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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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16 Days of Celebrating Activism… Shiloh’s Routledge Focus series!

Today we celebrate our Routledge Focus book series. The Shiloh Project was the inspiration for the series and the series title—‘Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible’—is the same as the sub-title for the Shiloh Project. 

Routledge Focus volumes are concise, no more than 50,000 words in length. Each volume In our series, consequently, is sharply focused. Each represents research-based activism on a theme within the orbit of religion and rape culture. While unified by this larger theme and purpose, the published and forthcoming volumes evidence considerable variety.

We endeavour to publish around three volumes per year. This year, two volumes appeared and a third is due out in January. (The publication of the third volume was delayed on account of its sensitive content, which had to be carefully vetted by Routledge’s legal team—more on that shortly.)

The first series volume of 2021 is by Shiloh co-director Caroline Blyth (profiled as one of our 2017 activists). The title of her volume is Rape Culture, Purity Culture, and Coercive Control in Teen Girl Bibles. Caroline examines several bibles marketed to teen girls and demonstrates how they perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes including rape myths at the heart of rape culture. It’s a searing read that will have you questioning how on earth such publications can justify their claims of helping young women grow in faith, hope and love. Caroline demonstrates the damage perpetuated by purity cultures, and systematically peels back how some teen girl bibles echo or affirm the strategies of coercively controlling parents or intimate partners. It’s brilliantly done. (To hear Caroline talk about her book in an episode of the Shiloh Podcast, see here.)

Excerpt from p.3 of Caroline’s book

The second series volume of 2021 is Ericka Shawndricka Dunbar’s Trafficking Hadassah: Collective Trauma, Cultural Memory, and Identity in the Book of Esther and in the African Diaspora. Ericka’s book identifies the enterprise of rounding up girls from across the empire for the Persian king’s harem, as constituting sexual trafficking on a huge scale. After refuting claims that this is some light-hearted biblical story about a beauty contest, Ericka highlights parallels between sex trafficking in the book of Esther and the cultural memories, histories, and materialized pain of African(a) girls and women during the Maafa, or slave trade. The book is a powerful call, both to responsible Bible reading and to action in the face of human rights violation. (Ericka, too, is featured on the Shiloh Podcast: hear Ericka talking about her book here. For a short Q&A with Ericka, see here.)

‘Slavery’, by quadelirus (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 and available @CreativeCommons)

The third volume has a publication date of 18 January 2022 and is available for pre-order now. This one is by Miryam Clough and has the title Vocation and Violence: The Church and #MeToo. Miryam’s book begins by pointing out that sexual violence is systemic in many workplace settings, including in Christian churches. From here, she focuses on how, among many other devastating consequences, this can destroy women’s careers and vocational aspirations. Because Miryam’s study draws on empirical evidence, including personal stories from survivors of clergy abuse, it required scrutiny by the Routledge legal team. The book is an intense and often painful exposition of clergy sexual abuse of adult women, the conditions that support it, and the pain left in its wake. Bringing testimony into dialogue with theoretical perspectives, the book also makes constructive suggestions for theological models that can heal a broken Church.

‘Devil and Praying Women’, Linde Church, Gotland (from CreativeCommons)

We are delighted with the seven published series titles and excited about the further six that are under contract and due for release over the next two years. 

The volumes are making a timely and important contribution to scholarship on sexual and gender-based violence in religious texts and contexts. They are also ideal for teaching, given their compactness and their availability in affordable e-book format. 

If you, or someone you know, is interested in publishing in our series, please contact series co-editor Johanna (j.stiebert@leeds.ac.uk). Volumes for the series can be sole-authored, co-authored, or edited collections of essays. Proposals are peer-reviewed, and manuscripts must meet Routledge’s criteria for academic rigour and marketability. Routledge prides itself on a prompt production process and on being in the forefront of publishing cutting-edge research. All volumes are copy edited to a very high standard. Titles appear first in hardback and e-version and, sometimes, later, in paperback, too.

We’d love to hear from prospective contributing authors, and also, from anyone with feedback on volumes in the series, or on topics you’d like to see represented.

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16 Days of celebrating activism… Mmapula Diana Kebaneilwe!

Today we celebrate scholar activist Dr. Mmapula Diana Kebaneilwe.

A long-time Shiloh Project participant and supporter, Mmapula has featured as one of our activists in 2017, as well as in last year’s lockdown series.

For all the many months of ongoing Covid-related difficulties, which have hit Mmapula’s homeland of Botswana hard, she has had an impressive string of achievements this year.

First, there is the publication of Mother Earth, Mother Africa and Mission (Sun Press, 2021 and see here), which Mmapula edited together with Seblewengel Daniel and Angeline Savala. This volume grew out of the gathering of The Circle for Concerned African Women Theologians in Gaborone, Botswana in 2019. It contains an impressive line-up of African-centred contributions on the theme of theology, ecology, and sustainability. The introduction to the volume, reflecting on the Covid-19 pandemic, is by Mmapula herself and imprinted with her wisdom.

Mmapula is also working on two other books. One, about to be submitted to Sheffield Phoenix Press, is a refinement of her PhD research: a womanist reading of Proverbs 31:10-31. The second, under contract with Routledge, examines intersections of religion and gender-based violence in Botswana. Both books combine nuanced scholarship with activist purpose. Like Mmapula herself, her work, too, makes our world a brighter and better place.

One more thing to celebrate is that Mmapula has been awarded the prestigious Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellowship for Experienced Researchers! This means that Mmapula will be spending one year as guest researcher at the University of Bamberg in Germany. She will be setting off just as soon as she’s permitted. 

Huge congratulations, Mmapula!

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New Book!

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

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

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

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

Tell us about yourself, Ericka. 

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

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

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

This book is a condensed version of my doctoral dissertation.   

What are the key arguments of your book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

_______________________________________________________________________________________

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

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

Picture update (10 December 2021)

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

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

Jewish and Christian Women in the Ancient Mediterranean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the key goals of this book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plus the activity box that accompanies this section:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the key arguments of this book? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Introducing…The Shiloh Podcast!

The Shiloh Podcast logo.

The Shiloh Podcast has arrived!

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

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

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

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

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Tasia Scrutton’s research and publication on Christianity and Depression

Christianity and Depression book cover by Tasia Scrutton.

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

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

Thank you!

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

Photo of Tasia Scrutton and her dog.

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

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

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

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

What are the key discussion points of your book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does your book engage with the Bible?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tasia Scrutton and her dog Lola.

References

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

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

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

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


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

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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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