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.
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.)
Tell us about yourself, Tasia. How does your book relate to your work as a whole and how did this book come about?
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.
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.
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.
 I’m indebted to Simon Hewitt for this thought.
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 19; Judges 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.”
Nancy Nam Hoon Tan has featured as activist on the Shiloh Project. From Singapore, where she is now resident, she taught Hebrew Bible at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her published work demonstrates acute sensitivity to power dynamics, focusing particularly on the intersections and tensions between gender, ethnicity and notions of belonging. Nancy’s earlier work showcasing this includes her monograph The ‘Foreignness’ of the Foreign Woman in Proverbs 1-9 (De Gruyter 2008) and her chapter on women, colonialism and whiteness in The Bible, Centres and Margins (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2018).
Her latest book is in the Routledge Focus Series Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible. Entitled Resisting Rape Culture: The Hebrew Bible and Hong Kong Sex Workers (2020), this a tour de force combining scholarship and advocacy.
Here is a Q&A with Nancy…
1. Tell us about yourself! How does your book relate to your work as a whole and how did this book come about?
For many years I was based in Hong Kong, where I taught and researched the Hebrew Bible. I opine that interpretations of biblical texts, both by academics and by faith communities, matter— maybe especially for individuals and communities who use the Bible to guide how they should behave and act. But the Bible and how it is interpreted also has bearing on society well beyond this – maybe more so than we think.
Most of my work has focused in some way on women, gender, power and oppression – and this book is no exception.
While living in Hong Kong, I volunteered as a teacher of English at the Jei Jei Jai Association (JJJ), the city’s first self-help and independent organization run by sex workers. This opened up for me the opportunity to get to know the sex workers as friends and to learn about their profession. This engagement also confirmed for me that the current interpretations of biblical texts on “prostitutes” and “prostitution” promote stigmatization and victimization of today’s sex workers.
With the help of Ms Sherry Hui, the co-ordinator for JJJ, I was able to hold the reading exercises on biblical texts with the sex workers that are at the heart of this book. It was Professor Johanna Stiebert who invited me to contribute the outcomes of these reading exercises in the framework of “rape culture”. Indeed, this couldn’t have been more apt, because the injustices that Hong Kong sex workers are subjected to stem from rape culture. And so… here is the book!
2. What are the key arguments of this book?
First, this book debunks rape myths such as: “sex workers cannot get raped”, “sex workers are immoral and deserve punishment”, and “if women don’t resist, they aren’t really raped”, etc. The book shows how such rape myths contribute to the escalating violence that Hong Kong sex workers are facing.
Second, the book also shows that biblical scholars rarely consider how certain biblical texts and interpretations of them, too, promote stigmatization of today’s sex workers and rape culture. This is thrown into relief by engaging Hong Kong sex workers in the reading and analysis of three biblical texts of the Hebrew Bible where the Hebrew root word znh, often translated as “prostitute” occurs: namely, Genesis 38, 1 Kings 3:16–28 and Hosea 1–3. Each reading unpacks where rape culture and the stigmatization of sex workers lie and through the sex workers’ standpoints, these texts are revealed in a new light.
3. What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?
I hope readers will see the humanity and dignity of sex workers. Sex workers deserve to be respected in every way, and the hatred that society has mounted against them is cruel and unjust. I hope this book will change the way we talk about and the way we treat sex workers.
I also hope that this book will persuade readers that interpretations of the Bible need to be re-evaluated. I hope it will encourage readers to ask themselves, “Do interpretations do justice to marginalized communities today? Do they promote hatred and reinforce oppression?”
I hope readers will be informed and come to realise how subtle and dangerous rape myths can be: rape myths find support from biblical texts, and, consequently, biblical texts can become justifications for violence against humanity.
4. Give us one quotation from your book that you think will make readers go and want to read the rest!
“One of the sex workers disagreed with the statements the others made concerning women’s decision to return to abusive men because of the children. … She would not allow anyone to harm her in this way and would rather lose her life to fight for freedom. …She said if women would not protest against such wicked threats on their lives, then the children would not learn to fight for what is right and just. In this way, cycles of abuse continue. She regretted that that is how abusive men keep oppressing women…” Find it and read the rest!
Nancy’s book is available for pre-order (see here) and will be dispatched by 1 September.
