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Disobedience: Reading the Sacred Text Otherwise

Today’s post is by Yael Klangwisan, Senior Lecturer in Education at the Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand.  In this post she reflects on the violence of a sacred text towards the lesbian community through the lens of Naomi Alderman’s novel “Disobedience”, and the 2017 film directed by Lelio. 

Disobedience: Reading the Sacred Text Otherwise

[Rav]: In the beginning Hashem made three types of creatures.  The angels, the beasts and the human beings.  The angels He made from His pure word.  The angels have no will to do evil.  They cannot deviate for one moment from His purpose.  The beasts have only their instincts to guide them.  They, too, follow the commands of their maker.  The Torah states that Hashem spent almost six whole days of creation fashioning these creatures.  Then just before sunset, He took a small quantity of earth and from it He fashioned man and woman.  An afterthought?  Or His crowning achievement.  So, what is this thing?  Man? Woman?  It is a being with the power to disobey.  Alone among all the creatures, we have free will.  We hang suspended between the clarity of the angels and the desires of the beasts.  Hashem gave us choice, which is both a privilege and a burden.  We must then choose the tangled life we live. (Opening lines of “Disobedience”, Lelio, 2017)

The relation of tradition and sexual freedom is a tangled space, particularly for those identifying as LGBTQ+. Naomi Alderman’s 2006 novel Disobedience explores this space, and particularly the signal themes of faith, truth, and freedom in the context of lesbian desire. In 2017, the cinematic realisation of the novel was directed by Sebastián Lelio. Like other films of its kind, Lelio portrays the disconnect between the frum (religious) world and the secular world and traces the personal cost of this divide in terms of sexuality with great effect. Alderman’s novel has a striking point of difference to the film, and this is the strangely affirming arrangement of each chapter around the Torah and the interpretive writings of the sages as the plot evolves. This positioning rests subtly on the wings of a particular kind of creative, resistant reading of the sacred text.  It is a compilation and interpretation of sacred texts in such a way that their violence against women expressing same sex desire is disempowered.  In Alderman’s novel, and similarly in Lelio’s film, the role of speech in defining and realising women’s sexual freedom, is at the fore.  Alderman’s presentation of this real struggle as the narrative progresses is heart-rending. The twist is when freedom to realise one’s true sexual self is incarnated from within the very texts and traditions that repress it. 

Alderman’s novel is set in an orthodox Jewish community in North London and begins with the death of the revered Rav Krushka, which is then followed by tumult over the appointment of a successor. This appointment is a contentious process that is cast into further disarray when the Rav’s estranged daughter Ronit returns from New York for the Hesped (her father’s eulogy).  Ronit stays with her cousin Dovid, the ascendant rabbi, and is surprised to find that he has married her best friend and first love, Esti.  Ronit finds herself falling in love again with Esti and this presents a crisis for them all. 

Joseph Nacino of Lesbian News describes Lelio’s film Disobedience as “a transfixing consideration of love, faith, sexuality, and personal freedom” (2018). Stephanie Zacharek from Time Magazine describes the two female protagonists, Ronit and Esti, as “circling each other warily, each cautious about disrupting the pattern of the other’s life” (2018). For Zacharek, these very patterns and cycles of orthodox Judaism bring comfort but can also lead to alienation and intense loneliness for those who are estranged.  Zacharek describes Rachel Weisz’s character Ronit as assertive yet dreamily wistful, and Rachel McAdams’ character Esti as subdued and pragmatic about her life in the orthodox community. Esti has kept her true desires and sexual identity tamped deeply down and this fiercely suppressed part of herself is about to burst out.  

In the film, Alessandro Nivola plays the character Dovid.  Dovid is deeply observant and, in terms of tradition a good husband. However, for Esti, Dovid’s generosity, patience and benevolence are suffocating.  Captivation and care are entangled. As Zacharek notes, “In Disobedience, three people reckon with the cost and meaning of freedom. Everybody pays. But if it were free, what would it be worth?” (2018). Joel Streicker, who reviews the novel for the journal Shofar, suggests that “the novel’s sympathies shift from Ronit’s anger and bitterness to Esti’s unfolding self-understanding and self-assertion” (2008). While Ronit seems to have found a certain troubled freedom in New York, and certainly one on her own terms, Streicker points out that for Esti, it is in fact God who makes space for every creature’s freedom to disobey tradition—though one “cannot escape the consequences of disobedience” (2008, 204).  There will always be a price. This is the crux of the theology both in the film and the novel—God might be an ally.  For Streicker, Alderman’s novel enacts “a reconciliation between Orthodoxy and lesbianism, between individual desire and collective constraints on it” (2008, 205).

Lesbianism is not strictly considered a breaking of the law in Judaism.  It is not mentioned in the Hebrew bible and only became a concern to the sages in later periods.  Thus, in Sifra, the midrash on Leviticus, in its commentary on Lev 18:2-3, there is reference to a prohibition against lesbianism or mesolelot.  In the Talmud (Nashim) Yevamot 76a, the sages consider whether lesbians could marry priests and try to answer the question of whether lesbians are “virgins”.  The Mishnah contains the text of a debate over whether lesbianism is a minor or major infraction for the Jewish community.  And in probably the strongest denunciation, in the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides associates lesbianism with an ambiguous Torah reference to the “practices of Egypt” and prescribes flogging.  Maimonides says in the Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Issurei Biah 21:8:

It is forbidden for women to enmesh [play around] … with one another and this belongs to the “practices of the Egyptians” [of] which we have been warned: “you shall not copy the practices of the Land of Egypt” …  However, a flogging for disobedience (mardut) should be given, since they have performed a forbidden act. A man should be strict with his wife in this matter, and should prevent women who are known to engage in this practice from visiting her, and prevent her from going to them.

Lesbianism was outlawed by the sages primarily because it is considered a danger to the community, to men’s control of their marriages and symptomatic of the apparently rebellious nature of women. It is ironic that while clearly not a capital offence, it does, for the sages, make a woman impure for a period of 12 days and at the end of this time, she is considered “straightened out” enough to return to her husband, children and community.

While in the novel Alderman does quote the sages on “the practices of Egyptian women,” this is not where she begins what could be a futile battle against tradition’s status quo.  She begins in the unlikely place of the Shabbat service with the most unlikely companions of Genesis and creation.  She begins with an exploration of wonder in a portion of prayer from the Mishnah Tamid 7.4 chanted in the Shabbat morning service: “And on the Shabbat, the priests would sing a song for the future that is to come, for that day which will be entirely Shabbat and for the repose of eternal life” (Alderman 2006, 1; also Neusner 1998). On the theme of the creative power of speech, Alderman offers the possibility that one might create her one’s own world through speech and does this through the old Rav’s drash (exegesis) on Genesis 1. 

“Speech,” said the old Rav. “If the created world were a piece of music, speech would be its refrain, its recurring theme. In the Torah, we read that Hashem created the world through speech. He could have willed it into existence. We might have read: ‘And God thought of light, and there was light.’ No. He could have hummed it. Or formed it from clay in His hands. Or breathed it out. Hashem, our King, the Holy One Blessed Be He, did none of these things. To create the world, He spoke. ‘And God said, let there be light, and there was light’. Exactly as He spoke, so it was. … The Torah itself. A book. Hashem could have given us a painting, or a sculpture, a forest, a creature, an idea in our minds to explain His world. But He gave us a book. Words … What a great power the Almighty has given us! To speak, as He speaks! Astonishing! Of all the creatures on earth, only we can speak. What does this mean? … It means we have a hint of Hashem’s power. Our words are, in a sense, real. They can create worlds and destroy them. They have edges, like a knife.” (Alderman 2006, 7-8)

Alderman recalls that the sages compare the Torah to the primordial water that covered the world (Gen 1:2). Without it, they say the earth would be nothing but a desert.  In a way, these waters of the Torah serve as a mikvah (ritual pool) for the world.  As a mikvah, Alderman hints that the very impurity that is created and attributed by the sages, for example, the laws that magnify Esti’s feelings of guilt, can also be washed away by the sages’ own sayings.  Here Alderman celebrates the sacred without allowing the strictures of a violent text to cultivate shame regarding a woman’s desire for another woman. 

