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Call for Papers and more Information about Abusing God: Reading the Bible in the #MeToo Age

Broken Glass

Abusing God: Reading the Bible in the #MeToo Age is a collaborative network of experienced academic researchers, church practitioners, and key stakeholder charities. Led by Dr Holly Morse (University of Manchester) and Dr Kirsi Cobb (Cliff College), the Network develops contemporary research that responds to increasing awareness of and concern about gender-based violence. Within the academic research agenda centred around the Bible and abuse in Christian contexts, Abusing God works towards positive change.

The Sophia Network’s ‘Minding the Gap’ report (2019) recently demonstrated that although women make up 65% of the church in the UK, 62% of these women have experienced some form of sexism in church. This data, along with Refuge’s report of a surge in gender-based violence following global lockdowns and cuts to key support services during the Covid-19 pandemic, means that it is more urgent than ever that researchers and professionals engage in the support of survivors, and work together to bring about culture change around abuse, including within Christian communities.

The Network aims to respond in three key ways. First, it will facilitate transinstitutional conversations between academic, church, and charity practitioners. Secondly, the Network will host two colloquia on topics selected by our stakeholders – 1) the Bible and coercive control, and 2) the Bible and hypermasculinity. These events will pair academics with practitioners to develop reflective, collaborative research papers. In doing so, the Network will offer new contributions to the growing body of practice-informed research in the area of biblical studies, which takes its direction from church and charity practitioners who have expertise on the lived experiences of Christian survivors of abuse and their relationship to biblical texts. Thirdly, building on the foundation provided by this new collaborative research, the Network also aims to develop an education resource pack for use in schools and/or university chaplaincies in their work with survivors of gender-based violence, as well as for Bible study or small-group support work in churches. 

This resource material will offer recommendations on how to approach biblical texts about abuse and/or sexual violence with sensitivity to meet survivors’ needs in a way that is supported by both contemporary research within the fields of biblical studies and survivor care. While there has already been considerable work done in academic biblical studies contexts on the gender-critical issues raised by challenging biblical texts, there is comparatively little research on or attention to the impact these texts have on survivors of sexual and/or domestic abuse who have a personal Christian faith commitment, and even less work aimed at encouraging collaborative work between academic, church, and charity practitioners. The resources we aim to develop will respond to this critical need, by drawing upon both contemporary academic scholarship, and the experience of church practitioners and charities, to understand better how biblical texts have been used both to contribute to and to prevent gender-based violence.

To stay up-to-date with events and outputs, please email abusinggodahrc@gmail.com and ask to be added to our mailing list.

Call for Papers
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Legitimising Sexual Violence: Contesting Toxic Theologies that Valorise Suffering as Redemptive

George Zachariah is a lay theologian of the Mar Thoma Church. He has been working as a theological educator for the last two decades in India and in other countries. Currently, he is serving Trinity Methodist Theological College as Wesley Lecturer in Theological Studies. In this article, George reflects on toxic atonement theologies that valorise suffering as redemptive. His theological perspectives are informed by his long-standing association with different social movements. He has published several articles and books on ecotheology, climate justice, and human sexuality, including Decolonizing Ecotheology: Indigenous and Subaltern Challenge (Wipf and Stock, 2022), coedited with Lily Mendoza.

George Zachariah

“I went to my pastor twenty years ago. I’ve been trying to follow his advice. The priest said, I should rejoice in my suffering because they bring me closer to Jesus. He said, ‘Jesus suffered because he loved us.’ He said, ‘If you love Jesus, accept the beatings and bear them gladly, as Jesus bore the cross.’ I’ve tried, but I’m not sure anymore. My husband is turning on the kids now. Tell me, is what the priest told me true?”[1]

“Go back to him… Learn how to adjust to his moods…don’t do anything that would provoke his anger…Christ suffered and died for you on the Cross…Can’t you bear some suffering too? This is the voice of the church—the words of a priest counseling a woman who was being battered by her husband every single day of her married life. She went to the church for refuge and for moral and spiritual support. What she received instead was advice to learn submissiveness and obedience in a distorted relationship and abusive marriage.”[2]

Sexual harm in general, and intimate violence in particular, are not just heinous crimes that some “bad people” commit out of lust and anger. These are eruptions of male privilege and heteropatriarchal notions of sexuality, internalized by both men and women, mediated through social institutions such as family, religion, media, and education. People internalize these hegemonic worldviews as “normal,” and “sacred” thanks to the theological legitimations provided by religious traditions through their scriptures, doctrines, ethics, and pastoral counseling.

Suffering, sacrifice, and selfless love are foundational to Christian faith and Christian living. Invoking the memory of the crucified Christ is always an invitation to imitate Christ by walking in the way of the cross. Paul’s call to participate in the suffering of Christ makes suffering a virtue and a sacred duty: “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh, I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24). In traditional Christian understanding, suffering that we undergo in our lives is intended by God, and we need to endure those sufferings as Christ did and sacrifice ourselves through selfless love for the glory of God. Any attempt to question and abstain from suffering is therefore considered as an expression of self-love, the desire of the flesh.

The quotes above from survivors of sexual harm expose the toxicity inherent in mainstream biblical, theological, and pastoral responses to intimate partner violence. These responses categorically proclaim that imposed torture and suffering are redemptive. They substantiate their arguments with the help of a distorted understanding of the Christ event and abusive interpretations of the Scripture. The dominant expressions of Christianity thus become an ideological apparatus of heteropatriarchy. Eradication of sexual harm and intimate partner violence from our faith communities thus require from us the courage and creativity to engage in counter-hegemonic biblical interpretations and doctrinal reformulations, informed by the body-mediated knowledges of survivors.  

The dominant expressions of Christianity thus become an ideological apparatus of heteropatriarchy.

Scriptural Legitimation of Sexual Harm

It is important here to explore how the Bible has been used to propagate the toxic valorisation of imposed suffering. Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie, The Passion of the Christ begins with Isaiah 53: 5: “But he was wounded for our transgression, crushed for our iniquities, upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruise we are healed.” Gibson then invites us to watch the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life in a highly graphic way. The gospel according to Mel Gibson proclaims that imposed torture is redemptive, and it is the bruises of that torure that heal us.

