Johanna, you’re well known for your work on the Bible, gender and sexuality. Can you tell us about your research so far?
It’s been a bit all over the place – because I’ve been all over the place (Britain, Botswana, India, US, back to Britain…) but I’ve worked on self-conscious emotions (particularly shame – including its associations with sexuality), on whether the Hebrew Bible has anything to say about homosexuality, on HIV/AIDS and African-centred readings of biblical texts, on how (based on the Hebrew Bible) conception appears to have been understood in antiquity, on father-daughter dynamics – and, next, on close-kin sex in the Hebrew Bible and if or when it constitutes incest.
How did you get involved in the Hidden Perspectives project?
The organiser, Katie Edwards, is pretty persuasive! When I heard about it I was immediately eager to get involved. I have a strong commitment to social justice and human rights. When I was living in southern Africa I gave a presentation, together with another colleague, on masculinity and sexuality (including homosexuality) at the University in Lesotho. It was a tremendous experience, because such topics were so rarely discussed publicly then and there. Later at the University of Botswana I organised panel discussions on the topics of homosexuality, HIV/AIDS and the Bible, and child sexual abuse. I am a big believer in giving difficult topics an airing and exploring what positive change can grow from that.
How will you ‘bring the Bible out of the closet’ at the festival on 1 June
I want to give an accessible talk about those passages of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) that are constantly dragged into discussions on how the Bible allegedly condemns homosexuality. What we call homosexuality is not really represented in the Hebrew Bible, nor is there any demonstrable preoccupation with condeming same-sex sex-acts. Two verses in Leviticus appear to be very clear – but actually they’re not. I think it’s important to know about how ambiguous these verses really are – even for biblical scholars who have studied the Hebrew language and the possible historical contexts of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. So, I’ll be looking at what scholars are saying to translate, explain and make sense of these odd verses.
Why do you think Hidden Perspectives is important?
Where homophobia and discrimination of all kinds against LGBT members of our community are concerned the straight community needs to get much more engaged to gain a fuller understanding and insight and to counteract such abuses. I remember quipping, shortly after getting married on the spur of the moment in Tennessee, how easy it was – all you needed was a valid driver’s licence, there was no background check and no one asked whether I was in the country legally, whether I was of sound mind, already married, or whether the guy I was marrying was related to me – and then a friend of mine pointed out that if you wanted to marry someone you loved who was of the same sex as you it was impossible. That’s just not right. And much, much more needs to happen to move things in the right direction. There may be some encouraging signs here but there’s still plenty of room for improvements and things are looking pretty bleak in most other parts of the world. I’m attending and supporting Hidden Perspectives to learn and heighten my awareness and to find likeminded people to generate human-rights-focused activism.
I’m currently working on what are sometimes called the ‘incest laws’ of Leviticus 18 and 20. I’m also co-organising (with Musa Dube, University of Botswana) a project on trends and challenges of Bible interpretation in southern Africa and the UK.
Read more about Johanna here.