Today’s post is by two Shiloh Project members, Caroline Blyth and Emily Colgan, who talk about some of the challenges they have faced and the pedagogies they have adopted when teaching biblical texts of terror in the classroom, focusing in particular on their own cultural location in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Tough Conversations: Teaching Biblical Texts of Terror
Caroline Blyth and Emily Colgan
The Bible is a violent book, its pages crammed with “texts of terror” that attest to the ubiquity of gendered violence in biblical Israel. Its narratives confirm the commonality of wartime rape (e.g., Judges 21), forced marriage (e.g., Deuteronomy 21:10–14), and sex slavery (e.g., Genesis 16). We read stories of stranger rape (e.g., Genesis 34), acquaintance rape (e.g., 2 Samuel 13), and gang rape (both threatened and actualized; e.g., Genesis 19; Judges 19). Turn to the prophetic texts and we are offered numerous metaphorical renditions of spousal abuse and intimate partner violence, perpetrated (or at least sanctioned) by Israel’s jealous deity (e.g. Hosea 1–3; Ezekiel 16, 23). Meanwhile, biblical laws uphold the structural violence of patriarchal power, which grants divine mandate to the rigidly prescriptive and proscriptive control of women’s (and sometimes vulnerable men’s) bodies, while normalizing their social, sexual, and religious subjugation (e.g. Leviticus 20:13, 18; 21:9; Numbers 5:11–31; Deuteronomy 22:23-29). Other laws and teachings have been and continue to be (mis)used by theologians, biblical interpreters, and other interested readers to validate homophobic and transphobic intolerance, as well as the delegitimation of queer and transgender identities (e.g. Leviticus 18:22; Deuteronomy 22:5; Matthew 19:4; Romans 1:24-28).
As biblical scholars who wrestle with these texts of terror, we are all too familiar with the emotional toll that this work can take. But are also aware that our engagement typically takes place in the relatively safe confines of academic publications and our own research environments. It is quite another matter, however, to take this conversation into more public spaces, particularly those that lie at the heart of our roles as educators: the classroom. Within such spaces, we need to watch where we tread, for we enter a minefield scattered with contesting perspectives, resistant voices, and the potential to engage with others in ways that can be either healing or harmful. In this blog post, we offer a personal reflection about our attempts to navigate these spaces, specifically in our own context of Aotearoa New Zealand.
First, though, a few details about us. We are both practitioners employed in the New Zealand tertiary education system. Caroline works in a religious studies department at a secular university, while Emily teaches in a theological college. Both of these institutions are located in Auckland, the largest and most multicultural city in Aotearoa New Zealand. This is reflected in our student cohorts, who identify as Māori, Pākehā (understood here as inhabitants of Aotearoa New Zealand of European descent), Pasifika, and Asian; we also host a significant number of international exchange students (predominantly from the United States and Europe). In terms of religious affiliation, Caroline’s university students typically come from a range of faith backgrounds or none, while Emily’s students are Christian.
Regardless of our different teaching locations, we both share a common pedagogical goal: to encourage our students to engage critically with the biblical texts, whatever their faith background. Neither of us approach biblical studies from a faith perspective; rather, we come to the text with a hermeneutic of suspicion, keenly aware of the role the Bible plays in shaping contemporary discourses, both locally and globally. While we both respect the fact that this ancient book holds sacred authority for many of our students, we are committed to teaching biblical interpretation that is rooted in a framework of critical thinking. Nevertheless, as we will discuss below, this teaching pedagogy comes with its own challenges.
In a number of our courses, we introduce students to biblical texts that depict various forms of gender violence. We don’t include these texts to shock or antagonize our students, or to provide them with the classroom equivalent of clickbait. We do it because, like it or not, these “texts of terror” are in the Bible. For some Christian students, this may come as a surprise, as the biblical texts we talk about are rarely the focus of church sermons or Bible study groups. For non-Christian students, there is often a sense of disbelief that a book which carries huge religious and cultural weight contains such problematic portrayals of gendered violence. But to exclude these texts from our course syllabi and lecture schedules would be doing our students a huge disservice; for, to properly understand the Bible, we must have the integrity to confront it in its entirety, regardless of how tough the ensuing conversations might prove.
