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Meet Seán Henry and his new book: Queer Thriving in Religious Schools

Book cover: Queer Thriving in Religious Schools

The Shiloh Project caught up with Dr Seán Henry @seandhenry, Senior Lecturer at Edge Hill University, to find out more about his new book, Queer Thriving in Religious Schools. Seán’s book will be launched next week, Wednesday 24th July, 6:30-8:30pm at Edge Hill University – the event can also be accessed online via this registration link: Queer Thriving in Religious Schools | Book launch event | Edge Hill

1. Tell us a bit about you.

My name is Seán Henry and I currently work at Edge Hill University, where I research and teach modules in religious studies, theology, and education studies. Before moving to the UK, I lived in Dublin (where I’m from), where I studied to be an RE and English teacher before moving into higher education. It was in Ireland where I conducted most of the research informing “Queer Thriving in Religious Schools“. 

2. What motivated you to carry out the research for this book?

I studied to be an RE teacher in Ireland, where the vast majority of public schools are privately managed by the Catholic Church. As a gay man studying to be an RE teacher in mainly religious schools, I started my teaching career sensitive to some of the tensions that can play out when schooling, religion, gender, and sexuality meet. After all, it is often assumed that religion and progressive education on sexuality and gender are opposed to one another. At the time, I wondered how it could be possible to be openly gay as an RE teacher in a religious school if you were also expected to align your teaching with the faith tradition of your employer. I was asking these questions at a time of great cultural change in Ireland too: the influence of the Catholic Church was waning, evidenced in Ireland becoming the first country in the world to legislate for marriage equality as a result of a popular vote. So, my research for the book was initially motivated by a desire to respond productively to these questions, in a way that would move beyond setting religion, gender, sexuality, and schooling in opposition to one another. 

3. What impact do you hope it will have?

I hope the book goes some way in challenging the view that Jewish, Christian, and Muslim schooling are always necessarily homophobic, biphobic, or transphobic. Indeed, throughout the book I draw from queer theologies across each of these traditions to show that there are ways of navigating Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions that can allow LGBTQ+ staff and student to thrive (and not just survive) in religious school settings. This is not to say that homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia don’t exist in these traditions. Rather, what I hope my book can show is that Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faith traditions are not only homophobic, biphobic, or transphobic, and that religious school communities can draw from alternative kinds of theologies and stories in building inclusive spaces for LGBTQ+ staff and students. In this sense, I hope the book can broaden educators’ theological and religious imaginations in ways that move beyond religious homophobia and transphobia as starting points for exploring sexuality and gender in religious schools.  

4. What else are you working on?

Often religious, theological, and educational discourses assume children are lacking in agency or autonomy (a lack that religion or education can then “fill” or compensate for). In light of this, I’ve started researching children and young people’s lived experiences of religion, and how these experiences can point to more empowering ways of imagining children’s agency and autonomy in religious and educational spaces. So that’s something I’ve begun to read a lot more around lately. As well as this, I’m currently working on a project with my colleague, Dr Francis Farrell, exploring how religions and worldviews education can help young people engage in civic and political issues. 

5. Where can we find out more about you?

You can find out more about me on my Edge Hill staff profile, here: https://www.edgehill.ac.uk/person/sean-henry/staff/

6. Give us one quote to whet our appetites! 

“The book aims to navigate the relationship between diverse genders, sexualities, and religious schooling in ways that are focused less on whether such antagonisms can be ‘reconciled’ or not, and more on what is made possible for us when such antagonisms rub up against their limits. Put differently, this book does not aim to neatly resolve or erase the tensions that exist between religious schooling and diverse genders and sexualities. Nor does it seek to position religious schooling within a sentimental register that downplays or trivialises the ongoing hetero-and cisnormative violences of religious communities and institutions. Rather, it seeks to showcase what can happen when such tensions are exposed to the ‘condoms and lube’ that often characterise encounters with religions.” (p. 6) 

Dr Seán Henry
Dr Seán Henry
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Conference: Gender and Religious Exit, Moving Away from Faith

Tuesday, 28 November 2023 at 9:00–17:30 

Please use this form to register to attend the online symposium: Registration – Gender and Religious Exit (onlinesurveys.ac.uk)