“Without Torah, man too would be only a shell, knowing neither light nor mercy. As water is life-giving, so Torah brings life to the world. Without water, our limbs would never know freshness or balm. Without Torah, our spirits would never know tranquillity. As water is purifying, so Torah cleanses those it touches. Water comes only and forever from the Almighty; it is a symbol of our utter dependence on Him. Should He withhold rain for but a season, we could no longer stand before Him. Just so, Torah is a gift which the Holy One Blessed Be He has given the world; Torah, in a sense, contains the world, it is the blueprint from which the world was created. Should Torah be withheld only for a moment, the world would not only vanish, but would never even have been.” (Alderman 2006, 18) 

Yet while water covered the earth, chaos exists too.  Even from the beginning God wrested between order and chaos, life and death.  In tohu vabohu and the ruach elohim (Gen 1:2) there are tensions and balances that all beings are fated to navigate, as God did too in the beginning—that this very tension is written into the fabric of the world. Alderman takes the reader to the shacharit morning prayer: “All say: Blessed are you, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who did not make me a slave. Men say: Blessed are you, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who did not make me a woman. Women say: Blessed are you, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who made me according to His will. from shacharit, the morning prayer.” (Alderman 2006, 58). This prayer and its troubling gender binary invokes a certain kind of violence, but Alderman links this prayer to the story of the Sun and the Moon and deconstructs the presumed inequity from within the tradition.  As in that first great chapter of Torah, on the fourth day the sun and the moon were made by God, just as man and woman were made (as per what is written) and were originally of equal status, a mirror image of each other: 

“For it is written, ‘And God made the two great lights.’ But the moon complained at this, saying, ‘Two rulers may not use one crown.’ And Hashem replied, saying, ‘Very well, since you ask for one to be lesser and one to be greater, your size shall be diminished, and the size of the sun increased. Your light shall be one-sixtieth of its previous strength.’ The moon complained to Hashem at her plight and, so that she should not remain utterly without comfort, Hashem gave her companions – the stars.” (Alderman, 2006, 58).

In this story, at the end of days, the Moon will be returned to her former glory, and be once more equal with the Sun.  Alderman suggests that one might learn from this that God listens to creatures and these creatures can sometimes be in the right. “In the first place, we learn that the moon was correct, for Hashem hearkened to her words” (Alderman 2006, 58-59). But also, we learn that Hashem is merciful – that this God recognizes the plight of those considered lesser and gives comfort to those in need. Esti muses that the stars are God’s gift to the moon. Ronit and Esti’s girlhood love and desire are as a gift of Hashem, as if the Moon (the motherless and abandoned Ronit) was given Esti, who was like a constellation of stars to her.  As the narrative of Ronit and Esti winds through Alderman’s bricolage of the Torah and the sayings of the sages, Alderman reminds the reader of God’s propensity to hear, to listen and to change God’s mind. In the whimsical stories of the sages she offers the possibility that God hears and answers the cry of the soul (Ps 66:19).

“God instructed the moon to make itself new each month. It is a crown of splendour for those who are borne from the womb, because they are also destined to be renewed like her. from the kiddush levana, recited every month after the third day of the lunar cycle and before the full moon What is the shape of time? On occasion, we may feel that time is circular. The seasons approach and retreat, the same every year. Night follows day follows night follows day. The festivals arrive in their time, cycling one after the other. And each month, the womb…” (Alderman 2006, 101)

Alderman describes a beautiful scene that relates to the haftarah readings (cycle of readings from the prophets) associated with the new moon.  What is felt here in the writing is the rhythmic constancy of the Jewish calendar, its unceasing movement, as if the cycle of readings was tidal.  These patterns of practice are deeply embodied, finding kinship in the lunar rhythms of the womb.  These cycles are thus interior and hold the observant reader in a cultural and maternal embrace.  There is a sense that these cycles cannot be held back from their return. They are as inevitable as the seas and, just as these same cycles draw forth Jewish practice, Alderman wants to suggest they will inevitably draw forth the truth of oneself.  Esti is sitting in the sabbath service in the balcony reserved for women, and the Haftarah is to be read.  The reading happens to be from 1 Sam 20. It is as if even the seasonal readings from the Tanakh arrive as gifts to support Esti’s realisation of her desire for Ronit and what that might mean regarding for the elemental truths of her sexuality and moreover, her own community’s failure of love: “The tones of the Haftarah, more melodic and more poignant than those of the Torah reading, speak so often of faithlessness and betrayal, of Israel’s failures of love towards God.”(Alderman 2006, 101)

Esti is pictured following the English story of 1 Sam 20 with her eyes. She is captivated when Jonathan says to David “Tomorrow is the New Moon, and you will be missed because your seat will be empty.” (1 Sam 20:5).  Jonathan is the son of the mercurial King Saul, but also in a deep and abiding relationship with David (1 Sam 20:17).  David is King Saul’s favoured musician. In the Haftarah reading, King Saul’s anger at David inexplicably grows, and the King’s increasing aggression has the courtiers on eggshells. Incredibly, Jonathan, the King’s own son, has made an escape plan with David. He cautions David to hide in the countryside nearby. David would miss the start of the feast to celebrate the new month. Jonathan would wait to see how Saul took it. If all was well, Jonathan would send word that David could attend after all. But as it turns out, Saul was incensed, and when Jonathan tried to calm his father, Saul humiliates his son in front of the entire court: “Do you think I don’t know that you have chosen this David, son of Jesse, to your shame and the shame of your mother’s nakedness?” (1 Sam 20:30).

In Esti’s recounting of this tale, she notes the Haftarah reader was talented, that he could even reproduce King Saul’s rough and anguished voice.  It speaks to her and Esti wants it to speak to Ronit. “Do you remember? she whispers. “It’s Machar Chodesh. Tomorrow is Rosh Chodesh, the new moon. Do you remember what you told me once about this day?” Through the cadences of the reader’s voice, low and melodious, Ronit and Esti remember David and Jonathan’s meeting in the fields outside the city, telling of a love which the sages record, was the greatest that had ever been known. Alderman writes, “the notes fluttered up and down the scales, falling like tears and rising like an arrow sprung from the bow … Machar Chodesh. When we read about David and Jonathan…” (2006, 108-109).

In a later chapter Ronit will reflect on this same text again with Esti. It has a central meaning for Esti and her initial reasons for choosing to marry Dovid.  She had been trying to sublimate her desire for Ronit through the only legitimate avenue available to her, by marrying Ronit’s own cousin.

