Hidden Perspectives

Bringing the Bible Out of the Closet

Orange is the New Bible Interview: Johanna Stiebert

Leave a comment

Johann Stiebert1. Hello! Tell us about yourself…who are you and what do you do?

I’m a German New Zealander teaching modules in Hebrew Bible at the University of Leeds. I began studying Hebrew in my first year of University studies in New Zealand in order to qualify for a living-away-from-home allowance – and I got hooked. After finishing my PhD at the University of Glasgow I began teaching in tertiary institutions – first at St. Martin’s (now renamed the University of Cumbria), then at the University of Botswana, next at the University of Tennessee, and now, since 2009, in Leeds. I particularly enjoy Biblical Hebrew grammar (not everyone’s cup of tea, I know) and I also like probing the ideological orientation of texts and how psycho-social influences may have shaped the Hebrew Bible, as well as how biblical texts are used and subverted for ideological purposes in contemporary contexts. I’ve published on Hebrew terminology of self-conscious emotions (such as shame), on women in prophetic texts (particularly the book of Ezekiel), and on readings that investigate attitudes to a variety of human rights issues – HIV/AIDS, women’s rights, systemic poverty, and sexual orientation among them. Right now I am working on a book (under contract with T&T Clark) on how first-degree incest is depicted in the Hebrew Bible, in contemporary sources and in the spaces between the two.

2. How did you get involved with/interested in Orange is the New Bible?

This fabulous initiative is the brainchild of two former students of mine – both recent graduates in Theology and Religious Studies of the University of Leeds. I am so excited about this research day and very proud of them.

Spoilers below

3. What interests you about Orange is the New Black and the Bible?

The Bible is an extremely influential text that keeps being reinvented and popping up all over – sometimes in unexpected places. Right now is a difficult time for biblical studies (as for many of the Humanities) – and not only in the UK. Very many biblical studies departments are being downsized or got rid of (take a look at what’s been happening over recent years at Bangor, Glasgow, Sheffield, Leeds, Bristol…). And yet, the study of religion has rarely been more important and the Bible and biblical motifs, too, are virtually ubiquitous – in advertising, as the inspiration for blockbusters, in political discourse, in debates on a wide variety of ethical matters, in the iconography of artworks – and in popular television shows! An initiative like this one shows that the study of the Bible does not have to be dull and dusty – that it can be cutting-edge and imaginative, original and fun. While some of the traditional skills associated with biblical studies remain important to me, I am also very much open to multi-media and interdisciplinary approaches for investigating the Bible, as well as to making the Bible appealing, relevant and accessible to a diverse audience. Orange is the New Black has been an exciting television phenomenon, breaking new ground in all sorts of ways. I think some of that energy and originality can be harnessed effectively to infuse biblical studies.

4. How can Orange is the New Bible relate to your everyday work?

Teaching the Hebrew Bible is my everyday work and I have incorporated aspects of how the Bible appears and functions in contemporary media – such as in advertising, in debates concerning the teaching of creationism, same-sex marriage, and the justification of the existence of the modern state of Israel – in my teaching. This initiative offers yet new pathways for teaching the Bible both critically and creatively. I’m looking forward to seeing how participants approach the topic – and the possibilities of this initiative strike me as very invigorating. I will be bringing some of my students to the research day and am confident that this will be a stimulating and inspiring event for them.

5. OITNBible is a Hidden Perspectives project. How do you think OITNBible can help ‘bring the Bible out of the closet’?

I think the Bible holds much promise for all kinds of subversive readings – in many ways it was already out of the closet before many interpreters realised it! Often it is readers’ expectations of the biblical text, or a preoccupation with how they perceive the Bible (such as assumptions as to the Bible’s conservatism) that pose barriers – rather than what the Bible actually says, or could be read to say. In some ways the Hebrew Bible is indeed an oppressive, toxic and damaging text that can and has done – if treated as authoritative – great harm. Certain portions, for example, legitimate or downplay rape, ignore the rights of children, discriminate against women and certain ethnic groups, malign some form of same-sex sexual practice… – and that needs pointing out and resisting. But there is also all kinds of other stuff – some of it gender-bending, anti-authoritarian, funny, queer, challenging. By using a new lens – such as a dual focus on OITNB alongside the Bible – such things can be drawn out and explored. I welcome that.

6. If you’ve seen the TV show, tell us about one character and why they interest you?

The show is really growing on me and I very much like the variety of experiences and backgrounds portrayed. It’s fabulous seeing so many older women on the screen, as well as quirky and counter-normative women. Finally here’s a whole show that gets full marks on the Bechdel test! The character whose story I find most compelling is Red.

7. If you’ve not seen the show, why the hell not?! Or more seriously, why did you decide to explore Orange is the New Black and the Bible?

It took me a bit of time to get into the show – but a long flight and an intensive session of multiple episodes got me warmed up to it more. Creative ways of exploring the Bible always get my vote – so I did not take convincing to get involved with this initiative.

8. What is your interest in the Bible and television?

I see the Bible and biblical motifs all around. I suppose given my job I’m attuned to it. I hear and see biblical allusions on television all the time – in political speeches, in advertisements… A project centred in Theology and Religious Studies at Leeds conducted an empirical study on religious imagery on television – and when I attended a seminar presenting its findings, I was intrigued to see just how all-pervasive biblical and other religious motifs really are. Given that makers of television programmes want to appeal to their audience and given that advertisers want to sell products it is really quite important to understand and appreciate the reasons for such pervasiveness a whole lot better.

9. What other projects are you working on and/or what is next for you?

I’m finishing my book on incest and the Hebrew Bible and am working on a number of other projects also. One of these is a book I’m co-editing with feminist postcolonial scholar Musa Dube (professor of New Testament at the University of Botswana) – a collection of essays deriving from a three-year British Academy-funded project bringing biblical scholars from the UK and southern Africa into dialogue. I’m also writing one article for a collection of papers on radicalism, violence and religious texts and another for a book on rape culture and the Bible. The next big project I want to embark on is on prejudice and racialized sexual deviance in the in the Hebrew Bible.

10. What would you like to see OITNBible do next?

Let’s see what an event like this generates! I think it’s very likely that there will be a real buzz and momentum about this initiative. Let’s hope it can be harnessed to embark on the next project. Maybe there will be some opportunity for workshops or outreach in women’s prisons. I’d also like to see more initiatives that facilitate widening participation and support networks with all kinds of minorities – particularly refugees.

11. Is there anything else you’d like to say about OITNBible at the moment?

I’m just really excited about this initiative and I’m very eager to hear the papers and catch the vibe on the day. I also hope many of my students in Leeds will get involved and inspired. Bring it on!

Author: Hidden Perspectives

A research project within the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS) at The University of Sheffield.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s