Organisers:
Dr Nella van den Brandt, Coventry University, UK 
Dr Teija Rantala, Turku University, Finland 
Dr Sarah-Jane Page, University of Nottingham, UK 

From the conference organisers:

There have always been reasons for people to move away from a religious tradition, community or movement. Religious traditions are instrumental in providing individual members with a perspective on the world, a community and a relationship with the divine. Religious communities socialize their adherents regarding behaviour, embodiment and emotions. When people move away from their religion, their experiences may pertain to all or some of these aspects and dimensions. Leaving religion is thus a varied and diverse experience.

The one-day online symposium Gender and Religious Exit starts from the premise that motivations for moving away from religion range from experiencing cognitive or emotional dissonance to social marginalisation to a critique of power relations. The notions of ‘moving away’ or ‘religious exit’ should be considered in a layered and nuanced manner: they raise questions about what exactly individuals consider to leave, and what elements of behaviour, embodiment and emotions remain part of their environments, lives and futures. 

Moving away from religion can thus involve complex processes and negotiations of all areas of life and understandings of the self. An intersectional perspective and analysis of leaving religious is long overdue, since notions and experiences of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race and dis/ability are central in shaping identity and the self. The multidisciplinary symposium invites scholars to investigate the variety of contemporary dynamics of leaving religion in the lives of individuals and communities.

During the opening plenary session, research findings will be presented that emerged from the Marie Skłodowska-Curie funded two-year qualitative research by Dr Nella van den Brandt (Coventry University, UK) on women leaving religion in the UK and the Netherlands. Keynote lectures on gender, feminism, apostasy and non-religion / leaving religion in various national and cultural contexts will be provided by Dr Julia Martínez-Ariño (Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, the Netherlands) and  Prof. Dr Karin van Nieuwkerk (Radboud University, the Netherlands). During parallel sessions, we will further look into current international and intersectional perspectives on moving away from religion.

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The Bible and Violence Project: Meet Joseph N. Goh

Picture of Joseph N. Goh credited to Puah Sze Ning

Joseph N. Goh (he/they/any) hails from Sarawak, Malaysia, and joined the School of Arts and Social Sciences, Monash University Malaysia in January 2016.  Currently a Senior Lecturer in Gender Studies, Goh’s first single-authored monograph entitled Living Out Sexuality and Faith: Body Admissions of Malaysian Gay and Bisexual Men (Routledge 2018) was based on his doctoral project. It analyses and theorises the self-understandings of gay and bisexual men of various ethnicities, classes, ages and faiths on their gender and sexual identities and practices, and their performances of religiosity and spirituality. His second book, Becoming a Malaysian Trans Man: Gender, Society, Body and Faith (Palgrave Macmillan 2020), was the first dedicated academic volume on Malaysian transgender men, and won the ‘Ground-Breaking Subject Matter Accolade’ in the IBP 2021 Accolades in the Social Sciences category of the ICAS Book Prize 2021 competition. His third sole-authored volume, Doing Church at the Amplify Open and Affirming Conferences: Queer Ecclesiologies in Asia (Palgrave Macmillan 2021), was the first in-depth theological study of a series of Christian conferences in Asia by and for LGBTIQ-affirming churches, communities, organisations and individuals. Goh has also co-edited several anthologies with Robert E. Shore-Goss, Hugo Córdova Quero, Michael Sepidoza Campos, Sharon A. Bong and Thaatchaayini Kananatu. He is a member of the Emerging Queer Asian Pacific Islander Religion Scholars international group (EQARS), and sits on the advisory board of the Queer Asia Book Series (Hong Kong University Press), as well as the editorial boards of the Queer and Trans Intersections Series (University of Wales Press) and QTR: A Journal of Queer and Transgender Studies in Religion (Duke University Press).

