New Testament

16 Days of Activism – Day 13: Meredith Warren

For Day 13 of the 16 Days of Activism campaign, we speak to Meredith Warren, Lecturer in Biblical and Religious Studies at the University of Sheffield and Deputy Director of SIIBS.

Tell us about yourself…who are you and what do you do?

I’m Dr Meredith Warren and I work on early Christian and Jewish literature and culture. I also lead the research theme on Embodied Religion at SIIBS, which explores the ways that religion is expressed on and through the body, bodily performance, and bodily experience. I’m currently working on a book that uses the sense of taste as a lens to view the transformational aspects of food and eating.

What’s your involvement with The Shiloh Project?

I’m a member of the Shiloh Project based at the University of Sheffield. I’ve written a blog post on rape and the Book of Revelation, which is a specialism of mine. Katie and I also lead a module in the School of English called Texts of Terror, which is a level 3 class that examines the horrific in the Bible, especially divinely-ordained or divinely-sanctioned violence against women, slaves, and ‘the Other’ broadly defined. I’m particularly committed to not letting the New Testament off the hook for its participation in this trope, since all too often people seem to assume that the New Testament is all about peace and love, ignoring not only the peace and love abundant in the Hebrew Bible but also the very violent aspects of the message of Jesus.

How does The Shiloh Project relate to your work?

For me, the Shiloh Project influences how I teach texts with rape or assault. I’m just finishing up a semester teaching Foundations in Literature: Biblical and Classical Sources, in which an ancient text from Homer or from the Bible or from Ovid is paired with a contemporary text that explores similar themes or characters. These sources are full of sexual assault and other types of violence, and I think the Shiloh Project shows students that pointing these examples out and talking about them and challenging how later authors represent them is something we can do as scholars – we don’t have to ignore these uncomfortable and distressing scenes in literature and we don’t have to accept what they imply about gender.

How do you think The Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to discussion about gender activism today? 

Again, being able to bring these discussions out into the open is so important in destroying a culture in which it’s shameful to talk about gendered violence. By writing academic pieces, blog posts, lectures, and leading seminars, we’re demonstrating to our colleagues, our students, and to the public that we can and we need to take a close hard look at the texts and ideas that are taken for granted as foundational to our society. The Bible has been used to justify sexual violence and coercion and we can’t ignore that, even if we are under the (in my opinion mistaken) impression that we live in a post-Christian society.

What’s next for your work with The Shiloh Project?

I’m particularly interested in challenging scholarly readings of ancient texts as ‘not about rape’ because ‘things were different back then.’ I recently finished a book chapter, for my forthcoming book, on the Persephone myth, in which Hades kidnaps his niece Persephone to rape her. Ovid recounts one version of the myth, and within that there are two accounts of Persephone’s experience, one told by the narrator and one told by Persephone herself. I was shocked when I researched this that some scholars assumed that Persephone’s version, where she explicitly states that she was taken against her will, should be discounted; there was a prevalent assumption in scholarship that Persephone was lying about her experience in order to seem pure. The recognition of how pervasive rape culture is, and how much it has influenced academic readings of ancient texts, has inspired me to go back to Ovid and think through the other divine rapes, which is a project I hope to work on when my current book is finished.

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16 Days of Activism – Day 11: David Tombs

Our interview to mark the Day 11 of the 16 Days of Activism is from David Tombs, Howard Paterson Professor of Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago, New Zealand.

Tell us about yourself…who are you and what do you do?

I am originally from England and grew up in London. After my BA in Theology and Philosophy at Oxford, I had the opportunity to do a Master’s STM degree at Union Theological Seminary, New York. This gave me a sense of how liberation theology could approach theological work in new ways. I started my career as teacher of religious education at a secondary school in Hounslow (west London).  I then took a Lecturer post in the Department of Theology and Religion at the nearby University of Roehampton (or Roehampton Institute as it was then) in 1992. At Roehampton, I taught a wide-range of modules in Christian Theology and had a particular interest in exploring liberation and contextual theologies further. During my time at Roehampton I worked part-time on a PhD in liberation theology and crucifixion at Heythrop College, University of London, and completed this in 2004.

