Hidden Perspectives

Bringing the Bible Out of the Closet

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Hidden Perspectives Turns the World Upside Down

By Jo Henderson-Merrygold

View of Auckland Skytower

View from University of Auckland Campus

Sometimes it can take viewing things from a different perspective to be able to see them more clearly, so it seems rather apt that thoughts are cohering while I’m on the other side of the world to normal. These days I’m usually based at the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield where, after four fantastic years doing Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds, I now spend my time working on a PhD in Biblical Studies. However, for four weeks I’m working at the University of Auckland to help them launch a student-focused project called Hidden Perspectives NZ (site currently under development), and which carries the tagline, Bringing the arts out of the closet. It’s the sister project to this Hidden Perspectives project which I co-direct in Sheffield but has a slightly different focus. Hidden Perspectives in Sheffield is a research-centred programme which explores ways to bring the Bible out of the closet and presents thought-provoking and inciteful work challenging dominant ideas of gender, sex, and sexuality as seen in and through the Bible. The Auckland Hidden Perspectives NZ is much more designed to offer safe spaces for Rainbow (LGBT+) students, and returns the academic work so much associated with the project in Sheffield to lived experience here in Auckland.

As I remind myself, and the students I teach, the kind of research I do (and which is showcased by Hidden Perspectives) is only relevant when it reaches beyond the pages of text to personal experience, and/or belief in the case of the theological. It is not, as posited to me at an academic conference at which I presented, a joke. My research may be fun for me, but its purpose is deeply serious: to change the way we see (biblical) stories in order to see how norms of gender, sex, and sexuality can be challenged. So, if that’s always been the aim – both for Hidden Perspectives and within my own work – what is it that I’m seeing differently?

One of the important things about much of the Hidden Perspectives research is that it poses a threat to those who continue to use the Bible and (cultural) religiosity as a source for their justification of cissexism, heterosexism, and traditional (as well as oppositional) sexism (see Julia Serano‘s fantastic glossary for definitions for these terms). It is no longer fair – and was arguably never accurate – to say that these are predominantly found within religious contexts. Instead it is important to look at how the Christian cultural capital and societal biblical literacy extend far beyond those faith communities, especially in Anglophone and Americo-European contexts. With that in mind it is only now I’m embarking on the work with Hidden Perspectives NZ that I’m realising quite how important it is that the Auckland project has emerged from a Biblical one. The justification of transphobia, homophobia and misogyny definitely has roots in those biblical and religious discourses, but they are far from confined to communities of faith. And, despite protestations from the Pope, and from bishops in the Church of England, faith communities are also working to challenge and confront these damaging behaviours. Yet it is precisely the effects of those damaging behaviours which is what strikes me as I sit in sunny Auckland recovering from my jetlag.

Pride information with coffee and knitting.

Recovering from Jetlag, Auckland style

The need for safe spaces, such as the one being created through Hidden Perspectives New Zealand is essential – not just because of the rise of hate crimes and the politics of fear – but because, to quote Stonewall, there is still work to be done. This is in all contexts, but let’s look for a moment at the Christian ones so much in the media this week. Making international news was the contentious vote and discussion about the future of Rainbow – to use the preferred terminology in NZ – (LGBT+) people in the Church of England: the status quo is not good enough says the synod, in rejection of the argument proposed by the bishops. On a far smaller scale I discovered just before leaving the UK that the chapel I attended as a child will soon be independent; the decision to leave its denomination motivated by a rejection of a move to enable same-sex marriages in (some) churches. So when I encountered the neighbourhood church in Auckland displaying a small sticker on its noticeboard making its inclusion explicit, it is eye-catching and greatly appreciated.

Church noticeboard with inclusion sticker

All Saints Ponsonby

This isn’t just a case of opening the door and hoping people will trust they’ll find safety inside. It is far more than that. It is an acknowledgement that identifiable safe spaces are needed, because there are too many places that just aren’t safe (even if they’d like to think they are). It is visible and political. It is an important act of representation, and an act of resistance against doctrine, politics, or even just the perceptions which suggest otherwise. That is exactly what I hope Hidden Perspectives will be for students at the University of Auckland: an open, safe space; one which holds potential for exciting opportunities but most importantly somewhere they can be confident to come and be themselves.

Jo Henderson-Merrygold is visiting the University of Auckland to support the launch of our sister project Hidden Perspectives New Zealand. Her Researcher Employability Project trip is funded by WRoCAH. You can keep up with her visit by following her on Twitter and checking out the Hidden Perspectives NZ’s instagram.

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How Biblical Double Standards Killed Hillary Clinton’s Presidential Run

The Conversation

Jo Henderson-Merrygold, University of Sheffield

Since the news broke of Donald Trump’s election to the presidency of the United States, there has been much incredulity and analysis. How was it that someone as aberrant as Trump could emphatically beat Clinton and gain so much support from Christian voters?

But perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise; the reasoning of these voters can be found in the words of Arlene, New Jersey: “The first woman president should have integrity and that historic moment should not be tainted by someone like Hillary Clinton.” Why is it so important for “the first woman president” to have integrity, and to be held to a higher standard than any of her male counterparts? For an answer to this question, we have to turn to the Bible, and acknowledge its continuing role in American public life.

Trump was recognised as a flawed leader but that, according to evangelical leader Franklin Graham, makes him just like the biblical figures of King David or Moses. The emphasis was that “no one is perfect and we all sin”. The illustrious King David, for example, was far from angelic not least in killing 144,000 people.

The president elect has some controversial attitudes towards women – as did David. In fact, David took his to the extreme – he raped Bathsheba before killing her husband when he would not cover up the pregnancy. But for David, a man, that’s apparently no big deal.

High standards: the Virgin Mary.


Yet the portrayal of Bathsheba hints at the problems facing Clinton when trying to overturn hundreds of years of the Bible being at the heart of culture and society. Bathsheba is long associated with seducing the king. For that she is considered a slut, and is condemned for her wantonness. She is a bad woman because, in the Bible, women come in only two forms: good or bad.

Different standards

That takes us back to Graham’s suggestion that no one is perfect, and we all sin. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really apply to women – as “Arlene” points out. And it certainly doesn’t apply when a woman is breaking a glass ceiling. Women have to be better than that – women must be extraordinary, the Bible tells us so.

Ordinary women are few and far between in the Bible, unlike their male counterparts. Those women who are named and given identity are so good they are brilliant. They have to be astonishing, to quote Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, and their behaviour has to be exceptional and beyond reproach, especially when taking on powerful or significant roles.

The Virgin Mary is the quintessential example: eternally remembered for her chastity, obedience and her willingness to disappear from the story to allow a man to come to the fore. She is far from the only one. In the gospels, women’s discipleship is only ever painted as exemplary.

The same women, however, face challenges to their virtue and attention is frequently drawn to their sexuality. A woman’s sexuality, of course, is bad. It’s why Mary needed to be a virgin before bearing Jesus, and it is how a woman’s goodness remains constantly at risk. If a woman is not good, then there is no middle ground. She’s bad or, to quote the president-elect, “nasty”.

Donald Trump calls Hillary Clinton a Nasty Woman in the final debate.

As Bathsheba shows, it does not take much to become a bad woman – it can be as little as attracting unwanted attention. In Clinton’s case, it is primarily focused around being married to a flawed man. Whether or not she had divorced Bill for his infidelity, she is associated with the Clinton brand and will be condemned for his misdeeds.

‘Nasty’ women

The email fiasco certainly did not help, nor did her record on foreign policy. They reinforced the message that Hillary was not a good woman and therefore, in the eyes of “Arlene” and many like her, unsuitable to be president. This latent, underlying belief about women, inherited from the Bible and reinforced through constant reiteration in society, was just waiting to be stoked.

So when Trump described Hillary as a “nasty woman” in the final broadcast debate, he pushed that button. Trump invited his audience to return to their deeply ingrained, inherited, biblically-coded gender expectations. No wonder he did so well with the evangelical Christian audience. He told them what they wanted, and expected, to hear: you cannot trust a woman unless she is good.

Despite the link being made between Trump and the biblical heroes, his Christian media supporters offered no named biblical counterpart for Clinton. She was not labelled Jezebel, Delilah or any of the other vilified biblical women, but the inference remained: they are all nasty women. No nasty woman will be the first female president, no matter how qualified or experienced, and no matter how bad the male alternative is. So sayeth the Bible.

Jo Henderson-Merrygold, PhD Candidate in Biblical Studies and Queer Theory, University of Sheffield

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

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Lucy Skerratt and Adriaan van Klinken at Hidden Perspectives

world-aids-dayWe are delighted to announce two events in the next month. Firstly, on Monday 14 November Lucy Skerratt, from SIIBS and our sister project Orange is the New Bible, will be presenting a paper entitled Samson and the Salon. Lucy’s paper promises to be really exciting, and a fascinating engagement with contemporary ideas of identity alongside the ancient text. To mark World Aids Day (1 December), we will be hosting a special Hidden Perspective Presents…World AIDS Day on Monday 5 December. Dr Adriaan van Klinken (University of Leeds) will be sharing his paper, Same Love: Kenyan Courage and Creativity in the Struggle for Same-Sex Rights, and there will be a wine reception following his lecture. You can see more about the papers below.

Both lectures are free and  will be held in the Humanities Research Institute (HRI) Conference Room (34 Gell Street, Sheffield, S3 7QY)  from 14.00-16.00. Please come and join us!

