On Monday 22 June 2020 the news broke of the conviction of Jan Joosten for downloading thousands upon thousands of images and videos of child abuse and pornography. I first read about it in an article in The Guardian. There are numerous other reports in other papers, too: the Daily Mail , The Timesof Israel, and Euro Weekly. The images that accompany these articles show the protzy façade of Christ Church, Joosten smiling, Joosten mid-lecture. An older, white male scholar who has blended right into the various biblical studies conferences he’s attended over many years – Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), Society for Old Testament Study(SOTS), International Organisation for the Study of the Old Testament (IOSOT)… I’ve seen him there, talked to him, received his recommendation for a publication of his to read and for references to chase up.
As the newspaper articles report, Joosten is a former pastor, who taught for 20 years at the University of Strasbourg before, in 2014, taking up “the prestigious regiusprofessorship of Hebrew at Oxford.” Until his suspension, Joosten was based at Christ Church, renowned for its academic excellence, Old Master paintings, and for being home to Oxford’s cathedral. Until recently, Joosten was editor-in-chief of Vetus Testamentum, according to its site, “a leading journal … generally recognized to be indispensable for scholarly work on the Old Testament,” publishing articles in English, French and German, all languages in which Joosten is fluent.
The lashings of respectability, status and privilege that have until recently enveloped Joosten – “pastor”, “Regius Professorof Hebrew” (founded in 1546 by Henry VIII), “Christ Church”, “University of Oxford”, “Princeton Theological Seminary”, “Hebrew University, Jerusalem”, “father of four”, “married”, “one of the most distinguished biblical scholars of his generation” – add force to the shock and outrage that havemet the revelations of Joosten’s conviction. Shocking, too, is the sheer volume of images (27,000) and videos (1000) depicting abuse, including rape of children, which Joosten downloaded. The brilliant man falling from his high pedestal: as a German, I think right away of the legend of Faust. Such hubris and such hypocrisy. Did Joosten think a different law applied to him? Did he believe he was too clever ever to get caught?
Joosten did get caught and his reputation is shot. His sentence, however, is paltry: one year in prison, placement on the sex offender register in France, a three-year programme of treatment, and a ban on any activity bringing him into contact with minors. Furthermore, Joosten has not gone to prison (yet?): his sentence will be “supervised” and “may be amended.” The Guardian reports that “Joosten was yet to decide whether to appeal on Friday” (he gets to decide that?!). His family “were aware of his offences” and argued Joostenshould not be imprisoned, “because he was a first time offender” (hardly: he was caught for the first time – he is now known to have been offending thousands of times for six years), “presented little risk of reoffending” (how so?), and “had sought psychiatric help voluntarily” (albeit only following arrest). In court, so it is reported, Joosten declaredthat he was relieved to be arrested. He described his addiction as “a secret garden, in contradiction with myself.” To many ears, including those of biblical scholars, this expression is particularly jarring and repugnant. It conjures up imagery from Song of Songs, of eroticism and lovemaking (e.g. “You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride…” Song of Songs 4:12). But this is brutal child pornography that is at issue! And watching such is not a victimless crime. Child pornography is no “virtual reality”; it depicts suffering, severe and profound damage; the demand for it proliferates this; in some casesconsumption of violent pornography leads on to committing sexual abuse.
As would be expected, the general public and the scholarly community to which Joosten belonged have been vocal in their outrage and repulsion. Twitter is abuzz. People are “reeling”, “shocked and horrified”. A terse comment on the SBL website, stating that the Society had requested Joosten’s resignation, evoked protest on account of being woefully inadequate – rather like the Christ Church statement that “Our thoughts are with anyone affected by this news” (reminiscent of the “thoughts and prayers” routinely following school shootings in the US – in lieu of doing anything). A petition led promptly to a fuller statement sent to all present and past members of SBL. SOTS followed with their statement soon after, resolving to build “a more inclusive and ethical Society” and expressing concern “for the unknown children who are the ultimate victims of such crimes” as well as for Joosten’s family, colleagues and supervisees. One of Joosten’s co-authors has expressed feeling “shocked, shattered and disgusted” – he is donating all royalties of the book, past and future, to the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children. Another scholar has set up a GoFundMe page “Biblical Scholars Against Child Abuse”. There is a powerful piece out deploring “himpathy” for Joosten (that is, excessive sympathy that is directed at perpetrators of sexual violence and abuse) and there are many expressions of contempt for a situation where “*reputations* of men are more important to keep safe than the *bodies* of women, children.”
