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

Photo of Chris Greenough.

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

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

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

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

What are the key arguments of this book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Q&A with Nancy Tan, author of Resisting Rape Culture: The Hebrew Bible and Hong Kong Sex Workers

Resisting Rape Culture book cover by Nancy Nam Hoon Tan.

Nancy Nam Hoon Tan has featured as activist on the Shiloh Project. From Singapore, where she is now resident, she taught Hebrew Bible at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her published work demonstrates acute sensitivity to power dynamics, focusing particularly on the intersections and tensions between gender, ethnicity and notions of belonging. Nancy’s earlier work showcasing this includes her monograph The ‘Foreignness’ of the Foreign Woman in Proverbs 1-9 (De Gruyter 2008) and her chapter on women, colonialism and whiteness in The Bible, Centres and Margins (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2018).

Her latest book is in the Routledge Focus Series Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible. Entitled Resisting Rape Culture: The Hebrew Bible and Hong Kong Sex Workers (2020), this a tour de force combining scholarship and advocacy.

Here is a Q&A with Nancy…

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

For many years I was based in Hong Kong, where I taught and researched the Hebrew Bible. I opine that interpretations of biblical texts, both by academics and by faith communities, matter— maybe especially for individuals and communities who use the Bible to guide how they should behave and act. But the Bible and how it is interpreted also has bearing on society well beyond this – maybe more so than we think.

Most of my work has focused in some way on women, gender, power and oppression – and this book is no exception.

While living in Hong Kong, I volunteered as a teacher of English at the Jei Jei Jai Association (JJJ), the city’s first self-help and independent organization run by sex workers. This opened up for me the opportunity to get to know the sex workers as friends and to learn about their profession. This engagement also confirmed for me that the current interpretations of biblical texts on “prostitutes” and “prostitution” promote stigmatization and victimization of today’s sex workers.

With the help of Ms Sherry Hui, the co-ordinator for JJJ, I was able to hold the reading exercises on biblical texts with the sex workers that are at the heart of this book. It was Professor Johanna Stiebert who invited me to contribute the outcomes of these reading exercises in the framework of “rape culture”. Indeed, this couldn’t have been more apt, because the injustices that Hong Kong sex workers are subjected to stem from rape culture. And so… here is the book!  

2. What are the key arguments of this book?

First, this book debunks rape myths such as: “sex workers cannot get raped”, “sex workers are immoral and deserve punishment”, and “if women don’t resist, they aren’t really raped”, etc. The book shows how such rape myths contribute to the escalating violence that Hong Kong sex workers are facing.

Second, the book also shows that biblical scholars rarely consider how certain biblical texts and interpretations of them, too, promote stigmatization of today’s sex workers and rape culture. This is thrown into relief by engaging Hong Kong sex workers in the reading and analysis of three biblical texts of the Hebrew Bible where the Hebrew root word znh, often translated as “prostitute” occurs: namely, Genesis 38, 1 Kings 3:16–28 and Hosea 1–3. Each reading unpacks where rape culture and the stigmatization of sex workers lie and through the sex workers’ standpoints, these texts are revealed in a new light.   

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

I hope readers will see the humanity and dignity of sex workers. Sex workers deserve to be respected in every way, and the hatred that society has mounted against them is cruel and unjust. I hope this book will change the way we talk about and the way we treat sex workers. 

I also hope that this book will persuade readers that interpretations of the Bible need to be re-evaluated. I hope it will encourage readers to ask themselves, “Do interpretations do justice to marginalized communities today? Do they promote hatred and reinforce oppression?”

I hope readers will be informed and come to realise how subtle and dangerous rape myths can be: rape myths find support from biblical texts, and, consequently, biblical texts can become justifications for violence against humanity.  

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

“One of the sex workers disagreed with the statements the others made concerning women’s decision to return to abusive men because of the children. … She would not allow anyone to harm her in this way and would rather lose her life to fight for freedom. …She said if women would not protest against such wicked threats on their lives, then the children would not learn to fight for what is right and just. In this way, cycles of abuse continue. She regretted that that is how abusive men keep oppressing women…” Find it and read the rest!

Photo of Nancy Nam Hoon Tan.
Nancy Tan

Nancy’s book is available for pre-order (see here) and will be dispatched by 1 September.

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COVID-19 Lockdown Series: Mmapula Kebaneilwe

A Bit about myself:

I am Mmapula Diana Kebaneilwe, a Womanist scholar and Senior Lecturer of Hebrew and Old Testament Studies at the University of Botswana. I did my PhD with the University of Murdoch in Western Australia, and completed in 2012. The title of my Thesis was “This Courageous Woman: A Socio-rhetorical Womanist Reading of Proverbs 31:10-31.” (The thesis can be found online here.) I have a wide range of research interests, including; women and the Bible; HIV, Aids, the Bible and women; women, gender and the Bible; the Bible and environmental issues; rape culture, gender and the Bible. Above all, my keen interest concerns gender justice and hence, researching on issues relating to women is important to me. The quest stems from my own context, which is patriarchal and marred by gender-based violence.