A Bit about myself:
I am Mmapula Diana Kebaneilwe, a Womanist scholar and Senior Lecturer of Hebrew and Old Testament Studies at the University of Botswana. I did my PhD with the University of Murdoch in Western Australia, and completed in 2012. The title of my Thesis was “This Courageous Woman: A Socio-rhetorical Womanist Reading of Proverbs 31:10-31.” (The thesis can be found online here.) I have a wide range of research interests, including; women and the Bible; HIV, Aids, the Bible and women; women, gender and the Bible; the Bible and environmental issues; rape culture, gender and the Bible. Above all, my keen interest concerns gender justice and hence, researching on issues relating to women is important to me. The quest stems from my own context, which is patriarchal and marred by gender-based violence.
What I have been up-to during the COVID 19 Lock-in
To be honest, COVID 19 has left me confused, worried and without motivation or energy to do much. However, as the lock-in proceeds into the third week in my country (Botswana), I seem to be unstiffening a bit and I guess I am now getting accustomed to my ‘new normal’ of being just at home. I believe I am also getting to grips with the current reality and learning to live with the fact that the entire world is faced with a pandemic and everyone is affected in some way or other. On a more positive note, I have been doing what I enjoy most, which is gardening. I have started a small vegetable garden, which I have mixed with my usual plants and flowers that I tend every day. I find this very healing to my soul.
I also have a lot of academic work to do during this time (much of it is backlog from a few months ago). The work includes co-editing for a volume on ‘Mother Earth’, a book project, which is a collaboration with different scholars who presented papers at the 2019 Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, held in Gaborone, Botswana. I am also working on my book, which is adapted from my PhD thesis and which has come back from a second round of the review process, just a few days ago. I have also received back reviews for a chapter that I am contributing to a project on #Jesus Too, edited by Jayme Reaves and David Tombs.
Aspects of my work, past and present that might of interest to the Shiloh Project supporters?
I think some of my work that might be of interest to supporters of the Shiloh Project may include first, my PhD Thesis (2012). This is so because in that I explore some of the issues that relate to the intersection between, the Bible, culture (in this case Botswana culture) and women. Attention is paid to the portrayal of a woman in rather strong and affirmative ways in Proverbs 31:10-31. Such is not commonplace in the Bible. I bring the portrait into engagement with how women are treated in my culture, especially in relation to their male counterparts and in relation to marginalization and disadvantages for women on different levels. My conclusion is that the text of Proverbs 31:10-31 unapologetically advocates for gender equality.
Another of my past works that may be of interest is an article titled “The Vashti Paradigm: Resistance as a Strategy for Combating HIV.” Ecumenical Review 63/4 (2011): 378-384. As the title suggests, in this article I see Vashti, a female character in the biblical book of Esther, as a heroine. Her subversiveness and defiance in the face of male oppressive authority celebrates her dignity as a woman. I advocate that Vashti can speak also to those who find themselves in similar situations of oppression. My conclusion is that despite the potential danger in challenging oppressive systems, cultures and contexts, like Vashti did, ‘it is never too late to say no to oppression’.
A forthcoming article might also be of interest, “The Untold Story of Mrs Noah: The Hebrew Bible, Gender and Media: An Intertextual Critical Discourse Analysis.” This is forthcoming in the BOLESWA Journal of Theology (2020 sometime). This piece is co-authored with a colleague and friend, Dr Sibonile E. Ellece, from the English Department of the University of Botswana. We try to reconstruct the life story of the wife of Noah. We argue that because of its androcentric nature, the Bible tends to omit the stories of many women, including that of Noah’s wife. We call the otherwise unnamed woman ‘Mrs Noah’ in order to problematize the un-naming, which not only obscures but virtually erases her identity. Our conclusion is that in our patriarchal contexts, too, women often suffer from a lack of media coverage, conveying the sense that their stories do not really matter, at least not as much as men’s stories. But in reconstructing Mrs Noah’s story, using intertextual critical discourse analysis, we maintain that she was a woman of courage: a wife, a mother, a home-builder and Noah’s pillar. She, too, like her legendary husband, must have professed strong faith, ensuring her survival and that of her family, while most of the entire world perished.
What is helping me most during this unprecedented time of COVID 19?