When I read of Joosten’s conviction I, too, was reeling, shocked and horrified. I probably shouldn’t have been. Sadly, I know many people who are survivors of child abuse and of rape. The statistics of The Office for National Statistics do not strike me as exaggerated. And when you know there are so many survivors, you know there are very, very many perpetrators, too – the numbers have to add up. Even taking into account that perpetrators tend to abuse multiple victims, the numbers of perpetrators must still be very high. The same goes for the abuse that is consumption of child pornography. The amount of child abuse material is staggering – so, really it isn’t surprising that I know people who are revealed to be abusers. I also know that – for all the stereotypes and rape myths about rapists and pornography users (“creepy men in raincoats” we used to jest) – there is no “type” – so a depraved person can be an Oxford don (clearly). Having worked in universities for over 20 years, I’ve twice known of cases where a member of the university community was charged with child pornography. Two people I have encountered in my community have been charged with possession of child pornography (one committed suicide). I had already reeled a few years back at the conviction of Holt Parker, who received a four-year prison sentence for offences not dissimilar to Joosten’s. I had admired Holt’s work and wrestled then with the question of “do you cite scholars who have done appalling things?” (I still wrestle with that question – as compelling as I find Stephen Young’s article, I also see some of the complexity so well articulated by Sarah Scullin. Do I read a biography of every author before I cite their work?)
Fact is, in my earlier work I have cited Joosten. I met Joosten in 2011 in South Africa. We were both attending a meeting of the Old Testament Society of South Africa (OTSSA) (my first far-flung work trip since my younger child was born). I had not met Joosten before and I was mostly preoccupied with dear friends from my years in southern Africa. But on some bus trip or other we sat together and had one of “those conversations” about research that you have at these kinds of conferences. He was friendly but quite intimidating. One of those scholars who can quote in multiple languages and recall titles and years of publication of articles on any topic that arises in conversation. I was working on my book on fathers and daughters in the Hebrew Bible at the time and told Joosten so when he asked me. He told me he had published an article on the missing daughter in the laws of Leviticus 18 – but it was in French: did I read French? I admitted that my French is pretty lousy. Not much more was said, as I recall it.
Shortly after I returned home, there was an email from Joosten. (I have been re-reading the short exchanges he and Ihad in 2011 and 2013 and they make me uncomfortable now.) It said, “It was nice to meet you at the conference. While browsing through my computer I came across an English translation of my paper on the missing daughter. I attach it herewith.” I was touched. It was a nice thing to do. I thanked him. I read the article and found it helpful for my research. In the book I published I thank Joosten. That’s what you do.
Two years later I received another email: “While searching for something else on the internet I came across your recent book on Fathers and Daughters. Congratulations! And thank you for the generous reception of my article on Lev 18.” (Two short emails, in each a mention of a computer or the internet. Of course, I thought nothing of it at the time – it only reads as sinister in retrospect.) After 2013 I did not communicate with Joosten again. I did cite his work in my next book.
When I read about Joosten in the paper, I felt deeply troubled. I couldn’t shake it. I searched for and found the emails from years before and eventually decided to write to him.
I wrote of the revulsion I felt and of wondering how manyhands of “respectable men” I had shaken without fathoming what they were capable of, of being repelled at the “secret garden” obfuscating, even romanticising and eroticising the brutal abuse of frightened and utterly vulnerable and helpless children. I wrote that I cannot comprehend why, if he acknowledged the harm he had done, he would not willingly go to prison, “Why should you not go? What will you do now, I wonder?”