Here, it is important for us to understand the Isaiah text in its context. This text is part of four texts (42.1-4; 49.1-6; 50.4-11; 52.13-53.12) generally known as “servant songs.” The way Isaiah 53:5 has been interpreted by isolating it from its larger context and identifying Jesus as the servant is a highly disputed issue. That said, the early church identified Jesus as the servant (Acts 8.32-35; Phil 2. 6-11; 1 Pet 2. 22-25), and the Markan narratives of Jesus’ foretelling of his imminent death (Mk 8. 31; 9.30-32; 10; 33-34) have also been interpreted to ‘prove’ that Jesus was the servant figure in Isaiah. The original historical context of the text, however, indicates that the metaphor of the “servant” stands for Israel in exile. The question here is whether Jesus perceived his death as an atoning sacrifice. As we know, none of the gospels quote from the “servant songs” to interpret Jesus’ death as atoning sacrifice, and the quotations in Mathew (8.17; and 27.57-60) do not discuss atonement. So, we need to ponder how this theology of “a passive victim as the saviour of the world” emerged and dominated our understanding of salvation.

Atonement Theology and Legitimation of Sexual Harm

Atonement theology is central to the Christian faith, and Sunday after Sunday we celebrate the memory of the atoning sacrifice of Christ. But “What happens when violent realities are transubstantiated into spiritual teachings?” This pertinent question posed by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker should invite us to critically engage with atonement theology in the context of intimate partner violence. According to Brock and Parker, “atonement theology takes an act of state violence and redefines it as intimate violence, a private spiritual transaction between God the Father and God the Son. Atonement theology then says that this intimate violence saves life. This redefinition replaces state violence with intimate violence and makes intimate violence holy and salvific.”[3] Atonement theology is thus lethal as it legitimizes terror and torture in the name of God.

Atonement theology is thus lethal as it legitimizes terror and torture in the name of God.

To understand the toxicity of atonement theology, we need to evaluate critically the atonement theories. The Christus Victor model is the first model of atonement to gain popularity in the early church. This objective model of atonement combines the motifs of ransom and victory. In the cosmic battle between God and Satan, Jesus died, but through his resurrection Satan was defeated. Human beings are in bondage to Satan, and Jesus is the ransom that is paid for our redemption.

Anselm of Canterbury developed the satisfaction model of atonement as a corrective to the Christus Victor model. Based on God’s justice, in order to forgive sin God needed satisfaction. Who can pay more than what was taken? Only God can pay such a price. But since the payer must be a human, God sent his son to pay the price. So, for Anselm, Jesus’ death was a divine plan to satisfy divine justice in order to save humanity. This theory not only argues that God requires a sacrifice for reconciliation, but also God derives satisfaction from sacrifice. Sacrifice is theologically prescribed here as a religious practice that tests the loyalty of the faithful. In the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, sacrifice is valorised as an act of responsibility and selfless love.

The third model of atonement is known as the moral influence theory developed by Peter Abelard. This is a subjective model focused on human conversion toward God. Jesus’ death is the manifestation of God’s love for us, and hence his death leads us to conversion.

All these models of atonement focus on the objective reality of Jesus’ death on the cross as the salvific event. Such an understanding of atonement reduces the person and work of Jesus into the magical value of his blood and legitimizes and romanticizes imposed suffering and torture. This is precisely what we see in The Passion of the Christ. By portraying the graphic visuals of flogging and torture as redemptive, Gibson’s gospel becomes religious pornography. The movie provides spiritual pleasure by experiencing the redemption that we received through inflicting pain and torture on Jesus’ body. Atonement theology is sadomasochistic.

Atonement theology is sadomasochistic.

Meditations on the cross informed by atonement theology reiterate imposed suffering and torture as redemptive. Such a faith affirmation compels women to accept passively unjust wounds, hurts, and abuses inflicted on them by their husbands, fathers, lovers, and others. As Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker rightly observe,

“Christianity has been a primary—in many women’s lives the primary—force in shaping our acceptance of abuse. The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the message that suffering is redemptive. …Divine child abuse is paraded as salvific and the child who suffers ‘without even raising a voice’ is lauded as the hope of the world. Those whose lives have been deeply shaped by the Christian tradition feel that self-sacrifice and obedience are not only virtues but the definition of a faithful identity.”[4]

Women who experience the violence of abuse in their homes come to the sanctuary of the Church in search of solace, comfort, courage, and empowerment. But instead they are indoctrinated by the Church to endure the violence as Christ has done on the cross. 

How do we theologically and pastorally engage with these sisters and mothers who have been brutally abused within the intimate Christian institution of family, and treacherously betrayed by the church? Can our theology and pastoral care provide them healing and wholeness?  How can we promise them healing when our central message is the glorification and valorization of self-sacrifice and imposed torture?

“Christian theology presents Jesus as the model of self-sacrificing love and persuades us to believe that sexism is divinely sanctioned. We are tied to the virtue of self-sacrifice, often by hidden social threats of punishment. We keep silent about rape, we deny when we are being abused, and we allow our lives to be consumed by the trivial and by our preoccupation with others. We never claim our lives as our own. We live as though we were not present in our bodies.”[5]

Women and other marginalized communities have contested the Christology of atonement theologies that romanticize sacrifice and suffering. For Rosemary Radford Reuther, Jesus’s vocation was not “to suffer and die.” Rather, “redemption happens through resistance to the sway of evil, and in the experiences of conversion and healing by which communities of well-being are created.”[6] According to Carter Heyward, “We need to say no to a tradition of violent punishment and to a God who would crucify…an innocent brother in our place—rather than hang with us, struggle with us, and grieve with us….Jesus’s mission was not to die but to live.”[7] In other words, the Christ event does not invite women to suffer willingly for anyone’s sake. Rather, the Christ event challenges women to struggle together against the injustice of all human sacrifice, including their own.

What is the theological significance of the tortured and mutilated bodies of victims and survivors of sexual harm as we strive together to create a world devoid of ideologies and practices of domination, exclusion and violence? Dangerous memories, according to Johann Baptist Metz, are “memories which make demands on us. These are memories in which earlier experiences break through to the center-point of our lives and reveal new and dangerous insights for the present.”[8] Dangerous memories are subversive memories. Remembrance of those who have been abused is thus a political, spiritual, and subversive practice, inviting and inspiring us to engage in active resistance against all manifestations of sexual harm and their theological legitimations.

