes of mental illness and how to treat it, and because if we deflect attention from the social causes of mental illness – poverty, economic instability, forms of oppression such as racism, sexism, and homophobia – then we have less reason to do something about them. The Christian tradition has a distinctive voice when it comes to talking and doing something about social injustice, and (I argue) there are other (theological) reasons for why Christians should prefer a biopsychosocial model.

I can think of lots of other things I’d like people to take away with them from my book. I’ll mention just one further one though. I hope the book helps people bring together faith, understanding of mental illness, and conversations about the way we understand and treat non-human animals a bit more closely. Some of the causes of mental illness, and/or the collective failure to treat it appropriately, come from a denial of our own animality, and relate to our abuse of other animals. So, for example, we are often encouraged to deny our social needs, and our interdependence with others, in favour of an emphasis on individual competition that is ultimately extremely damaging to us. Christianity has been seen as part of the problem here, as it has been interpreted as a fundamentally dualistic worldview, with humans on the ‘spiritual’ (and only accidentally ‘physical’) side of the spiritual/physical divide. But I think this is a misunderstanding of the Christian tradition – and one that attention to doctrines such as the resurrection of the dead can help us with. 

Can you clarify what is meant by both ‘mental illness’ and ‘depression’?

When I talk about ‘mental illness’ and ‘depression’, I mean anything that might reasonably be diagnosed as a mental illness or depression by a doctor (whether or not these have been diagnosed as such). In the case of depression, these include symptoms such as anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure), decreased motivation and concentration, or changes in sleep, guilt and hopelessness. Other common characteristics of depression not discussed in medical manuals can include, for example, a sense of one’s body being heavy and tired, and/or a decreased sense of free will or of possibility (see Ratcliffe, 2015). 

‘Mental illness’ is a contested term because there is so much that is mental about (what we call) physical illness, and so much that is physical in (what we call) mental illness. In depression, for instance, people often experience tiredness, and report that their body feels heavy or leaden. Conversely, we usually feel pretty miserable when we have ‘flu. In addition to this, critics claim, ‘mental illness’ buys into mind/body dualism – something that’s increasingly recognised as a mistake, and a damaging one. I’m sympathetic to those concerns, but I don’t think changing the terms is the answer – it’s better to check our understanding of them instead. For the most part, we know how to use terms like ‘mental illness’ well – for example, to ask about a friend’s emotions if she says she is worried about her mental health. And while the boundaries are vague, there seem to be some things that make many ‘mental illnesses’ differ from many ‘physical illnesses’: mental illness is usually diagnosed on the basis of symptoms, for example, and the symptoms are often identical with the illness itself.[1]

How does your book engage with the Bible?

As you might expect, there’s a lot of ‘proof-texting’ in sin interpretations of mental illness. Here’s one example, from a bestselling Christian self-help book written by two psychiatrists, about anxiety disorders:

Worrying is a choice, since the apostle Paul commands us to ‘be anxious for nothing’ (Minirth and Meier, p. 174). 

Likewise, demonic interpretations of mental illness often take as their starting-point the perception that the exorcisms performed by Jesus that are reported in the Synoptic Gospels are about (what we would now call) mental illness.

In order to respond to these, I try to attend more closely to the detail of the texts (it turns out only one exorcism account really seems to relate to mental illness, for example), and consider texts taking into account their original context. Among other things, I think this leads to a less individualistic and more political and social understanding of language of sin and the demonic. It also helps to drive a wedge between being demonically afflicted (possessed or oppressed), on the one hand, and having sinned on the other. There’s pretty much nothing in the Bible to suggest that being demonically afflicted is the result of having oneself sinned as some proponents of demonic interpretations suggest – if anything, the opposite is the case.

In addition to this, I’m also interested in what texts are used or not used in worship. For example, many people with depression report finding the Psalms, and especially the Psalms of Lament, particularly helpful. Perhaps that isn’t surprising, since we know from everyday experience that people sometimes find sad music more comforting than happy music when they themselves are feeling sad – so perhaps there is something consoling about it being ok to have certain feelings, and not being alone when having them. 

Some Christian traditions regard happiness as normative, and there’s little space within some forms of worship for feeling anything but joy. People with depression often report that kind of worship making them feel worse, because they can’t participate in the feelings of joy that others have (see e.g. Hilfiker, 2002). I think there’s something important about having biblical texts such as the Psalms of Lament within the context of worship or liturgy, and so making space for a range of different feelings within communal and sacred contexts.     

What do you see as the points of connection between gender-based and sexual violence, Christianity, and mental health?

I talk about this quite a bit in chapter 7 of my book. Many Christian traditions are generally good about talking about suffering – but not so good at talking about certain kinds of suffering. In particular, some kinds of suffering seem to be stigmatized. For example, in the Catholic tradition, all the patron saints of rape victims are figures who managed to avoid rape (perhaps by choosing to die instead). That doesn’t send out a very hopeful message to people who didn’t manage to avoid rape. Relatedly, Christians are very happy with the fact that Christ suffered at the crucifixion, but the suggestion that Christ’s suffering involved sexual humiliation has been rejected by some as ‘feminizing’ Christ (see Tombs, 2018). In other words, there are still some kinds of suffering it’s seen as shameful to experience, and where those who experience them are left out in the cold.

That’s important because of course depression and other forms of mental illness are frequently triggered by trauma, including the trauma of rape and sexual abuse. The Christian tradition can be good at offering support and especially a sense of God’s solidarity with those who suffer, whether through belief that God suffers in Godself, or through an emphasis on the suffering of Christ and the saints. However, in excluding certain stigmatized forms of suffering from the life of Christ and the saints, there is a failure to provide solidarity to people who have had certain experiences – and of course that is also a failure to support people who might suffer from mental illness. In other words, churches can be good at providing solidarity with people in the face of some kinds of suffering but not others, and that is relevant to mental illness.

Whether churches have parallel issues about mental illness as they do to sexual violence isn’t clear. There are fewer patron saints of people with mental illness than victims of rape, and so it is harder to say. Some of the saints and holy figures who are patrons – for example, Matt Talbot – had stigmatized problems such as alcoholism. However, perhaps the most famous patron saint of mental illness, St Dymphna, did not herself have a mental illness – her father did. So perhaps there are similar issues: it is harder for people to identify with a figure within the Christian tradition who is a ‘fellow sufferer who understands’ (in A. N. Whitehead’s words), if the kind of suffering you are experiencing is of a stigmatized kind, because there are fewer people held up as ideals who went through that kind of stuff. That means people experiencing depression and people who have experienced sexual violence might not get forms of support from the Christian tradition that would be available to them if they had experienced poverty or a physical illness instead.

Tasia Scrutton and her dog Lola.

References

Hilfiker, David, 2002, ‘When Mental Illness Blocks The Spirit’, available at http://www.davidhilfiker.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=33:when-mental-illness-blocks-the-spirit&catid=14:spirituality-essays&Itemid=24

Minirth, Frank, and Meier, Paul, 1994, Happiness is a Choice: The Symptoms, Causes and Cures of Depression (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker)

Ratcliffe, Matthew, 2015, Experiences of Depression: A Study in Phenomenology (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Tombs, David, 2018, ‘#HimToo – Why Jesus Should Be Recognised As A Victim Of Sexual Violence’ is available on the Shiloh Project.


[1] I’m indebted to Simon Hewitt for this thought. 

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