To my astonishment, Joosten wrote back very soon after. He said my words hurt but that he deserved them. That he had always known his “doings” were not victimless, that they were “sordid and destructive”. He wrote that he “came across” the images and videos looking for pornography and that they were “freely available and easily accessible”. He describes how this became an addiction from which he could not break free, that he did not want to make excuses but did want to heal, with the help of a psychiatrist. He spoke of the support of his family who accepted him with his defects, characterizing them as an ugly “stain” on a beautiful painting. Ever the linguist, Joosten explained the expression “jardinsecret” as “a mental and emotional space one doesn’t wish to share with anyone” but that he had not intended to evoke anything positive but rather that “the world of those images and videos and the real world” in which he lived his life were “completely separate”. He closed by saying he felt deep regret for what he had done, could not undo it and had to look to the future. The closing words were, “I hope one day you will be able to forgive me.”
The email troubled me. (A part of me was very surprised that Joosten clearly had access to a computer and to his University email address.) The sheer eloquence troubled me – but of course he is eloquent: he is a linguist, scholar and prolific writer. I was troubled that he wrote of “coming across” horrendous child pornography (is it that easy and happenstance?), and of the addiction and harm that he acknowledged as a “stain” and something to “heal” from, as if it were somehow separable from him, a “secret garden” apart from his “real life”. There is nothing “unreal” about the violence depicted in child pornography – enacted on real children whose lives, psyches, futures, potential, are deeply harmed.
As I read Joosten’s email I found myself recalling a correspondence I had over many years with a prisoner in the notorious Angola penitentiary in Louisiana. It started when a letter addressed in meticulous handwriting to “The Bible Department” landed in my office at the University of Tennessee. The writer, “E.”, had found Jesus in prison, where he was incarcerated for life. He had also taught himself Hebrew. He had questions about grammar and points of translation. It was enjoyable finding ways to explain features of Hebrew and reasons for translations that might not match the Hebrew text. E. was always eager to learn. Years passed. I moved to England. In time, we came to write about more than the language riddles that had brought us together. E. spent hours in the prison workshop and made my daughter a wooden box and some metal earrings with her (Hebrew). name engraved on them. I wrote about my children growing up, juggling work and family life, travelling; he wrote about his past, including (eventually) the crimes that transpired in his incarceration. What began to unfold was an early life of chaos, deprivation, struggle and petty crime. Next came an act of violence done to him by a sheriff, when he was put in a cell overnight for marijuana possession. E. was cagey about what took place but I was able to find newspaper articles, which reported that the sheriff was found guilty of sexually abusing young men in his custody. If that is what happened to E., he could never bring himself to say so, stressing instead how many girlfriends he’d had in his youth. He never used this as an excuse for the violent crimes he went on to commit. What struck me was how hard he tried to do something good – even from within prison where he spent most of his time in solitary confinement or labouring, with only one library book to read each week. He had written to all his victims; he was always worried about his mother and the pain he had caused her; he wrote to his son, who seldom replied; he worked hard at learning Hebrew; he tried hard to convert me to Christianity, earnestly believing that if he didn’t, I would not be saved.
Unlike E., Joosten has enjoyed enormous privileges. He still does. Life must feel frightening for him and his prestige and reputation will never recover. But he has his freedom, the support of his family, access to a psychiatrist, even access to a computer and his email account. He also has a first-class education and tremendous talent.
I feel the same anger as many of my colleagues on Twitter and Facebook. Condemnation is right; outrage at the light sentence is right; donating to organisations that support vulnerable children is right. But what more? The SOTS statement goes some way towards pointing out that more must be done within our discipline, too. A legitimizing patina of respectability has for too long shrouded a great deal of ignominy. What Scullin says of the discipline of Classics is true also of biblical studies: both have “a troubled history (that, unfortunately, continues to the present) of participation in various oppressions.” Just as the BLM protests have led to a flurry of statements and self-searching, that momentum must be harnessed and taken much further. The cracks in the patina have become very visible in recent days and weeks. It is no surprise at all actually that Joosten was able to persist in his “doings”. In large part, his respectability and his privilege have enabled it. They have also, I have no doubt, cushioned him from a harsher sentence. E. would have stood no such chance in the same court room.