Mark Lewis Taylor’s concept of “anamnestic solidarity” of the victims is instructive here. Anamnestic solidarity, “as a remembrance of the dead constitutes an effect of the dead in the present that re-members, re-constitutes, living communities.”[9] For Taylor, this solidarity with the dead and the tortured affirms that they are co-present in our contemporary struggles for survival and dignity. Their co-presence strengthens those who experience sexual harm today and fight against it. The Eucharist can be understood as an anamnestic celebration of solidarity, which we practise in remembrance of the tortured and abused One. Remembrance of these dangerous memories is a celebration for all who undergo abuse and torture because “every rebellion against suffering is fed by the subversive power of remembered suffering.”[10] The meaning of history lies in the remembrance of those who are crushed by toxic ideologies and social practices. Remembrance of their dangerous memories “anticipates the future as a future of those who are oppressed, without hope and doomed to fail. It is therefore a dangerous and at the same time liberating memory that questions the present,”[11] and empowers all who are destined to live under regimes of abusive power to reclaim their agency and become midwives of a new utopia of hope.        


[1] Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves us, Boston: Beacon Press, 2001, 21.

[2] Aruna Gnanadason, No Longer a Secret: The Church and Violence against Women, Geneva: WCC Publications, 1993, 1

[3] Brock and Parker. Proverbs of Ashes,

[4] Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker: “For God So Loved the World?” in Violence against Women and Children: A Christian Theological Source Book, ed., Carol J. Adams and Marie M. Fortune, New York: Continuum, 1998, 37.

[5] Brock and Parker. Proverbs of Ashes, 36.

[6] Rosemary Radford Reuther, Introducing Redemption in Christian Feminism (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 104–105.Cited in Weaver, Nonviolent Atonement, 125.

[7] Carter Heyward, Saving Jesus from Those Who Are Right: Rethinking What It Means to Be Christian (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 175.

[8] Johann Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology, New York: A Crossroad Book, 1980, 109.

[9] [9] Mark Lewis Taylor, The Theological and the Political: On the Weight of the World, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011, 203.

[10] Metz. Faith in History and Society, 110.

[11] Ibid., 90.

Image: “The Passion of the Christ” by six steps  Alex S. Leung is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view the terms, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd-nc/2.0/jp/?ref=openverse

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Vocation and Violence: The Church and #MeToo

Miryam Clough’s book, Vocation and Violence: The Church and #MeToo is part of the Routledge Focus series (Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible) and it hits the bookshelves this week! In her work, Miryam interviews survivors and church leaders to explore the impact of clergy sexual misconduct on women’s careers and vocational aspirations.

Tell us about yourself, Miryam

I am a Postdoctoral Fellow at St John’s Theological College in Auckland (New Zealand) and a tutor at Ōrongonui, the regional training programme for Te Hui Amorangi ki te Tai Tokerau – a diocese of Te Hāhi Mihingare (the Māori Anglican Church). I have two adult daughters and recently was present at the birth of my first granddaughter in Australia via video call from lockdown here in Aotearoa. Prior to the pandemic I’d lived in the UK since 1990, where I was practicing as a homeopath and working in homeopathic education. I completed a PhD in Theology and Religious Studies at Bristol University/Trinity College Bristol in 2014.

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

I’d published my first book (Shame, the Church and the Regulation of Female Sexuality) in 2017 and was looking for another theology project. A couple of conversations got me thinking about my experience of the church as a young person with a sense of vocation and I decided to explore this further. I was offered a visiting scholarship at St John’s College in early 2019 and was subsequently invited to return in 2020. I didn’t anticipate writing about clergy misconduct – my project was about the experiences of women in the Anglican Church in Aotearoa more broadly – but this subject kept coming up as being pivotal for me and a factor in the lives of other women in the church. Once the book title ‘landed’, I felt compelled to run with it.

In terms of my work overall, my key academic interest is shame – the subject of my PhD – both in terms of how it affects the lives of those who are susceptible to it, and how it is utilised in groups, organisations, and even on an international scale as a means of control. The book is part of a wider research focus on shame in Aotearoa, with particular application to the church and gender violence in various forms.

I realised during my doctoral research, which focused on an Irish Catholic setting (the Magdalen laundries), that it was necessary to look at the national shame caused by colonisation to understand the shame that was inflicted on women in the socio-religious context. In Aotearoa, colonisation continues to be a huge source of shame and intergenerational trauma and some of this is expressed very clearly in gendered relationships and gender violence, including within the church.

Several things particularly captivate me about shame. One is that it is a primary cause of aggression and violence on micro and macro levels (James Gilligan (2003) and Thomas Scheff and Suzanne Retzinger (2001) write about this); another is that it signifies a breakdown in social relationships – which is why it is so debilitating; and a third is that it pulls us away from the things that really matter to us – it can set us on the wrong path. Silvan Tomkins (in Sedgwick and Frank 1995) describes this as an interruption of interest. Each of these aspects of shame is prevalent in the ongoing trauma of both colonisation and gender violence. On a positive note, shame is healed when we are brought back into relationship and this is where churches have a key role to play through restorative action and fostering right relationship.

What are the key arguments of your book?

Essentially, I see clergy abuse as a structural issue which affects the church’s credibility in an increasingly secular world, so I look at the contexts within the church that allow abuse to flourish and at the wider public perception of the church.The church sees itself as welcoming and inclusive, but it has often been adept at pushing people away, especially over issues related to gender or sexuality – whether that’s been women with vocations, members of the LGBTQ+ community, unmarried mothers, or victims of abuse. This is totally at odds with the Gospel and what Jesus was about. While churches will often deny that they are excluding people, the lived experience of those people who feel hurt and unvalued is very real. There’s a fear of contamination of all kinds that underpins much of the church’s thinking throughout history and this goes hand in hand with a kind of moral superiority or self-righteousness. Both fly in the face of the inclusiveness modelled by Jesus in the gospels.

