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Writing Gender Justice: Alternative Icons of Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does your work connect to activism?

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

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

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

Phoebe, the Deacon

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

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

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

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

Mary, Mother of God

What has been the response to your icons?

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

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

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Graphic Artwork on Sexual Violence in the Bible by Pia Alize

Sexual Violence in the Bible

Here’s hoping 2021 brings positive action and results after what has been a difficult and challenging 2020, not least for groups already very vulnerable to and suffering from gender-based violence. 

Here’s a resource we hope many of you will find useful. This artwork is by Pia Alize, a graphic artist who has produced stunning images responding to gender-based violence and MeToo in India. You can see some of her other magnificent art, or contact Pia at: www.pigstudio.in

We hope these images, capturing references to gender-based and sexual violence in the Bible, will open up conversations that lead to social justice action in faith-based communities and beyond. We will be using them in workshops and teaching sessions. Our hope is they will appeal to a wide and inclusive audience.

If you require jpg files, please contact Johanna: j.stiebert@leeds.ac.uk

Funding for the production of these images was provided by the generous support of a grant from the AHRC UKRI, ‘Resisting Gender-Based Violence and Injustice Through Activism with Bible Texts and Images’. 

Sexual Violence in the Bible
Sexual Violence in the Bible
preliminary cartoon
an early sketch, by Pia Alize
Sexual Violence in the Bible
Sexual violence in the Bible
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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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Professor Johanna Stiebert Inaugural Lecture: “Why I Love Studying the Bible even though (and because) It’s Perverse”.

On 10 October 2019, Johanna Stiebert delivered her inaugural lecture as Professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of Leeds. The title of her paper is “Why I Love Studying the Bible even though (and because) It’s Perverse”.

“In this inaugural lecture Professor Stiebert discusses her chequered and international career learning and teaching about Hebrew language and biblical studies. Her lecture focuses especially on biblical texts that surprised her – not least on account of their graphic nature. Her concluding remarks focus on the responsibilities of professors and on academic integrity.”

Click here to view the lecture. 

About Johanna Stiebert

Johanna Stiebert majored in Biblical Hebrew, alongside English Literature, at the University of Otago (New Zealand), graduating with honours in 1992. She continued her studies with a two-year MPhil in Hebrew Bible at the University of Cambridge and then her PhD on shame in biblical prophetic literature at the University of Glasgow, graduating in 1998. By this time she had started her first teaching post at St. Martin’s University College (now the University of Cumbria) in Lancaster. Wanting to travel, she was about to go teach English as a second language with VSO in Madagascar, when she was appointed to a teaching post in Hebrew Bible at the University of Botswana. Three years in Botswana were transformative, including professionally. There at the height of the HIV/Aids pandemic, it became sharply clear that the Bible played an active part in matters of life and death. The Bible has since become in her own research much more than ‘just’ a fascinating, ancient object of study. Johanna has continued to work with scholarly and other communities in southern Africa and, more recently, also in other parts of the continent. After Botswana and before joining the University of Leeds, she worked at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. This environment, too, being in a state University in the buckle of the Bible Belt during the Bush years, was formative.

Johanna has been at Leeds for ten years and teaches modules on the Bible and Judaism. She has just completed her fifth monograph, her third in Leeds. She is currently involved in four research projects, all centred in some way around the Shiloh Project, an initiative exploring the intersections of rape culture, gender-based violence and religion. She has still not got to Madagascar.

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Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible Book Series: Inaugural Volume Out Soon!

We’re delighted to launch the inaugural volume of our book series with Routledge Focus.

Rape Myths, the Bible and #MeToo by Shiloh Project co-director Johanna Stiebert (University of Leeds) will be available in all good bookshops from 5 November.


We’ll be celebrating its publication with a launch event at The University of Sheffield on Friday 20 December 4-7pm G11 – Workroom 2, 38 Mappin Sheffield.

Talks from Johanna Stiebert and Dr Mmapula Kebaneilwe (University of Botswana) will be followed by a wine reception and seasonal buffet.

If you would like to join us, book your tickets here.

If you would like to submit a proposal to the series editors for consideration, contact us at Shiloh@sheffield.ac.uk

We look forward to reading your ideas!