“‘Do you remember “tomorrow is the new moon”? The story of David and Jonathan?’ I nodded. ‘And do you remember how much David loved Jonathan? He loved him with “a love surpassing the love of women”. Do you remember?’ ‘Yes, I remember. David loved Jonathan. Jonathan died in battle. David was miserable. The end.’ ‘No, not the end. The beginning. David had to go on living. He had no choice. Do you remember whom he married?’ … ‘He married Michal. They weren’t very happy. Didn’t she insult him in public, or something?’ ‘And who was Michal?’ It clicked. I understood. Michal was Jonathan’s sister. The man he loved with all his heart died and he married his sister. I thought about that for a moment, taking it in. I wondered whether Michal and Jonathan had looked anything like each other. I thought about King David and his grief, his need for someone like Jonathan, near to Jonathan…”. (Alderman 2006, 210)

Esti finds within the cycle of synagogue readings that these have nurtured a kind of liminal journey to the truth of herself, though it has taken years of such cycles.  The novel and the film coalesce at this point.  The Haftarah of Machar Chodesh, and the intimate meeting of Jonathan and David in the field, coalesces with scenes from the Song of Songs.  In Lelio’s film, Dovid appears in a scene with his religious students quoting and commenting on the Song of Songs 1:13-15.

[Dovid]: “A bundle of myrrh is my beloved to me, that lies all night between my breasts.  My beloved is to me as a cluster of henna blooms … in the vineyards of Ein-Gedi.” 

[Talmid]: “Is it about sensuality? That is, the way in which true love manifests itself?”

 [Dovid]: “But it might also be that between a male and a female, there is something higher than that?”

[Talmid]:  But isn’t it that the references to sensual pleasures celebrate physical love here?  The enjoyment of that love becomes, in this context, the highest …

[Dovid]: “See, you are fair, my love.  You are fair.  Your eyes are doves.  See, you are handsome my beloved, yea, pleasing, and our bed is verdant.”

This scene segues into the next on the image, “Our bed is verdant.” This image then acts as a foil when Dovid and Esti appear in the intimacy of their home with the words “our bed is verdant” still drifting in our minds.  We see Dovid’s and Esti’s careful attention to one another, as if the other was so fragile they might break. The ground between them is a desert.  Even with their attentiveness and extraordinary care for the other, they both seem to know there is little flourishing there, that they are the companions of the other’s slow grief—two fig trees that never bore fruit. As if to intensify the contrast, there is a lovers’ interlude in Hendon, the grassed space of Golders Green in North London. The parkland is transformed via the elemental passion of Esti’s and Ronit’s love into the gardens and wild spaces of the Song of Songs, true joy.  Esti and Ronit walk down dark paths, and into a wintery domain, into the somber North London streets in the evening, as if they were the Song of Song’s lovers searching for each other in Jerusalem’s alleyways (Son 3 & 5).  Ronit and Esti share the intense beauty of their remembrances, their secret places, the scent of hydrangeas.  They listen at the door of their hearts for one another, revel in the rising of desire, searching the other out.  Eventually the inevitable culmination of their renewed relationship takes place.

As in chapter 5 of the Song of Songs, there is danger too in the shape of watchers, guardians of the community’s way of life, those who seek to maintain a certain way of life, those whom Alderman might suggest have misunderstood the Torah all this time.  Thus, pressure is brought to bear on Dovid by a community of brothers and uncles.  Dovid will need to keep the order of his own house and to “straighten out” the outré sexuality of his wife if he wants to lead the community.  What transpires, then, is a scene between Esti and Dovid reminiscent of Moses before Pharaoh in Exodus (9:13). In the film, the narrative of freedom is a spoken thing.  Esti, as the supplicant Moses, asks for her freedom – that is, the freedom to live in the dignity of who she is, to live and love truly – and Dovid grants it.  In the novel, Alderman also draws on Exodus and the Moses narrative when she has Ronit dream of the Passover, but in this dream, Ronit is the angel of death who flies over the city (2006, 253).

Alderman concludes her novel with the curious Talmudic tale called the “The Caving Walls of the Study Hall.”  The story itself is based on an interpretation of Deut. 30:11-14: “this instruction … is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” Found in Talmud Baba Mesia 59:2, the tale is set as a classic debate on Torah, and concerns theology and the proper interpretation of the law.

On a certain day, regarding a certain interpretation of the law, Rabbi Eliezer brought them all sorts of proofs, but the other sages kept rejecting them. Said he to them: “If the law is as I say, may the carob tree prove it.” The carob tree was uprooted from its place a distance of 100 cubits. But the sages to him: “One cannot prove anything from a carob tree.”

Said [Rabbi Eliezer] to them: “If the law is as I say, may the river prove it.” The water in the river began to flow backwards. But they said to him: “One cannot prove anything from an river.”

Said he to them: “If the law is as I say, then may the walls of the house of study prove it.” The walls of the house of study began to cave in. But Rabbi Joshua rebuked the walls and said to the walls, “If Torah scholars are debating a point of Jewish law, what are your qualifications to intervene?” The walls did not fall, in deference to Rabbi Joshua, and nor did they straighten up, in deference to Rabbi Eliezer. They still stand there today at a slant.

Then said Eliezar to them: “If the law is as I say, may it be proven from heaven!” There then issued a heavenly voice which proclaimed: “What do you want of Rabbi Eliezer — the law is as he says…”

But Rabbi Joshua stood on his feet and said: “‘The Torah is not in heaven!’1” … We take no notice of heavenly voices, since You, G‑d, have already, at Sinai, written in the Torah to ‘follow the majority.'” (Ex 23:2)

Rabbi Nathan subsequently met Elijah the Prophet and asked him: “What did G‑d do at that moment?” [Elijah] replied: “He smiled and said: ‘My children have triumphed over Me, My children have triumphed over Me.

“The Caving Walls of the Study Hall” is a profound text that holds the matter of the love of Esti for Ronit gently, and even more gently, Esti’s journey of self-realisation and sexual liberation. The delicate turn in reading here is in the image of a Hashem that smiles.  It is as if Hashem is at this very moment the embodiment of Ronit’s father, raised up with face alive with mirth:  “My [daughters] have triumphed over me”.  What is striking in the novel (and also in the film), is the way in which the narrative calls on the Torah and the Talmud, as allies on behalf of Ronit and Esti and their desire.  These two women are, each in their own way, alienated and estranged from their community.  They have also been a precious awakening to each other.  This is regardless of Ronit’s separation from her father, cousin and community and Esti’s attempt to live an observant life as a rebbetzin, frum wife and a teacher.  This love is made even more challenging in a sheltered community that cannot accept the truth of the otherwiseness of Esti’s desires.  “I have always felt like this,” Esti says to Dovid in Lelio’s film (2017), “I will always feel like this.”  The way in which the film and novel draw upon the sacred text to frame Esti’s untangling and unfolding acceptance of herself and her sexuality is deeply moving, similarly the resolution of Ronit’s quandary over her troubled love for Esti and the community of her childhood.  This connection is tender and honouring of an age-old and beautiful set of sacred texts and traditions, without forfeiting the sacred human right to dignity, freedom and the expression one’s whole self in ways otherwise to that tradition.  It is in this kind of reading that Alderman finds a liberating trajectory of scriptural interpretation on behalf of lesbian desire, that is, the possibility of finding sexual freedom in the very texts that violate it.

REFERENCES

Alderman, Naomi. Disobedience. London: Penguin, 2006. Kindle Edition.

Harding, James.  The love of David and Jonathan. London: Routledge, 2014. Kindle Edition.

Neusner, Jacob. The Babylonian Talmud :  A Translation and Commentary. Hendrickson, 2005.

Neusner, Jacob.  The Mishna: A New Translation. New Haven: Yale University, 1988.

