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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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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Orange is the New Bible Week, Day 2: #OITNBible Short Papers

OITNBible Poster

OITNBible Poster

In the second of our #OITNBible week updates, we can now share the abstracts for our range of Orange is the New Black and the Bible papers. Including contributions from people at various different stages of their academic lives, a first-year undergraduate to a renowned professor, the papers are thought provoking and exciting.

  • Jesus and Laverne Cox – A theology of transgender acceptance by Christie Broom
  • Taystee is the New Ruth? by Catherine Kennedy
  • Chaos & Christian Anarchy inside Litchfield Penitentiary by Kirsty Mabbott
  • Purification and Prison: Forming Jewish Identity in Orange is the New Black by Jessica Mary Keady
  • Searching for the Messiah of Litchfield by Jade Ward
  • Let’s toast to engineering a Messiah! by Elena Rodriguez-Falcon

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Orange is the New Bible Week, Day 1 – Keynote Papers

OITNBible Poster

OITNBible Poster

We are delighted to be able to share the abstracts for the keynote papers for Orange is the New Bible.

Keynote Papers

  • Samson and the Salon: How we construct gendered identities through hair Lucy Skerratt
  • “The Second Time Around”: The Demand for Different in Revelation and OITNB Michelle Fletcher.
  • “Best thing is to go on and let them do their business”: Religion, Rape Culture and OITNB Katie Edwards

Don’t forget, you can still book tickets by visiting our Eventbrite page – there are only a couple left!

Samson and the Salon: How we construct gendered identities through hair

Lucy Skerratt

Lu-polaHair is the great identifier, but also the great divider. The way we present ourselves says a lot about our gender, sexuality, social location, ethnicity and economic class. In Orange is the New Black, hair, although rarely an obvious thematic device plays an essential role with how the characters identify themselves, and see each other. Like the character Samson, when we lose our hair we lose a part of ourselves, become like anybody else, and located as an anonymous group member rather than an individual. With the inclusion of the hair salon within the prison, managed by Sophia, such becomes the great normaliser: giving the female prisoners a true sense of self, of acceptance and self-worth. The story of Samson and Delilah in Judges 16 has similar connotations, Samson’s teasing to his partner about his weaknesses only end in him squandering his great strength and losing his sense of identity and self-hood. This is only further highlighted by the tangling of the hair itself which charms away elements of his character until he is no more. However, when his hair starts to grow back, so does his identity and therefore his strength. This paper will seek to explore the intersection between Sophia’s salon and its central place and role within Litchfield prison in affirming the individual identities of the prisoners and furthermore how such relates to the story of Samson as a hero who is tempted, who loses everything, and yet through the regrowth of his hair finds himself and his identity before making the ultimate sacrifice.

Lucy Skerratt is an MA student in Biblical Studies at King’s College London (KCL). She completed her BA at the University of Leeds in Theology and Religious Studies where she focused particularly on the book of Lamentations and contemporary understandings of HIV/AIDS. Her focus at present is on sexual health, sexually transmitted diseases and sexual identity within the Hebrew Bible. She is also at present researching constructions of female masculinity in the Hebrew Bible texts, the nature of self-confession in biblical studies and contemporary understandings of ethnicity within the Hebrew Bible framework. Lucy is one of the co-organisers of Orange is the New Bible.


“The Second Time Around”: The Demand for Different in Revelation and OITNB

Michelle Fletcher

Michelle Fletcher-pola“Based on reality”—This tagline has the power to enthral and to sell, and OITNB has certainly made it clear that what we are seeing on screen is founded on real-life experiences, Piper Kerman’s 13 months stint in Danbury Federal Correctional Institute to be specific. This has lent the show a level of veracity, which despite its often white-middle-classed perspective on events, has often shielded it from criticisms surrounding its portrayal of inmate dynamics and race. Yet how much is the show actually “based” on the reality of Piper’s memoir? What gets added, mixed, and taken away in its adaption to screen? What is more, what is different as the series continues? Adaptation and sequel theory will be used to inform our reading, as we explore not only the alterations between memoir and screen but also the differences between series one and series two. This will reveal an increase in “second time around” portrayals of sex, violence, and character contextualisation. These theories of alteration and addition will then be applied to the book of Revelation in order to explore its portrayal of the image of Christ. What is it that this portrayal offers that other NT accounts do not, and what is added, mixed and altered in Christ’s adaptation to apocalypse? The paper will conclude by asking how these seemingly different examinations of alterations can inform each other, and what audiences experience when characters and situations “based on reality” are adapted, and presented in new forms.

