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Queer Theology

Disobedience: Reading the Sacred Text Otherwise

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

Disobedience: Reading the Sacred Text Otherwise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REFERENCES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Charles Landelle, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Academics Behaving Badly

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


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

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

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

  • Unwanted career advice:

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

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

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

  • Uninvited research ratings:

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

  • Unwelcome responses:

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

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

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

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

Of course, I didn’t fit in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why am I sharing this?

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

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

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

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


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

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Purple Diva

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Premiere of Kenyan, Christian, Queer

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

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

You can see the trailer here

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

About this Event:

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

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

The Q&A will feature:

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

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

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

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

Photo of Chris Greenough.

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

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

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

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

What are the key arguments of this book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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COVID-19 Lockdown Interview Series: Adriaan Van Klinken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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COVID-19 Lockdown Interview Series: Chris Greenough

Like many introverts, I think I’ve been practising social distancing for many years! But, as an academic, these aren’t times where you can knuckle down to work, wrapped in a comforting cocoon of your own reading, thoughts and writing. Coronavirus brings a real, present and threatening worry that breaks concentration, interrupts everyday activities and the anxiety is real. But, if anything, the social aspects of my life have picked up through making a conscious effort to stay in touch with people and check in on how they’re doing. Ironically, therefore, being connected and being in touch with others are helping me most.

While work sometimes pales into insignificance, there has been an urgent need to move teaching online, to stay in touch with students in new ways, to get to grips with technology I’ve never used before and to continue to supervise students. I’ve learnt that I’m less of a luddite than I thought. I’ve much appreciated and been touched by the genuine exchange of good wishes and the warm relationships we have with one another – whether we are lecturers, students or colleagues.

There have been some days where I’ve found research to be a helpful distraction, too. I’m currently finishing off my volume for the Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible series entitled The Bible and Sexual Violence Against Men. Working with Caroline Blyth, Katie Edwards and Johanna Stiebert as editors has been such a rewarding experience. The book examines social and cultural myths around sexual violence against men: that boys and men can be sexually abused, and this has nothing to do with their gender, sexuality or how masculine they are. At least 1 in 6 men have been sexually abused or assaulted. I’m grateful to feminist criticism in biblical studies that has drawn attention to sexual violence against men in the Bible, and in my work, I’m exploring Lot’s daughters’ sexual assault of him (Genesis 19), Joseph’s rebuttal of unwanted sexual attention from Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39) and the attempted rape of men in Genesis 19 and Judges 19. As it is Eastertide, it is relevant to mention how I am also looking at the stripping of Jesus as an act of sexual violence.

During the times I’m unable to concentrate or just need to stop, I’ve been able to benefit from the garden, the intermittent sunshine, my companion dogs and rabbit, my hilarious partner and wine.

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UN 16 Days of Activism: Day 14 – Megan Robertson

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

My name is Megan Robertson and I have recently completed my PhD at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in South Africa. My doctoral research focused specifically on investigating how the lived experiences of queer clergy in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa (MCSA) co-constitute the institutional cultures and politics of the Church. Since 2018 I have had the privilege of working at the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice, at UWC. The Centre seeks to contextually, theoretically, and methodologically challenge asymmetrical systems of power. It thus allows me a space to research and teach in ways which bridges the false binary between academia and activism and places justice at the centre of the work I do.

How does your research or your work connect to activism?

The picture of me in this blog is taken in front of Church Street Methodist Church, the congregation which I was a member of until my late twenties. For me this is a site of my own identity negotiation and also the space which continues to drive the activism which is integral to my research. The church which I grew up in not only shaped my belief systems but perhaps more significantly provided me with a place to which I felt I belonged. As a teenager and young adult I became more involved in the broader provincial and national structures of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa (MCSA) and thus more aware of how the Church which provided a ‘home’ for me was also deeply patriarchal, heteronormative, racially segregated and hierarchical. I was also quite actively involved in the Church at the time when a minister, Ecclesia de Lange, was excommunicated for declaring her intention to marry her same-sex partner. Therefore, for me, the church and religion became both a place of significant belonging as well as a space for a great deal of injustice. These experiences inspire my research which explores how different people navigate religious belonging and exclusion and indeed transform those spaces in positive ways.

In my research I incorporate activism by exploring how politics of belonging, body politics and politics of the domestic and erotic are evident in the narratives and experiences of queer clergy who occupy positions of power and marginality in the Church. I argue in my work that the MCSA’s internal conversations around the inclusion of women and same-sex marriage are too narrow to do justice to queer experiences of exclusion, discrimination and violence in the Church. For the MCSA and other denominations seeking to become truly inclusive of queer, women (and all other) members, bringing lived experience into conversation with institutional cultures in research sharpens understandings of how the church can indeed be a place of inclusivity instead of rejection. In my work I am also interested in the activism participants themselves are engaged in as they inhabit the norms of the institution. In a complex religious context where gender-sex identities are contested I found that participants engage in activism in relatively covert ways through living their domestic and erotic lives, embodying clerical and Methodist identity and through silence. In illuminating these subtle forms of activism, the political project of my research explores the possibilities that varied ways lived experience can trouble normative powers of race, class, gender and sexual orientation.