Lelio, Sebastián. Disobedience. Film4, FilmNation, Element Pictures, et al, 2017.

Nacino, Joseph. “Love as disobedience,” Lesbian News (April 2018): 10-12.

Steicker, Joel. “Review of Disobedience,” Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, 26, no. 3 (2008): 203-205.

Zacharek, Stephanie. “Forbidden lovers seek grace in Disobedience,” TIME Magazine, 191, no. 19 (May 21, 2018): 54-54.

Image: Charles Landelle, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Academics Behaving Badly

Today’s post is from Chris Greenough. Chris is Reader in Theology & Religion at Edge Hill University; he is also co-director of the Shiloh Project.


Before I started my second career as an academic, I’d enjoyed a really rewarding career in secondary education for fifteen years. I’d had various roles there – originally a French and Spanish teacher by training, I also did stints as an RE teacher, Head of Year, and Assistant Headteacher. It was challenging, nonetheless, and my latter role included responsibilities for safeguarding, child protection and pupil behaviour. The behaviour I’ve experienced in academia has been far more challenging than that in a setting of 11-16 year olds, as I go on to recount.

I completed my PhD while working full time in school, under the wonderful guidance of the most remarkable Deryn Guest. Eighteen months later, I secured my first full-time post in higher education, and was ecstatic. I didn’t land in a traditional Theology and Religious Studies department, but worked on subject knowledge development in initial teacher education.

Nine months later, I wanted to leave higher education and go back to the secondary classroom. I felt an imposter or, more precisely, was made to feel as if I didn’t belong. I was on the receiving end of numerous forms of uninvited ‘advice’: career advice, research advice and unwelcome advice in response to my work:

  • Unwanted career advice:

“Why don’t you move away from queer theology? That’s already x’s area”.

“Wouldn’t you be better doing something more traditional and, well, less controversial?”

“I think it would work better for you if your work was less queer and more theological.”

  • Uninvited research ratings:

“I’d probably give your work a 2* if I were rating it for REF”.

  • Unwelcome responses:

“I don’t really recommend your work to my postgraduates.”

And endless number of in-person, non-verbal responses such as eye-rolls, furrowed frowns, walking out mid-talk, sighing and huffing.

Perhaps I was too open. I had openly shared some of the inadequacies I was feeling. I tend to be quite an open person, and perhaps some academics were responding to that. Of course, isn’t behaviour like this expected in the competitive and hierarchical structures endemic in higher education?

More frustratingly, I didn’t react at the time. I stayed silent. I think I even thanked some people. Yet the experiences from some external colleagues had begun to cause real paralysis in my confidence. I really felt the sting of the critique, and in the moment, I was unable to distinguish between constructive criticism that would move my work on, and this faux criticism which was just the projection of someone’s ideologies or insecurities. 

Of course, I didn’t fit in.

My work seemingly didn’t fit in when I spoke to people about it. My PhD research was life-story research with non-normative Christians. Given the importance of queer theory to my work, I argued how queer approaches should not have a methodology – as methodology is a word that smacks of rigour, order, process – words that are unfitting with the spirit of queer. I’d queered my thesis (a play script in place of a literature review, an ‘undoing’ of methodology, and included resources all brought to me by the participants I dialogued with). So, to begin with, I broke the rules by refusing to repeat tired (not a typo) and tested methods.

Perhaps the perception from some was that my work was ‘unscholarly’. On the one hand, queer criticism is regarded as highly intellectual and is making inroads in many disciplines. Yet, on the other, when my call was to dismantle the production of theology and to queer conventions, it was perhaps a step too far for some. My experiences belie that fact there’s a disjuncture between some claims of the academy and the realities.

As a post-Christian, I wasn’t using confessional approaches, language or subtleties in the theology I was producing. I was gate-crashing. But that was precisely the point. Guest notes how the queer approaches disrupt “the traditional and cherished norms of historical-critical exegesis with all the force of several gate-crashers at a party from which they had long been excluded.”[1]

So despite the reception from a small minority of my peers in person, my research was building a momentum of its own. In publishing, queer work is appealing to the intellectual and methodological originality it is able to create. In reality, people police firmly erected walls around their disciplines.

The impact of these aggressions began to wear me down. I remember a meeting with my Dean of Faculty, where I told her of my intentions to move on and leave academia. She told me to use the responses I’d received as fuel to keep me going. My partner, also an academic, applauded me on ruffling feathers. I had enormous support internally from my University and wonderful colleagues. I had been awarded research leave just twelve months in to my first post and I was working on my second book at the time.

My personhood didn’t fit in. Growing up as a queer kid, I know by instinct and experience the lack of fit when I enter a space that isn’t welcoming to me. But I was also desperate to fit in, and kept on trying. Building up external relationships was vital to me.

Externally, I had got to know a couple of external people, whose kindness changed my perceptions and gave me new energy. The support of some wonderful academics really lifted me. And now, I work with a much wider, more inclusive community with the Shiloh Project – including all the wonderful authors and collaborators I’ve had the pleasure to work with.

The attacks from the academic community are now less frequent. They’ve largely been replaced with attacks from random people with opinions.

I have a folder in my email inbox I called ‘hate’. It currently stands at 3522 emails. Some may be from serial pen-pushers. I know this number of people have not engaged with my work sufficiently to draw any desired level of correspondence. In fact, I wish even half that number had been readers of my journal articles!

Work that is politically charged can leave the researcher exposed to vulnerabilities when it is public facing. The attacks are not concerned with the scholarly argument of the work, but with the position and identity of the researcher.

One piece I wrote provoked outraged responses. I wrote a short article for The Conversation, entitled Using the Bible against LGBTQ+ people is an abuse of scripture, and this kept the keyboard warriors busy. Yahoo News! had republished the article, and this became the platform for homophobic hatred to spew at me.

A very concerned reader took the time to purchase quite an expensive looking Bible and posted it to me at my work address. The sender had highlighted the clobber texts for me, with a handwritten note encouraging me to repent of my sin and cease my false preaching. It’s a shame the Bible contained the highlights, as I’d have got a few quid on eBay for it, I’m sure.

Why am I sharing this?

First, I do believe and argue that there is a transformative potential in sharing our experiences as a way of speaking back to our community. We should all be reflecting on how we behave and when we get it wrong.

Second, I share this to highlight how it is not always outsiders that stop us in our tracks with unexpected or uninvited critiques – academics do it to one another – far too frequently.

Third, I am sure many will relate to these experiences; it may resonate with others.

Finally, I share this as a warning. Next time, I won’t stay silent, or nod, or thank you for your unsolicited advice, or internalise my lack of fit as an imposter…


[1] Deryn Guest, “From Gender Reversal to Genderfuck: Reading Jael through a Lesbian Lens,” in Bible Trouble: Queer Reading at the Boundaries of Biblical Scholarship, eds., Teresa J. Hornsby and Ken Stone (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010), 10.

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Purple Diva

Purple Diva is a Queer Radical Christian and Womanist who serves as a deacon at Cosmopolitan Affirming Church (CAC), a church in Nairobi, Kenya that shares a message of love, faith and hope with the LGBTIQ+++ community. (CAC features prominently in the documentary Kenyan, Christian, Queer – see here for more information and the trailer.)

Purple is a writer and a poet who finds inspiration in her religion and sexuality.

Diva works with organizations in Kenya to seek social justice and equality for all.

Purple Diva’s main desire is “to ensure that every face has a genuine bright smile”.

