Orange is the New Bible: Conference Report

By Dr Johanna Stiebert

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While I cannot take any credit, I do feel enormous pride for the vibrant event that was Orange is the new Bible, hosted by the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS) on 19 February 2016, and organized by TRS of Leeds alumni Joanne Merrygold and Lucy Skerratt and current TRS of Leeds PhD candidate Charity Hamilton. This event received funding from the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities (WRoCAH) and was an out and out triumph.

The full-day event constituted an interdisciplinary symposium exploring dimensions of the Bible and its cultural impact by interfacing ancient texts with the Netflix TV series Orange is the New Black. The result was a series of innovative papers using the cult series as a springboard for exploring biblical texts from new perspectives and popular culture in the light of its preoccupation with biblical themes and motifs. It demonstrated that biblical studies is dynamic and relevant.

Presenters ranged from undergraduates, to MA candidates, to PhD students, to junior and established academics – not all from biblical studies. The atmosphere was experimental and supportive and the standard of presentations and range of topics impressive and stimulating.

About the Presentations

The first presentation entitled, ‘Samson and the Salon: An Exploration of Identity of Hair in Judges 16 and OITNB’, was by co-organiser Lucy Skerratt. The paper explored how Nazirite Samson’s hair in the biblical book of Judges exemplifies his hyper-masculine identity and, hence, shaving his emasculation. This was juxtaposed with an investigation of hair as gender- and sexuality-signifier in settings such as prison where many markers of identity are suppressed.

Next, Christie Broom, an undergraduate from King’s College London delivered a passionate paper with the title ‘Jesus and Laverne Cox: A Theology of Transgender Acceptance’, on transgender and gender non-binaries in both the Bible and contemporary contexts.

After this, we were treated to ‘Taystee is the New Ruth’, a highly original reading of the character Ruth from the eponymous biblical book, by Sheffield University undergraduate Catherine Kennedy.

After a short break the day resumed with MA candidate and community worker Kirsty Mabbott’s ‘Chaos and Christian Anarchy inside Lichfield Penitentiary’, an advocacy for Christianarchy.

Next, we heard a paper by Jessica Keady, who is researcher of biblical studies at the University of Chester. As Jessica could not be present, her moving paper ‘Purification and Prison: Forming Jewish Identity in Orange is the New Black’ was delivered by Joanne Merrygold.

Next up, we heard from Laura Saunders, a Physics PhD candidate with a commitment to promoting the experiences and interests of LBBT persons in the sciences. Her sharp paper, ‘Orange is the New Black and Bisexual Erasure’ drew attention to the misrepresentation and marginalization of bisexuality.

This was followed by Sheffield’s Professor of Enterprise and Engineering Education Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, with ‘Let’s Toast to Engineering a Messiah!’ a demonstration of how difficult it is to manufacture a miracle.

After lunch we were treated to a paper by Michelle Fletcher, Associate Lecturer at the University of Kent, on the nature of ‘truth’ and the expectations created by sequels, entitled ‘“The Second Time Around”: The Demand for Different in Revelation and OITNB.’

Next came a series of papers by Sheffield scholars on the Bible and Television. Minna Shkul spoke on the nuanced depictions of Jewishness in the TV show Transparent and then PhD candidate Robin Hamon juxtaposed desert imagery in biblical texts (particularly the book of Exodus) and in the TV cult drama Breaking Bad. Then, MA candidate Emily Foster-Brown presented ‘Biblical Vampires: Salome in TV’s True Blood.’

The grand finale was a paper by Director of SIIBS, Katie Edwards on religion, rape culture and OITNB. This paper also inaugurated a project on rape culture and the Bible, which is a collaboration by Edwards and Caroline Blyth (University of Auckland).

About the Organisers…

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Jo Merrygold and Lucy Skerratt

Joanne Merrygold holds an MA and BA (Hons) in TRS from the University of Leeds. She is funded by WRoCAH and writing a PhD thesis on genderqueerness in the Hebrew Bible.

Lucy Skerratt holds a BA in TRS from the University of Leeds and is currently completing her MA at King’s College London. She is writing her dissertation on the topic of sexual health and the Hebrew Bible.

Charity Hamilton is a PhD candidate at Leeds, writing on theologies of female embodiment, with special reference to their implications for Methodist theology and practice.