It is one thing – in the case of Joosten – not to read or cite his scholarship, to evict him permanently from all societies he has belonged to, and to support his students. But what more? Even if Joosten receives a prison sentence that reflects the gravity of his offence, is that then adequate? Eventually, he would leave prison. It is not possible “to lock up all paedophiles and throw away the key.”
What I see in E. and find myself missing with Joosten is any attempt at restitution. I do hope that as Joosten looks to the future he will apply all his abilities – his mastery of languages, his research and writing skills, his experience and insight gained from therapy – for helping other addicts and for helping victims of sexual violence and human trafficking. If I can help with that, I will.
The forgiveness he says he hopes for from me is not mine to give. Vladimir Jankelevitch writes, “forgiveness is not for swine” and the first step towards forgiveness is full admission of wrong. Today Joosten may appeal. I hope he takes full responsibility and does not.
Rosie Dawson, award-winning journalist, theologian, and host of The Shiloh Podcast shines a light on the stories and practices of religion that either contribute to or resist rape culture. Through conversations with scholars and practitioners, the podcast invites us all to think about ways that we can challenge and dismantle rape culture in our own communities.
Feast your ears on our new trailer and introductory episode, where Rosie discusses the origins of The Shiloh Project with Katie Edwards, one of the project’s co-directors.
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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 19; Judges 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.”
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!
Nancy’s book is available for pre-order (see here) and will be dispatched by 1 September.
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.
Rabbi Dr. Barbara Thiede
When my university (University of North Carolina, Charlotte) went on spring break March 2, I made the decision to see if I could put all my classes online. Because I also teach online for ALEPH Ordination Programs (a Jewish seminary which ordains rabbis, cantors, and rabbinic pastors), doing so was not as difficult for me as for some of my colleagues. In the meantime, my spouse, Ralf, and I moved roomfuls of furniture around in our little ranch house to accommodate our son and daughter-in-love, who moved out of a tiny one-room studio apartment in Brooklyn, New York, into our tiny home library (now outfitted with a bed, sitting area, and workspace!). We joked about how much the room would go for on Airbnb and promptly dubbed it R&B (Ralf and Barbara). We’ve been alternating the cooking, so I’ve been treated to some real culinary variety.
Next, we started a huge project in our backyard, clearing away a veritable mini-forest of dead shrubbery that wisteria had marked, claimed, and devoured, and built three raised garden beds. This also necessitated digging up loads of mulchy dirt, moving it aside, creating the beds, refilling the beds with the dirt and home grown compost, and planting our vegetables. This explains the picture of me lying face down in the grass while our son grins up at his dad. His back is stronger. So far, everything is thriving and we look forward to the first products gracing our table.
For the first weeks, working was very difficult indeed. Finding a
routine was challenging. My students have felt the stress and, since we
take the time to check in, it is clear to me that they are facing a
range of serious issues. One is a refugee whose mother
works at Wal-Mart; another is taking care of an elderly and sickly
grandmother. I’ve known what it is to have students in vulnerable
situations every semester of my teaching life, but now, I think it is
fair to say, they
all are vulnerable. One student has a daughter whose best friend
died of Covid-19 — she was in her early thirties; another was clearly
suicidal and needed connections with health care professionals.
Sometimes, I start our check-ins with lighter questions
just to relieve the stress: “A package just arrived at your door. It is
perfectly safe to open it. What’s inside?” Answers included, of course,
masks, cures, vaccine. And they included: “My mom!” “A puppy!” “A
Which aspects of your work past and present might be particularly interesting for supporters of the Shiloh Project?