What I have been up-to during the COVID 19 Lock-in

To be honest, COVID 19 has left me confused, worried and without motivation or energy to do much. However, as the lock-in proceeds into the third week in my country (Botswana), I seem to be unstiffening a bit and I guess I am now getting accustomed to my ‘new normal’ of being just at home. I believe I am also getting to grips with the current reality and learning to live with the fact that the entire world is faced with a pandemic and everyone is affected in some way or other. On a more positive note, I have been doing what I enjoy most, which is gardening. I have started a small vegetable garden, which I have mixed with my usual plants and flowers that I tend every day. I find this very healing to my soul.

I also have a lot of academic work to do during this time (much of it is backlog from a few months ago). The work includes co-editing for a volume on ‘Mother Earth’, a book project, which is a collaboration with different scholars who presented papers at the 2019 Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, held in Gaborone, Botswana. I am also working on my book, which is adapted from my PhD thesis and which has come back from a second round of the review process, just a few days ago. I have also received back reviews for a chapter that I am contributing to a project on #Jesus Too, edited by Jayme Reaves and David Tombs.

Aspects of my work, past and present that might of interest to the Shiloh Project supporters?

I think some of my work that might be of interest to supporters of the Shiloh Project may include first, my PhD Thesis (2012). This is so because in that I explore some of the issues that relate to the intersection between, the Bible, culture (in this case Botswana culture) and women. Attention is paid to the portrayal of a woman in rather strong and affirmative ways in Proverbs 31:10-31. Such is not commonplace in the Bible. I bring the portrait into engagement with how women are treated in my culture, especially in relation to their male counterparts and in relation to marginalization and disadvantages for women on different levels. My conclusion is that the text of Proverbs 31:10-31 unapologetically advocates for gender equality.

Another of my past works that may be of interest is an article titled “The Vashti Paradigm: Resistance as a Strategy for Combating HIV.” Ecumenical Review 63/4 (2011): 378-384. As the title suggests, in this article I see Vashti, a female character in the biblical book of Esther, as a heroine. Her subversiveness and defiance in the face of male oppressive authority celebrates her dignity as a woman. I advocate that Vashti can speak also to those who find themselves in similar situations of oppression. My conclusion is that despite the potential danger in challenging oppressive systems, cultures and contexts, like Vashti did, ‘it is never too late to say no to oppression’. 

A forthcoming article might also be of interest, “The Untold Story of Mrs Noah: The Hebrew Bible, Gender and Media: An Intertextual Critical Discourse Analysis.” This is forthcoming in the BOLESWA Journal of Theology (2020 sometime). This piece is co-authored with a colleague and friend, Dr Sibonile  E. Ellece, from the English Department of the University of Botswana. We try to reconstruct the life story of the wife of Noah. We argue that because of its androcentric nature, the Bible tends to omit the stories of many women, including that of Noah’s wife. We call the otherwise unnamed woman ‘Mrs Noah’ in order to problematize the un-naming, which not only obscures but virtually erases her identity. Our conclusion is that in our patriarchal contexts, too, women often suffer from a lack of media coverage, conveying the sense that their stories do not really matter, at least not as much as men’s stories. But in reconstructing Mrs Noah’s story, using intertextual critical discourse analysis, we maintain that she was a woman of courage: a wife, a mother, a home-builder and Noah’s pillar. She, too, like her legendary husband, must have professed strong faith, ensuring her survival and that of her family, while most of the entire world perished.

What is helping me most during this unprecedented time of COVID 19?

Like I mentioned before, gardening and decorating my home is something I enjoy doing. I spent my first day of lockdown painting one of the rooms in the house. I love it. I then started spending mornings and evenings doing some gardening, which includes planting vegies, trimming duranta plants, cultivating the soil around my little roses and other flowers, and just cleaning the yard – stuff I often do not have much time to do under normal circumstances. I have since been doing some yoga and pilates each evening in order to stretch my otherwise aching joints. This has been very helpful and is making me feel good, both physically and emotionally. I have now added some skipping rope exercises where I do 300 skips a day and that makes me feel fantastic. Of course, I am also trying to stay away from frequent visits to the kitchen and the fridge for some nibbles, because though these are particularly accessible ‘places’ currently (given the stringent restrictions on movement) it is not such a good idea to spend too much time there.