In 2001, I was offered an amazing opportunity to move to Belfast and work on an MPhil programme for the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin. It was a big change in lots of ways and a constantly stimulating experience which kept me busy for thirteen years looking at religion, violence and peacebuilding. Then another great opportunity came up to move to New Zealand. I started my current position in 2015 as Howard Paterson Professor in the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago. It is a great privilege to be working in this new and very different context, and have opportunities to explore how theology and the bible connect to public and social issues at a local, national and global level.

What’s your involvement with The Shiloh Project?

I am a great admirer of Caroline Blyth’s work at University of Auckland, and I was introduced to Shiloh through her. We are currently collaborating on a project for the New Zealand Institute for Pacific Research. The project looks at how transformative bible studies might strengthen church responses to violence against women. We have a great team to work with, including our lead researcher, Dr Mercy Ah Siu-Maliko who is based at Piula Theological College in Samoa.

As others have said, Caroline, Emily Colgan and Katie Edwards are editing a collection which is forthcoming from Palgrave. Caroline invited me to contribute a chapter. The Netflix series 13 Reasons was in the news at the time and Otago Student Christian Movement had invited me to do a bible study on sexual violence. I chose to read 13 Reasons Why and 2 Samuel 15-20 alongside each other. It was a chance to see how a contemporary story might open up an alternative reading of a bible passage, and how in turn the bible passage might offer new insight into the contemporary context. With help from Caroline and Johanna I did a version of this chapter as a Shiloh blog.

I have been really impressed by the vision and values behind the Shiloh project. The way it builds and sustains a collaborative space, and links scholars, students, and practitioners from so many diverse institutions and countries. It is an amazing resource for anyone working on these subjects.

How does The Shiloh Project relate to your work?

I have been interested in connections between religion and violence for a long time, and over the years I have focussed increasingly on sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) as a key concern. During my PhD I had the opportunity to travel to El Salvador as part of my study of Latin American liberation theologies. After I got back to London following a trip in 1996, I read a harrowing story which described the violent and deeply misogynistic public execution of a woman community health worker by the Salvadoran military in 1980.

This led me to investigate two questions that I continue to work with. First, how is SGBV to be adequately understood, especially when it is used for torture and execution in such extreme and public forms. What is the wider context and the politics behind such acts? Second, why were the liberation theologies, which addressed the suffering of the people, largely silent on SGBV? Even when such sexual abuses were well known, as in El Salvador and in other Latin American societies which had faced state terror, they were not a focus for theological reflection.

This second question does not just apply to liberation theologies, it can be applied more widely to ask why theology and biblical studies more generally have not given greater attention to these issues. There are of course exceptions to this silence, as the Shiloh Project shows so well, but for a long-time SGBV has been seen as a marginal or peripheral subject by many theologians and biblical scholars.

We have Gerald West visiting Otago next Semester (February-April 2018) and I am looking forward to learning more about the great work he did with the Ujamaa Centre in South Africa.

How do you think The Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to discussion about gender activism today? 

About 85% of the world’s population consider themselves religious, and about one-third consider themselves Christian. So there really can’t be an adequate response to SGBV and rape culture unless it includes attention to religion. Religion is so often part of the problem, and yet has amazing potential to be part of the solution.

In many ways churches are often very well-placed to take the lead in this response because they can draw on huge strengths and advantages. This is especially important in countries where other services are not well developed or easily accessible. Churches are present in diverse communities; they often enjoy high levels of trust and respect; they can offer practical, emotional and spiritual support; they have strong local, national and international connections.

Tearfund is a Christian international relief and development agency that has done inspiring work in this area. Its research indicates that in many countries the churches are the institutions which survivors identify as having the most potential to help them.

Yet there is also clear evidence that local churches and faith groups frequently do not see SGBV as relevant to their real mission or to the Gospel. The sensitivities and challenges involved in SGBV means that churches find it easier to ignore it or marginalise it. Even when SGBV is recognised as an appropriate pastoral concern, it is unusual for SGBV to be seen as having a strong call on church attention.