Michelle Fletcher is currently an Associate Lecturer at the University of Kent. She did her doctoral studies at KCL, using film theory to examine the use of the Hebrew Bible in the book of Revelation. Michelle has a particular passion for bringing biblical studies into dialogue with visual media theory and for blurring the boundaries between “high” and “low” culture. Her publications cover topics such as examining Terminator’s use of the Apocalypse, Film Noir, Frankenstein films, and feminist re-readings of the New Testament.


“Best thing is to go on and let them do their business”: Religion, Rape Culture and OITNB

Katie Edwards

KatieTiffany ‘Pennsatucky’ Doggett seems to be a polarizing character for fans of the TV series Orange is the New Black. While some may find her the ‘meth-mouthed bully’ of season one (Etkin, 2015), and others criticize the show’s writers and producers, who ‘clearly got their only images of rural poor white people directly from the movie Deliverance’ (Leondar-Wright, 2013), there can be little doubt that she is central to the OITNB’s biting commentary on religion, sexual assault and cultural constructions and representations of ‘ideal’ motherhood. This paper will read Pennsatucky’s story against current debates on abortion, motherhood, religion and rape culture, to argue that class is the common theme underlying public discourse and cultural representations that consistently present women as responsible for sexual threat and violence and failure to adhere to socially accepted roles of mother and ‘carer’.

Katie Edwards is Director of the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS) and Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Sheffield. Katie’s research focuses on the function, impact and influence of the Bible in contemporary popular culture with particular interest in the intersections of gender, sexualities, race and class in popular cultural reappropriations of biblical characters and narratives. Katie is currently editing the Handbook of Rape Culture, Gender Violence, and Religion (Palgrave Macmillan) with Caroline Blyth (University of Auckland) and editing the Hidden Perspectives series (Bloomsbury) with Minna Shkul (University of Sheffield).


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Orange is the New Bible Interview: Michelle Fletcher

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

Hello! I’m Michelle Fletcher and I’m an Associate Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Kent. I did my doctorate at King’s College London, using Film theory on imitation and combination to explore the book of Revelation’s relationship with the Hebrew Bible. As a result, Bible and film has become a particular research area of mine—from Disaster movies to Film Noir, Terminator Salvation to Once Upon a Time in the West, I’ve used them all as a lenses to re-read the Bible.

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

Jo and Lucy contacted me and asked whether I would like to be involved in the project and I of course jumped at the chance (who wouldn’t?).

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

As a biblical scholar with penchant for popular culture I adore bringing the Bible into dialogue with what we all love to watch in order to create challenging insights into how we understand texts and their reception. Film and TV studies has so much rich theory that we biblical scholars can learn from and can use to reassess how we approach the Bible, and so this is a chance to see the exciting results of the intermingling of Bible and TV.

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

As an Apocalypse scholar I spend a lot of time dealing with a text which is often believed to focus on future retribution. OITNB has much to say about what society calls “justice” in the here and now, calling into question what we deem to be fitting “retribution,” and so reading the Apocalypse through this lens is an eye-opener.

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

Katie summed it up in her interview: this project ticks all the Hidden Perspectives boxes and more .

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

I really enjoy scenes with Suzanne as she’s like a breath of fresh air with her on-point observations and never ceasing ability to shake up the ways we view such a repetitive and seemingly pre-programmed environment.

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

I’ve got a number of projects on the go at the moment. The biggest one is getting a monograph together off the back of my doctorate, but I’m also researching into the use of Exodus motifs in the Apocalypse, and writing on Bible, film, and genre for forthcoming volumes. And then there’s a project I’ve been building up to for a couple of years which I am finally finding time to work on: uniting Tom Cruise films and biblical studies.