 

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Religion, Homosexuality and LGBT Rights in Africa: Book Launch and Symposium

7th April 2016, 13.00-17.00, University of Leeds

book launch

Speakers

Dr Barbara Bompani, University of Edinburgh

Prof Ezra Chitando, University of Zimbabwe

Rev Jide Macaulay, House of Rainbow Ministries

Dr Adriaan van Klinken, University of Leeds

Dr Matthew Waites, University of Glasgow

 

Occasion

The symposium marks the launch of two books, edited by Ezra Chitando & Adriaan van Klinken, published by Routledge:

 

Venue

Old Mining Building, room G.19 (Woodhouse lane)

 

Free registration via this link

 

Organised by

Centre for African Studies

Centre for Global Development

Centre for Religion and Public Life

leeds

Being Muslim in Bradford and Southeast Michigan: Exclusion and Visibility, Diversity and Cohesion

by Dr Sean McLoughlin

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A few years ago I was fortunate to be invited to undertake a three-day lecture tour in the United States organised by the British Council in Washington as part of its “Our Shared Future” programme. A partnership with the Carnegie Corporation of New York, this programme aimed to improve the often fraught public conversation about Islam and Muslims in the West based upon inputs from academic research. My travels took me to Southeast Michigan and while I knew of the area’s longstanding association with the car industry and the Motown record label, it is a measure of the lack of trans-Atlantic scholarly exchange in my field that I was hitherto unaware of a significant American-Muslim community settled there.

Back in the UK I have conducted mainly ethnographic research among the Muslim communities established in northern England’s mill towns (see for example, Writing the City in British Asian Diasporas, Routledge 2014). It was for such reasons that the British Council first contacted me, suggesting that West Yorkshire and Southeast Michigan could prove an interesting comparison. Both former industrial powerhouses have been struggling to reinvent themselves in a post-industrial economy. Both also have large Muslim populations whose presence has transformed the public life and space of small, regional cities such as Bradford and Dearborn. In the current political climate, too, both have been the focus of state surveillance and targets for right-wing, anti-Muslim demonstrations.

My visit saw me meet with staff and students at Wayne State University in Detroit and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbour. I also visited the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, which was founded after ‘9/11’ by a grassroots welfare organisation, the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS). I spoke, too, at an event co-hosted by the Institute for Social Policy Understanding (ISPU) which, again, was established post ‘9/11’, but this time by young, South Asian heritage American-Muslims with an interest in research. Both initiatives work locally and nationally in the US to dispel mainstream misconceptions about their communities.

My key concern during the tour was to gain an initial impression of how processes common across the Atlantic might be mapping out in ways that are both similar and different at national, regional and local scales. What follows are four brief reflections which have stayed with me since my tour. Together they underline the diversity of circumstances in which Muslim communities live in the West.

Firstly, in the last decade anti-Muslim sentiment has probably been more intense in the US than in the UK. However, while I was in Michigan the relatively muted initial response to the Boston marathon bombings in 2013 was being regarded as progress in this regard. Overall, the anti-Muslim lobby in the US to date has been more organized, better-funded and powerful. While such a constituency is not at all absent in Britain, it has been less clearly inserted into the mainstream of public life although the reach of social media and other forces is of course ever increasingly transnational.

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Secondly, there is a greater visibility of Muslims more generally in the UK public sphere, in part because Muslims are the most significant ethno-religious minority, as they are across Western Europe. In the US, the Muslim population is roughly the same size as it is in the UK, despite the total population of the UK being around one-fifth of that in the US. Therefore, while Muslims in the UK remain underrepresented in many ways, they have made significant inroads into political parties at national and especially local levels, and find it easier to gain recognition than Muslims in the US who must compete (or better co-operate) with other larger minority constituencies. Nevertheless, in a period of austerity and ‘small state/big society’ given the global financial crisis, which in the UK follows a period in which government invested heavily in British Muslim civil society, the latter may have to learn from its US counterpart in cultivating more of a culture of philanthropy to finance community development.

Thirdly, Dearborn’s Arab population is religio-ethnically super-diverse and includes significant numbers of Arab American Christians, Shi’is just as much as Sunnis, as well as various ethno-national constituencies. As a provincial UK city, Bradford still represents quite a sharp contrast in this regard. Though divided along lines of kinship and Sunni denomination, its Pakistani Muslims represent a large majority of all ethnic minorities in the city. Nevertheless, in both locations, Muslim unity is a sensitive topic and organisations have to work extremely hard to avoid duplication of effort and sustain meaningful co-operation when working with wider society.

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Dr McLoughlin in discussion at a recent research outreach event in Bradford

Finally, while a government policy discourse about the need for greater social cohesion in the UK has identified South Asian Muslims with close connections to ethno-national homelands as especially ‘problematic’ in this regard, it seems that such a discourse is less pronounced in the US. This may be in part because Bradford’s residentially clustered Pakistani population is increasing in size, residentially clustered and deprived. While Detroit itself has suffered from de-population overall and, despite a very mixed picture, its Muslim communities include significant numbers of socially mobile professionals, especially amongst suburbanised South Asian Americans. In both cities it is still constituencies with this profile that are most likely to possess the bridging and linking capital that views faith as a resource for civic engagement.

Dr Seán McLoughlin teaches on Islam and Muslims in Britain in the School of Philosophy, Religion and the History of Science at the University of Leeds, UK. He visited Southeast Michigan during the week of 15 April 2013.