The recently published book Rape Culture and Religious Studies:Critical and Pedagogical Engagements is edited by (Shiloh contributor) Rhiannon Graybill, Meredith Minister, and Beatrice Lawrence. This review is by Barbara Thiede, Department of Religious Studies, UNC Charlotte.
Rape Culture and Religious Studies is an important book for all Shiloh Project supporters. Please order copies for your courses and libraries! More details can be found here.
Rape Culture and Religious Studies
Edited by Rhiannon Graybill, Meredith Minister, and Beatrice Lawrence
Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2019 (vii + 207 pages, ISBN 978-1-4985-6284-3, $95.00)
Once the #MeToo movement was taken up by celebrity (and white) victims of sexual harassment and assault, it sparked a public conversation that spread across the globe. A wide range of media outlets offered venues for personal disclosures, painful discussions, and, it was hoped, increased awareness of the rape cultures women are forced to navigate every day.
Religious studies teachers, in the meantime, continued to address sexual violence in the texts and traditions they studied. And yet: conversations in Religious Studies classes, that so often focus on class and race, gender and sexuality, sexual violence and abuse, seemed detached from the rape cultures that (literally) surround students and teachers alike.
In their co-edited volume, Rape Culture and Religious Studies, editors Rhiannon Graybill, Meredith Minister, and Beatrice Lawrence put the question: how do religious texts and traditions that justify, support, and maintain sexual violence intersect with contemporary rape culture?
The volume contains an introduction and nine essays. It includes studies that treat Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu traditions. Topics are wide-ranging. T. Nicole Goulet, for example, assesses the place and power of recently emerging “sacred literature” in the discussion of sexual violence and rape culture. Her discussion of Priya’s Shakti, a comic book that emerged after the gang rape and death of Jyoti Singh Pandey in 2012, describes how the comic revived Hindu practices while urging women to “speak without shame.” Goulet notes that while the comic does not critique existing power structures, the women it invites to speak have done so. Goulet’s essay demonstrates: there are significant intersections between religious tradition and contemporary rape culture.
Other essays provide similar insight, sometimes with surprising effect. Minenhle Nomalungelo Khumalo asks what happens when we read the biblical gang rape and death of the Levite’s Concubine in Judges 19 as a rape fantasy, one which can be profitably compared with non-consensual pornography. Kirsten Boles explores the way #MosqueMeToo can be situated when #MeToo adherents engage in racializing sexual violence; such as when Islam is accused of inherent misogyny and Muslim women are depicted as needing to be saved from violent brown men by Western (white) feminists. Meredith Minister offers a trenchant critique of the fetishizing of consent to counter rape culture. In her essay, she makes clear why consent, too, is an instrument of power. Rhiannon Graybill explains why analyzing rape culture demands more nuanced approaches to issues of harm, describing the relationship between race, sexual violence and colonialist visions of women as victims. She also points out that the Religious Studies classroom which addresses rape culture must deal with the ambiguities sex and sexual pleasure introduce to the discussion.
Some essays disappoint. Susanne Scholz’s essay on what she calls “cop-out hermeneutics” not only fails to offer new or innovative insights, it also deploys language about students that seems potentially flippant (“students may shed tears” when asked to relinquish “privatized, personalized and sentimentalized” biblical meaning). Teachers in Religious Studies classrooms can aim to ensure that their students feel safe when they are introduced to academic analysis of their religious traditions. No one benefits from internal eye-rolling or dismissive responses to this challenge.
But other essays in this volume provide models for Religious Studies teachers, like the essay by Gwynn Kessler, which demonstrates deep pedagogical self-reflection. Kessler also offers a model lesson plan that layers Deuteronomist texts on genocide, slavery, and rape and consciously brings those texts into conversation with contemporary manifestations of violence and sexual abuse. She walks the reader through her lesson plan, providing a fine example of thoughtful pedagogy for teaching texts of terror.
When I teach texts of sexual violence in the Hebrew Bible, I know that one – or more – students in my classroom will likely self-disclose in some way; rape victims are among my students. Rape Culture and Religious Studies acknowledges that survivors sit in our classrooms and that many come from religious traditions that promote or, at least, make a home for sexual violence.
Religious Studies teachers and their students live and work on campuses where rape culture is normalized. Today, teachers of religious traditions and sacred texts cannot afford a pedagogy that examines sexual violence of the past and simultaneously shuts out the rape culture of the present. Religious Studies teachers should read Rape Culture and Religious Studies. It will help us begin the work of exploring, analyzing, and exposing the intersections of religion and rape culture. That, too, is our work.
Barbara Thiede, Department of Religious Studies, UNC Charlotte