Like I mentioned before, gardening and decorating my home is something I enjoy doing. I spent my first day of lockdown painting one of the rooms in the house. I love it. I then started spending mornings and evenings doing some gardening, which includes planting vegies, trimming duranta plants, cultivating the soil around my little roses and other flowers, and just cleaning the yard – stuff I often do not have much time to do under normal circumstances. I have since been doing some yoga and pilates each evening in order to stretch my otherwise aching joints. This has been very helpful and is making me feel good, both physically and emotionally. I have now added some skipping rope exercises where I do 300 skips a day and that makes me feel fantastic. Of course, I am also trying to stay away from frequent visits to the kitchen and the fridge for some nibbles, because though these are particularly accessible ‘places’ currently (given the stringent restrictions on movement) it is not such a good idea to spend too much time there.
I’ve never used the phrase ‘these are strange times’ as often as I have over the past few weeks! On the day my Department closed its doors, I went into my third year class at 2pm and when it ended at 3.30pm, I was told we were being sent home and had to leave the building by 6 o’clock. I quickly grabbed books and papers that I thought I might need, rescued my office plants, and colleagues and students said goodbye to each other without the usual hugging! For the final year undergraduates, they have been deprived of the traditional ‘end of year’ closure – the stress and celebrations that go along with writing up dissertations and their last assessments, and all students felt the abrupt end to the academic term. In some ways, I’m enjoying working from home, pottering in our small back yard, undertaking a bit of DIY, doing on-line exercise classes, keeping up with household chores that never get done (yep, the skirting boards and shower tiles are gleaming), but I know it is a privilege to live with my partner, Bran, and for us to be relatively safe and secure, and to continue working. I am, of course, missing our lively Department and the bustle and business of term time, but we’re staying in touch with virtual coffee every day (we do this in real time too!). I’m so impressed and heartened by the way our students are adapting and coping with studying at home, some of them in challenging and very difficult circumstances during a very anxious time for them and their families. They are supporting each other and us brilliantly, and with good humour that brightens up the day. Yesterday, during a 3rd year catch up on TEAMS, two of them turned up with superimposed images of Trump and Johnson on their heads…they sort of know my left-leaning politics.
Like everyone, my usual routine is out of kilter. This coincided with the spring vacation, when I took some annual leave and switched off email, admin, and writing for a week or so. In January, we had arranged to remodel our kitchen during March and April, and before the lockdown we had ripped out our existing cupboards and cabinets, and unplugged the dishwasher and oven; it’s a shell of a room at the moment. For five weeks we’ve been cooking on a two-ring camping stove on our living room floor, washing up outside, and contributing heavily to the local Chester foodie scene by relying on the places that are offering take-aways. I keep telling myself we’re glamping and it’s an ‘adventure’.
I’ve got a few projects on the go. I’m working on a chapter on methodology in the study of religion and gender for a Handbook edited by Emma Tomalin https://ahc.leeds.ac.uk/philosophy/staff/142/professor-emma-tomalin and Caroline Starkey https://ahc.leeds.ac.uk/philosophy/staff/1161/dr-caroline-starkey – I’m a qualitative researcher so enjoy getting my methodological geek on. My new book, Motherhood, Voluntary Childlessness, and Christianity explores women’s religious reproductive agency in Christianity and their narratives and experiences of ‘choice’, and I’ll be getting that finished for Bloomsbury during my research leave later on this year. I’m also working with Sian Hawthorne https://www.soas.ac.uk/staff/staff31080.php and Sonya Sharma https://www.kingston.ac.uk/staff/profile/dr-sonya-sharma-57/ on the Bloomsbury Studies in Religion, Gender, and Sexuality series https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/series/bloomsbury-studies-in-religion-gender-and-sexuality/ , and we’ve just launched a call for chapters for a new Bloomsbury Handbook on Religion, Gender, and Sexuality that we are editing together. We’d be delighted if Shiloh readers and members considered contributing! https://bloomsburyreligiongender.wordpress.com/
How am I coping? Well, I’m a swimmer and usually train about 4 times a week. April is the start of the open water swimming season when the rivers, lakes, and seas start to warm up enough to stretch out in ‘skins’ (just a swimming costume, no wetsuit). Normally, I’d be prepping for 5km and 10km events in the summer but instead I have taken up some surprising hobbies. I’ve started taking our friend’s dog, Sidney, for walks (they’ve just had a baby) and have found him to be an excellent listener as I talk at him (he’s great on career advice); I’ve discovered Radio 3; I have found out that I really like trashy TV (Making the Cut and Next in Fashion, anyone?); I’ve bought a hoola hoop; and I’ve completed a jigsaw. I barely know myself.