Goh, along with his collaborators, was awarded the Vice-Chancellor’s Diversity and Inclusion Award (2018) and Pro-Vice Chancellor’s Excellence in Diversity & Inclusion Award (2022) for the development of the Understanding Gender Inclusivity in Malaysia training module at Monash University Malaysia, which serves to create greater awareness of the issues, needs and concerns of LGBTIQ people in the interest of equity, diversity and inclusion. With research interests in LGBTIQ studies, human rights, sexual health, theology, spirituality, religion, and qualitative research, Goh’s two present projects focus on the complex and controversial operations of SEED Malaysia, the first transgender-led community-based organisation in Malaysia, and the manifold spiritualities of Malaysian Christian transgender women.

Goh’s contribution to The Bible and Violence Project is a book chapter entitled ‘A Triptych of Biblical Violence Towards Gay and Transgender Christians: The Case of Malaysia’. Cognisant of the multifarious ways in which the Bible continues to be weaponised against people of diverse genders and sexualities in his home country, Goh argues that there are three parallel and mutually interactive dynamics in the production of Christian violence against LGBTQ Malaysians: (i) official Bible-based ecclesiastical pronouncements against gender and sexual diversities; (ii) scriptural de-legitimisations of gay and transgender people as personally experienced in churches and faith communities; and (iii) insidious practices of conversion therapy. He demonstrates how non-affirming Malaysian Christianity galvanises and preserves the vulnerability of LGBTQ Malaysians, branded as ‘sexually broken’, with far-reaching consequences beyond the immediate use of the Bible as ‘sacred’ arsenal.

Goh owns a personal website at https://www.josephgoh.org/

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The Bible and Violence Project: Meet Alex Clare-Young

Bible picture with a 'warning' sign.

I’m Alex Clare-Young and I am a creator, a writer, a member of the Iona Community, an ordained minister in the United Reformed Church and a transmasculine non-binary person. That last bit means that I was labeled as female at birth and have transitioned towards male, and that I now identify outside of the binary genders of male and female. I use the pronouns they/them or just my name. I am currently in ministry in Cambridge City Centre, where I particularly work with those who have experienced exclusion and isolation, including those who have suffered church-related trauma. I am also an associate tutor at Westminster College, Cambridge. As well as this chapter on transphobia, violence and the Bible, I am also currently working on a chapter about trans pregnancy for a volume on pregnancy and theology and on a book, Trans Forming, which arises out of my PhD thesis on trans identities and theology and will be published by SCM Press in early 2024. 

Alex Clare-Young

For me, there is an inextricable link between biblical interpretation and transphobic violence. I do not only mean transphobic violence perpetrated by Christians. I mean all transphobic violence. That claim rests on the words “You are either a man, or a woman”. Those words, or words like them, are heard regularly by trans people just before a verbal, psychological, physical, spiritual or sexual attack. They can also be found littering our media – print, audio, screen, and social – daily. I was asked yesterday how it feels to be trans when, at the moment, people are debating our existence very publicly all of the time. The reality is that it feels like violence. Those words – man on the one hand, and woman on the other, are not scientifically or historically founded. Rather, they are found in interpretations of scripture. They are not found in scripture itself but in interpretations thereof. That is why I believe strongly in this chapter. It is essential that people of good will continue to challenge the narrow interpretation of scripture that grounds daily violence against trans and non-binary people. 

As a trans person, I would rather stay as far away from the topic as possible. It would be safer. As a human being, and particularly as a human being who claims to be a part of the Body of Christ, I cannot ignore this violence or the voices of those who are suffering. That is why I write.


If you are involved in the Bible and Violence Project and want to be featured on this blog, please contact Johanna ([email protected])

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Support to Survive

Support to Survive is a space which acts as a survival kit for those doing feminist, queer, decolonial, and trauma informed church work. In this post, Rosie Clare Shorter reflects with Tracy McEwan, Steff Fenton, and Erin Martine Hutton on why they started the Support to Survive community.  

When you begin a research degree, people throw all sorts of ideas and tips in your direction. ‘Keep your notes in a systematic manner,’ they say, at a university induction, as though no-one has ever recommended this before. And you nod diligently, and then go home to a hundred multicoloured Post-it notes scattered over your desk. ‘Write drunk, edit sober,’ suggests a parishioner during an online church service in the middle of Covid-19 lockdowns. ‘Research is lonely; find your people,’ was a common piece of advice at academic conferences.