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More Grant Success for The Shiloh Project

Great to hear today that our major two-year project on the Bible and rape culture has been funded by an AHRC large grant!

The research team is Katie Edwards (University of Sheffield), Caroline Blyth (University of Auckland), Johanna Stiebert (University of Leeds) and Richard Newton (University of Alabama)… watch this space for project updates!

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UN 16 Days of Activism – Day 12: Jayme Reaves

Tell us about yourself. Who are you and what do you do? 

My name is Jayme Reaves (www.jaymereaves.com) and I am a public theologian, scholar, and activist working on the intersections between theology and public issues such as gender, race, peace/conflict, interfaith cooperation, and culture using the disciplines of feminist and liberation theologies.  I am also the newly appointed Coordinator for the Centre for Encountering the Bible and Short Course Programme at Sarum College, starting in December 2018.

In the earlier years of my professional career, I lived and worked in both the Former Yugoslavia and in Northern Ireland, seeking to ground my theology and commitment to peace and justice to practical application by working to support peacebuilding, conflict transformation, and reconciliation processes. In both the Northern Ireland and FRY contexts, I was struck by the interplay between hospitality and hostility, where both profound welcome and violent exclusion simultaneously co-exist, and where the project of a mixed society does not necessarily lead to living together well. That observation led to my PhD research which built a framework for understanding an interfaith theology and ethic of protective hospitality through providing sanctuary or refuge for the threatened other based on Hebrew Bible and Qur’anic textual studies as well as case studies based in Bosnia during the 1990s conflict.  That research was published in 2016 by Wipf & Stock and is titled Safeguarding the Stranger: An Abrahamic Theology and Ethic of Protective Hospitality. (www.jaymereaves.com/safeguarding-the-stranger).

Because of my research around hospitality and activism towards more peaceful and just communities, I do regular workshops on hospitality as political practice, taking it from the realm of tea and biscuits and more in the realm of loving revolution where it belongs.  For me, hospitality is strong, brave, and fierce in its love and dedication to welcome; it is not weak and mousy, deferring and demure as it is so often portrayed.  I work with communities in both the US and UK on exploring the practice of providing sanctuary, equipping communities of privilege to understand their obligations to care for the stranger, to use their privilege to speak for and provide justice, and to understand that a ultimately a life of faith is a life of risk rather than comfort.  The Sanctuary Movement in the US – with those at risk of deportation taking refuge in religious and community buildings – is different than it is here in the UK at the moment, but the potential in the UK for direct, non-violent, life-saving action in resistance to state oppression towards immigrants is growing.  My activism, research, and experience calls me to support this movement in whatever way I can.

My work is driven by my activism, and I continue to be captivated and dedicated to the idea that a healthy, peaceful society is one that is proactive about the “other” (whoever that “other” is), caring about their needs, rights, suffering, and celebrations as our own and being willing to put ourselves and own wellbeing at risk for them.  My research, experiences, and faith has taught me the value of hospitality as a prevailing ethic for everything (or “ethic par excellance” in the words of Jacques Derrida), and I know communities who make that pro-activity towards hospitality for others a priority and see the difference it makes in their lives and in the world around them.  

In addition, my primary work with The Shiloh Project to date has centered around research being led by my colleague David Tombs at The University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand.  For years, his research has focused on the crucifixion and sexual violence, and in our project we are conducting workshops called “When Did We See You Naked?”(www.jaymereaves.com/naked) with churches and communities who wish to explore the Mark 15 text of Jesus’ trial, torture, and crucifixion in more detail, considering the ways in which Jesus is sexually abused by the multiple public strippings as well as understanding more fully the context of crucifixion practice within the context of Roman political oppression.  We know this work is important because it shifts the paradigm of the conversation in terms of victimization, blame, stigma, silencing, and guilt.  In this era of #MeToo, the time is ripe for interrogating our theology and liturgical practices to uncover the ways in which we have enabled and turned a blind eye to sexual abuse and sexualised violence in our religious traditions.