1. Tell us about yourself. What have you been doing and are you able to work during this COVID-19 lock-in?
I was already on sabbatical before social distancing started, so for me it’s been less of a change to my daily routine (especially since I was already doing my writing from home). I’m also at the point in my research where I’m mostly writing, rather than researching things, which is very lucky given that all the libraries are closed. I’m trying to stick to my pre-pandemic pattern of working on my book in the morning and then other projects in the afternoon or evening. Of course, I’ve been having trouble concentrating and getting work done, but I’m not being too hard on myself about that — we’re in a pandemic, these are not normal times! On a personal note, my husband is also an academic and working from home; we don’t have children and we’re not currently taking care of any family members (or home schooling!). This gives us a very different experience of shelter in place than other friends and colleagues, especially those with kids, and I’m very sympathetic to what they’re juggling right now.
2. Which aspects of your work past and present might be particularly interesting for supporters of the Shiloh Project?
Right now I am finishing up a book called Texts after Terror: Rape, Sexual Violence, and the Hebrew Bible, which is a study of biblical rape stories. I argue that the frameworks we use to talk about sexual violence in the Bible are dated and un-feminist, and that we need new models for reading and theorizing “rape stories” (a term I use to refer both to biblical texts about rape and to texts that involve rape culture more broadly). One model that I offer in the book is a framework for describing sexual violence as “fuzzy, messy, and icky” — fuzzy in that it’s not always that clear what happened or how it was remembered, messy in its consequences, as well as in the ways that sex and bodies are often messy, and icky in the ways that sexual violence fails to fit into neat patterns of evil perpetrators and innocent victims. I first developed this argument in a lecture I gave at the Shiloh Project’s inaugural rape culture and religion conference in 2018 in Sheffield; it’s even posted on the website! In addition to this book project, I’m also finishing up an edited volume on Margaret Atwood and the Bible with my colleague Peter J. Sabo called “Who Knows What We’d Make Of It, If We Ever Got Our Hands On It?”: The Bible and Margaret Atwood — the quote in the title is fromThe Handmaid’s Tale, a novel that I’m sure many Shiloh Project supporters know well.
3. How are you bearing up and what’s helping you most?
Like a lot of people, I’ve been video-chatting with friends and family, which has definitely helped. Yesterday, my niece turned one, and we all celebrated together on Zoom and watched her eat her first cupcake (she loved it!) I’ve also been reading a lot of murder mysteries, just to give myself a break. My family is all far away in Montana, and my friends are scattered all over the place, so there are a lot of people I’m worried about.
4. Send us a picture that captures your COVID-19 days.
Here’s a picture of my research assistant helping me with my book project!
Tell us about yourself. What have you been doing and what are you working on during this COVID-19 lock-in.
I’m an author and pastor, although I find it difficult to be both at once! This fall I’ll celebrate my 30th anniversary of ordination, and for the last nine years I’ve put a lot of energy into writing while pastoring part-time.
Two of my three books could be classified as “spiritual memoir.” Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land (Eerdmans, 2012) takes the reader along on a transformative pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine. Ruined (Tyndale, 2016) tells the story of a traumatic experience of sexual violence when I was 20 years old, and explores how that shaped my life and faith through the next decade.
My new book (InterVarsity Press, Jan 2020) is The #MeToo Reckoning: Facing the Church’s Complicity in Sexual Abuse and Misconduct. In this book I widen my lens to tell other people’s stories as well as my own, and intertwine those stories with scripture.
So far during this Covid-19 lock-in, I’ve been following up on podcasts and articles related to my #MeToo book launch. My speaking engagements have been cancelled, of course, so I’m doing more videos and webinars than I had planned to do.
I would love to begin to think about “the next thing” but it’s been challenging to find mental and emotional bandwidth during a time of global distress!