Why is activism important to you and what do you hope to achieve between now and the 16 Days of 2020?

My fuel for doing research is activism. Before beginning my PhD and working in the Desmond Tutu Centre, I was disillusioned by academia and bought into the idea that dismantling social injustices and researching them were two separate tasks. However, I soon realised that the binary between activism and academia was a false and unhelpful one. It is my anger and frustration that continues to drive me to work towards a just and equitable society and it is in academia where I am able to make productive meaning of that anger and frustration.

Through the writing up of my dissertation, I have continued to be in conversation with some of the clergy who participated in my doctoral research. In these conversations we have begun to explore the ways in which my research findings can feed into the committees and activism work which they would like to pursue. Further, in my post-doctoral research I want to further explore the nature of queer activism in South Africa. My other passion is dance and theatre and I hope to explore the ways in which popular artists and performers in Cape Town interrogate the intersections of religion and sexuality on stage.

 

 

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UN 16 Days of Activism: Day 9 – Chris Greenough

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

My name is Chris Greenough and I’m Senior Lecturer in Religion at Edge Hill University. I research and teach on gender, sexuality and religion. My research to date has mostly focussed on LGBTQ+ religious and spiritual identities, queer theologies and queer biblical studies.

 How does your research or your work connect to activism?

As an academic, I engage and contribute to activism in various ways. When we think of activism we think of protest and the public assembly of like-minded individuals, collaborating to fight against injustices and for change. But, aside from this, we are all activists in our communities: in our classrooms, on social media and in our one-to-one interactions. I am a former secondary school teacher and part of my current role is initial teacher education and I work hard to ensure our future teachers are confident to work with LGBTQ+ issues.

Reflecting on how I am activist in the classroom, I have an article in the special edition of the Journal of Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies, edited by Johanna Stiebert. In the article, I explore the notions of risk, experimentation and failure, as well as of tackling specific issues relating to resistance of queer biblical criticism based on religious faith.

There are regular TV and media discussion panels debating questions about how LGBTQ+ lives and Christianity are seemingly incompatible. In conservative religious settings, we see how verses selected from the Bible are used to condemn same sex relationships/marriage, transgender recognition, gay and lesbian parenting or adoption and these form the positional statements of major Christian denominations. In this sense, my work is activism that speaks back to what is, in fact, really toxic theology. My first monograph, Undoing Theology, highlighted the harmful effects of traditionally dominant theology in Christianity on the lives of non-normative individuals. In his review of my book, Adrian Thatcher says, “We need to learn the pain that we cause. This is a bold, truthful book”.

Yet, being bold is not always easy. Activism comes with challenges and obstacles. Sara Ahmed puts this perfectly, “when we speak about what we come up against, we come up against what we speak about” (Living a Feminist Life, 2017: 148). As a queer scholar, I am undisciplined. That means I do not hold much allegiance to any of the traditional disciplines I work across: they each require a critical undoing of the powers and privilege which has produced and shaped them. As someone who writes on queer theologies and biblical studies, I am occasionally confronted with furrowed frowns as a reception to my work. If queer research makes people feel uncomfortable, it highlights the hegemony, gatekeepers and ‘methodsplainers’ at work in our disciplines. It highlights prejudice and discrimination to queer individuals. For me, resisting academic normativity in the pursuit of social justice is activism. I am entirely grateful to my academic scholars and friends at SIIBS and the Shiloh project for their support.

Why is activism important to you and what do you hope to achieve between now and the 16 Days of 2020?

The next twelve months are going to be busy! I’m delighted and incredibly proud to be working with Katie Edwards on a book for the Routledge Focus Book Series on ‘Rape Culture, Religion, and the Bible’. Our title aims to explore contemporary reactions and readings to the naming of Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse: #JesusToo: Silence, Stigma and Male Sexual Violence. In contemporary culture there is undeniably a culture of stigma associated with male sexual abuse. Despite this stigma, at least 1 in 6 men have been sexually abused or assaulted: https://1in6.org/ . There are also numerous myths around male sexual abuse that need further discussion.

I’m also going to be Guest Editor for a special edition of the Journal of Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies on Queer Theory and the Bible. The term ‘queer theory’ was first coined in 1990, so this seems a fitting edition to celebrate 30 years of queer!