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Orange Is The New Black can teach us a lot about religion – from The Conversation

The Conversation
On the value of religion in Orange is the New Black, by our co-director
Jo Henderson-Merrygold, University of Sheffield

Orange Is The New Black, Netflix’s incredibly successful drama set in a women’s prison, returns this week for a fourth season, with at least three more to follow.

The portrayal of the women in the show has attracted much praise, with diverse, complex and well-developed characters, each of whom has the capacity to surprise or challenge. This is particularly evident in religious representation throughout the show, which astutely introduces audiences to the themes of women’s religious practice, community and identity. The issues faced by the Orange Is The New Black women transcend the fictional prison complex, remaining relevant in contemporary real life.

Explicit exploration of belief and religion was a major theme of the last season, and we can expect this to continue – the most recent trailer revealed a new inmate wearing a hijab, the first in the series.


Orange Is The New Black is inspired by Piper Kerman’s autobiographical account of her 13-month stint for drugs trafficking and money laundering. Set in the fictional Litchfield Penitentiary, the show is increasingly unafraid of tackling difficult topics through the lives of prison inmates and staff alike.

Conversation about religion traditionally only appears in film and TV when associated with the predictable weddings, births and funerals. Although these have been known to occur in Orange Is The New Black, Litchfield’s religious life is not primarily encountered through these generally benign events. Rather it comes to life in the day-to-day and ordinary, playing a major role throughout the show. These are stories of religious spaces, communities and practices present in the lives of the inmates: women, whose personal and communal religion is so rarely documented in popular culture.

Finding Christianity.
JoJo Whilden/Netflix

Religion and spirituality is found everywhere. In the kitchen, where Latina women conduct prayers and spells learned from foremothers. In the laundry, where a white group practice their own form of charismatic evangelical Christianity. In the gym, where the Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous groups intertwine meditation and yoga.

The more obviously religious space of the chapel rarely gains such use. Instead, it is a battleground between inmates and authorities, a space for breaking down barriers. The closest women come to God here in this traditionally religious space is hardly through prayer – the chapel is a typical meeting place for hook-ups, so perhaps they experience something religious through sexual pleasure.

Season three promotion.

The religious lives of inmates reflect the broader complexity of their stories. Last season, Roman Catholic nun Sister Jane Ingalls (Beth Fowler) convinced a Rabbi she was Jewish in order to keep kosher meals – “the Abrahamic religions are all pretty much the same until you get to Jesus,” apparently.

Although more interested in selling her book and gaining publicity than religious teaching and authority, within the prison community Sister Ingalls is the go-to person on all things religious. “Black Cindy” Hayes (Adrienne C Moore) enthusiastically converted to Judaism after feeling rejection and alienation from her father and the church he pastors.

Then there’s Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett (Taryn Manning), a self-appointed leader inspired by the religious communities who have funded and claimed her as a prophetic figure since she shot her abortionist. Right-wing religious, anti-abortion campaigners publicly celebrate and validate Pennsatucky because of her crime. She is martyr for their cause, and they provide her with an excuse. Religious indoctrination allows Pennsatucky to rewrite her own history.

And there’s shunned Amish inmate, Leanne Taylor (Emma Myles), who establishes fellow prisoner Norma Romano (Annie Golden) – a former member of a 1960s New Religious Movement – as a religious figure who grants miracles in Litchfield. Leanne bullies other inmates into following her rules, declaring herself to be the true interpreter of Norma-ism. In her need to belong to a religious group, she attempts to recreate what she misses from her Amish tradition. She is lost without her religion.

Whatever happens next, it remains clear that religion underpins identity in Litchfield penitentiary. Whether beliefs are accepted or rejected, religion remains inseparable from the sex and drugs, abuse and manipulation, power and identity in the lives of each individual and group. Orange Is The New Black puts religion under the microscope and allows us to peek into the religious lives of others. What makes the show so provocative and valuable is that it shows the outreaching impact of religion across society.

This is never more important than in the aftermath of acts of terror and violence such as the recent homophobic attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Religious lines are drawn to try and explain, condemn, ally or distance ourselves from the act. Orange Is The New Black shows that drawing such lines between religion and non-religion, between sacred and profane spaces, is impossible. It’s just not that simple.

Orange Is The New Black encourages us to question how we understand identity and community in light of religion. You can guarantee that the religion present in season four will confront, challenge and defy expectation, just as the earlier seasons have. But will we embrace that diversity in wider society?