But members of the LGBTIQ+++ community are vulnerable to gender-based and sexual violence – in Kenya, as in many other parts of the world. Purple Diva, for all her positive energy and ready smiles, is well aware of this. She can’t risk publicly to share her name or a picture that would identify her. 

Purple Diva and a friend, with the nom de plume CrucialArts, have co-written a poem, in dialogue form, about rape and its devastating effects. It is a powerful and a distressing piece, a scream for justice. If you wish to read it, please see here.

The Shiloh Project is committed to research, actions and art that explore the networks of connection between religious expression and gender-based violence. The purpose of this is to expose, resist and eliminate gender-based violence – from microaggressions to psychological, social, political, emotional, spiritual and physical forms of violence. We recognise the significance of intersectional forces at play in this endeavour, as well as the world-wide reach of the problems to be tackled.

We welcome participation in and contributions to the blog, as well as to our book series and podcast

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Looking at men looking at women

Symon Hill is a peace activist, a tutor for the Workers’ Educational Association and a postgraduate student at Luther King House. His book The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, is published by Darton, Longman and Todd. You can find Symon’s blog and read more about his book here.

It is often stated that Jesus said very little about sex and sexuality. I have always been a bit baffled by this statement, because it seems to me that he said quite a lot about them.

True, Jesus said less about sex than about poverty, power, wealth, violence, compassion, and forgiveness. But all these issues are relevant to sexuality. Take Jesus’ teaching that the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbours as ourselves. Jo Ind has used this principle to explore how we love God, others and ourselves through our sexuality. Jesus’ teachings about violence must surely be relevant to sexual violence. Many of Jesus’ teachings are relevant to sexuality because they are concerned with all areas of life.

Nonetheless, Jesus made comments that are specifically about sex and sexuality, or closely related questions about marriage and adultery. This is before we consider his attitude to family relationships more broadly, which were challenged by his very lifestyle: travelling round with his comrades, some of whom had left their families, instead of settling down and getting married.

I should add that I am talking about Jesus’ teachings as recorded in the New Testament. I don’t have space here to go into the many debates about which of the sayings attributed to Jesus are likely to be historically accurate; I am concerned with how we deal with Jesus’ words as they are presented to us.

Is Matthew 5:27-28 liberating or oppressive?

One of Jesus’ most well-known teachings about sexuality is found in the Sermon on the Mount. It is only two sentences long, yet it is a saying that I have been reflecting on, and wrestling with, for years.

The translation is itself controversial. Here’s the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV):

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery”. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Other translations speak of a “married woman.” Some replace “lust” with “desire,” “a view to lusting” or “a hope of sex”. The main Greek word in question, epithymia, is used elsewhere in the New Testament to refer to desires in which no sexual element is involved.
This teaching raises questions that are relevant to many people, whatever their sexuality, religion or beliefs. How is it ethical to behave when you see a stranger whom you find attractive? Does it depend on whether you are single? What if you realise the stranger is married? Is this a question solely about your behaviour or about your feelings and thoughts as well?

These questions often come up when I lead workshops on sexual ethics, and on sexuality in the Bible. One of the first workshops at which I explored this passage was at BiCon, the UK’s Bisexual Convention. This two-sentence teaching of Jesus got people talking so much that there was barely time to discuss anything else. I was delighted by how many people had turned up. Very few were Christians, and most were unfamiliar with the Bible. This passage divided them immediately.

On the one hand were those who found it liberating. Somebody described it as “quite feminist”. They saw Jesus as telling men not to objectify women. To them, he seemed to be attacking sexism and sexual harassment. This seemed more progressive and encouraging than the homophobia and biphobia that some had experienced from religious groups.       

Then were those who found it judgemental. For them, it was about attempts to control people’s emotions and to “condemn sexual feelings.” Some saw it as similar to other judgemental attitudes that they associated with religion. 

I have since led discussions on this passage with both Christian and secular groups. Within the BiCon group, some who viewed the passage positively said that it wasn’t about judging a sexual feeling but about a decision to focus on such a feeling, which would show no respect for someone who did not reciprocate the attraction. In Christian groups, I have heard it said that Jesus was criticising “sexual fantasising.”

Many workshop participants – including people of varied sexualities and genders – have said that they find it hard not to feel sexual attraction to strangers, even when in monogamous relationships. Of course, there are some people who are asexual and unlikely to have such feelings, while others report that they don’t experience sexual feelings outside of relationships (some such people describe themselves as demisexual).

Dealing with desire

Sadly, there is one thing about which we can be sure. This passage has been used for centuries to make people feel bad about sex; not just bad about unethical or selfish sex, but negative about their bodies and sexuality altogether. This has often had little connection with the teachings of Jesus, and it has done immeasurable harm. Today, some stretch this passage to condemn all sorts of things that it does not mention. For example, Phil Moore discusses this passage in a chapter entitled “Jesus on pornography and masturbation.” He argues that Jesus’ teaching here means that Christians should not masturbate, despite the fact that Jesus does not explicitly (or implicitly) say anything about this.

Jesus’ teaching in vv. 27-28 appears just after he is reported to have said:

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “Whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement. (Matthew 5:21-22; NRSV)

Anyone feeling smug because they have never broken the commandments was reminded that they could break them in their heart. They were in no position to judge others’ sins when they sometimes wanted to commit the same sins. It seems that part of Jesus’ purpose in these teachings is to encourage people not to be judgemental of others but to recognise their own limitations. It is ironic that these teachings are now used to judge and condemn others.

But what’s this about being angry? All the gospels present Jesus as angry on several occasions. In the light of this, it may well be that Jesus was referring to anger that was deliberately cultivated and maintained. If so then “desire” or “lust” may likewise be about deliberate intention; not an instinctive feeling but a developed desire.

Power and victim-blaming

Jesus, like all humans, was affected by his culture and context (he could not have been human if he were not). Some interpreters, understandably, want to dispense with some of the specifics of this passage and get to the general principles. In The Message, the reference to gender is taken out. There is reference instead to “another’s spouse” (see here). I can see the reasons for this, but it means that a crucial element is overlooked. Jesus was not talking only about sex. He was talking about power.

We know only too well that women are often blamed for the sexual sins of men. In our own culture, men are widely assumed to be more sexual than women. But there are also many cultures in which women are assumed to be the ones who are more sexual, enticing men into sex. Even in Britain today, as in many countries, rape victims are sometimes blamed for rape: for wearing revealing clothes, for being drunk, for acting in ways that are seen to reduce the seriousness of rape, or even to invite rape.

Victim-blaming happens frequently in cases of sexual violence. Usually, however, the victim has markedly less power than the perpetrator: on account of being female, or a child, a migrant, poor or less well respected than the abuser.

In this context, Jesus tells men that they are responsible for how they behave sexually towards women. They cannot blame the woman for tempting them, or for dressing seductively. If they develop adulterous feelings in their hearts, they have committed adultery.

When I became a Christian in my late teens, I heard people say that Christian women should dress modestly, so that Christian men would not be tempted. It seems to me now that such an argument might have received short shrift from the Jesus who told men to take responsibility for their attitudes towards women.

People and objects

Nadia Bolz-Weber argues that in this teaching, Jesus is basically saying, “Love your neighbour. People aren’t objects. Let’s not cause each other harm.”

But are we at risk of making Jesus sound suspiciously modern? In Jesus’ society (and in many others), adultery was to some extent a property crime – the theft of another man’s wife. Because of this, William Loader rejects the notion that Jesus was upholding women’s rights. He argues that Jesus’ comment “does not address the rights of women” but “has the effect of protecting male rights, the rights of the other man.”