I left the church after a period of clergy abuse because of my own sense of shame and failure, which was fuelled by the way some people in the church reacted to this abuse. Some years later, one of my daughters said to me, “Mum, the church didn’t just lose you – they lost our whole family”. I think this is often the case when people are hurt and leave – others leave with them. When we treat people badly or exclude them, we’re not just hurting those individuals, our actions also affect those who care about them. Certainly, that’s been the case for many victims of clergy abuse, and it’s been similar for women and for the LGBTQ+ community. People are disillusioned with churches because they see churches taking the moral high ground and they see people being hurt. If churches want to build up their membership and have more of a role in contemporary society – and I think it’s essential now, more than ever, that they do – they need to be transparent about who they are and demonstrate that they are working hard to put things right. They also need to be truly inclusive. There’s no room for discrimination. There’s a tendency to a kind of self-satisfaction when churches make tiny steps – look, we’ve done this (ordained a woman as bishop or agreed to bless the relationship of a gay couple), so we can rest on our laurels and go back to business as usual, forgetting that the gender balance in our leadership and governance groups is still heavily skewed in favour of men, that gay clergy are expected to be celibate, that gay couples can’t marry in church, that lay women are overworked and undervalued, and that we’re still, in some of the language of the church, sons of God and brothers in Christ irrespective of our gender. All these issues, which also include clericalism, complementarianism, and purity culture, feed into and support what is essentially a culture of toxic masculinity that enables sexual abuse to go undetected, and to not be adequately addressed when it is disclosed.

The book also speaks to the integrity of the Anglican Church here in Aotearoa in wanting to address the issue of clergy abuse and to change, not least in that two of its bishops, Bishop Te Kitohi Pikaahu and Archbishop Philip Richardson, have actively supported my research. I think this demonstrates an impressive openness, both personally and on behalf of the church, to move forward with this issue. Archbishop Richardson, for example, was willing to give me some concrete examples of situations he is aware of or has had to manage that really demonstrate how attitudes and responses can and have changed, and how our approaches need to be and can be considered and compassionate. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. We need to keep the humanness and fragility of all parties to the fore and be open to exploring what’s really going on, while also holding abusers to account in clear and appropriate ways. In the past the approach has been to silence and ostracise victims, protect abusers, and try to keep the topic out of the public square, and this does no one any favours.

The book has felt timely as Aotearoa is in the middle of its Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care, so churches are having to rethink their approaches and to be upfront about their history. It’s really common for survivors to take many years before speaking up about abuse, and this has been my experience, too. I think having that distance gives perspective and we can be kinder to our younger selves when we are able to be more objective and analytical about the factors that shaped the society we were part of back then. Hearing other people’s stories helps significantly.

Towards the end of the book, I talk about what I see as the way forward – that is, the importance of respectful relationships. Conversely, the absence of respect shows itself in prejudice of all kinds, in theologies that privilege men over others, in purity culture which defines women through a sexual lens, in clericalism which continues to privilege clergy over lay people and gives them a kind of moral immunity. Some of the book concentrates on describing how this plays out, including how I saw it play out in Aotearoa when I was a young ordinand in the 1980s. Paradoxically, in some respects, little has changed.

It was really helpful for me to explore the broader context of my own experience as a young woman in the church and to realise that this was very much a shared experience. So, I focus a lot on language – the language and discourse that shapes our theologies and our actions. Having left Aotearoa in the late 1980s when we were making inroads into the language of the church becoming more inclusive, it was a real surprise to return in 2019 and find a significant slippage in this area, particularly among younger people.

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

One emphasis which is articulated very clearly by both Archbishop Richardson and Dr Emily Colgan, who I interviewed for the book, is the need for education and training across church communities. Policy changes alone won’t make a difference. In Aotearoa there is some excellent training available through the programme that Dr Colgan discusses in the final chapter, and I hope the book may prompt more churches to take it up.

One of my main hopes for the book is that it will promote more honest and open discussion about the nature of the church and its shortcomings, as well as about its aspirations and strengths. The exciting thing about this book for me is the interviews. They model this honesty and openness so well and I hope this will be encouraging for people.  People’s stories illustrate the main concerns of the book so beautifully. The interviews are pretty much verbatim, and the stories and experiences are really evocative. You get the immediacy of the situation in the way that a more theoretical perspective can’t deliver. So really, this has been a collaborative project with some amazing people, and I’m so grateful to them for being willing to share their stories and perspectives. They’ve helped me to work through my own experiences and I think they will help others too. We’ve tended not to talk publicly about abuse in the church. I think it’s vitally important to be open about this issue, or nothing will change. We also need to be honest about our failings because people outside the church see what’s going on and don’t appreciate the hypocrisy.

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

It’s a bit harsh, but I quite like this one:

When we put real women into the frame and examine their experiences in the context of a theology and ecclesiology that continues to undermine them, and that makes women primarily responsible for sex, including sex that is coercive or non-consensual, we begin to gradually chip away at an edifice that has cloaked the liberating message of the gospel in a miserable shell of misogyny and dishonesty.

For me it sums up the systemic nature of clergy abuse and this is the crux of it. We need to acknowledge that clergy abuse is absolutely systemic and that it is the product of toxic masculinity. It’s supported by the language, theology, and structure of the church and until this changes, abuse will be with us. When people speak out about their experiences, as several – women and men – have generously and courageously done in this book, they help to create a better future.

References:

Gilligan, J., 2003. ‘Shame, Guilt, and Violence’. Social Research 70:4, 1149–1180.

Scheff, T.J. and Retzinger, S.M., 2001. Emotions and Violence: Shame and Rage in Destructive Conflicts. Author’s Guild Backinprint.com ed. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse.com.

Sedgwick, E.K. and Frank, A. (eds), 1995. Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader. Durham: Duke University Press.

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Call for participants…! Can you help?

Chrissie Thwaites is a PhD candidate in Theology & Religious Studies at the University of Leeds. You can find out more about Chrissie and her research here: ahc.leeds.ac.uk/philosophy/pgr/3095/chrissie-thwaites

Chrissie works on purity cultures of Great Britain and is about to embark on empirical research.

Please see her call and specifications for participants and the survey link, here: leeds.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/purity-culture

Thank you.

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

Jewish and Christian Women in the Ancient Mediterranean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the key goals of this book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plus the activity box that accompanies this section:

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Clemency and Privilege and Abusers: Another Response

The Shiloh Project logo.

In June of last year, shortly after the public revelations about the conviction of Jan Joosten, then Regius Professor of Hebrew at the University of Oxford, for possession of staggering amounts of child pornography, I published a post with the title ‘Privilege Beyond Bounds’ (see here). This is a follow-up, in the light of Joosten’s publication of a statement on academia.edu (see here).