With this in mind, how do we teach our students about biblical texts of terror? Particularly, how does our location of Aotearoa New Zealand—a country with one of the highest rates of gender violence among developed countries in the OECD—inform the ways we approach these troubling texts? As biblical scholars and educators, we are not claiming that the Bible (or Christianity more broadly) is the sole source of the incredibly high rates of gender violence in Aotearoa New Zealand (or elsewhere in the world); we do contend, however, that it must be interrogated as a text that both supports and perpetuates such violence, particularly given the Bible’s colonial legacy within this country. We cannot afford to ignore the potential for biblical traditions to contribute to the harm experienced by countless victims of gender violence who live with us upon this land. This conviction has informed our scholarly engagement with biblical texts of terror in three ways.
First, when talking to people about biblical texts of terror, we must always be sensitive to the very real possibility that some of our audience may be affected personally by gender violence. With this in mind, we always ensure some basic steps are taken to minimize our own potential to further the harm they may already have experienced. We take time at the beginning of lectures to remind our students that we will be talking about gender violence, acknowledging that we are aware some people might find this topic especially confronting. We also invite anyone who does feel distressed by the content of our discussion to talk to us directly, or to contact appropriate support services (the details of which we provide at the start of our presentation). Equally important, we remind everyone how important it is that the space we are in remains a safe space for everyone; discussions must therefore be carried out with a sensitivity to others’ diverse perspectives and experiences, and a commitment to hold each other’s words and testimonies in confidence. What we share in the lecture room stays in the lecture room.
Second, we acknowledge that among our audiences, there may also be those who participate in the social structures that sustain gender violence. This can be incredibly challenging, particularly when class members voice rape-supportive, homophobic, or transphobic opinions, or try to downplay the seriousness of gender violence in both the biblical texts and their own contemporary cultures. We have had students tell us that the Bible “clearly” condemns homosexuality, or that biblical rape victims must have “deserved” their assault, or that the perpetrator of gender violence was somehow “justified” in their actions. This is particularly common when the perpetrator is a biblical “hero” (like David) or even the biblical God themselves.
Of course, this kind of response doesn’t just happen in the classroom. We have both sat in a biblical studies conference here in Aotearoa New Zealand when the mere mention of “same-sex marriage” in the context of biblical theology provoked an outburst of disdainful laughter. At a similar conference, we listened as a colleague began his presentation with a joke about physically assaulting his wife, much to the amusement of many attendees. Trying to retain a level of professionalism while maintaining the safety of our discussion spaces is a fine line to walk. We are committed to calling out cisheteropatriarchal discourses expressed by members of our audience, be they students or colleagues. This is surely our responsibility as academic role models and, let’s face it, as decent human beings. These conversations can be difficult, but they are also a learning opportunity, where we remind ourselves and others that the gendered violence evoked in the biblical texts can still have consequences in our own contemporary contexts and communities.
Third, the practices we outlined in our last two points reflect our commitment to our role as critic and conscience in wider society. We need to stress to our students (and to some of our colleagues) that the issue of biblical gender violence matters, particularly because ancient sacred texts continue to have power in contemporary communities to sustain discourses of violence and intolerance. Some of our students will take what they learn from our discussions back to others—Bible study groups, youth groups, or simply family and friends. We remind them that their own engagement with biblical texts of terror have the potential to impact other people’s views of gender and gender violence. As Linda Day notes, the students in our classrooms “will be responsible to a wider public, and hence must learn to be aware of how they are either serving or harming others through their methods and results when interpreting the Bible”.
Yet, within our classrooms, conversations about the Bible and gender violence are not always easy to negotiate. We engage with biblical scholarship in a bicultural country, and, situated in Auckland, we are located in one of the most ethnically diverse cities within that country. Our classrooms reflect this diversity. Some of our students belong to cultures that embrace traditional gender roles and hierarchies, which normalize and sustain various forms of gender violence. How do we critique such violence when, for some of these students, it is so closely woven together with their own cultural identities? How do we challenge the unacceptable violence of patriarchy, misogyny, and all forms of intolerance to LGBT communities, while still being sensitive to others’ investment in their cultural traditions? To what extent can we invite our students to critique the traditional underpinnings of their own cultures, particularly when we ourselves do not belong to these cultures? These are incredibly thorny questions, which highlight that issues of colonization and marginalization constantly intersect with discourses of gender violence. We are conscious of the fact that, as educators who self-identify as Pākehā, we always run the risk of “colonizing” our students’ own cultural contexts, of prioritizing our western value systems and ideologies over their own diverse worldviews. At the same time, however, we must always invite them to join us in our quest to each scrutinize our own cultural traditions with integrity, and to acknowledge that all of our cultures and communities are, to some extent at least, complicit in sustaining the discourses that enable gender violence to flourish.