It seems to me that this does not sit well with a key aspect of the rest of Jesus’ teaching: his generally dismissive attitude to property. As Jesus’ followers left their businesses behind, and he told them not to worry about what they would eat tomorrow, it is unlikely that they would expect him to uphold property rights in relation to either women or objects. For this reason as much as any other, I am inclined to reject Loader’s argument and agree with April DeConick when she writes that Jesus’ teachings reflect “an effort to improve the quality of women’s lives during his time.”        

Maybe we need to hold in tension the varied reactions that I encountered in the workshops looking at this passage. Perhaps we need to consider that Jesus’ teaching leads not only to an emphasis on consent and a rejection of sexual objectification but that it possibly takes this to a greater extreme than modern secular liberals are likely to go (for example, a queer Christian friend of mine believes he should not fantasise about someone while masturbating without their consent).

This is not an easy passage. I know I will continue to wrestle with it, and to appreciate different interpretations of it. But there is one thing of which I am convinced: this teaching of Jesus, which has been used to cause so much harm by condemning people’s sexuality, can be used so much more healthily – to promote sexual wholeness and to challenge sexual violence. To me, this is an illustration of why, if we want to engage in a healthy and helpful exploration of the ethics of sex and violence, Jesus’ teachings are a good place to start.

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Premiere of Kenyan, Christian, Queer

Premiere of Kenyan Christian Queer: 5 Days To Go! poster.

This coming Friday (31 July 2020) is the world premiere of the film Kenyan, Christian, Queer: Struggle for Faith, Hope and Love, directed by Aiwan Obinyan. 

You can see the trailer here

For an earlier Shiloh post on the book of the name Kenyan, Christian, Queer, by Adriaan van Klinken, see here.

About this Event:

Is it possible to be African, Christian and queer? The members of the first LGBTQ church in Nairobi Kenya certainly believe so. The Cosmopolitan Affirming Community (CAC) seeks to promote an inclusive and progressive form of Christianity, in the midst of a rather conservative society.

The screening link will be live from 9am to 12midnight (Eastern Africa Time/Kenya Time) with a live Q&A at 2pm BST (= British Summer Time) / 4pm EAT (= Eastern Africa Time) / 9am EST (= Eastern Standard Time).

The Q&A will feature:

  • Aiwan Obinyan (Film Director)
  • Pastor David Ochar (CAC)
  • Bishop Joseph Tolton 
  • Prophetess Jacinta Nzilani 

Book your ticket now, to receive the link & password for the secure film screening and Q&A.

You can book your free tickets here https://www.eventbrite.com/e/kenyan-christian-queer-premiere-tickets-113871003236?aff=CACAdriaanTFAM

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Q & A with author Chris Greenough: The Bible and Sexual Violence Against Men

Photo of Chris Greenough.

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

I’m Senior Lecturer in Theology and Religion at Edge Hill University. I got my PhD from the University of Birmingham in 2016, under the expert supervision of the most marvellous Dr Deryn Guest. I’m interested broadly in gender and sexuality and how it interfaces with religion, including LGBTQ+ identities, and queer theologies. 

The Bible and Sexual Violence Against Men is my third monograph. One of the texts I discuss in the book is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19: 1-29) and its legacy of being a text that condemns sex between men. The text is still used in an abusive way today in an attempt to bolster arguments against same-sex relationships or against gay marriage, for example. Religious teaching about the text has resulted in shame and stigma around same-sex relations, yet the passage is not about consensual, loving same-sex acts at all, it is about attempted male rape. 

The book came about when, originally, I was working with the brilliant Dr Katie Edwards on a similarly-themed book. We quickly realised there was a lot to cover and there was therefore a need for two complementary texts. Katie’s book is also forthcoming in the Routledge series. It was such a rewarding experience to work with Katie, and with the editors of the Routledge Focus series on Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible – Prof Johanna Stiebert and Dr Caroline Blyth. I’m ever so grateful for their support during the course of the book’s journey.

What are the key arguments of this book?

Within the first chapter of the book, I set out the importance of the topic for readers of the Bible today. 1 in 6 men have experienced some form of sexual abuse and the most prolific case of serial rape in UK legal history involved the rape of nearly 200 men. In the book, I argue how religion and society, while bolstering hegemonic masculinity and sanctioning heteronormativity, have contributed to a blindness to male sexual abuse in today’s world. I explore the reasons for shame and stigma that surround male sexual abuse, along with unhelpful myths that prevent men from reporting and seeking support. In Chapter Two, I examine passages from the Hebrew Bible that describe male rape or attempted sexual violence against men: Lot’s daughters who get him drunk and rape him in order to procreate (Genesis 19: 30-38); Potiphar’s Wife’s sexual advances against Joseph (Genesis 39) and the attempted rape of men (Genesis 19Judges 19). In Chapter Three, I turn the attention on Jesus’ enforced nudity at his crucifixion, and I examine sources that denote how such an act was a public humiliation and shaming of a man. The shaming was sexual. Reading Jesus as a victim of sexual violence remains a contentious issue in theology and biblical studies, as well as in wider faith communities. I explore why there is such stigma around these issues, which are undoubtedly connected to the fact he was a man. 

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

In general, critical studies into sexual violence experienced by men remain relatively scarce compared to scholarship exploring the rape and sexual violation of women. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that women experience sexual violence on a much greater scale than men. My aim is that the book generates an awareness of the lived realities of sexual violence against men, and that such an awareness will help debunk some of the myths that men cannot be abused.

I also hope that the book can serve a number of interested readers, including those who may be coming to explore the content of the biblical texts for the first time. For this reason, I wrote the book using a number of different critical approaches from theology, biblical and religious studies perspectives, while also exploring insights from the fields of sociology, psychology, criminology, as well as referring to legal cases and legislation, charity work and media-focussed articles. 

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

“a blindness to the sexual violence Jesus endured has led to a blindness to sexual violence against men in general.”

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COVID-19 Lockdown Interview: Susannah Cornwall

Tell us about yourself.

I’m Susannah Cornwall, Senior Lecturer in Constructive Theologies at the University of Exeter. I’m the author of various books on Christian theology, sexuality and gender, of which the most recent is Un/familiar Theology: Rethinking Sex, Reproduction and Generativity (Bloomsbury, 2017).

What have you been doing and are you able to work during this COVID-19 lock-in?

I’m Director of Education with responsibility for all our undergraduate and taught postgraduate programmes in Theology and Religion and Liberal Arts at Exeter, so this has been a spectacularly busy time, working out details of changes to assessments and exams, moving teaching online, and ever-changing contingency planning in response to the latest advice. We are also working out what will happen with admissions over the summer, and helping our students with a wide range of academic and pastoral issues raised or exacerbated by coronavirus. As ever, I’m in awe at their resilience, patience and good humour.

Work from home is really challenging now that it also involves full-time childcare: my husband (also an academic) and I are doing alternate work and childcare shifts. I’m fortunate to be in an institution that has made clear that it appreciates these are exceptional circumstances and that something has to give, and is encouraging us to prioritize our own and our dependents’ wellbeing. I have colleagues elsewhere who are being told that the expectation is that there’s no drop to their productivity during this time, which is terribly unrealistic and inhumane. However, there’s no getting around the fact that a constantly shifting mode and getting no uninterrupted time to work is going to have knock-on effects, and I hope institutions are going to take seriously the fact that there are equality, diversity and inclusion implications to all this that will impact on many academics’ pay, progression and job security for years to come.

