Researcher of the Month – April 2019, Dr Caroline Blyth

Dr Caroline Blyth is a Senior Lecturer in Theological and Religious Studies at the University of Auckland. They are currently a visiting Research Fellow for the Centre for Religion and Public Life at the University of Leeds. 

Tell us a little about your ‘research journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now?

 In my early career, I studied psychology then went on to train and work as a mental health nurse. I returned to University in 2000 to study theology, planning to focus on pastoral care and counselling. But instead, I found myself falling in love with biblical studies. I developed a particular interest in biblical representations of gender and sexuality, and during my PhD, became fascinated by the ways that biblical texts continue to influence readers’ perceptions and attitudes about gender, even today.

My current research continues to explore this theme, looking at the ways the Bible is used and represented in contemporary discourses around gender, sexuality, and gendered violence. I’m also interested in the Bible’s representations of gender in popular culture – how its stories and characters are depicted in art, film, music, and literature. My most recent obsession has been with the delicious figure of Delilah (Judges 16) and her myriad afterlives as a seductive and treacherous femme fatale.

 Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area?

 I’ve always felt it was important that my academic work speaks to current issues and helps to raise awareness of injustices existing in contemporary culture. I take my role as critic and conscience seriously and, perhaps because of my nursing background, try to make my work have a practical as well as academic relevance. My particular interest in the Bible and gender-based violence grew out of an awareness that we live in a world saturated with gendered violence – including rape, sexual and domestic abuse, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia – and that the Bible (and those who read, preach, and teach it) can play a complex role in both challenging and perpetuating such violence.

I’ve also been endlessly inspired by the biblical scholars who likewise tackle this issue – those who came before me and those whom I now work alongside. The friendship and support that frames our collaborations is so refreshing in an academic world that is more often cut-throat than collegial.

What are you currently, or about to start, working on?

I’m currently working on a few projects. First, I’m writing a monograph about conservative Christian engagement in (what they call) the ‘transgender debate’. There is a lot of discussion about this ‘debate’ coming from conservative Christian theologians and churches at the moment, much of which serves to negate trans identities and creates a moral panic about the very existence of trans people. I want to call this ‘transgender debate’ out as a form of symbolic violence, and to critique the (mis)use of the Bible within the debate.

I’m also deeply involved in my work with the Shiloh Project at present – along with Dr Katie Edwards (University of Sheffield), Professor Johanna Stiebert (University of Leeds), and Professor Richard Newton (University of Alabama), we are beginning a two-year project funded by the AHRC investigating depictions of gender violence in the Bible and popular culture, considering how issues of race also shape contemporary discourses of gendered violence.

 In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the role of religion in public life and the relationship between the two?

It’s a common perception that the world is becoming increasingly secular, and that religion is far less influential or meaningful than it once was. But it’s very clear that religion still plays a significant role – and has significant power – within so many cultures and communities today. My research tries to highlight this, and to show how religious texts and traditions still have a massive impact on the way people make sense of issues around gender, sexuality, and gendered violence.

Public and political perceptions of LGBTI communities, for example, are still influenced by religious traditions – marriage equality laws typically have some form of religious exemption clause, attesting to the continued power and influence of religious institutions within secular countries. These exemption clauses give legal and political authority to homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic religious discourses, which in turn help to sustain prejudice and intolerance in wider social contexts. Religious communities don’t exist in a vacuum – they both shape and are shaped by the cultures and communities in which they are situated.

Similarly, my research into religion and gender violence attempts to highlight how religious communities and institutions continue to have the power to shape public perceptions of rape culture and gender violence for better or for worse. My recent work on a project that considered gender violence in Samoa highlighted that church teachings and traditions can (inadvertently) sustain or even validate gender violence; at the same time, however, it is also clear that the Samoan church has real potential to challenge rape culture and gender violence, and to provide a place of healing and support for both victims and perpetrators.

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