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COVID-19 Lockdown Interview Series: Dawn Llewellyn

I’ve never used the phrase ‘these are strange times’ as often as I have over the past few weeks! On the day my Department closed its doors, I went into my third year class at 2pm and when it ended at 3.30pm, I was told we were being sent home and had to leave the building by 6 o’clock. I quickly grabbed books and papers that I thought I might need, rescued my office plants, and colleagues and students said goodbye to each other without the usual hugging! For the final year undergraduates, they have been deprived of the traditional ‘end of year’ closure – the stress and celebrations that go along with writing up dissertations and their last assessments, and all  students felt the abrupt end to the academic term. In some ways, I’m enjoying working from home, pottering in our small back yard, undertaking a bit of DIY, doing on-line exercise classes, keeping up with household chores that never get done (yep, the skirting boards and shower tiles are gleaming), but I know it is a privilege to live with my partner, Bran, and for us to be relatively safe and secure, and to continue working. I am, of course, missing our lively Department and the bustle and business of term time, but we’re staying in touch with virtual coffee every day (we do this in real time too!). I’m so impressed and heartened by the way our students are adapting and coping with studying at home, some of them in challenging and very difficult circumstances during a very anxious time for them and their families. They are supporting each other and us  brilliantly,  and with good humour that brightens up the day. Yesterday, during a 3rd year catch up on TEAMS, two of them turned up with superimposed images of Trump and Johnson on their heads…they sort of know my left-leaning politics.

Like everyone, my usual routine is out of kilter. This coincided with the spring vacation, when I took some annual leave and switched off email, admin, and writing for a week or so.  In January, we had arranged to remodel our kitchen during March and April, and before the lockdown we had ripped out our existing cupboards and cabinets, and unplugged the dishwasher and oven; it’s a shell of a room at the moment. For five weeks we’ve been cooking on a two-ring camping stove on our living room floor, washing up outside, and contributing heavily to the local Chester foodie scene by relying on the places that are offering take-aways. I keep telling myself we’re glamping and it’s an ‘adventure’.

I’ve got a few projects on the go. I’m working on a chapter on methodology in the study of religion and gender for a Handbook edited by Emma Tomalin https://ahc.leeds.ac.uk/philosophy/staff/142/professor-emma-tomalin and Caroline Starkey https://ahc.leeds.ac.uk/philosophy/staff/1161/dr-caroline-starkey  – I’m a qualitative researcher so enjoy getting my methodological geek on. My new book, Motherhood, Voluntary Childlessness, and Christianity explores women’s religious reproductive agency in Christianity and their narratives and experiences of ‘choice’,  and I’ll be getting that finished for Bloomsbury during my research leave later on this year. I’m also working with Sian Hawthorne https://www.soas.ac.uk/staff/staff31080.php and Sonya Sharma https://www.kingston.ac.uk/staff/profile/dr-sonya-sharma-57/ on the Bloomsbury Studies in Religion, Gender, and Sexuality series https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/series/bloomsbury-studies-in-religion-gender-and-sexuality/ , and we’ve just launched a call for chapters for a new Bloomsbury Handbook on Religion, Gender, and Sexuality that we are editing together. We’d be delighted if Shiloh readers and members considered contributing! https://bloomsburyreligiongender.wordpress.com/

How am I coping? Well, I’m a swimmer and usually train about 4 times a week. April is the start of the open water swimming season when the rivers, lakes, and seas start to warm up enough to stretch out in ‘skins’ (just a swimming costume, no wetsuit). Normally, I’d be prepping for  5km and 10km events in the summer but instead I have taken up some surprising hobbies. I’ve started taking our friend’s dog, Sidney, for walks (they’ve just had a baby) and have found him to be an excellent listener as I talk at him (he’s great on career advice); I’ve discovered Radio 3; I have found out that I really like trashy TV (Making the Cut and Next in Fashion, anyone?); I’ve bought a hoola hoop; and I’ve completed a jigsaw. I barely know myself.

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COVID-19 Lockdown Interview Series: Rhiannon Graybill

1. Tell us about yourself. What have you been doing and are you able to work during this COVID-19 lock-in? 
I was already on sabbatical before social distancing started, so for me it’s been less of a change to my daily routine (especially since I was already doing my writing from home). I’m also at the point in my research where I’m mostly writing, rather than researching things, which is very lucky given that all the libraries are closed. I’m trying to stick to my pre-pandemic pattern of working on my book in the morning and then other projects in the afternoon or evening. Of course, I’ve been having trouble concentrating and getting work done, but I’m not being too hard on myself about that — we’re in a pandemic, these are not normal times! On a personal note, my husband is also an academic and working from home; we don’t have children and we’re not currently taking care of any family members (or home schooling!). This gives us a very different experience of shelter in place than other friends and colleagues, especially those with kids, and I’m very sympathetic to what they’re juggling right now. 