Research certainly can be lonely, but it doesn’t have to be.

As we each worked on our respective research and wrote about gendered, racist, and sexist exclusion and harm in Christianity, we realised that our work was sometimes isolating. At times, it even felt alienating and risky. You can feel incredibly small when you stand up and call out heterosexist ideology. When you name sexism and racism within long-standing and well-resourced institutions. When you name it as harmful and violent. When you say that church teaching and culture can be a contributing factor in disaffiliation, intimate partner violence, homophobic, and transphobic harm and violence. Even when you know that there is a growing body of research behind you.

It can feel lonely, too, because this work can be not only theoretical and academic for us. It can be personal, and lived, too. For some of us doing this work, we have direct experiences of gendered, sexist, and racist harm within Christianity. We carry our own experiences with us as we research. As we hear the stories of others. It is also almost impossible to research and write about gendered, racist, and sexist exclusion and harm in Christianity without being impacted by what we read, hear, and learn.

Yet, our research also brought us together.  The more we did this work, and discussed it with each other we realised we weren’t alone, and we weren’t the only ones saying these things. We quickly realised that similar projects were happening across different faith traditions, from different angles, and in different disciplines; sociology, studies of religion, theology and biblical studies.

That’s part of why we started Support to Survive.

We started Support to Survive because we didn’t want to stand on our own, and we wanted a way to stay connected. We wanted to know we had someone to hold our hand when we didn’t feel brave. Someone to read our drafts when we felt unsure. We wanted peers to stand with, collaborate with and celebrate with. We wanted to cultivate health and healing together.  We wanted to slowly build a network, so that together we could have support to survive.

On our blog you’ll see the claim, ‘survival is a team sport.’ When you engage in feminist, queer, and decolonial work, having the support of others can be what keeps you afloat. Community keeps you going.  Sara Ahmed (2017, 235) contends that: survival ‘refers not only to living on, but to keeping going in the more profound sense of keeping going with one’s commitments. … Survival can be about keeping one’s hope’s alive; holding on to the projects that are projects insofar as they have yet to be realized. … Survival can thus be what we do for others, with others. We need each other to survive; we need to be part of each other’s survival’.

We’re not 100% sure what this space will look like as it grows. When we first discussed setting up some sort of network we had Ahmed’s depiction of a feminist killjoy survival kit in mind, and thought about how we could become part of each other’s survival kits. How we could help assemble a survival kit for others doing similar work. We firmly believe that if we are to keep on being committed to finding ways for religious institutions, organisations and communities to be safer and more inclusive, we need each other to survive. We might even find a way to thrive in this work as well.

In Complaint! Ahmed talks about how we chip away at institutional sexism, racism and violence. This work is slow, especially if you are chipping away on your own. We started Support to Survive because we wanted company while we chipped. We wanted to know we were chipping in the right places. We wanted support to keep on chipping away. We wanted to know someone else would carry on chipping when we were tired and needed a break. We wanted others to reassure us its ok to stop chipping when we need a break. We needed friends to encourage us to let go of the work when we were too close to it to realise. Working collectively matters. On our own, our voices are small, our chipping is minimal, but as Ahmed (2021, 277) reminds us, ‘we are not alone. We sound louder when we are heard together; we are louder’.

Doing this work in community is central to surviving.


We first imagined Support to Survive as a survival kit for people doing feminist, queer, decolonial and trauma-informed work and research within Christian organisations and communities. However, it is our hope that in time, Support to Survive will be an interdisciplinary and multi-religious space where many people share ideas and resources, and find a community of hope and healing. We want to create space for ‘coalitional thinking’ (Butler 2004, 11) – one of us might be particularly focused on how the religious institutions can contribute to primary prevention in Domestic and Family violence, while another is focused on how Christian churches can read the Bible to promote more expansive understandings of gender. Together, we can see how our specific projects contribute to broader conversations. Together, we can chip away at the walls of cisheterosexism and racism that are maintained by the harmful (mis)use of theologies and doctrines. Together, we can feel less alone. Together we are part of a movement of change.