For this to change, I think SGBV needs to be addressed more explicitly in theological and biblical terms. Put another way, SGBV needs to be a framed as a ‘faith-based’ issue, and a biblical issue, if it is to be a priority concern for the churches. And, of course, for this to happen a lot of hard questions have to be asked about how and why the bible and theologies often ignore, excuse or support SGBV.

What’s next for your work with The Shiloh Project?

The story I mentioned above on the execution in El Salvador led to a paper I presented at the International Society of Biblical Literature Meeting in 1998. This used evidence of torture and state terror in Latin America to read Jesus as a victim of state terror and sexual abuse.

The paper was published the following year as ‘Crucifixion, State Terror, and Sexual Violence’ (Tombs 1999). There is often lip-service to how shameful and humiliating Roman crucifixions were, but very little attention to the use of sexualised violence in torture practices past and present, and how women and men can be humiliated and shamed by public displays of sexual torture and violence. Recognition of sexual abuse and humiliation is not an anachronistic projection back onto Roman crucifixions, but helps to make sense of references to sexual violence in Roman writers, and to the account of the stripping and enforced exposure of Jesus described in the gospels.

Photo by Alexandra Korey. Michelangelo’s Santo Spirito Crucifix, Florence. © Used with kind permission.

I have continued to work with many of the same basic ideas since then, looking at SGBV against both female and male victims. Over the next two years I will be leading a research project titled ‘When Did We See You Naked?

The research will seek to take the stripping and forced exposure of Jesus in the crucifixion as an implicit answer to the words of Jesus followers ‘When Did We See You Naked?’ (Mt 25.38). it is amazing how rare it still is to take the nakedness of crucifixion as significant, even though so much has happened since the article which it might speak to. This includes: revelations of church sexual abuses; a new awareness of the prevalence of rape and sexual violence in armed conflicts, such as the 2004 Abu Ghraib scandal; the 2017 #MeToo revelations; and many other examples.

I am interested in whether there is still a silence and stigma around naming Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse despite all we have learnt in the last twenty years, and why this might be the case. I also hope to work with another colleague in Auckland, Dr Rocio Figueroa, to interview survivors of sexual abuse to ask what difference, if any, this makes to how they see Jesus and how they see themselves.

One of the lessons I learnt in my work in Northern Ireland was the need for patient and deep listening in the aftermath of violence. People will often remain silent about what is most important to them, especially when they don’t trust how what they say may be received.

Conversations with people in the churches who have not been victims are also very important. There is often a tendency to blame victims, and this can be expressed in subtle ways. However, Jesus is the one victim who the churches won’t blame. So conversations on Jesus as a victim can be very powerful ways to surface and address this tensions. It can help to identity and explore forms of victim-blaming and stigma that may remain hidden under the surface in many churches but are still very prevalent and damaging.

I have found that, as long as the conversation is done in an appropriate way, talking about Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse has positive and transformative results. It opens up silences in churches and allows a new conversation on faith-based responses to SGBV with people who would not otherwise talk about it. So I am looking forward to what the project will bring, and I hope I can share some of it on the Shiloh Blog.

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The Bible is Full of Horrors – That’s Why it Should be Required Reading for Today’s Children

Melvyn Bragg branded the decline of the King James Bible in the UK “a disgrace”. The writer and broadcaster suggested that it should be reintroduced into schools and read on a monthly basis.

Speaking at the Henley Literary Festival, Bragg was clearly exercised by the “great deprivation” young people experience through their lack of exposure to the Bible. He derided those who say the biblical text is “too complicated”, calling them “wimps” and “terrible people”.

In a response to Bragg’s comments, the journalist Andrew Brown asked in the Guardian whether the King James Bible was too graphic for children to read, wondering “how could you possibly teach it in school?”

But perhaps close, critical reading of biblical texts in the classroom might begin to address the arguably more pressing deprivation of Britain’s young people. This is less about the “depth of language” of particular biblical translations and more about the absence of recognition and respect for young people’s own experiences of violence.