2. Which aspects of your work past and present might be particularly interesting for supporters of the Shiloh Project? 
Right now I am finishing up a book called Texts after Terror: Rape, Sexual Violence, and the Hebrew Bible, which is a study of biblical rape stories. I argue that the frameworks we use to talk about sexual violence in the Bible are dated and un-feminist, and that we need new models for reading and theorizing “rape stories” (a term I use to refer both to biblical texts about rape and to texts that involve rape culture more broadly). One model that I offer in the book is a framework for describing sexual violence as “fuzzymessy, and icky” — fuzzy in that it’s not always that clear what happened or how it was remembered, messy in its consequences, as well as in the ways that sex and bodies are often messy, and icky in the ways that sexual violence fails to fit into neat patterns of evil perpetrators and innocent victims. I first developed this argument in a lecture I gave at the Shiloh Project’s inaugural rape culture and religion conference in 2018 in Sheffield; it’s even posted on the website! In  addition to this book project, I’m also finishing up an edited volume on Margaret Atwood and the Bible with my colleague Peter J. Sabo called “Who Knows What We’d Make Of It, If We Ever Got Our Hands On It?”: The Bible and Margaret Atwood  — the quote in the title is fromThe Handmaid’s Tale, a novel that I’m sure many Shiloh Project supporters know well. 

3. How are you bearing up and what’s helping you most? 
Like a lot of people, I’ve been video-chatting with friends and family, which has definitely helped. Yesterday, my niece turned one, and we all celebrated together on Zoom and watched her eat her first cupcake (she loved it!) I’ve also been reading a lot of murder mysteries, just to give myself a break. My family is all far away in Montana, and my friends are scattered all over the place, so there are a lot of people I’m worried about. 

4. Send us a picture that captures your COVID-19 days.
Here’s a picture of my research assistant helping me with my book project! 

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COVID-19 Lockdown Interview Series: Ruth Everhart

Tell us about yourself. What have you been doing and what are you working on during this COVID-19 lock-in.
I’m an author and pastor, although I find it difficult to be both at once! This fall I’ll celebrate my 30th anniversary of ordination, and for the last nine years I’ve put a lot of energy into writing while pastoring part-time.
Two of my three books could be classified as “spiritual memoir.” Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land (Eerdmans, 2012) takes the reader along on a transformative pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine. Ruined (Tyndale, 2016) tells the story of a traumatic experience of sexual violence when I was 20 years old, and explores how that shaped my life and faith through the next decade. 
My new book (InterVarsity Press, Jan 2020) is The #MeToo Reckoning: Facing the Church’s Complicity in Sexual Abuse and Misconduct. In this book I widen my lens to tell other people’s stories as well as my own, and intertwine those stories with scripture. 
So far during this Covid-19 lock-in, I’ve been following up on podcasts and articles related to my #MeToo book launch. My speaking engagements have been cancelled, of course, so I’m doing more videos and webinars than I had planned to do.
I would love to begin to think about “the next thing” but it’s been challenging to find mental and emotional bandwidth during a time of global distress!

2. Which aspects of your work past and present might be particularly interesting for supporters of the Shiloh Project?
My memoir Ruined explores how my religious upbringing shaped my response to a brutal rape by two African-American strangers — and the response of the Calvinist faith community in which I was submerged. The title is a synonym for shame, which engulfed me. My viewpoint alternates between the 20-something Ruth who felt ruined, and the self who became a pastor and found healing in a larger faith tradition.
My more recent book is The #MeToo Reckoning: Facing the Church’s Complicity in Sexual Abuse and Misconduct. The interplay between current and ancient stories of abuse may be of particular interest to the members of the Shiloh Project. In the introduction I itemize the lenses I bring to the work: “My interest in sexual assault and faith is not academic. I wrote this book because I felt called by God to do so, and could find no excuse to refuse (although I did search for one). I bring certain lenses along with me. As a rape survivor, I am passionate about justice for victims and accountability for victimizers. As a former “good girl,” I am conversant with the conservative subculture. As a committed Christian, I am tenacious about loving Jesus, who first loved me. As a pastor, I spend my days swimming in Scripture. As a wife, I am one half of what turned out to be an egalitarian marriage, thirty-five years and counting. As a mother, my heart walks around outside my body with two daughters, a fact that will keep me poking and prodding the church toward greater gender equality as long as I live. Most of all, as an author, the response to my earlier writing about assault has softened my heart and thickened my skin. I will not be bullied by blowback or made callous to the plight of my sister survivors, and brothers as well. It is time for a reckoning.”

3. How are you bearing up and what’s helping you most?
I am in a very fortunate situation. I am “locked-in” with my husband, with whom I am very companionable. There is plenty of room and quiet for each of us to pursue our own work. We are doing yoga each day and going for walks in the fresh air as often as possible.
We are very grateful for technology which allows us to see the faces of our loved ones — our two grown daughters who each live alone about an hour’s drive from our home, and our two aged mothers, each living in a facility a great distance from us.
Every one of us is living with a great deal of pain and loss right now, on a personal level and a societal level. I find that naming these losses — even trivial ones — and then naming that for which I am grateful, helps me feel more centered and settled during this most unusual Lent. Because I tend toward the contemplative, the practice of praying for others is also essential.
I also look forward to a few ounces of tawny port and a dose of Netflix each evening!