We can support one another, even if the particular focus of our work is different. We want to collectively build a toolkit that contains a range of resources –  ideas, conversations, events, resources, friendships – that help us to do what we do. We’re hoping that our website can be a place where we can platform each other’s work, share new ideas on our blog and recommend existing resources. To get going, we’re hosting an online gathering on July 26 which will be a chance to think about what care and compassion looks like in our work and research practices.

Come join us as we slowly build a network and continue to chip away at sexism, queer exclusion, racism and violence in religious and faith-based settings.

Rosie Clare Shorter (She/her) is a feminist researcher interested in religion, gender and sexuality. She works in research and teaching roles at Deakin University, the University of Melbourne and Western Sydney University.

Tracy McEwan (PhD) (she/her)  is a theologian and sociologist of religion and gender at the University of Newcastle. Her research interests include women in Catholicism; domestic and family violence; and sexual and spiritual abuse

Steff Fenton (they/them) completed their Master of Divinity at the University of Divinity in 2021. They are a trans Christian speaker, writer, educator, and advocate who publicly shares the intersections of being queer and Christian. 

Erin Marine Hutton (She/her) is an award-winning scholar and poet whose interdisciplinary research is aimed at preventing violence.

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Introducing the Contributors to “The Bible and Violence” – Barbara Thiede, Holly Morse and Adriaan van Klinken

Bible picture with a 'warning' sign.

Happy New Year! Year 2023 will be a busy year for The Bible & Violence Project. Today we introduce three more contributors. Each of them demonstrates why this project is relevant and important, and why research-based activism matters. We are happy to introduce Barbara ThiedeHolly Morse, and Adriaan van Klinken. (Reading about these three contributors in turn, we think they should meet!).

Barbara Thiede is an ordained Rabbi and Assistant Professor of Judaic Studies at the UNCC (University of North Carolina Charlotte) Department of Religious Studies in the USA. Her work focuses primarily on the structures of hegemonic masculinity and the performance of masculinities in biblical texts. She is the author of Male Friendship, Homosociality, and Women in the Hebrew Bible: Malignant Fraternities (Routledge, 2022) and Rape Culture in the House of David: A Company of Men (Routledge Focus, 2022). She is currently working on her third book (under contract with Bloomsbury T&T Clark), which focuses on the biblical deity’s performance of masculinity in the Books of Samuel. She will be writing the chapter on Violence in the David Story and co-authoring, together with Johanna Stiebert, a chapter on the Ethics of Citing Violent Scholars.

I argue in my second monograph, Rape Culture in the House of David: A Company of Men, that David’s capacity for sexualized violence is not only tremendous but very much valorized in and by the text; and it is exactly this capacity, which (in terms of the ideological orientation of the text) makes him an ideal king. But David does not act alone (rapists don’t). Hegemonic masculinity and the structures that support and promote it make rape culture possible and make it thrive. Male-male relationships of all kinds in the David story undergird and support sexual violence. Servants, messengers, courtiers, soldiers, generals, advisors – these men collude and participate in, condone, and witness sexual violence throughout the narrative. Rape is not so much a topic as a tool – and it is used against men as well as women. If we cannot call out the violence the Hebrew Bible authorizes, we give our tacit consent to the rape culture it presents and by extension, to the rape cultures it legitimates and which we ourselves inhabit.

For the same reason, I cannot ignore an ugly reality in academia: that there are scholars who commit violence through sexual harassment, bullying, and rape; scholars who have participated in technology-based gendered violence, and who have preyed on children. These are scholars whose presence in our midst confronts us with fundamental questions about the nature of our guild. Hegemonic masculine systems have protected such scholars from censure and criminal conviction for decades. Together with Johanna Stiebert, we want to ask: do our ethics permit us to cite the work of violent predators?

We cannot afford apathy, indifference, or denial; we cannot afford to collude or condone. It is our task to resist violent texts and violent authors – especially when these are given authority and power to harm and abuse. Doing so might provide some healing and hope. And: it is an ethical imperative.