Ignoring that the Bible records horrible, terrifying human events makes it easier to gloss over the fact that these same things occur regularly today. Sexual assault, genocide and slavery, all described in the Bible, are still rife. If we want to confront today’s horrors, it helps to also confront biblical accounts that terrify us.

Students should be given the tools to address these issues to truly prepare them for the real world (and not just the workplace).

Facing Terror

Texts, including the Bible, do not have meaning on their own. Readers must interpret the words on the page, and give the Bible meaning, whether that meaning reflects the ancient context in which it was written, or some meaning for contemporary life. We as readers decide what we do with what we read, and whether we gloss over violence and oppression – or confront it.

Brown suggests that “teachers might struggle with the visceral violence” of the King James Bible but critiques contemporary biblical translations for casting “a veil of ordinariness over the stark horror of many of the stories”. But then violence is horrifyingly ordinary. The scale of sexual abuse scandals in the UK and the prevalence of bullying in schools should tell us that many children are all too familiar with the mundanity of violence. Children are more likely to be victims of, and witnesses to, violence than adults. Sanitising horrific biblical stories, or focusing on the beauty of the language in the King James Bible translation rather than asking hard, critical questions of the biblical text, won’t make real-life violence disappear.

After all, it’s not as if we don’t already teach -— and celebrate —- horrific biblical episodes. Babies and infants are given books and toys based on Noah’s Ark – a biblical story of genocide. And schools and churches don’t flinch at showcasing images of extreme torture through the crucifixion of Christ. The horrific crucifixion of Jesus is often glossed over but torture, the death penalty, and false imprisonment are still present in society.

Perhaps Bragg might be underestimating young people in his assertion that they find the Bible “complicated” and Brown might be patronising students by questioning whether horrific biblical texts should be taught in schools.

Everyday Violence

The key is not to downplay the horror of God being compared to a slave-owner who beats his slaves into shreds, or that scripture seems fine with threatening sexual assault as punishment for disobedience, or that the annihilation of huge groups of people can be justified with religion.

Instead, the key is to use these texts as tools to confront violence in society. This starts in the classroom, reading through difficult texts with students and allowing them to grapple with issues of injustice. As Brian Blount, among others, has pointed out, avoiding violent texts as frightening or irrelevant to today’s “peaceful” society ignores the many communities for whom society is not at all peaceful. By the time students get to university many of them have already had personal experiences with violence; shying away from those topics only marginalises them further.

There are tools for teaching troubling texts in the classroom, as teachers well know when exploring difficult social issues, modern history, and contemporary literature, none of which shy away from addressing violence. And there are many, many, many scholars teaching Bible at university who are already helping students to read these difficult texts carefully and critically.

The ConversationEspecially when biblical texts have been used (unjustly or not) to justify some horrific practices and policies, from slavery to colonialism to genocide, we cannot afford to ignore the Bible. The solution is not to avoid difficult subject matter, but to give students of all ages the tools to work through them. Students will then have the ability to confront injustice when they see it now.

K B Edwards, Director SIIBS, University of Sheffield and M J C Warren, Lecturer in Biblical and Religious Studies, University of Sheffield

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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‘Temptress’ Eve, ‘prostitute’ Mary Magdalene – and the awkward truth about The Bible’s women

The most well-known female biblical characters feel familiar to us because they’re so embedded within our culture. These women are represented in film, music videos, couture collections and featured in everything from plays to strip clubs. And yet, despite our cultural constructions and received understandings of female biblical characters, the Bible often tells us something very, very different about them.

Eve is no temptress

The Bible’s first woman is popular culture’s most enduring muse. Whether she’s flogging fruit juice, perfume or going vegetarian for Peta, the character of Eve is a regular in advertising.

Juicy Eve.

Following centuries of representations as a maleficent femme fatale, we have come to know her as the temptress who lured Adam and humanity to their downfall and introduced sin to the world. The biblical text, however, is far less concrete about the “Mother of All Living” (Gen. 3:20).