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

I’m currently working on a constructive theology of gender diversity, and coronavirus is highlighting the fact that lots of the precarities trans people face are even more heightened in a pandemic. These are extreme times and big decisions are being made centrally for the sake of what we’re told is a common good, but of course there’s going to be collateral damage. This is a time when life looks almost unrecognizable, so there are all kinds of possibilities. People are learning about ways of life they didn’t know before; new relationships are being forged that didn’t exist before. So that’s exciting, but it also means there’s even more marginality and precarity than there was before.

But it’s an opportunity, too. When the world goes back to normal (will the world ever go back to normal?) what will gender look like? How will things be for trans and intersex people? What do all of us, cis and trans, endosex and intersex, want to carry over into our new world?

How are you bearing up and what’s helping you most?

I have it so much easier than many people: I have secure employment, a safe place to live, more than enough food, a garden, internet, and more. I live within walking distance of green fields and the edge of countryside. I’ve started running again. I’m enjoying doing more “slow cooking” (but not slow-cooking!) than normal, and my son is revelling in having everyone at home. He’s very used to one or other parent being away for several days or having had to leave early before he gets up in the morning. So I’m enjoying the fact that he’s enjoying it! I think I’ll also look back with gratitude at having had this unexpected extra time with him at home every day before he starts school in the autumn.

I love the small creative acts of kindness that people are doing around the neighbourhood: setting up WhatsApp groups to ensure everyone is okay and has enough shopping; some kids in the next road have set up a pop-up library (with hand sanitizer!) outside their house; people have been chalking murals and adventure trails on the pavement for children to enjoy during their walks; someone has made their front garden into a safari zoo with toy snakes, orangutans, birds and big cats to spot. All that said, I’m also finding it really hard. I feel sad that my son is missing out on so much time with his friends and amazing teachers. I’m feeling lethargic, powerless, and like I have only just enough energy to tread water and survive, when I somehow want to be making the most of this weird time. I’m feeling frustrated that I’m too exhausted to be creative or generative, or even think about grand schemes like “theology in the time of coronavirus”. I’m feeling angry that it’s taken this situation for people to realize how scandalous it is that nurses, care workers, supermarket workers, food producers and distributors are the people on whom society really relies and yet continue to be underpaid and badly treated.

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Professor Cheryl Anderson: Why #MeToo Matters for LGBT Inclusion

Cheryl B. Anderson is professor of the Old Testament at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. Earlier in her career, she was a practicing attorney with the federal government in Washington, D.C.

Professor Anderson is also an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church (Baltimore-Washington Conference). She is the author of Women, Ideology, and Violence (T&T Clark, 2004) and Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies (Oxford University Press, 2009). Her current research interests involve contextual and liberationist readings of Scripture in the age of HIV and AIDS.

In the video below, Professor Anderson explains why #MeToo matter for LGBT inclusion.

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COVID-19 Lockdown Interview Series: Adriaan Van Klinken

The first week of this lockdown I spent closely following the news with updates about the pandemic across the globe, which became depressing. I also felt sad about having to cancel a trip to South Africa and Zimbabwe, where I had a friend’s wedding, a holiday with my husband, a conference and two book launch events lined up – a trip I’d been planning and looking forward to for months. After that first week or so, I decided to only check the news twice a day, and to take a distance from social media, especially WhatsApp where groups were constantly buzzing, and instead to make the most of “working from home”. 

I’m lucky that I’m on research leave at the moment – so I could ignore the many emails that the University sent about student education related matters, while feeling sympathy for my colleagues who suddenly had to experiment with online teaching methods. My planning for research leave has been greatly affected by the current crisis – in addition to cancelling the South Africa trip, I also had to postpone a trip to Kenya in May to launch an AHRC funded research network, not knowing when I can reschedule; I’m also uncertain whether or not I should start preparing for my inaugural lecture that’s planned for June. In recent days I spent quite a lot of time planning the sessions of the African Religions unit for the AAR annual meeting in November, with on the back of my mind the idea that the meeting may soon be cancelled. 

With all the uncertainty, I decided to prioritise a couple ofprojects I can actually easily do from home: preparing the launch of a documentary film, completing a book manuscript, and processing and analysing the data of a research project. Each of these projects might actually be of interest to Shiloh readers! 

The film is called Kenyan, Christian, Queer, and is related to my book with the same title that was published last year. The film features an LGBT church in Kenya and the work they are doing to create an affirming space for LGBT Christians in a mostly conservative society. The actual production of the film is done by Aiwan Obinyan, a British-Nigerian film maker who is a friend of mine. I’ve been giving feedback on drafts, communicating with relevant stakeholders, and preparing educational resources for using the film in classroom settings. Unfortunately the African Studies conference where the film was to be launched has been cancelled, so we’re currently making alternative plans. 

The book I mentioned is titled Reimagining Sexuality and Christianity in Africa, and I’m authoring it with Ezra Chitando, a colleague in Zimbabwe. It’s aimed at a non-specialist audience of students, religious leaders and activists, thus requiring a more accessible writing style than the typical academic monograph. The book seeks to interrogate the dominant narrative of Christian homophobia in Africa, demonstrating how Christianity also serves as a site to imagine alternative possibilities of sexuality in African cultures and societies. Thereto we discuss a number of African thinkers, ranging from Archbishop Desmond Tutu to feminist theologian Mercy Oduoye, but also a range of creative and cultural expressions, such as novels, films and poetry.

Then, with my Leeds colleague Johanna Stiebert I’ve been working for the past year on a British Academy funded project for which we work with a group of Ugandan LGBT refugees based in Nairobi, Kenya. It focuses on the life stories of participants, and how biblical stories can be used to narrate and signify their experiences, struggles and hopes. The group we are working with is truly amazing – in terms of their creativity and resilience – and so is Johanna as a very inspiring colleague and collaborator. Going through the transcripts of interviews and focus group discussions brings back many wonderful memories. The creative bible studies we did, about Daniel in the lion’s den and about Jesus and the “adulterous woman”, resulted in drama plays that have been video recorded. This project is also supposed to result in a book, and the lock down gives us the time to start working on it. 

So, after the initial setback I’m now managing reasonably well. I intersperse my working hours with gardening – hooray for the goldfish that we were able to buy the weekend before the lockdown started, which make the garden pond so much livelier –, with a daily run along the canal, and checking in with friends and family nearby and far away to try and help them cope with the current situation. The reports I get from friends and colleagues in Kenya and other parts of Africa do worry me – the lockdown there has an enormous impact on people’s livelihoods. The whole situation makes me aware, again, of my own privilege and makes me reflect upon what solidarity means in these times. As much as it’s true that the virus does not discriminate, the effects of the pandemic are felt most severe by communities that are already vulnerable and marginalised. (On that note: If anyone reading this is able to offer some support to the above mentioned group of Ugandan refugees, who really struggle economically in the current crisis, please get in touch.)

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Daniel in the Homophobic Lion’s Den

Here’s a post by Shiloh Project co-director Johanna Stiebert about her second research visit to Nairobi, where she participates in a project with Ugandan LGBTQ+refugees. The project has the title “Tales of Sexuality and Faith: The Ugandan LGBT Refugees Life Story Project”and is funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust. Its lead investigator is Adriaan van Klinken

The project is focused on stories: life-stories, stories of the Bible, and stories that combine the two. At its heart and centre is a group of refugees, a collective called The Nature Network. Johanna talks about the project and its intersections with Shiloh-relevant themes, such as religion and vulnerability to violence, in an earlier post. Here are some of her reflections on the project’s recent developments. 

