Hidden Perspectives

Bringing the Bible Out of the Closet

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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.

Orange is the New Bible week, Day 5: 7 ways Orange is the New Black is like the Bible

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A version complete with Gifs can be found at Jo Merrygold’s tumblr.

1. The most well-known and familiar characters are not the only interesting ones

While it may be hard going to ignore Adam and Eve, Mary, Joseph and Jesus, or even Noah and David, but are they the only interesting biblical characters

Just as in Orange is the New Black, it is sometimes the initially out of focus or otherwise overlooked characters which demand a closer look. Who would be closest to a biblical Miss Claudette, Janae Watson or Yoga Jones?

Perhaps Jael in Judges, Lot’s unnamed wife in Genesis or the Widow of Nain in Luke shed light on the underlying situations in the stories that we often pretend to ignore.

2. It’s all about the hair, and how you wear it

Sophia Burset may be the queen of Litchfield’s salon but her work doesn’t stop after she’s pampered her fellow inmates.

She offers the prisoners a chance to find and reaffirm their identities, there is no chat about where so and so is going holiday here but she still reveals who the prisoners really are and who they’re meant to be. It’s all about the hair in the Hebrew Bible too, think hairy Esau, and his gender queering brother, Jacob. And who can forget Samson? The powerful leader whose hair removal, like that of the brutal attack on Sophia in season three, means a loss of not just identity but of self – only regained once their hair is back in place.

3. Hero or villain – you can hardly tell by their behaviour

In prison there are no good guys and bad guys, angels and demons. OITNB shows us the grey areas of prison life. Prison staff, like Sam Healy, Natalie Figueroa, John Bennet and Joe Caputo, cross back and forth. Who is really the one imprisoned? And who can forget the case of ‘Pornstache’ Mendez, who literally goes from one side of the bars to the other?

Biblical heroes aren’t always so great either, King David is quite frankly a terrible Dad, Noah gets drunk and commits acts of incest, and Moses is a murderer. Safe to say there are blurred lines wherever we stand.

4. You can’t place enough value on food

Whether it is Chang’s illicit oranges or carefully crafted meals made from commissary supplies, the hunt for the mythical chicken, Norma’s face appearing in a piece of toast, wars about noodles or access to the kitchen, the increased demand for kosher food, or a yoghurt given to those in the right tribe, food and the search for it is ever present in the prison world of OITNB. Healy tries to bribe Chapman with a doughnut while Red exerts her control and self-identity through the food she serves the other inmates.

It is a preoccupation, and one evident in the Bible throughout both Old and New Testaments. From the selection and consumption of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, via manna from heaven and the hospitality of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs, through to discussions of food rules and purity, to the feeding of the 5000, last supper and Revelation’s edible scrolls, food underpins so many of the biblical narratives and the subsequent religious practices. Are you hungry for more?

5.Racial tribes are policed: you know whether you’re an insider or not

Do you want to be in my gang? Well, the tribes are clear in OITNB and Chapman is mocked and ridiculed for even attempting to transgress these inimitable boundaries. …those boundaries

Chapman can’t watch tv with the black girls, have showers with the Latina’s, eat with the ‘Golden Girls’. Rarely do outsiders find a way in, and if they do, like SoSo in season three, it often follows tragedy. This is the same in the biblical texts, there is always a group ganging up on the other, telling them they’re right, telling them who can and can’t join in. Like in OITNB these lines are crossed and attempted to be redrawn, like in Ezra and Nehemiah, the story of Ruth, and even the policing of behavior in the New Testament Epistles.

6. Rape is far more common than we like to admit

OITNB does not shy away from the difficult topics especially when it comes to depictions of sexual violence and rape. Who can give consent? What about Daya and her complex relationships with both Bennet and Pornstache.

The portrayal of Pennsatucky’s storyline in season three led to great discussion and praise for OITNB’s portrayal of rape. It highlighted that sexual violence is ever present, and the long lasting effects it can have. We can’t ignore that rape and sexual violence is in the Bible too, however much people try to tell us otherwise. David’s rape of Bathsheba, the abuse by Lot of his daughters (did it really happen the other way round?!), the pimping out of wives by Abraham and Isaac, amongst others shows us the extent to which consent is often assumed, rather than given.

7. While the men may think they’re in charge, it’s the women who really run the thing.

Don’t ignore us, we’re still here – and we want our voices heard. Abraham has to listen to Sarah, because God says so. Jesus is put in his place by an unnamed woman who calls him out for being a racist, and Rebekah orchestrates a plot for her younger son to usurp the elder’s place in the family heirarchy. Time and time again the Bible shows us these powerful women, getting things done, and changing the world as they know it.

Think how much Red can control Healy, the relationship between Fischer and Caputo, and Daya’s manipulation of Bennett after she becomes pregnant.

Hell, the arrival of a new female counsellor messes with Healy’s confidence entirely. These authoritarian figures in their uniforms, with their weapons may think they’re in charge – but the more we look at it, the more we realise the women have it all under control.

Thanks to everyone who came along to the research symposium today and supported the ongoing #OITNBible project. Don’t forget to support the Together Women charity, in all the invaluable work they do.

A version complete with Gifs can be found at Jo Merrygold’s tumblr.

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Orange is the New Bible Week, Day 4 – Together Women

The Orange is the New Bible team is delighted to announce that we will be supporting Together Women at the symposium (19/02) and in future projects.

Together Women is an independent charity which grew out of and is primarily focused on moving women out of crime and into positive, sustainable, and rewarding futures across Yorkshire and Humberside. They have bases in Bradford, Hull, Leeds and Sheffield, and run outreach services for women in Keighley, Lincoln and New Hall prisons. The charity works with these women developing their strengths and building resilience, enabling them to break the cycle of crime, moving away from damaging life style in the safety of women-only spaces provided by the charity. They also focus on early interventions working closely with vulnerable women, teenage girls, the police, courts and other local authorities in order to halt the devastating impact the UK criminal justice system has on women’s families. For women in prison they ‘work through the gate’ ensuring that when women leave prison their resettlement will be positive, with essential needs like housing and welfare benefits addressed prior to discharge. This also helps mothers to resume responsibility for their children, allowing family life to continue after release.

Together Women now supports and welcomes all self defining women regardless of age, ethnicity, and sexuality, across their centres providing a safe space and a much needed holistic support network.

We will be holding a collection for Together Women during the day, and providing more information about the work they do in supporting vulnerable women. We hope you will also consider supporting the invaluable work they do.


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Orange is the New Bible Week, Day 3: Parallel Session papers

OITNBible Poster

OITNBible Poster

In addition to papers on Orange is the New Black and the Bible #OITNBible features interdisciplinary papers on Orange is the New Black, and on the Bible and Television. These parallel sessions, to be held in the Jessop Building at the University of Sheffield, highlight a few of the numerous possibilities for studies of OITNB, and the Bible and Television.

Bible and Television

  • Transparent Jewishness Minna Shkul
  • Exploring the desert: Breaking Bad in dialogue with ecocriticism and the Pentateuch Robin Hamon
  • Biblical Vampires: Salome in TV’s True Blood Emily R. Foster-Brown

Orange is the New Black Interdisciplinary Papers

  • OITNB and Bisexual Erasure Laura C. Saunders
  • ‘A Room of One’s Own’ – Now ‘space’ is gendered and ‘owned’ in Orange is the New Black Sarah Hammond

The last remaining ticket is still available from our Eventbrite page – don’t miss your chance to come along and book it as soon as possible!

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