Can you introduce yourself to our readers and give us an idea of what you do?
Hi! I’m Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Sheffield, but have an earlier career as a biology teacher before studying the Bible at the University of Glasgow. Partly because I came to Biblical Studies relatively late, I’ve always tried to pursue what seems interesting to me rather than to follow more accepted lines of inquiry. I think my business as an academic is to ask questions about things that otherwise are taken for granted; the only word forbidden in my classes is ‘obviously’! I like finding places where biblical texts and themes are at work in our culture in ways that most people don’t even notice.
Do you have a personal story about LGBT and Religion/The Bible?
I do, and it’s an unfinished one. We need to have a proper conversation about that, but I’m up for it if anyone is interested.
Why do you think projects like Hidden Perspectives are important?
I think these projects are wonderful ways of getting people to meet who otherwise wouldn’t and therefore bringing unspoken questions and fresh answers to old problem and old texts. I hope it helps people to realize that no university worth its salt has ever been an ivory tower but is a resource for a community.
Why should people get involved?
Because they’ll have fun, meet people, be inspired, annoyed, amused and made to think again about things they are sure they know.
What’s your hope for people who do get involved?
I hope that this can be the start of ongoing exchanges and relationships that give people the confidence to tell their own stories and to listen and learn from the stories of others.
What has been your experience of the interaction between LGBT & Religion?
My own experience has been coloured by many years of association with the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers. It’s hard to recall now how significant a short book called ‘Towards a Quaker View of Sex’ was in making it even possible to discuss LGBT issues in religious circles. It came out in 1962, when homosexuality was still illegal, and boldly asserted that the quality of a relationship was what mattered, rather than the gender of the people involved in it. I knew many of the people who were involved in the writing of that book and in the subsequent Wolfendenreport that led to the decriminalization of (some) homosexual acts. I think that had a profound effect on my own experience. Even within Quaker circles, there were deep divisions over this, let alone with the wider church and society, but what won through was a willingness to be honest on all sides and to acknowledge the sincerity of those whose views were different.
What are some of your hopes for the future of LGBT & Religion discussion?
I really hope that there is a way to acknowledge the importance of sexuality in human identity that doesn’t then see it as the most important thing about a person. Kierkegaard, who I admire in many ways, is very insistent that the most important form of love is love for the neighbour and whatever kind of relationship we find ourselves, the important thing is to remember that our friend, our partner or our lover is, above all else, our neighbour. I think that I hope that LGBT and non-LGBT people alike can use the resources in religion to undergird the responsible joy of loving our neighbours as ourselves, which, Kierkegaard reminds us, is best done by helping each other to love God, however we understand that.
You have a particular interest in contemporary culture and literature. How do you think literature in particular can influence society on these issues?
Literature, at its best, can help us to get some notion of what a life different from ours might look like but also help us to recognize similarities with our own experience we might otherwise overlook. I don’t think any work of literature on its own can change everyone’s mind, but it gives us a space to try out other ways of experiencing and thinking.
What is your favourite piece of literature and can you link it to the LGBT debate for us? Ridiculous links are welcome.
Two impossible questions for the price of one! I think I’ll answer it by saying that most of the pieces of literature I love serve in various ways to remind us that in judging others we are ourselves judged and that the plank in my own eye should occupy me more than the sawdust in someone else’s. That’s as true in the Moomin books as it is in the Brothers Karamazov or Shakespeare’s Tempest, if I have to name favourites.
You say Kierkegaard’s understandings of the problems of communication are well ahead of ours. What do you think the main miscommunications in the debate on sexuality in the Bible are?
Kierkegaard was a genius in thinking about communication, but I don’t think anyone should take him as a role model in dealing with issues of sexuality! The story of his broken engagement to his beloved Regine Olsen is a cautionary tale about over-thinking human relationships. Still, he was as aware as anyone has ever been of the human capacity for self-deception and how that complicates our interactions. I think that most miscommunications on the subject of sexuality come out of fear and that we are very bad at understanding our own fears, or even what it is that we are afraid of, let alone at empathizing with the fears of others. Fear often expresses itself as anger, which only serves to increase fear in those around us and therefore to raise the pitch of their anger in a vicious spiral. It is very hard to let yourself be vulnerable to people who are quite capable of using what they see as your weakness as a point of attack. Yet ever since sexual reproduction came on the evolutionary scene, it has meant that organisms have to be vulnerable to their partners in ways that can easily seem threatening. We clever human beings are mainly clever at compounding these sorts of difficulties for ourselves rather than solving them together.
Thank you for your time