Stories and Lives

Stories matter. In my life certainly stories and story telling have played a major part since as far back as I can remember. Growing up, I was the youngest member of a multi-generational household and even before I learned to read stories, stories were told and read to me. I loved folk stories and fairytales but I especially liked stories about me, set in the-time-before-I-could remember. I loved the stories of when I was very small, about the funny or naughty things I did. 

I demanded to hear such stories of my earliest life over and over again. I demanded details and eventually heard multiple versions, with different embellishments (and probably some exaggerations and inventions). Those stories somehow linked me to the protagonists of other stories; they made me feel important, an agent. They linked me to the past, to a bigger, world-connecting meta-story. I like stories to this day.

My academic work focuses on the study of the Bible. It was the stories that first drew me in but also the people I met through studies and teaching – and their stories. Approaches of biblical interpretation have become more honest about how our identities and experiences shape our interpretation and increasingly, life stories and Bible stories have been coming together for me.

Nairobi Stories

Adriaan has been travelling to Kenya, making friends, hearing stories, making stories, and gathering material for his publications for some years. When he and the people who move into and out from The Nature Work developed ideas around life stories and Bible stories, I was eager to get involved. By then, I had also become involved in a number of other projects, all of them relevant to the Shiloh Project, that explore the use of stories and images derived from the Bible to open up discussions about gender-based violence. Because the Bible – while variously interpreted in different settings – is a shared text, it has been an effective medium for connecting me with people whose identities, lives and experiences are very different to mine.

I have only been to Nairobi on two short visits – the second was last month, in January. My impressions of the city are a succession of little snapshots – of bustle and crazy traffic, but also of sweeping parks with leafy trees; of roadsides displaying an array of wares, from potted plants to double beds, playground items to beaded bracelets; of colourful roadside fruit and vegetable markets and little enterprises selling cut flowers or grilled corn on the cob. We drove several times through Kibera, Africa’s largest urban slum, which is highly concentrated with busy-ness – washing drying, wood being cut, tiny shops crammed together selling everything from cellphone units to clothes alteration. Sometimes, such as in the large malls, I could completely forget where I was – other times, in Kibera, or seeing grazing warthogs by the roadside, marabous perched on monuments, or monkeys on the walls of residential buildings, you knew you were definitely in Kenya.

But back to life stories. When something sharp happens in our lives, when we are, for instance, accused of something we haven’t done, then the telling of our stories becomes more carefully constructed. We choose our elements with care, so as to recount vividly and persuasively what really  happened. This also happens when we are treated unjustly in other ways – and many of the stories we heard at The Nature Network reported being accused of ‘recruiting’ minors, of being willfully deviant, of choosing depravity to dishonour family and community and religious affiliation. The life stories collected as part of this project were invariably told with vividness and fluency. The refugees were used to telling their stories – they were often telling them for survival, including as part of their efforts to secure resettlement with UNHCR. 

The stories told featured rejection, threat, violence, vulnerability, condemnation from family and community and church representatives. Sometimes there were stories of a painful past and of a present in which the story was turning towards more hope. New families were formed within The Nature Network, families not of blood ties but of ties of love and solidarity and acceptance. New religious networks were established, with prayers that bonded together and with a God who loved unconditionally – a God who created queer and whose image was therefore queer. 

The Story of a Project: Tales of Sexuality and Faith

The first stage of the project consisted of collecting life stories of refugees associated with The Nature Network. The majority of this was conducted by two members of the Network one of whom, Raymond Brian, is its co-founder. During interviewing, contributors were asked about the role and presence of religion in their lives and whether they had a favourite Bible story. Some interesting things emerged here. Many stories – from all over the Bible – were sources of inspiration. Jesus was repeatedly identified as an ally – as someone who embraced those on the fringes of society and who spoke out against condemning others. One interviewee mentioned identifying with David in the story of David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17). The reason was that the interviewee felt small and up against a Goliath of mighty and imposing challenges in day-to-day life. Like David they had little to work with – a small stone, metaphorically-speaking. But that small stone could be utilized to achieve something bigger and assert their rights and be vindicated. A second story that popped up was Daniel in the Lions’ Den (Daniel 6) – because the interviewee this time identified with the threat all around but simultaneously with a strong sense, too, that like Daniel they had done nothing to justify such threat and hostility. It was this story that seemed like a good one to draw on more.

Daniel in the Homophobic Lions’ Den

Before Adriaan and I arrived in Nairobi, the members of the Nature Network spent time reading the story of Daniel in the Lions’ Den and discussing it in groups. By the time we joined them the story was quite familiar. Now it was time to relate it to personal experience.

On 12 January we all gathered at the Network’s main venue, on the outskirts of Nairobi.

We shared breakfast and introduced ourselves and each other; we discussed expectations for the day – which ranged from the practical (to receive a refund for travel expenses) to the experiential (to learn, be entertained, and form connections and new friendships) – and rules (to respect one another and listen, and to all participate). 

Next, Chris gave a summary of the earlier meeting – where the text of the Bible was read and discussed in focus groups. A decision was made to read the text again – this time with the specific plan to try and make the story relevant to the present.

In our groups, as soon as we sat down with the biblical text, printed out on paper, to read it aloud together, a mood of seriousness descended. I think this is discernible in the pictures.

When we all got together to pool what had taken place in our groups, the discussion got very lively. We looked together at the characters and at the events of the Daniel story – who and what could these be in the present setting?

In the Daniel story there is a king, King Darius, who is somewhat sympathetic to Daniel but none the less submits to his governors who remind him of the laws. Who is this king today? Who are the governors?

Suggestions came in thick and fast: the king is the government of Uganda, or the President of Uganda. The governors are oppressive elements of African culture and pastors using the Bible to condemn, as well as members of parliament. Daniel is the LGBTQ+ community – being unjustly persecuted. The lions are maybe family members who are sometimes harmful and obstructive but not always, or enemies within the LGBTQ+ communityitself who sometimes deny their sexuality, or who choose to blackmail others when it suits them to do so. The den is identified as Kenya and as prison… Some spoke up to say they found the punishment of the governors’ wives and children wrong, others saw this as collateral damage, or as the punishment of those who didn’t speak up but benefited from their powerful family members’ privileges. 

After some discussion, a play was put together, performed and recorded. This all happened very quickly– from discussion to completion of the recording took no more than 3 hours. The idea of weaving stories together and of transporting an ancient story into the lived present was quickly embraced and vividly imagined and reenacted. There were some fabulous spontaneous ideas and there was much articulate expression both of condemnation encountered and liberation desired.

The King is the President of Uganda. (In this reenactment he has a consort.)

The governors are members of parliament and representatives of churches, as well as a mufti from an Islamic congregation. 

Daniel is a representative of the LGBTQ+ community.

The den is prison.

There are also in this reenactment members of the police force, of the press and supporters of Daniel.

God’s voice can be heard at the beginning and end.

Here is the recording, ‘Daniel in the homophobic lion’s den’. Enjoy.

It was a real joy watching the play at each of its various stages. The strength of feeling and the power of story telling really come across. There is a new immediacy and resonance to the old story of Daniel. I, certainly, will never read this story again in the same way. And when we all watched the completed recording together everyone was very engaged and delighted with the end result.

In time, we – members of the Network, Adriaan and I – hope to publish a book about the project. 

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