2. Which aspects of your work past and present might be particularly interesting for supporters of the Shiloh Project?
My memoir Ruined explores how my religious upbringing shaped my response to a brutal rape by two African-American strangers — and the response of the Calvinist faith community in which I was submerged. The title is a synonym for shame, which engulfed me. My viewpoint alternates between the 20-something Ruth who felt ruined, and the self who became a pastor and found healing in a larger faith tradition.
My more recent book is The #MeToo Reckoning: Facing the Church’s Complicity in Sexual Abuse and Misconduct. The interplay between current and ancient stories of abuse may be of particular interest to the members of the Shiloh Project. In the introduction I itemize the lenses I bring to the work: “My interest in sexual assault and faith is not academic. I wrote this book because I felt called by God to do so, and could find no excuse to refuse (although I did search for one). I bring certain lenses along with me. As a rape survivor, I am passionate about justice for victims and accountability for victimizers. As a former “good girl,” I am conversant with the conservative subculture. As a committed Christian, I am tenacious about loving Jesus, who first loved me. As a pastor, I spend my days swimming in Scripture. As a wife, I am one half of what turned out to be an egalitarian marriage, thirty-five years and counting. As a mother, my heart walks around outside my body with two daughters, a fact that will keep me poking and prodding the church toward greater gender equality as long as I live. Most of all, as an author, the response to my earlier writing about assault has softened my heart and thickened my skin. I will not be bullied by blowback or made callous to the plight of my sister survivors, and brothers as well. It is time for a reckoning.”
3. How are you bearing up and what’s helping you most?
I am in a very fortunate situation. I am “locked-in” with my husband, with whom I am very companionable. There is plenty of room and quiet for each of us to pursue our own work. We are doing yoga each day and going for walks in the fresh air as often as possible.
We are very grateful for technology which allows us to see the faces of our loved ones — our two grown daughters who each live alone about an hour’s drive from our home, and our two aged mothers, each living in a facility a great distance from us.
Every one of us is living with a great deal of pain and loss right now, on a personal level and a societal level. I find that naming these losses — even trivial ones — and then naming that for which I am grateful, helps me feel more centered and settled during this most unusual Lent. Because I tend toward the contemplative, the practice of praying for others is also essential.
I also look forward to a few ounces of tawny port and a dose of Netflix each evening!
4. Send us a picture to capture you or your work in these COVID-19 days.
I do quite a bit of supply preaching, and had agreed to help a local Presbyterian congregation for a few weeks, which turned out to be the beginning of lockdown. The picture, taken by my husband, is of me preaching via FB Live in my study, with an improvised worship space created by a purple stole, a cross on the wall, and a few sprigs of forsythia.
2. Which aspects of your work past and present might be particularly interesting for supporters of the Shiloh Project?
I think they might be interested in my recently published book on a terrible act of sexual violence in the Bible (Telling Terror in Judges 19: Rape and Reparation for the Levite’s Wife), and my forthcoming one on the use of the Bible in domestic abuse (The Bible Doesn’t Tell Me So: Why you don’t have to submit to domestic abuse and coercive control).
I’m very concerned about the problem of domestic abuse in these days, as people are trapped in homes with abusers, and frustration and anger are riding high. I understand that nine women were killed in their home last week. I’ve been trying to help raise awareness of this issue, and to highlight that refuges are still open and that this constitutes an acceptable reason for leaving lockdown.
3. How are you bearing up and what’s helping you most?
I’m doing okay most of the time. I’m incredibly grateful that we have a garden, and we’ve been playing a lot of swingball! I’m trying to keep a good daily and weekly routine, which includes writing the day in large letters in our hall(!), making sure I always get dressed, and exercise regularly. There are five of us at home here – I’m very grateful that our two student daughters have been able to come home to be with us. We’ve been having some great family times, including a riotous quiz evening, board games (if you’ve never played Terraforming Mars, it’s utterly addictive), and recreating famous works of art very badly! (See pictures.)
Above all, I’m appreciating regular a rhythm of prayer throughout the day, which really helps me to recentre myself. In the mornings, I ‘gather’ with colleagues from the Baptist College to pray. After our evening meal, as a family we have been using the Northumbria evening prayer together – great words for a time of darkness (see here). And at bedtime I’ve been streaming an Anglican church’s evening office. Three very different traditions, and all very helpful.
(Helen is also during self-isolation giving a ‘Tour of the Bible’ in daily short recordings. Here is her recording of Judges.)