Jo Henderson-Merrygold, PhD Candidate in Biblical Studies and Queer Theory, University of Sheffield

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

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Bookings open for Hidden Perspectives Presents… Nancy Tan and Nechama Hadari

10 May 2016, 17.30-19.30,
G.03 Jessop West, Upper Hannover Street, Sheffield

The bookings are now open for Hidden Perspectives Presents… Nancy Tan and Nechama Hadari.  We are delighted to invite Nancy and Nechama to Sheffield to share their papers with us. Come and join us for a wine reception, and hear two challenging and thought provoking papers from world-renown scholars.

Tickets are free but must be booked directly from Eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/hidden-perspectives-presents-nancy-tan-and-nechama-hadari-tickets-24787193162

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Hidden Perspectives Presents… Nancy Tan and Nechama Hadari, 10 May 2016

Hidden Perspectives are delighted to welcome Nancy Tan and Nechama Hadari to Sheffield! They will be speaking at a special evening lecture event on 10 May 2016. bookings open next week, so and come and hear two of the most thought-provoking biblical scholars!

Hong Kong Sex Workers: Mothers Reading1 Kgs 3:16­–28, by Nancy Tan.

This project is inspired by Avaren Ipsen’s Sex Working and the Bible in which she reads select biblical texts with sex workers in the San Francisco Bay area. After reading the story of Solomon and the two prostitutes (1 Kings 3.16-28), these sex workers (unlike the majority of biblical commentators) concluded that Solomon’s wise judgment was “a dispensation of violence rather than justice”, and “unrealistic” in depicting a quarrel between two sex workers over a baby. We have replicated a reading of this same story with Hong Kong sex workers and have listened to how they interpret this text. This presentation offers a glimpse into the lives of Hong Kong sex workers and into their interpretations of the story, interfacing these with interpretations from biblical academia and compelling us to re-think the implications and significance of this story. This presentation situates the Hong Kong sex workers’ interpretations in dialogue with those of biblical commentators, and by prioritizing the former, re-interprets the significance of this story in the light of Solomon’s narratives in 1 Kings 1–11. It also points to crucial cultural and contextual issues which have often been ignored.

About Nancy:
Nancy Tan is Associate Professor in Hebrew Bible in the Divinity School of Chung Chi College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She works on interpretations of women in the Hebrew Bible. Her current interests lie in promoting Contextual Interpretations for the marginalized in her community. She is currently working on a project of re-interpreting the image of God (Gen. 1:26–27) for the disabled, as well as on a bilingual book on feminist interpretations of the Bible for Hong Kong. She is now on sabbatical leave and has taken up the post of Visiting Research Fellow with the University of Leeds.

“v’et Parshandata v’et Dalphon v’et Aspatha…” The 10 sons of Haman and the problematics of Post-Holocaust theology, by Nechama Hadari

Drawing on the recent proliferation of feminist analyses and reworkings of traditional fairytales, I offer a feminist reading of the Book of Esther, examining in particular the connections between power, food and drink, body and property. Threading together these themes, I reflect on the way the text raises questions regarding notions of “inheritance” and “legacy” – in both their physical and spiritual senses.

Because of way in which this Biblical story about an attempt to kill all the Jews – men, women and children – tends to evoke analogy and comparison with the narrative of the Holocaust, I then explore the way in which the themes I have identified in the text if Esther arise again and again in the context of media representations of the post-Holocaust lives of the NaziKinder – the children and identifiable descendants of prominent figures in the Third Reich.

Upon returning to the text of Esther, I find myself deeply disturbed by the account of the hanging of the ten sons of Haman and the seemingly excessive retributive violence dealt out by the Jewish community on their erstwhile enemies at the end of the story. On the other hand, I am acutely aware of the anti-Semitism expressed in the comments and commentaries of others similarly disturbed (most notably Martin Luther). Finally, then, I will offer some suggestions as to how the fairy-tale genre of Esther and the placing of its performance within the Jewish calendar might, far from validating depictions of the Jewish community as vengeful and violent, actually open up new possibilities for a more nuanced and moral relationship (for all of us) with the continuing aftermath of post-conflict trauma.

About Nechama:
Nechama Hadari gained her PhD in Religions and Theology from The University of Manchester in 2012. Her doctoral thesis – on the rabbinic understanding of the human will in the context of Jewish Divorce Law – was awarded the International Council of Jewish Women’s annual prize for academic research in 2013 and was published as a monograph “The Kosher Get: A Halakhic Story of Divorce”. During the first half of 2013, she was a Polonsky Visiting Scholar at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. Her continuing interest in probing what Jewish religious texts may have to contribute to a discussion of autonomy, gender and post-conflict have led to her write on subjects as seemingly varied as: the halakhic status of coercive treatment for anorexia nervosa sufferers, the problem of attributing criminal blame in the wake of war crimes, different philosophies of conversion to Judaism and the legal and moral problems created by Vanessa Lapa’s recent documentary about Heinrich Himmler.