As part of my public theology work, I also co-host the Outlander Soul podcast (www.outlandersoul.com), which looks at reading the contemporary fiction Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon through the lenses of theology, religion and spirituality, and engages with its fans about the role it plays in their lives as a sacred text. Part of this work is driven by my own love and joy as a fan, but also by my dedication to making feminist and liberation theological methods more accessible.  In many ways, the podcast has served as “theology by the back door,” giving listeners a taste of particular approaches and perspectives that they don’t hear in their own religious communities, and the feedback we have received from some listeners saying how much it means to them that we are able to connect their love of Outlander to their spiritual/religious lives.

How do you think the Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to and enrich discussion and action on the topic of gender activism today? Is there more we can do? What else should we post?

I think the work of The Shiloh Project is invaluable as I don’t know of anyone else in the UK who has both the same level of scholarship, activism, dedication to public outreach, and independence from religious structures that Shiloh does.  The Shiloh Project is, in many ways, a sum of its parts and all of us who are involved with its work are doing great work, but it helps to have a larger body to amplify our voices as one calling for gender justice and more inclusive, responsible religious communities and readings of sacred texts.  

Lately in my own personal journey and in smaller writing/research projects, I have been working to identify and address whiteness in my own feminism and the ways in which my activism may have inadvertently perpetuated white supremacy or silencing of women of colour.  In light of that – and because of my own need – I’d love for The Shiloh Project to provide more attention and resources for addressing the blind spots and assumptions of white feminism, supporting difficult conversations that need to happen around the intersections between race and gender justice.

In the year ahead, how will you contribute to advancing the aims and goals of The Shiloh Project?  

In the year ahead, I have a few collaborative projects fueled by my own activism that I think will contribute to advancing the aims and goals of The Shiloh Project.  First, David Tombs, other colleagues, and I are planning to continue conducting “When Did We See You Naked” workshops in New Zealand, Australia, US, UK, Peru, and South Africa, and also expanding them to run in the Former Yugoslavia, where a context of systematized sexual abuse as an instrument of war was a reality for many.

Second, my colleague, Terry Menefee Gau, and I at the Outlander Soul podcast continue to be committed to using the Outlander series as a vehicle for teaching feminist theology and hermeneutics, while making dedicated efforts to name and discuss sexual violence, gender issues, and rape culture both in the series as well as in religious and secular culture.

Third, I have been in conversation with several feminist theologians, clergy, and activists recently about putting together a one-off or series of women’s events that speaks to their experiences and offers space for reflection around themes related to women’s bodies as well as the stories they read and tell.  I have no idea what shape that might take in the end – as it’s not just up to me – but it’s important for me to make sure that the work I’m doing is accessible and applicable to women’s lives both inside and outside of the academy and church.

Fourth, I am working in partnership with several organisations around training, equipping, and supporting networks dedicated to providing hospitality and working toward justice and reconciliation in their local areas.  My role as tutor and mentor is to ensure the needs and particular concerns of women and most vulnerable to abuse and exploitation are highlighted, as well as encouraging those networks to provide space for those same people to speak for themselves.

Lastly, in my role at Sarum College, I very much look forward to working with internal and external colleagues to expand its reputation for innovation and supporting theological development that works toward gender justice and the common good. And, let’s be honest, I don’t really know how to operate any other way!  It’s great to finally have a supportive home for my work and an institution that is also dedicated to ensuring that learning goes beyond the walls of the academy to impact lives and communities in real, life-sustaining ways.

Website: www.jaymereaves.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/JaymeRReaves

Twitter: @jaymereaves

 

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UN 16 Days of Activism – Day 7: Richard Newton

Tell us about yourself. Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Richard Newton, PhD. I am Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. My research investigates the connections between humans making difference and making a difference in the world. I am fascinated by how the identities that people assume are actually the dynamic struggling through which people work out their aspirations in relationship to their context. These processes, for me, give shape to the discourses we call race, ethnicity, gender, ability, sexuality, etc. And given our inklings about how these social markers work, their impact and volatility continue to mystify. In this regard, my scholarship has tried to develop a vocabulary and grammar to parse these politics. I call this work the “anthropology of scriptures,” the study of the cultural texts that form and inform our relationships. It’s an enterprise that brings front and center the issues that are hard to talk about, too important to ignore.