My current book, Male Friendship, Homosociality, and Women in the Hebrew Bible: Malignant Fraternities, treats a set of texts that demonstrate how male friendship depends on women’s bodies for its creation and sustenance. I am also preparing a paper for SBL entitled “Gang Rape, Murder, and Dismemberment in Judges 19-21 and Little Bee: How Biblical and Modern Authors Inflict Moral Injury.”
How are you bearing up and what’s helping you most? Am I behind in my work? Of course. Do I feel — all the time — that I can’t actually grasp the depth of dislocation the world is experiencing? I do. Do I sometimes resent the “we can get through all this” when so many won’t? Yes. Do I fear that we will not learn the lessons of this experience? I do. Humankind is notoriously insufficient at caring for humanity and the planet it lives on.
I am bearing up by walking a lot, by gardening as much as I can, and by listening to a lot of Sephardic-Ladino-Iraqi-Turkish music. It reminds me to dance. And I hope and pray for humanity to pay attention to the obvious lesson, here. We share this world unequally. We suffer its pain unequally. We are obliged to flatten that curve, too.
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 “fuzzy, messy, 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!
The first week of this lockdown I spent closely following the news with updates about the pandemic across the globe, which became depressing. I also felt sad about having to cancel a trip to South Africa and Zimbabwe, where I had a friend’s wedding, a holiday with my husband, a conference and two book launch events lined up – a trip I’d been planning and looking forward to for months. After that first week or so, I decided to only check the news twice a day, and to take a distance from social media, especially WhatsApp where groups were constantly buzzing, and instead to make the most of “working from home”.
I’m lucky that I’m on research leave at the moment – so I could ignore the many emails that the University sent about student education related matters, while feeling sympathy for my colleagues who suddenly had to experiment with online teaching methods. My planning for research leave has been greatly affected by the current crisis – in addition to cancelling the South Africa trip, I also had to postpone a trip to Kenya in May to launch an AHRC funded research network, not knowing when I can reschedule; I’m also uncertain whether or not I should start preparing for my inaugural lecture that’s planned for June. In recent days I spent quite a lot of time planning the sessions of the African Religions unit for the AAR annual meeting in November, with on the back of my mind the idea that the meeting may soon be cancelled.
With all the uncertainty, I decided to prioritise a couple ofprojects I can actually easily do from home: preparing the launch of a documentary film, completing a book manuscript, and processing and analysing the data of a research project. Each of these projects might actually be of interest to Shiloh readers!
The film is called Kenyan, Christian, Queer, and is related to my book with the same title that was published last year. The film features an LGBT church in Kenya and the work they are doing to create an affirming space for LGBT Christians in a mostly conservative society. The actual production of the film is done by Aiwan Obinyan, a British-Nigerian film maker who is a friend of mine. I’ve been giving feedback on drafts, communicating with relevant stakeholders, and preparing educational resources for using the film in classroom settings. Unfortunately the African Studies conference where the film was to be launched has been cancelled, so we’re currently making alternative plans.
The book I mentioned is titled Reimagining Sexuality and Christianity in Africa, and I’m authoring it with Ezra Chitando, a colleague in Zimbabwe. It’s aimed at a non-specialist audience of students, religious leaders and activists, thus requiring a more accessible writing style than the typical academic monograph. The book seeks to interrogate the dominant narrative of Christian homophobia in Africa, demonstrating how Christianity also serves as a site to imagine alternative possibilities of sexuality in African cultures and societies. Thereto we discuss a number of African thinkers, ranging from Archbishop Desmond Tutu to feminist theologian Mercy Oduoye, but also a range of creative and cultural expressions, such as novels, films and poetry.
Then, with my Leeds colleague Johanna Stiebert I’ve been working for the past year on a British Academy funded project for which we work with a group of Ugandan LGBT refugees based in Nairobi, Kenya. It focuses on the life stories of participants, and how biblical stories can be used to narrate and signify their experiences, struggles and hopes. The group we are working with is truly amazing – in terms of their creativity and resilience – and so is Johanna as a very inspiring colleague and collaborator. Going through the transcripts of interviews and focus group discussions brings back many wonderful memories. The creative bible studies we did, about Daniel in the lion’s den and about Jesus and the “adulterous woman”, resulted in drama plays that have been video recorded. This project is also supposed to result in a book, and the lock down gives us the time to start working on it.