4. Send us a picture to capture you or your work in these COVID-19 days.
I do quite a bit of supply preaching, and had agreed to help a local Presbyterian congregation for a few weeks, which turned out to be the beginning of lockdown. The picture, taken by my husband, is of me preaching via FB Live in my study, with an improvised worship space created by a purple stole, a cross on the wall, and a few sprigs of forsythia.

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COVID-19 Lockdown Interview Series: Helen Paynter

  1. Tell us about yourself. What have you been doing and what are you working on during this COVID-19 lock-in? I have a number of roles, which I’m trying to juggle effectively in these strange days. As Director of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence at Bristol Baptist College, I’m continuing to work on books we’re editing, and a reading group I’m convening. I’m also, rather distractedly, trying to get on with writing a paper on retellings of the conquest narrative. Since the lock-down started, I’ve also been appointed Biblical Studies tutor at Bristol Baptist College, to start in August (DV). My other main role is that I’m a Baptist minister, sharing the care of a local church. So my colleague and I have been discovering the joys of online services, zoom leadership meetings, and trying to offer pastoral support to people over the phone. Most importantly, I’m doing my best to be a non-anxious presence for the congregation, and to help people to stand firm in their faith in these scary times. Some of this will be shifting around soon, however, as I’ll be returning to work as a doctor in one capacity or another, three days a week. I hung up my stethoscope 13 years ago, so this is a rather scary thought, but the NHS is offering intensive retraining and good support, and once a doctor always a doctor! So this will probably mean that my research will have to be put on hold for a while, though I will continue to serve the church as their minister.


2. Which aspects of your work past and present might be particularly interesting for supporters of the Shiloh Project?
I think they might be interested in my recently published book on a terrible act of sexual violence in the Bible (Telling Terror in Judges 19: Rape and Reparation for the Levite’s Wife), and my forthcoming one on the use of the Bible in domestic abuse (The Bible Doesn’t Tell Me So: Why you don’t have to submit to domestic abuse and coercive control).
I’m very concerned about the problem of domestic abuse in these days, as people are trapped in homes with abusers, and frustration and anger are riding high. I understand that nine women were killed in their home last week. I’ve been trying to help raise awareness of this issue, and to highlight that refuges are still open and that this constitutes an acceptable reason for leaving lockdown.


3. How are you bearing up and what’s helping you most?
I’m doing okay most of the time. I’m incredibly grateful that we have a garden, and we’ve been playing a lot of swingball! I’m trying to keep a good daily and weekly routine, which includes writing the day in large letters in our hall(!), making sure I always get dressed, and exercise regularly. There are five of us at home here – I’m very grateful that our two student daughters have been able to come home to be with us. We’ve been having some great family times, including a riotous quiz evening, board games (if you’ve never played Terraforming Mars, it’s utterly addictive), and recreating famous works of art very badly! (See pictures.)
Above all, I’m appreciating regular a rhythm of prayer throughout the day, which really helps me to recentre myself. In the mornings, I ‘gather’ with colleagues from the Baptist College to pray. After our evening meal, as a family we have been using the Northumbria evening prayer together – great words for a time of darkness (see here). And at bedtime I’ve been streaming an Anglican church’s evening office. Three very different traditions, and all very helpful.

(Helen is also during self-isolation giving a ‘Tour of the Bible’ in daily short recordings. Here is her recording of Judges.)

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The #MeToo Reckoning: Book Review

Reflection on and review of The #MeToo Reckoning: Facing the Church’s Complicity in Sexual Abuse and Misconduct, by Ruth Everhart (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2020).

This is not the kind of book I usually pick up – but I’m glad I did. Why might I not have picked it up? The author, Ruth Everhart, is a Presbyterian pastor, and she writes of Jesus as a presence and of the Bible as instrumental in addressing sexual abuse and misconduct in today’s churches. I am not drawn to church, and for me, doing something ‘because of Jesus’ (the title of one sub-section early on in the book), or treating the Bible as a kind of how-to for protecting the most vulnerable (signified by ‘the little ones’ of Matthew 18), as much as I applaud Everhart’s purpose, is utterly unfamiliar. Like humanizing one’s pets, or talking to the dead, I see nothing wrong in theory with believing in Jesus’ active presence, but at the same time it’s just not ‘me’.Moreover, I’ve tended to see the Bible as more part of the problem in matters sexual abuse than part of the solution.

Some of Everhart’s writing struck me as too ‘churchy-preachy’ to warm to. Hence, I almost put the book away when I got to, ‘[Jesus’] love changes everything. He is the divine one who came into this world via vagina. To Jesus, women’s bodily experiences matter. To Jesus, all humans bear the image of God equally. To Jesus, the voices of victims crying out for justice is a beatitude sung by a chorus. Stop and listen. Push past the fear. Unleash the energy. The Spirit is here’ (p.15). But I pushed past, persevered, perhaps in part, because Everhart had said at the outset that the book was addressed to victims, survivors, allies of victims and survivors, pastors, lay leaders and also to non-Christians. 