Another thorny issue we are often confronted with is not unique to Aotearoa New Zealand, but is encountered by biblical scholars teaching biblical texts of terror throughout the world. For many of our students, the Bible is not only their course “textbook”; it is also their sacred scripture. When we invite them to interrogate its texts and identify the problematic ideologies around gender violence voiced therein, we often encounter resistance, or even a refusal to do so. Some find it too threatening to engage with any reading of a text that (in their eyes) challenges its authority, or appears to undermine its message of “Good News.” They may refuse to discuss, or even consider, the potential for biblical texts of terror to convey “Bad News” to people who have themselves been impacted by gender violence. Instead, they suspend their critical faculties, unwilling to recognize the violence within the text, even though they’d likely acknowledge and condemn the same violence were it to appear in other non-biblical writings.
Moreover, Christian readers of the Bible (be they students, academics, or otherwise) often resort to performing an impressive display of interpretive gymnastics to sanitize the text and preserve its sacred reputation in which they are so heavily invested. Prophetic re-enactments of spousal abuse are dismissed as “harmless metaphors”; biblical laws that sanction wartime rape are justified as “relatively humanitarian” compared to other Ancient Near Eastern legal codes; and biblical heroes such as Abraham and David, who perpetrate unequivocal acts of gendered violence, are excused because they are “doing God’s work,” playing a vital role in Israel’s (and ultimately Christianity’s) wider redemptive narrative. Meanwhile, biblical texts that offer a potentially subversive alternative to cisheteronormative discourses—such as the David and Jonathan narratives (1 Sam 19–20; 2 Sam 1), the book of Ruth, the Samson and Delilah saga (Judg 16), the Judas kiss (Mark 14:43–45), and the eunuch traditions (Isa 56:3–5; Acts 8:27–39)—are typically given very “straight” readings, with their queer potentialities either ignored, ridiculed, or denied.
Yet such exegetical contortions only serve to sustain a vicious cycle of interpretation and affirmation that protects the destructive power of biblical texts of terror. As critic and conscience both in and beyond the biblical studies academy, we therefore have to equip our students to consider the capacity of the text to perpetuate gender violence in all its forms. While affirming our respect for everyone’s faith traditions, we nevertheless reiterate to them the responsibility we all have to ask searching questions about biblical texts. We remind them of the power that language—particularly sacred language—has to impact the lives of real people and their experiences of violence. And, most importantly, we offer them a safe and non-judgmental space within which they can interrogate and explore their sacred scriptures.
In all honesty, sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Some of our students have told us that they truly appreciate the opportunity to discuss gender violence, which remains such a taboo topic in their own cultures and communities. When they encounter such violence in the biblical narrative, they feel empowered to talk openly about these issues in church and family contexts. As sacred scripture, the Bible can mitigate strict cultural taboos, offering a point of entry for discussions around contemporary instances of gender violence. The Bible ceases to be an “otherworldly” text that has little relevance to everyday life, and becomes instead a means by which social praxis is fostered and enacted.
Yet at other times, our attempts to talk to students about biblical gender violence are far less well received. We still encounter those who disengage, or become frustrated with the subject matter. Some even project their frustrations against us—the bearers of “Bad News”—articulating their hostility in discussions, emails, and their written work (not to mention on social media). We have been accused of “misreading” the biblical texts, of having a “feminist agenda,” or being “biased towards LGBT concerns” in our research and teaching, and of being “anti-Christian” in our approach to scriptural traditions. Such encounters can be demoralizing, frustrating, and exhausting—both for ourselves and for those students who feel as passionately as we do about our responsibilities as critic and conscience. At the end of the day, though, these criticisms only serve to reinforce for us the importance of persisting—and persisting and persisting—with these tough conversations in Aotearoa New Zealand and beyond.
Aotearoa is the most widely-used Māori name for New Zealand, and often precedes its English counterpart when the country is written or spoken about. The precise origins and meaning of Aotearoa are uncertain, but it is often translated as “land of the long white cloud.”
This rather wordy word sums up quite neatly the dominant discourses within western cultures that normalize cisgendered, heterosexual, and hegemonic masculine identities while simultaneously othering or delegitimizing anyone who does not fit into these categories, be they transgender or gender diverse, other-than-heterosexual, female, and/or non-compliant with traditional masculine ideals.
Linda Day, “Teaching the Prophetic Marriage Metaphor Texts,” Teaching Theology and Religion2, no. 3 (1999): 173–9 (citation p.174).
Day, “Teaching the Prophetic Marriage Metaphor Texts,” p.176.