So, after the initial setback I’m now managing reasonably well. I intersperse my working hours with gardening – hooray for the goldfish that we were able to buy the weekend before the lockdown started, which make the garden pond so much livelier –, with a daily run along the canal, and checking in with friends and family nearby and far away to try and help them cope with the current situation. The reports I get from friends and colleagues in Kenya and other parts of Africa do worry me – the lockdown there has an enormous impact on people’s livelihoods. The whole situation makes me aware, again, of my own privilege and makes me reflect upon what solidarity means in these times. As much as it’s true that the virus does not discriminate, the effects of the pandemic are felt most severe by communities that are already vulnerable and marginalised. (On that note: If anyone reading this is able to offer some support to the above mentioned group of Ugandan refugees, who really struggle economically in the current crisis, please get in touch.)
These days, most of us will be having to live such different lives than we are used to – keeping self-isolated, working from home,juggling commitments to our family, work, and research, as well as caring for the health and wellbeing of ourselves, our friends, and our loved ones. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be asking some of our Shiloh members and supporters how they are dealing with this “new normal”way of life. We hope this helps to keep our community connected with each other, and can serve to inspire us, reassure us we’re not alone, or even distract us a little from everything else we are dealing with right now.
Our series kicks off with one of the greats of biblical studies, Deryn Guest. Deryn teaches Biblical Hermeneutics in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham and is a trailblazer in the areas of gender theory, queer theory, and psychological theory as these relate to the Hebrew Bible.
Co-editor of The Queer Bible Commentary (SCM, 2006), co-author of Transgender, Intersex, and Biblical Interpretation (SBL, 2016), and author of Beyond Feminist Biblical Studies (Sheffield Phoenix, 2012), all of which break new and important ground in the discipline, Deryn has published extensively on the book of Judges in particular. At present, Deryn is writing an Earth Bible Commentary (Bloomsbury) on Judges. Deryn’s is a totally distinctive voice, blending whip-smart scholarship and integrity and never compromising on either.
So, what’s up, Deryn Guest?
Gosh, even introverted home birds miss social contact. Such was my realization as the morning work schedule kicked in during week one of lockdown. I was no longer filling up my kettle at the water cooler with office staff and colleagues, chatting about moments of hilarity on the Great British Bake Off, or the over-crowded commute that morning, or, of course, the perennial topic of the weather. Bonhomie at the water cooler – a convivial, social start to the academic day.
I rely now on my usual pre-commute morning ritual: a lit candle, a steaming cup of tea, some quiet moments of contemplation. After that, I’m ready for organizing the day into varied activities that keep the body oiled as well as the mind. A couple of hours on research, break for half an hour gardening, answer emails, take exercise, create some online teaching material, skype supervisions for postgrads. And I’m bearing up well. The quietness of being at home is good for my soul. The office of choice is the garden where I am accompanied by the chatter of birds communing socially at their own water coolers based at strategic points in the garden. When wet, I work in the kitchen where I can see the garden through the patio windows. Either function well for writing an ecological commentary on the Book of Judges, which is the current project.
Fresh in my mind as I work on the story of the abducted women in Judges 21 is the capture of the Yazidi women taken into sexual slavery against their will by ISIS soldiers, dislocated from their place of home and family. Warfare, ancient or modern, always has severe consequences for the bodies of women. Writing ecologically, I think of how the land can act as witness to atrocities; how the sacred energies of a place are desecrated; how, in Judges 21, the pulsing, whirling of girls’ feet was suddenly felt no more, leaving the earth bereft of its place in the dance. Being in the garden, watching the birds, listening to their singing and scolding (of cats), I wonder what the sounds of the places called Shiloh and Sinjar were in usual times, what were the sounds during the abduction, and then, with sadness, I ponder the sound of the aftermath.