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Celebrating all things queer

Last month I visited Nairobi to embark on a project together with my Leeds colleague Adriaan van Klinken. Adriaan has been conducting research in Kenya over a number of years but it was my first visit. Our project is funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust and centres on a collaboration with the Nairobi-based initiative called The Nature Network.

The Nature Network is a community of LGBTQ+ refugees (the majority from Uganda) who have come together in Nairobi for solidarity, mobilization, community and survival. Kenya has been called a haven for LGBTQ+ refugees, but their lives are nevertheless far from easy.

The Nature Network provides support and community, advocacy, resources, advice, and a social justice platform for its members but, like other LGBTQ+ people and other refugees, too, they are a vulnerable community. Homophobia in all its insidious and often violent forms is very much present in Nairobi, as it is in very many other places. Added to that, like refugees elsewhere, community members are struggling in the face of economic uncertainties, poverty and all the vulnerabilities these bring with them. The range of members’ needs is complex and varied. Many suffer from unmet health problems, including mental health issues, and all live with various kinds of uncertainty regarding employment, economic security, and future prospects. Many are awaiting decisions from UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, and several are due to be resettled, as others have been before them, in the USA, Canada, or Iceland.

Our project is called ‘Tales of Sexuality and Faith: The Ugandan LGBT Refugee Life Story Project’ and it explores how life stories, or autobiographical accounts, in combination with biblical stories, can become both a means and a resource for activism towards social justice for LGBTQ+ refugees and for activist-inspired research. In doing so, we are mindful of and draw on established and important work in other parts of the continent of Africa. I am thinking here, for instance, of the many activities of the Talitha Qumi Center in Ghana and of the Contextual Bible Study projects of the Ujamaa Centre in South Africa.

Johanna at the Nature Network, waiting to conduct an interview

Adriaan and I conducted some interviews on our visit, but the bulk of the data is being collected by members of The Nature Network. The initial interviews have proved moving and inspiring and we are working towards a collaborative publication that will bring these stories and the method itself into wider circulation.

While I was in Nairobi, there were two other queer highlights for me: one was attending the loud, proud, and lively service with the Cosmopolitan Affirming Community, which again demonstrated creative and empowering deployment of religious motifs and biblical texts; and the other was joining in the vibrant launch of Adriaan’s extraordinary new book, Kenyan, Christian, Queer: Religion, LGBT Activism, and Arts of Resistance in Africa. What a fine party it was – with dancing, drag, fabulous outfits, a play, presentations, and above all, abundant celebration and joy. I am so glad I could be there.

Raymond Brian of The Nature Network holding Adriaan’s book

Adriaan’s book is being launched again in Leeds: at 4pm on 14 November 2019, at Claire Chapel, Emmanuel Centre, University of Leeds. The event is co-hosted by the Leeds University Centre for African Studies and the Centre for Religion and Public Life. All supporters are welcome.

Alongside the people and communities I encountered in Nairobi, and alongside Adriaan’s research and publication, there are yet more queer events to celebrate. First, there is the research of Sam Ross, a PhD candidate based at the University of Leeds. Sam is exploring queer readings of Hebrew Bible texts that focus on suffering, pain, and trauma; he features as our Researcher of the Month on the Religion in Public blog. You can read about his research journey here. What he does not mention is that he has had a paper accepted in the peer-reviewed Journal for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies. Congratulations! Look out for the special issue on transgender and genderqueer perspectives coming soon.

And another shout-out for a queer celebration goes to Chris Greenough who has just had two books published (yes, he’s an over-achiever). The first, Undoing Theology: Life stories from non-normative Christians (SCM, 2018, reviewed here), has been invaluable as I reflect on and think ahead to the next stage of the project in Kenya. In this book, Chris takes up the call of Marcella Althaus-Reid who, in 2003, published the words, ‘At the bottom line of queer theologies, there are biographies of sexual migrants, testimonies of real lives in rebellions made of love, pleasure and suffering’ (The Queer God, Routledge, 2003, p.8, reviewed here). Chris documents his communications with three sexual migrants, or non-normative Christians: an intersex-identifying Catholic, a former ‘ex-gay’ minister, and a Christian engaging in BDSM (bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism, masochism). The result is a moving testament from those who are sometimes seeking, sometimes demanding, and occasionally finding inclusion and spiritual fulfilment. What remains un-erased in the course of this book are the difficulties and traumas encountered by and inflicted on sexual migrants. The book is a remarkable blend of vivid personal accounts and incisive critical theory.

Chris’s second book is called Queer Theologies: The Basics (Routledge, 2019) and is an invaluable resource for anyone wanting to come to grips with queer interpretation and queer theologies. Those who have tried to do so know it to be a rich and varied field with some hard-to-navigate ideas, theories, and terminologies. Chris’s book is accessible and written with clarity and flair. It also contains a helpful glossary and plenty of suggestions for further study and exploration.

There is so much queer to celebrate!

 

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