I had ordered Everhart’s book, because I came across it as forthcoming while researching my own book on rape culture and #MeToo. In my book I make much of the enduring influence of biblical texts, particularly in faith communities. And yet, can I really say this with authority, given my own remove from such communities? I preordered Everhart’s book and began to read it soon after it arrived, hot off the press. It is a book that – much to my own surprise – engaged me; a book I admire and warmly recommend. It has taught me much and given me some insight into new perspectives. Here are a few things I particularly like about this book.

Everhart knows what she is talking about and sticks to what she knows 

Everhart is a rape survivor. She has written a memoir about her ordeal, when she and her roommates, all young students at a Christian college, were held at gunpoint and raped by two intruders. The memoir is called Ruined(Tyndale House, 2016)because this word captured her perception of herself following the rape. Feeling ruined can be traced back in part to the purity culture in which Everhart was raised and immersed. Her intimate understanding of both purity culture and of trying to understand rape against the backdrop of faith in a loving God also contributes to her acutely sensitive and empathetic depiction of the stories of others who have encountered sexual abuse and mistreatment in church settings: like Melissa, raised and home-schooled in a conservative Christian culture that deprived her of the language to disclose or speak about rape; Stephanie, the pastor who had to recognize and resist the sexism that was creating a rape-supportive environment in her own faith community; Kris, the young man exposed to a sexual abuser who was protected by church structures and secrecies.

Ruined follows Everhart’s spiritual journey moving through and past rape, past feeling ruined, and her choice of remaining in the church and following her calling to become a pastor. I have not read Everhart’s memoir, only her allusions to it in this book. Like other first-person accounts of rape, Everhart’s albeit brief descriptions stay with me. The two book-length autobiographical accounts of rape I have read – and yes, sadly, rape memoirs are a genre –  are Jill Saward’s Rape: My Story (Bloomsbury, 1990) and Joanna Connors’ I Will Find You: A Reporter Investigates the Life of the Man Who Raped Her (Fourth Estate, 2016). 

With both of these accounts, as with Everhart’s, the victim is easily identified as ‘innocent’. Of course no victim of rape is anything other than blameless; rape is always a dreadful crime, regardless of who the victim is. But it is no revelation that not all rape victims receive sympathy or support. Instead, some victims are blamed – on account of being drunk, or being perceived to have been sexually provocative, for instance. There exists a hierarchy of respectability with some victims deemed ‘more innocent’ and ‘more undeserving’ and others as‘rapable’, their violation ‘understandable’, occasionally even deserved. 

This hierarchy is amply infused with perceptions regarding purity, as well as with racism and other forms of discrimination pertaining to class, for instance. Moreover, it is affected by the identity of both victim and perpetrator – and Everhart is well aware of these toxic dynamics. Early on she alludes to the inequalities of rape, including those pertaining to race (pp.7-8), which she returns to repeatedly (e.g. p.49, pp.222-23). Everhart also unpicks the subtle workings of purity culture and its intersections with rape culture (pp.108–32) and the multiple vulnerabilities of class-based inequalities (passim).

Everhart, Saward and Connors’ accounts are all by white women. Everhart and Saward were both very young at the time of their rapes and both were devout Christians – Everhart a student at a Christian college, Saward a vicar’s daughter. In all three cases the rapists were strangers, in two (Everhart’s and Saward’s) there was more than one rapist and the rapists were armed intruders. In both Everhart and Connors’ cases the rapists were black men. All of these factors – that the rape victims were young, white, Christian, and the assailantsviolent, armed, black, strangers – serve to render the victims ‘more innocent’ in terms of the hierarchy of respectability and the rapists ‘more deplorable’ in the hierarchy of perpetrators than if the victims had been black, sexually experienced, older, or sex workers, for instance, or if the rapists had been their victims’ husbands, acquaintances, or famous, handsome, white. 

This is due to networks of rape myths and how theseshape stereotypes, expectations, prejudices, values and it explains why some rapists – such as good-looking, or wealthy, white men, boyfriends or celebrities – are more likely to get away with rape and why black victims, or sex workers, or disabled victims while, according to statistics especially vulnerable to sexual violence, more often than not do not get a hearing, let alone justice in court, or even representation or acknowledgement of their disproportionate suffering in popular culture.

Everhart comprehends this fully and reflects this in her writing. She chooses, however, wisely in my view, to hone in on the rape culture context she knows and understands best. As she writes, ‘Because I have become a progressive Protestant, this book focuses on stories within that world. I feel a call to clean the dirt in my own house…’ (p.9). Everhart makes no bones about who she is – ‘a rape survivor… a former “good girl,” … a radical feminist’ (p.6) and she takes a clear-eyed look at the church to which she belongs and feels indebted but which she also recognizes as ‘the culprit… the place where culpability hides’ (p.4).