Exhibit A: IICSA, the Independent Inquiry Child Sexual Abuse, has demonstrated that religious actors, factors, and institutions have been and continue to be in deep when it comes to sexual abuse, including of children. The evidence is overwhelming (see here) and has recently been widely reported in the mainstream press.

Exhibit B: Reliable statistics are difficult to obtain but all indications are that crimes of sexual violence, including crimes related to what is called ‘extreme pornography’, are rampant. Conviction rates are, of course, much lower than incidence. The harm caused and the social cost of such crimes, for victims in particular, but also for many others, including those who work with perpetrators and victims, are profound, far-reaching, and long-term.

Exhibit C: When I was 13, I saw the film Death Wish II, with Charles Bronson. I wish I hadn’t seen it. It was an R16 film (I think) and so I shouldn’t have seen it at my age. The rape scene early in the film has etched itself into my memory. It was traumatising. I am not suggesting it was anything like the trauma of abuse. I’m saying shocking images stay with us.

Exhibit D: Like everyone else who has wide-ranging networks of family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, I have encountered many addicts with various addictions (most common being alcoholism). Most of these addicts do not describe themselves as cured. Many describe themselves as struggling with their addiction, sometimes as managing their addiction. Many do not (or for a long time did not) acknowledge or admit to their addiction, or to the damage it causes.

Into this line-up of exhibits comes the statement from Jan Joosten. Apparently, it was posted on the day of Yom Kippur, the Great Day of Atonement. This will have been deliberate and strategic.

A few quick and important qualifications before turning to Joosten’s statement.

  1. Yes, the ‘exhibits’ above allude both to reports and statistics and to personal observations. All of these are kinds of data. The so-called ‘objective’ and the so-called ‘subjective’ both yield data. Indeed, the sexual abuse of children is a topic that makes me respond emotionally – with horror and outrage and despair. I make no apology for this. I do not believe an emotional response, or a response informed by personal experience, is any less valid.
  2. A post like this serves to give Joosten a platform. I have misgivings about that. I much prefer to champion the incredible research and publications of people like Gordon Lynch, Monica Rey, Gerald West, Ericka Dunbar, and the many others who have, including on forums like The Shiloh Project, shown how research can advance social justice and positive change. I do think, however, it is important to respond to Joosten’s statement. It is another step in our pushback series.
  3. Following on from Point 2, there is so much more to be said on what this post only brushes on – especially concerning the many, many systemic and intersectional ways and means by which members of minoritized and oppressed groups (the socio-economically deprived, citizens of The Two Thirds world, refugees, LGBTQ+ persons, to name just a few) are disproportionately vulnerable to violence, including to sexual violence and trafficking, while those with privilege, even when caught in criminal activity, seem rather impervious, often barely breaking their stride.

Joosten’s statement is as follows:

“After having been sentenced to one year in June 2020, I was released on 11 September 2021. I will never stop feeling remorse for what I did—offending the honor of children and participating in a process that harmed them severely. I also deeply regret the suffering I brought to my family, to friends, colleagues, and students. I cannot set things right. But I do try, in a modest way, to make amends. One good thing that has come out of all this is that I have been able to break with an addiction that had held me for years.

Taking my inspiration from Ezekiel 33:11, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live,’ I wish to make a fresh start. I have changed, but my professional interests, training and abilities are still with me. I plan to go back to work, researching, perhaps publishing, and—who knows?—teaching in the field of Hebrew and biblical studies. I appeal to the clemency of the scholarly world—researchers, students, and publishers. Jan Joosten”

Here is someone who was caught and convicted for possession of some 28,000 images and videos of child pornography. According to newspaper reports, these offences spanned at least six years. There was no mention of Joosten seeking any therapy or clemency until after he was caught and his conviction imminent. This was so despite knowing his actions to be both wrong and illegal.

Joosten’s sentence was light given the scale of his criminal activity. Moreover, he remained, research active in some capacity, albeit with a low profile. According to Wikipedia, ‘Joosten still holds a role at the University of Strasbourg’. Moreover, his academia.edu profile remained up and he has corresponded with other scholars (see the comments section here).

In his statement, Joosten acknowledges ‘remorse’ for ‘offending the honor of children’ (a strange choice of expression to my ears) and for ‘participating in a process that harmed them severely’. He also acknowledges the suffering he brought to persons in his family, social, and work circles. True, he cannot go back in time and undo any of what he did; but this statement is still a long way off from persuading (me at least) that Joosten really ‘gets’ how he comes across, which is as glossing over his crimes and as arrogant.

Granted, academia.edu is not the ideal forum for it – but this statement is not anything like the victim-focused ‘full disclosure’ required at the Truth and Reconciliation hearings in South Africa, for instance, or the earnest reflection, leading to amends at the heart of Yom Kippur (e.g. see here).

What is this ‘modest way’ in which Joosten is making amends? Is he working with law enforcement agencies to identify and bring to trial other sex offenders? Is he helping with grant applications to address and prevent spiritual and sexual abuse? Is he doing voluntary work to benefit communities vulnerable to sex trafficking and other exploitations? Is he finding ways to help widening participation students and emerging scholars from under-represented groups? Is he trying to be mindful of his privilege and of his entitlement?

Rather miraculously, Joosten claims to have broken with his addiction. This addiction held him – like some monstrous jailer (again, responsibility seems to be being pushed away a bit here). If – unlike the vast majority of addicts in my experience – Joosten has found a way to cast off in a mere year an addiction that made him for at least six years ‘particate in a severely harmful process’, a process, or better scandal, that is costing and blighting the lives, prospects, potential, and capacity for joy and fulfilment of thousands upon thousands of children, it would be good to know how this works. I find it hard to believe that Joosten is no longer seeing in his mind’s eye the images he pored over for so many weeks and years. I find it hard to believe that an addiction that enabled him to lead a double life, regularly visiting what he (ickily) called his ‘secret garden’, which he claimed he knew to be wrongful, has been so easily cast off.

Joosten now wishes ‘to make a fresh start’ because he has ‘changed’. He plans to go back to work. It’s rather as though he’s had a ‘time out’ or a dip into another career that wasn’t enough to his liking. It feels a bit like damage limitation before ‘back to business as usual’. But that just doesn’t feel right in this case. For good measure, the Bible is quoted: If the Bible says the wicked can turn from their ways, then why shouldn’t ‘the scholarly world’ give ‘changed’ Joosten the clemency he wants? It’s almost as if refusal of clemency would now be unreasonable, un-biblical.