 As I think about my work from graduate school onward, I suppose my scholarly identity is most aptly expressed around cultivation and curation. A few years ago, I turned my personal blog into a collaborative multi-media magazine called  Sowing the Seed: Fruitful Conversation in Religion, Culture, and Teaching. The idea was to work with students and scholars at different stages and across the disciplines to think about how we produce knowledge that helps us better understand social difference. Undergraduates have published pieces alongside senior scholars. Students have created websites and mini-documentaries. And our podcasts have featured a range of provocative thought-leaders. In four years we’ve partnered with people at over 20 institutions of higher education, not counting our conversation partners on social media. We know that their contributions have been a resource for high school classes, college courses, religious communities, and activists. But the real shock is that our readers are taking our work outside of their own echo chambers and discussing them with the friends and family with whom they scarcely talk about these issues. Our small internet community isn’t viral, but it is vibrant.

 And I count myself fortunate that so many of the team at The Shiloh Project have read or even  contributed to our project. The Shiloh Project’s recognition of the Bible’s legacy in gender-based and sexual violence has given me so much to consider. And the work continues.

 How do you think the Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to and enrich discussion and action on the topic of gender activism today? Is there more we can do? What else should we post?

 The Shiloh Project has also been brilliant in using an online and conference model to reframe the conversation in generative ways. For instance, many  historians of the Shiloh Project have done a noteworthy job in countering the myth that rape, sexual assault, and gender-based violence are new. Rather, we are learning to pay attention in ways and in spaces and to people that have otherwise been ignored.

 Today’s technology does offer us a different type of challenge—and opportunity—that I think digital projects like Sowing the Seed and the Shiloh Project must face. How do we engage in meaningful conversations when people have so many choices for online media? So while the #MeToo movement demonstrates the timeliness of our cause, we must find ways to be more responsive to the needs and the questions of the people who want to engage with us. Does it mean Twitter chats, Facebook Live discussion, or an Instagram feed of convicting content?  I really don’t know. But I think it’s time for us to reflect on how we can best marshal our energies.

In the year ahead, how will you contribute to advancing the aims and goals of The Shiloh Project?

I am really hoping to find ways to more formally work with entities at The Shiloh Project and the Sheffield Interdisciplinary Institute for Biblical Studies. There are a few talks I’m hoping to deliver and some articles for which I’d like to find a home. I think there are many ways that social theory and the anthropology of scriptures can help us consider gender violence in relation to the Bible and Bible readers. So I look forward to affirming some of the connections facilitated by the Shiloh Project and its international network.

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CALL FOR PAPERS – Special Journal Issue: Activism in the Biblical Studies Classroom: Global Perspectives

Call for papers: Special Edition of the Journal for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (JIBS)

Activism in the Biblical Studies Classroom: Global Perspectives

Does activism belong in the university Biblical Studies classroom? If yes, with what purpose, outcome or agenda? Which teaching strategies are effective? How can/should/might Biblical Studies and activism engage with each other?

Activism is understood here as relating to human rights and the abolition of discrimination, including discrimination and activism in relation to:

Race and ethnicity
Gender and gender identity
Sexual orientation
Class
Disability and ableism
HIV status
Mental health
Religion, faith and belief
Fat stigma
Ageism
Motherhood and pregnancy
Voluntary/involuntary childlessness
Abortion and abortion stigma

This list is indicative and not exhaustive. We welcome submissions on any area of activism in conjunction with any biblical text.

We are looking for practice-focused contributions informed by academic research and/or theory.

Submissions should be between 4000 and 10,000 words.

All submissions will be subject to the usual blind peer review process.

Send proposals to Guest Editor Johanna Stiebert (j.stiebert@leeds.ac.uk) by 31 March 2019 and completed papers by the 2 January 2020.

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Outlander Soul Podcast: Sexual Violence in Outlander (discussion with Emma Nagouse)

Outlander Soul continues part 2 of their conversation with Emma Nagouse, whose research at the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS) at the University of Sheffield (UK) focuses on religion and sexual violence. In this episode, Emma and Jayme Reaves discuss Christ imagery and suffering, the Geneva & Laoghaire question, Fergus, and sexual violence as depicted in Outlander more generally.

(An obvious trigger warning that there will be discussion of rape, sexual violence, and rape culture in this episode).

 

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