_______________________________________________________________________________

Holly Morse is Senior Lecturer in Bible, Gender and Culture at the University of Manchester in the UK and specialises in the Hebrew Bible and gender-based violence, as well as in biblical reception – especially visual and popular cultures. She also has broader interdisciplinary research interests in knowledge, magical and spiritual activism, heresy, and gender. Holly is author of Encountering Eve’s Afterlives: A New Reception Critical Approach to Genesis 2-4 (Oxford University Press, 2020). In this book, she seeks to destabilise the persistently pessimistic framing of Eve by engaging with marginal, and even heretical, interpretations which focus on more positive aspects of the first woman’s character. Holly has also written on biblical literature, gender, feminist activism, trauma, abuse, and the visual arts and popular culture. Holly is co-founder of the Bible, Gender and Church Research Centre, with Dr Kirsi Cobb (Cliff College). Together they are now working on an AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) funded research network around the topic Abusing God: Reading the Bible in the #MeToo Age.To date they have hosted one colloquium focused on coercive control, with another on hypermasculinity due to take place in April 2023. Holly is writing on Gender-Based Violence in Visual Art on the Bible.  

Survivors and victims of gender-based violence frequently attest to feeling that they have been left voiceless and silenced, as a consequence of the actions of their attackers, but also of the social systems which fail to provide them with support and with justice (see Jan Jordan Silencing Rape, Silencing Women, 2012). This theme of voicelessness is present, too, in the troubling texts of terror in the Hebrew Bible – the narratives of Dinah and the Levite’s pilegesh, or the law of the nameless, captive, non-Israelite “brides” of Deuteronomy 21; these texts and many more feature characters who are denied a voice in the wake of brutal attacks on their bodies and on their personhood. A growing field of powerful scholarship within biblical studies acknowledges and explores the significance of witnessing the silent trauma of these accounts across the centuries. It is into this conversation that I hope my paper for the Bible and Violence project will speak, but this time focusing on a different aspect of witness and gender-based violence – visibility. 

Despite the fact that 1 in 3 women globally are subject to physical and/or sexual violence, the harrowing frequency of these offences is met with a woeful rate of conviction rendering the majority of gender-based violence against women and girls invisible, hidden crimes. This lack of visibility of the abuse of women is further compounded by the fact that around 90% of rapes are committed by acquaintances of the victims, and often within the broader context of domestic abuse and intimate partner violence. In many ways, the Hebrew Bible too elides violence against women. With no specific language for rape, with laws that seem to accommodate abuse of female persons, and with accounts of what likely describe violent, sexual attacks on women mired in euphemism and narratorial disinterest, trying to render biblical survivors and victims of gender-based violence visible to the reader is often a challenge. In my paper for this project, I want to think about how visual art can help or hinder us in acts of witness to the experiences of biblical women at the hands of their abusers, and in turn offer opportunity to think further about tools for moral and ethical readings of ancient authoritative texts in our contemporary world.


Adriaan van Klinken is Professor of Religion and African Studies at the University of Leeds, where he also serves as Director of the Leeds University Centre for African Studies and the Centre for Religion and Public Life. He also is Extraordinary Professor in the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice, University of the Western Cape, South Africa. Adriaan’s research focuses on religion, gender, and sexuality in contemporary Africa. His books include Kenyan, Christian, Queer: Religion, LGBT Activism and Arts of Resistance in Africa (2019); with Ezra Chitando, Reimagining Christianity and Sexual Diversity in Africa (2021); and with Johanna Stiebert, Sebyala Brian and Fredrick Hudson, Sacred Queer Stories: Ugandan LGBTQ+ Refugee Lives and the Bible (2021). 

Sebyala Brian (left), Adriaan van Klinken (centre) and Fredrick Hudson

In recent years, I’ve had the privilege to work, together with my colleague Johanna Stiebert, with a community of LGBTQ+ refugees based in Kenya. Most of the refugees originate from Uganda and left that country in the aftermath of its infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which created a strong social, political and religious culture of queer-phobia. They sought safety in Kenya, only to discover that this country, too, is largely hostile towards sexual and gender minorities. 

From my first encounter with this community, back in 2015, what struck me was their faith, and the strength and comfort this gave them in the struggle of their everyday lives. As I was invited to prayer and worship meetings at the shelter run by a community-based organisation, called The Nature Network, I observed first-hand how these LGBTQ+ refugees created a space where they affirmed each other, shared their faith, read and talked about the Bible, and joyfully expressed their belief in God. 