I know there are very many paedophiles and sex offenders across the world. Even if we take just the ones who have been tried and convicted, it is impossible to keep all of them under surveillance, let alone locked up. I am not suggesting that Joosten be imprisoned forevermore. I’m also not crying for blood – literally, or metaphorically.

I accept that he cannot undo the past and that he is sorry he was caught, sorry that he lost his prestige, and sorry that he brought distress to his family members. I find all of that emotionally plausible. I am less persuaded that he truly understands the magnitude of the crimes for which he was convicted, that he has embarked on making amends, that he has changed, and moved on from addiction. I find all of those implausible, based on the albeit succinct statement, earlier exchanges (see my previous post), and experience of addicts.

Clemency… that is, the quality or disposition of showing compassion, leniency, mercy, or forgiveness, in judging or in punishing. I don’t see myself as representative of, or as representing, ‘the scholarly world’ and I don’t think that as someone who wasn’t anywhere near the frontlines of the grave harm Joosten wrought it’s mine to give.

But I don’t buy this.

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Why we need to address purity culture in the UK

Today’s post is by Chrissie Thwaites, a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds researching purity culture. She will be looking for participants to take part in this research later this year. Chrissie can be contacted by email at prct@leeds.ac.uk and on twitter.

Purity culture and its problems

I’m currently in the first year of my PhD researching purity culture. My working hypothesis is that purity culture has made its way to the UK, and I hope to explore this further through conducting qualitative research later this year. Over here, purity culture seems to appear in a much more muted and insidious form compared to its US counterpart. So for many years it has gone unnoticed. Recently, however, this has started to change.

See, for example, Hannah Baylor’s recent Shiloh Project blog post on purity culture, where she begins to introduce the ways in which purity culture in the UK differs to the US movement, which reached its height in the 1990s and early 2000s. If we are to untangle the influence and impact of purity culture, we need a wider acknowledgement and understanding of its interaction with (especially evangelical) Christianity in the UK.

The interest in purity culture behind my PhD project arose from personal experience. For example, some of my peers encountered the flower metaphor in their church youth groups – a flower being passed around the group, crumpled up, and used as a symbol for (female) virginity. As a teenager I’d heard of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, and today I know of people who continue to recommend it, even after the author’s public apology and statement. Friends have recounted to me how they were told to cover up their shoulders in church, when it was simply a hot day – the implication being their bodies are primarily sexual and problematic for others around them. I know of couples who didn’t kiss until engagement or their wedding day. And more recently, I’ve noticed the new ‘modest is hottest’ trend taking hold in some UK circles, rehashing the classic purity culture tactic of body shaming women.  

To me, these practices indicate a Christian subculture which goes beyond abstinence. It places the responsibility on women for gatekeeping male sexual behaviour, views female bodies as inherently sexual (and as existing primarily for male pleasure), emphasises virginity as the foremost aspect of a woman’s worth, and gets so pre-occupied with delaying sex until marriage that sex is framed as an inherent danger and something negative, rather than something good – often with fateful consequences, even for those who did everything right according to the rules of purity culture.

The need for research and understanding

In the age of #MeToo, we have turned our attention afresh to the long-standing mistreatment of women in its unfortunate variety. Many individuals have begun the hard work of considering the ways in which they themselves, or the organisations, institutions or social structures they are a part of, are complicit in systems of coercion, inequality and subjugation.

In Christian circles, something of a reckoning has begun. Well-known US Christian figure Beth Moore recently made waves by leaving the Southern Baptist Church, having previously been vocal in her criticism of sexism and outspoken in her advocacy of sexual abuse survivors. The likes of Beth Moore, and recent sexual abuse scandals such as those of Ravi Zacharias, and Jonathan Fletcher here in the UK, force us to examine the cases of sexual abuse and harassment that lie behind #ChurchToo. We need to evaluate what’s being taught about women, female bodies, gender, sexual relationships, and power dynamics (especially within marriage). Purity culture has something to say about all of these things, so it has come into focus as something that needs to be addressed.

This is reflected in a growing public interest in purity culture. I was recently interviewed for Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4 as part of a discussion on this topic. I was pleased that purity culture was being given a public platform for discussion, but it disappointed me to see that the media interest didn’t correlate to understanding.

The online summary of this ‘purity conversation’ says that ‘“purity culture” is used in conservative households attempting to promote a view of purity’. This understanding also comes across in the feature itself. Yet purity culture is part of Christian subculture. It relates closely to theologies of gender (such as those of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood), evangelical use(s) of the Bible, and the social-political context of its origins in 1980s-90s USA. That it was framed as a household phenomenon based on parental teaching was therefore very interesting; especially as I hadn’t said or even implied this was the case, and was quite clearly discussing my own experiences from being immersed in evangelical culture. References I made to my own (current) Christian faith were also cut out in the editing process, which again felt like an attempt to remove the religious elements of this discussion and downplay the broader socio-cultural aspects of purity culture.

Within the context of this increasing public interest, it’s important that we discuss purity culture well, clearly, and give space for nuance – rather than employing ineffective caricatures or simply prioritising the ‘spicy’ topics.

Through my PhD, I hope to deconstruct and make sense of purity culture in a way that can be helpfully received in Christian contexts. I want to explore how ideas from purity culture have merged with, and are evident within, teachings on bodies, sexuality, gender, and human nature in UK Christianity. I see my research as part of a budding new area of discussion and research – I hope that you will join in the conversation.

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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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Shiloh Project Interview with Dr CL Nash, Founder of M2M

Please read all about M2M – Misogynoir to Mishpat.

You are invited to the project’s inaugural seminar in the series ‘Decolonizing God’ by Prof. Esther Mombo. The title is: Decolonizing God: African Women’s Epistemic Challenges to Patriarchal Jesus.

This event has now been rescheduled for Thursday 13 May, 16:00-17:30h. Please join via this Teams link.

Launch of the MISOGYNOIR TO MISHPAT RESEARCH NETWORK, and of the seminar series “Decolonising God” (organiser: CRPL Fellow Dr C.L. Nash).

1) Dr CL Nash, tell us a little bit about who you are, and what drives you. Also, what is M2M, which you’ve launched recently?