The book contains a variety of stories and gives insight into the complex reasons why abuse is common in churches 

This book is substantial in length and demonstrates considerable narrative agility. It combines accounts ofEverhart’s personal experience, stories of others who have encountered church complicity in sexual abuse and misconduct, news reports (including about the testimony of both Anita Hill and Christine Blasey-Ford), excerpts from written correspondences, and careful examinationsof a wide range of biblical texts: among these, Leviticus 15 (detailing the menstruation purity laws), Numbers 27 (about the daughters of Zelophehad), 2 Samuel 11–13(the stories of Nathan’s parable and the rapes of both Bathsheba and Tamar), Psalm 55, the book of Lamentations, Matthew 10 and 18 (about Jesus and the children, or ‘little ones’), Mark 5:21-43 (the stories of two daughters – Jairus’ daughter and the woman healed of a continuous discharge), Luke 18 (the story of a persistent widow – a text I hadn’t known about prior to reading Everhart’s book), and 1 Corinthians 12 (on theinter-dependent body of the Church).

Everhart is superb at telling and at connecting stories that show in multiple ways that churches foster environments in which sexual misconduct and abuse thrive. She tells her own story, of working in a new congregation and of the inappropriate attentions of a church leader, culminating in his forcibly kissing Everhart. She talks of her efforts first to forestall and then to address this incident and of the many obstructions she encountered. She speaks of how this revived past trauma and also, how her past trauma was used against her.

Alongside this, Everhart tells others’ stories that have been entrusted to her. Some of these describe cases of severe physical abuse (Melissa’s rape by two men, one a stranger, one a trusted friend from church; Kris’s violent assault by a church-assigned chaperone), others of apparently less serious encounters (the misogynybrewing in Stephanie Green’s congregation). Skillful and effective here is how Everhart constructs a church-specific picture of a rape culture pyramid, in which it isclear that the serious crimes that happen in church settings (and which have begun to make the news with horrible regularity) are under-shored by networks and tributaries of rape-supportive attitudes, complicities and suppressions. As Everhart argues persuasively, none of these, even if seemingly small or jocular, are harmless and – if left unchallenged – transpire in the protection of abusers and the multiplication of victims. Atmospheres where sexist jokes are accepted as ‘banter’ diminish and silence women; small sexualized transgressions when dismissed can embolden perpetrators. Everhart tells of the sexualized ‘jokes’ of Big Joe, which go on to influence a vulnerable attendee of his soup kitchen, who then begins to stalk Stephanie, and of Ginni, who is tooready to forgive a sexual predator in spite of his not taking accountability or accepting any punishment. Everhart’s stories are vivid and familiar – even to those not part of a church community. This is because the church setting she describes is a microcosm that, for all its distinctive features, echoes broader social patterns. 

Everhart’s examinations of biblical texts are also compelling – and here I feel on more familiar ground. I, too, have interfaced biblical texts with contemporarycontexts. Everhart describes her approach as hearing stories of the Bible and the present ‘in tandem, the twin halves of a double helix’ (p.11). She uses the Bible as an inspiration for seeking justice: Jesus’ advocacy for ‘the little ones’ calls her to speak for victims and survivors and to heal the church; she appeals to David’s exposure of guilt, as well as to his acknowledgement of fault and acceptance of punishment to act as a model for seekingperpetrators’ accountability.

But Everhart is not uncritical of the Bible by any means. Hence, she notes, for instance, David’s mourning for his sons, Amnon and Absalom, but not for Tamar, his daughter: ‘David’s silence speaks volumes: Tamar’s life is not equal in value to those of her brothers. How painful to be confronted with the sheer expendability of females in Scripture – yet this is our religious heritage’ (p.34). Everhart finds inspiration in the Bible – for women’s solidarity in the story of Zelophehad’sdaughters, and for persistence in seeking justice in the parable of the widow and the judge – but she is not blind to the Bible’s misogyny and she is aware of how it has been used against women. 

Everhart has clearly studied and reflected on the Bible in considerable depth. I have too – but I learned from Everhart. I found her reflection on the ewe lamb in Nathan’s parable insightful, for instance. Hence, Everhart suggests that the man’s affection for the lamb might point to a particularly tender relationship between Uriah and Bathsheba. I did not know and agree with Everhart that it is meaningful, that Bathsheba, though not named here, is referred to as the wife of Uriah in the New Testament (Matthew 1:6). I also concur that the image of the lamb emphasizes Bathsheba’s youth and vulnerability: Everhart asks, ‘Due to stark disparities in status, power, and age, was meaningful consent possible in the story of David and Bathsheba?’ (p.144) We are agreed that the story is one of rape. 

Everhart’s adept and lively narration of stories – both personal and biblical – makes this book enjoyable to read. Her careful analysis of texts from the Bible is balanced with vividly related accounts of actual people from her own circle. The parallels between the two make the Bible stories relevant and alive but without obscuring their toxic potential. As Everhart recognizes ‘Scripture says many things, including many contradictory things. … We must be aware of the temptation to “baptize” what feels good and right because it’s known and comfortable’ (p.36). Everhart avoids this temptation and delves into much that is uncomfortable and painful.