In the Bible, Eve undergoes a character transformation from her introduction in Genesis 2 to the transgression episode when she eats the forbidden fruit in Genesis 3.

When God creates Eve from Adam’s rib, Eve is a voiceless, choiceless creature, while Adam makes plenty of noise about what he thinks of his new “helper” (Gen. 2:18) and demonstrates his power by naming and claiming her:

This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
for out of Man this one was taken. (Gen. 2:23)

In contrast, we’re left in the dark about Eve’s thoughts on her new companion. We don’t know if Adam is more Donald Trump than Ryan Gosling; at this point, the text gives us no clue as to whether she’s happy with her imposed match or not.

Only a couple of verses later, however, and our silent biblical lady is suddenly the star of the show, chatting away with the serpent and eating the forbidden fruit. In a textual about turn, Eve has transformed into a biblical badass, making her own decisions, while her husband becomes the mute companion.

The biblical text is sparse but it’s clear that Eve does not need to tempt her docile mate; she merely “gives some to her husband, who was with her” (Gen. 3:6). While “femvertisers” represent Eve as an example of female sexual empowerment, the biblical narrator attempts to lay the blame for the transgression at her feet. She deserves a retrial.

The much-maligned Magdalene

Like Eve, the New Testament character Mary Magdalene has been the subject of centuries of bad press. Magdalene is often believed to be a prostitute although there’s no suggestion of it in the biblical text. Academics have argued that the early Church developed Mary Magdalene’s repentant prostitute persona as a bid to deny women a proper position in the church hierarchy.

Since then, a number of attempts have been made to “rehabiliate” the character from her reputation as a fallen woman. Melvyn Bragg, for example, has certainly put some time into discovering the “real Magdalene”, presenting a controversial Good Friday documentary in 2013 and a radio programme on BBC Radio 4 earlier this year. But despite the reams of research and hours of media coverage, including the heightened interest in the Gospel of Mary following the success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, our fascination with the “penitent sinner” remains.

Fallen woman? Mary Magdalene, Vienna.
Renata Sedmakova/Shutterstock

The discussion around Mary Magdalene, however, says more about cultural attitudes to female sexuality than anything about the biblical character. The persistent idea that sex workers are “fallen” women who should be rehabilitated or repentant has only relatively recently been challenged and the controversy surrounding Mary Magdalene speaks to centuries of the dominant ideology that shapes values around female sexuality and stigmatises sex workers on a moralistic premise.

Mary, Mary, quite contrary

On the other hand, Mary, Mother of Jesus, is considered by many Christians as the “ideal woman”. As a virgin mother, Mary has the ultimate appeal to female respectability, combining the most culturally valuable female roles. But discussions surrounding the “ideal femininity” of Mary, Mother of Jesus, are inextricably linked with the control of female sexuality evidenced in attitudes to Mary Magdalene. The construction of “female virtue” is a cultural dividing practice to reinforce the social boundaries between respectable and unrespectable groups and classes.

The myth of Salome

We may be familiar with Salome as the daughter of the Herodias who danced for Herod in the New Testament (Mark 6:21-29; Matt. 14:6-11) but the character who requests John the Baptist’s head on behalf of her mother wasn’t named in the Bible.

Wilde woman: Salome with the head of John the Baptist.
Eugene Ivanov/Shutterstock

The dangerous seductress we know derives from a heady mix of the first century historian Josephus, who named her but does not connect her with John the Baptist, and the 19th-century playwright Oscar Wilde, who wrote a scandalous play based on the character that was banned in London in 1892. Salome has now become synonymous with striptease thanks to the “dance of the seven veils”, which has no biblical basis but originated in Wilde’s play.

Cultural representations of Salome tend to be problematic because Salome is frequently exoticised and based around orientalised stereotypes of Middle Eastern femininity that “seem still to suggest not only fecundity but sexual promise (and threat)”.

The ConversationEve, Mary Magalene, Mary (Mother of Jesus), and Salome , then, are far more than biblical characters, they help to reflect and construct ideas and attitudes to and about femininity and female sexuality. In this way, they also tell us an awful lot about ourselves.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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