I am a woman from the U.S. and an independent scholar at the Centre for Religion and Public Life of the University of Leeds, where I manage two research projects. One project deals with religiously ensconced nationalism; and the other, amplifies the religious epistemologies of women of African descent.

This second project has the name ‘Misogynoir to Mishpat’. ‘Misogynoir’ refers to misogyny directed towards Black women, and ‘Mishpat’ is a Hebrew word used in the Bible, which means ‘justice.’ The project is necessary, because the ability and capacity of people of African descent to produce knowledge – such as conducting research, writing and publishing – is often overlooked, pushed to the peripheries, obstructed, or denied. This is especially true for women of African descent. ‘Misogynoir to Mishpat,’ ‘M2M’ for short, will serve as a corrective by resisting and filling this gap in knowledge production. The very title says a lot about who we are and what we strive to do: we strive to move away from the hatred and discrimination of Black women toward fulfilment and social justice.

The challenges for women of African descent are stark, unsettling and undeniable. In my home country, the U.S., for instance, it has recently been revealed that even when all things are comparable (education, training, number of years in work, etc.), African-descended women earn staggeringly less by retirement than their white female counterparts.[i] While there has been a great deal of discourse about the gendered pay gap – and there should be! – African-descended women are doubly discriminated against, and consistently left behind.

Not only are their work contributions valued less and paid less, but there is also other workplace discrimination: such as bullying and other exclusionary practices, including being refused opportunities for promotion, often a consequence of racial biases. African-descended women in the U.S. (to give an example from the setting I’m most familiar with) are significantly economically disadvantaged, as they are also the group who bears the heaviest student loan debt. This means that African-descended women are often precluded from wealth acquisition strategies, such as home purchases, and are also less able to help defray the cost of higher education for their own children, such as via home equity loans. In short, this creates a downward racial-gender spiral.

As an African-descended woman academic, it is concerning to me how invisible we are. A 2017 article, ‘Black Women Professors in the UK,’ shows that white women and women from certain other ethnic minorities are gaining some measure of presence and visibility in universities. But we represent less than 1% of the British academy. Figures in the U.S. are only slightly better.[ii]

While it is good to see diversity increase, with better representation by South Asian women, for example, as an African-descended woman academic, it is concerning to me that our invisibility persists. When we African-descended women are made invisible, so is our research and our writing. In the course of this, the public declarations of universities wanting greater inclusion, are overshadowed by the private resignation to a status quo which continues to deny our relevance and importance.

‘Misogynoir to Mishpat’ deliberately alludes to ‘Mishpat’, a biblical word, because much of the resistance to inequality is grounded in religious institutions, particularly within the Christian faith. Mishpat, ‘justice,’ is a term which occurs in the Bible over 400 times. It is the primary standard by which the Bible writers understood God to evaluate their faithfulness and righteousness as people of God.

Misogynoir is a portmanteau word which combines ‘misogyny,’ or ‘hatred of women,’ with ‘noir,’ which is ‘Black’ in French. The word is apt for me, because it refers openly to the recognition that women of African descent are prejudiced against and nearly non-existent when it comes to representation in the academic study of religions. In the UK, because the term ‘Black’ has often been expanded to include non-African-descended women (that is, ‘anyone “of color”’), the situation of erasure becomes even more acute and problematic.

Through M2M, we are working to cultivate a strong relationship with churches and community activists who share our concerns. There are many issues to address, from lack of representation in politics and higher education, to poverty and over-incarceration, to lack of mental health and other medical resources, and environmental racism – all of which plague African-descended women disproportionately. To give one example, in the U.S. approximately 70,000 Black women and girls are ‘missing.’[iii]This is a staggering statistic. It might point to other crimes: some may have run away from abusive relationships, others may have been kidnapped, murdered, or sex trafficked. But these women and girls matter. They belong to families and communities who feel their absence and need their loss to be acknowledged and addressed to make them feel whole again. M2M has worked to form partnerships with women in various countries including: Kenya, the Netherlands, Ghana, the UK, the US, France, and South Africa. We want to work with African-descended women in religious academia and religious leadership across the globe: women in the World Council of Churches, women who are local pastors, and lecturers and professors in biblical studies, theology and ethics. We are seeking to strengthen the contributions of them all.

2) What are your aims, vision and hopes for M2M?

@Dorret (15/365BLM)

Postgraduate students of color often wish to engage in research which amplifies their own backgrounds and cultures. But these students will disproportionately fail to complete their degrees, or go on to fail their viva. And sometimes – I would venture to say, often – this is because universities do not have qualified academics who can engage with, supervise or examine such research. An examiner may decide that a student is inadequate, because they, as examiner, lack knowledge of what the student has outlined in their research. This means that not only are academics of color under-represented but postgraduates of color also stay under-represented.

Our research network seeks to draw attention to such gaps, so that we can walk alongside and support postgraduate students, in particular African-descended women postgraduates. We can assist in creating mentorship and visibility for them – even when they do not have scholars of color in their institutions. We also want to ensure that the research agendas of African-descended students are supported, that they are hired in full-time tenured posts, and that their work is valued in the university system.

We are proactively engaged in the current funding cycle, with the intention of being able to provide such support. Currently, African-descended women (few as they are) are much more represented as independent scholars than as scholars in stable, permanent posts. This marginalization is exacerbated by institutions not considering them for, or not involving them in, significant grants, or in training on how to make an application for a grant. Moreover, such grants are often not even open to, or actively publicized among, independent scholars. Currently, programs like Marie Currie, for instance, which are highly competitive, in my view effectively bypass people of color without any accountability. This must stop.

Our new M2M website will amplify the voices of women of African descent who are religious leaders or scholars or students of religion and theology by: highlighting their achievements (promotions, PhD awards, new pastoral posts), sharing career and information resources (including publications, but also collegial opportunities, such as funding or grant writing possibilities) and disseminating teaching resources, such as ‘video shorts,’ of 3-5 minutes in length. Taken together, these will explain more about, promote, and celebrate African-descended women’s contributions to academia and religious communities. This will include the ongoing work of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians (‘the ‘Circle’) and by womanist scholars.