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

It’s great to see such a widely watched show meeting biblical scholarship. More of this please!

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

It’s all pretty damn exciting…

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Orange is the New Bible – Final Call for Papers reminder & guide

Orange is the New Bible Symposium
19 February 2016
University of Sheffield

An interdisciplinary conference for undergraduate and postgraduate students exploring the Bible and the cult Netflix TV series, Orange Is The New Black.

We especially welcome papers from undergraduates, postgraduates and Early Career Researchers on the following interdisciplinary themes:

  • Orange is the New Black and the Bible – 15 minute format
  • The Bible, counter culture and television – 5 minute/20 slide format
  • Orange is the New Black and culture – 5 minute/20 slide format

Each paper will be followed by 5 minutes for questions.

Furthermore, we would like to invite poster presentations on any of the above themes.

Please submit a title and abstract (max 300 words) to Jo Merrygold (University of Sheffield) and Lucy Skerratt (Kings College London) to oitnbible@gmail.com by 23:59 on 3 January 2016. Please specify whether you are submitting a poster, a paper, or both. All applicants will be informed of the outcome by 10 January 2016. Expressions of interest in further Orange is the New Bible projects are also welcome.

Further information about the conference will follow.

For a helpful guide to submitting abstracts in response to a call for papers, see this guide by Lucy Skerratt: How to write an abstract

About Jo and Lucy:

Jo Merrygold
Twitter: @Jo_Merrygold | Email: j.merrygold@sheffield.ac.uk
Jo is a WRoCAH AHRC funded English Literature PhD student at the University of Sheffield. Working within Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies, Jo researches gender-queer biblical hermeneutics, and explores the implication of biblical accounts of gender on current cultural discourses. She previously studied at the University of Leeds, where she completed a BA in Theology and Religious Studies, followed by a WRoCAH AHRC funded MA focusing on gender, queer theory and religion.

Lucy Skerratt
Twitter: @lucyess94 | Email: lucy.skerratt@kcl.ac.uk
Lucy is a MA student in Biblical Studies at Kings College London. Lucy is currently researching the ethics of self confession in Biblical Studies and political and queer resistance readings of Ezekiel and Leviticus, STDs, Sexual Health, and the LGBT community in contemporary London. She previously studied at the University of Leeds where she completed a BA in Theology in Religious Studies with a particular focus on re-reading Lamentations in light of contemporary explorations of HIV/AIDS.

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Orange is the New Bible Interview: Laura Saunders

lsaunders-pola1. Hello! Tell us about yourself…who are you and what do you do?

Hi! My name is Laura and I am a physics PhD student in the Academic Unit of Radiology at the University of Sheffield, where I am looking at medical MRI. In my free time I have an interest in gender and sexuality studies.

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

Jo Merrygold mentioned Orange is the New Bible during an undergraduate LGBT studies lecture, which I was attending. I immediately thought that somebody needed to speak about bisexuality in OITNB – which for me is one of the areas that OITNB really fails its LGBT viewers. So even though my background is unrelated, I couldn’t help getting involved!

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

OITNB and the bible doesn’t relate to my discipline at all. Broadly speaking though, I am fascinated by how on gender and sexuality fits into scientific disciplines, both in terms of research and individuals in the field. I love to learn and think more about queering scientific disciplines and the ways in which our assumptions about sex, sexuality and gender can limit us in science.

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

For lots of people, the media has a big influence on how they relate to other genders and sexualities, and also how people see themselves. If done well it can make different kinds of narratives accessible to everyone, and if done poorly it can reinforce the kind of stereotypes that make peoples everyday lives and work environments difficult.

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

I don’t know if I can pick one character! I think for me, what is really great about OITNB is that there are so many diverse female characters. Gender and sexual minorities are so overwhelmingly stereotyped, it’s hard to challenge all that with a single character. You need to tell many stories to really challenge stereotypes, and that’s what OITNB does well.

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

I am definitely always keeping an eye open for projects on sexuality and gender, but I need to focus on my PhD in my own discipline right now too! So that is what I am working on right now and in the near future.

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

Just thanks for creating it! I can’t wait to see what everybody else is interested in and talking about.