Together with two of the leaders of the Nature Network, Sebyala Brian and Fredrick Hudson, Johanna and I developed the Sacred Queer Stories project. Here, we aimed to explore the intersections of bible stories and the life stories of Ugandan LGBTQ+ refugees. More specifically, we examined the potential of reclaiming the Bible and using it to signify the queer lives of LGBTQ+ refugees in East Africa. This is important because, in the words of one of our participants, “The Bible is often used against us, but in this project we reclaim it as a book that affirms and empowers us.” The results of the project were published in our jointly authored book, Sacred Queer Stories: Ugandan LGBTQ+ Refugee Lives and the Bible.

In our contribution to the Bible and Violence project, we will build on our collaborative work with the community of LGBTQ+ refugees, to explore the strategies of creative and contextual bible reading that we developed in order to read the Bible against queer-phobic violence. We will show how the Bible, on the one hand serves to reinforce existing power structures and social inequalities, but on the other hand can also be used for purposes of community empowerment and social transformation. Indeed, we put our Sacred Queer Stories project in the well-established queer tradition of ‘taking back the Word’, not allowing the Bible to be owned by homophobic preachers and politicians, but to reclaim it in a quest for liberation and freedom. As a case in point, we will discuss the work we did around the story of Daniel in the lions’ den, which in our project was re-narrated and dramatized in the contemporary context under the title “Daniel in the Homophobic Lions’ Den”. 

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16 Days of Celebrating Activism… the Statement by the Wijngaards Institute!

Today we celebrate ‘The Academic Statement on the Ethics of Free and Faithful Same-Sex Relationships’, which was guided and published by members of the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research. The Statement was launched in May 2021. You can find it here. (Shiloh followers will see some familiar names among the signatories.)

If you are homosexual or same-gender-loving and devout, to be told the faith community, spiritual leaders, sacred scriptures, or deities you hold dear condemn who you are and whom you love is violence.

Such condemnation has caused significant harm to untold human lives over a considerable span of time. 

The Roman Catholic Church is the largest Christian Church, the largest religious denomination, and the oldest and largest continuously functioning international institution, with around 1.5 billion members worldwide. It has also contributed significantly to this harm, which can rightly be called a form of religious violence or spiritual abuse

(Courtesy of Shutterstock Images)

The aim of the Statement, which exists in multiple languages (with more translations under way), is first, to alert Vatican authorities and Catholic bishops across the world to the disconnect between papal teaching, on the one hand, and recent academic scholarship about human sexuality and sexual orientation, on the other. Second, the Statement aims to bring rigorous scholarship to the endeavour of creating and promoting inclusive Christian communities. 

The Statement is of value particularly to those who desire a robust theological and scriptural foundation when they challenge and confront homophobia that is generated by Christian figures, or that uses Christian scripture or theological concepts.

The Statement is not the last word on the matter. However, it makes a positive contribution towards challenging the sexualised toxicity, violence and discrimination that is homophobia. 

There are more conversations that need to continue alongside the Statement. These include conversations about the problematic content of biblical and other religiously authoritative texts and what best to do with and about such content, about abusive theologies, and abusive and abuse-tolerating religious institutions and hierarchies, and about the possibility of fulfilling relationships that may with integrity reinterpret the word ‘faithful’ to mean something other than ‘monogamous and life-long’.

The Statement is meticulously researched and makes its case persuasively and powerfully. We hope it will be widely read and disseminated. Above all, we hope it will achieve its aims and reduce homophobia and the suffering homophobia brings.

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Disobedience: Reading the Sacred Text Otherwise

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

Disobedience: Reading the Sacred Text Otherwise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REFERENCES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Charles Landelle, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Academics Behaving Badly

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


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

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

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

  • Unwanted career advice:

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

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

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

  • Uninvited research ratings:

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

  • Unwelcome responses:

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

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

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

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

Of course, I didn’t fit in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why am I sharing this?

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

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

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

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


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

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Purple Diva

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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