We will post monthly profiles of women. Please see our profiles for Mitzi Smith and Esther Mombo! We also have a new M2M blog series: ‘Conversations in Race, Gender and Religion’ (the call for contributions is here) where we examine our intersectionality more closely. We ask, for instance, ‘In what ways can women in Kenya find synergy with women in Sheffield, England? How might their goals differ? How are their goals compatible?’ And this is just one example of what we hope to grow and nurture into a richly diverse resource.

By balancing these needs of religious leadership and academic religious thinkers with community objectives, I hope we will make a significant difference in the lives of African-descended women and girls.

3) The Shiloh Project is focused on intersections between ‘rape culture’, ‘religion’ and ‘the Bible’. There are some synergies with M2M, particularly given the shocking vulnerabilities of Africana (that is, African-descended) women to gender-based and other forms of violence, including in biblical texts and in religious or religiously influenced communities, right up to the present. How can we support each other’s projects and endeavours? 

It’s true that we have a bit of intersection. There are many social issues that womanist scholars, for example, seek to address – and women who emerge from vulnerable communities frequently emphasize wanting to increase the agency of members of their communities.

Historically, Black American women, as one example, have struggled against ‘Christian’ assumptions of the sexual availability of the Black female body. In other words, women and girls who are African-descended, were regularly raped with impunity. Yet, the rhetoric created was that slave holders were ‘bewitched’ by these vulnerable people. White men could rape Black women and girls without being criminalized for it. Instead, the victims were blamed. Christian theology was not guiltless in this.

During the Antebellum, pregnant Black women thought to ‘require’ severe beatings, could be and were beaten, and sometimes beaten to death. A hole was dug into the ground and the woman was placed over the hole with her belly inserted into the ground. This was done to ‘protect’ the soul of the unborn child while the woman’s flesh was beaten from her body, her blood soaking the ground around her.

In Christian teachings, there is sometimes this ‘Platonic’ assumption that ‘the spirit’ and ‘the flesh’ are antithetical to and separate from each another. So, according to this, the body can be destroyed and the spirit spared. But the assumption that a person’s spirit is not aggrieved at the evil of destroying that same person’s flesh, as if we can physically torture the body without causing trauma to the person’s very spirit…

I must visit Toni Morrison’s Beloved to tease this out a bit further. Baby Suggs, a character in the novel, walks with other African-descended people into a clearing in the woods. This is significant, because the woods were frequently regarded as ‘wilderness,’ or as a ‘wild and dangerous’ sphere of uncivilized society.

Baby Suggs preaches a sermon in that forest which tells the members present to revalue their flesh. She encourages them to take every inch of who they are, and to find something there to love – and to love it fiercely. Black beauty was all but an oxymoron to most in 19th century America. To be beautiful, lovable, intelligent, human was to be white. But Baby Suggs encourages people to create a new theology of self love which renounces the hatred espoused by the dominant majority culture.

With that in mind, women who have been abused need to touch those harmed and swollen joints, the discolored limbs, and love themselves. Those who have had body parts torn and bloodied through rape and other forms of assault, must practise looking at themselves, touching and loving themselves. Just as Baby Suggs encourages her congregants to touch the spaces between the grooves of fleshly abuse, so also we, in M2M and Shiloh, need to encourage people to touch and reclaim all those spaces which were stolen. And, like Baby Suggs did, we need to encourage people to love their bodies, hearts and minds.

In fact, M2M can be summed up in this way: Black women from every land and every religion, are summoned to come and kneel at the altar of self acceptance. We want to encourage all of them to love themselves fiercely – body, mind and spirit. And, for those who are academics, we urge them to share that love of mind and spirit in their research and writing. We will walk alongside you. We only ask that when your legs get strong, you do not run away, but you turn to your left or your right, and you walk alongside someone else. As you stand with us, we also will stand with and support the amazing work of the Shiloh Project.

Indeed, we may kneel as hundreds, but we will stand as tens of thousands.

Thank you, Dr Nash. Thank you for telling us about your important work. We look forward to watching M2M grow and thrive.

_____________________________________________________________________

Dr CL Nash recommends the following sites for further reading:

‘Black Then,’ a website to address American Black History, here

‘Black Women’s Experiences in Slavery’ (chapter 2), here

‘Word to the Wise: African American/Black Women and Their Fight for Reproductive Justice,’ here


[i] See the Pew Research Center, which reports the staggering pay differences that can add up to in excess of $1M by the time of retirement. You can see more here and also look at this reference about Black women’s lack of fair pay. For another perspective, see also here. For more statistics on the sharp disparities along color lines, see also this.

[ii] Dr. Nicola Rollock indicates that there are only twenty-five Black female professors (see here). According to her research, this is due to such issues as Black women being bullied, feeling forced to work harder and, ultimately, being drained when working as academics. The Guardian supports her findings. See ‘Black women must deal with bullying to win’, here.

[iii] For more information on the missing Black women and girls in the U.S., please see this reference by the Women’s Media Center. Also, please see the Black and Missing Foundation (here), which also explores the issue of Black Americans missing – an under-reported phenomenon. Because a portion of those missing are presumed to be sex-trafficked, there are activist groups, which are also monitoring and aiding with that situation. Check out Black Women’s Blueprint as one example (here).

@Dorret (15/365BLM)

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Activism in the Biblical Studies Classroom: Global Perspectives – announcing the latest issue of JIBS

The newest special issue of the Journal for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (JIBS Volume 2/1) is out today! This one has the title Activism in the Biblical Studies Classroom: Global Perspectives and is guest-edited by Shiloh co-director Johanna Stiebert

This is the second volume guest-edited by a Shiloh co-director: Volume 1/2 with the title The Bible: Transgender and Genderqueer Perspectives is edited by Caroline Blyth (see here). And a forthcoming issue on Queer Theory and the Bible will be guest-edited by Chris Greenough (see here).

Activism is close to the heart of The Shiloh Project and – unsurprisingly! – many scholar activists known to followers of our blog are contributors to the volume. 

The special edition contains articles on a range of activist causes and methods. Contributions are by: Chris GreenoughMusa DubeRhiannon GraybillDavid TombsMeredith Warren, Eric Vanden Eykel and Sarah Rollens, Tina Shepardson, Zanne Domoney-Lyttle and Sarah Nicholson, Deborah Kahn-Harris and Robyn Ashworth-Steen, Gerald West and Sithembiso Zwane, and Jayme Reaves.

Please take a look, have a read, pass on the word, and act.

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