Ruth Everhart

The book not only identifies and explains problems but offers hope and church-compatible ways and incentives to resolve them

Everhart is clear where she stands: she is in the church and intends to remain there. She recognizes the church’s potential for facilitating abuse and wants to be part of the solution for bringing this to an end. She is motivated by feminism and enthusiastic about #MeToo, identifying it as a time to speak up and to bring the church into a movement for positive change. 

Among the problems Everhart identifies and seeks to resist are Christian complicity ‘in championing a patriarchal masculinity that marginalizes women and protects abusers’ (p.11); the manipulation of turning the willing sacrifice of Jesus into the exploitation of self-sacrifice, or into sacrifice of the truth (p.35, p.204); the prevalence of a purity culture and a conservative view on sexuality, which can prepare a seedbed for driving sexual abuse underground; the church’s ‘tremendous pull toward institutional self-preservation’ and the ‘intricate web of relationships within the church’ (p.53); and disciplinary processes that do not acknowledge, let alonehonour harms done (p.90ff., 104–06). 

Over and over again, Everhart, while drawing on discrete examples, agues that these problems lie not with a few ‘sick individuals’ but with systems (e.g. pp.80-81). She advocates for transparency and speaking out (p.106) and for making churches ‘safer and braver’ (p.212). Hence, rather than holding meetings about abuse behind closed doors or foregrounding privacy and anonymity, Everhart advocates for public laments, in line with the large-scale, public strategies of #MeToo. Shame, she points out, lies not with victims but with perpetrators and resisting sexual abuse is not a women’s issue but a human issue. Without active resistance, she warns, churches will lose all the remaining trust they still have and go under. 

Everhart’s book ends on a note of hope, optimism and activity – with a list of strategies for effecting positive change within congregations.

I was left, after reading this book, feeling sombre but also more knowledgeable, and very grateful for people like Everhart and others, including several who have featured on this blog – Jayme ReavesRosinah GabaitseMusa DubeDavid TombsMegan RobertsonLaurie Lyter-BrightHelen PaynterJoachim KueglerGerald WestEricka DunbarJoyce BohamJo Sadgrove… – for fighting the fight in the churches. 

I hope many of you will read this book, whether you are Christian, church-going, or not.

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Q&A with Helen Paynter

Further to the announcement of the publication of Helen Paynter’s book Telling Terror in Judges 19: Rape and Reparation for the Levite’s Wife, the second in the Routledge Focus series ‘Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible’, here is a Q&A with the author herself!

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

I am a Baptist minister, serving in Bristol; and a tutor in biblical languages and Old Testament at Bristol Baptist College. The main areas of my research are into the interpretation of biblical violence and the ways in which the Bible is weaponised against people. I have been troubled by the dreadful story of Judges 19 for a long while, but felt dissatisfied with both the traditional commentators, which tend to write the woman’s suffering out of the text; and with many of the modern feminist interpretations, which view the text as irredeemably misogynistic. I then came across the reparative hermeneutic of Eve Sedgwick, and thought that it might provide a helpful hermeneutical lens to apply to the text. I hope my readers will agree with me that it does.

What are the key arguments of your book?

I’ve begun to outline them above. I use the work of Sedgwick, and also use affect theory and Judith Butler’s concept of grievability to try to discover the levels of communication within the narrative. I argue that the raped and murdered woman has surprising subjectivity in the narrative, and ‘speaks’ powerfully at a number of levels – in many ways she is not obliterated at all.

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

I hope they will be disturbed by the appalling sexual violence it portrays, and the many modern situations that parallel it. And I hope that they will gain a fresh appreciation for the way that the biblical story is quite powerfully critiquing such actions. If my work should prove persuasive enough to inspire other scholars to approach other texts with the same methodology, I’ll be delighted.

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

‘Beli-Fachad is given voice in moral critique of the nation. She is, perhaps, the book of Judges’ other female prophet, or one of its only true judges.’

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A second volume in the Routledge Focus series ‘Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible’ is out today! Congratulations to Helen Paynter!

From the Routledge site…

Telling Terror in Judges 19 explores the value of performing a ‘reparative reading’ of the terror-filled story of the Levite’s pilegesh (commonly referred to as the Levite’s concubine) in Judges 19, and how such a reparative reading can be brought to bear upon elements of modern rape culture. Historically, the story has been used as a morality tale to warn young women about what constitutes appropriate behaviour. More recently, (mainly male) commentators have tended to write the woman out of the story, by making claims about its purpose and theme which bear no relation to her suffering. In response to this, feminist critics have attempted to write the woman back into the story, generally using the hermeneutics of suspicion. This book begins by surveying some of the traditional commentators, and the three great feminist commentators of the text (Bal, Exum and Trible). It then offers a reparative reading by attending to the pilegesh’s surprising prominence, her moral and marital agency, and her speaking voice. In the final chapter, there is a detailed comparison of the story with elements of modern rape culture.

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