Help me plan a course about Gender, Sexuality and the Bible

Next year I’ll be teaching a course titled, ‘Gender, Sexuality and the Bible’. I’ve inherited a module description, which includes the following elements:

Module Summary
The module will introduce the range and complexity of the Bible’s approach(es) to sex and relationships, surveying key texts around issues such as: gender identity, hetero and homosexuality, polygyny, prostitution, sexual violence, and bodily ideology. The module will on the one hand seek to help students situate the Bible’s approach to such issues within its original historical milieu and, on the other, will use contemporary academic discourse on sexuality to enable students to reflect critically on the way the Bible is deployed in contemporary discussions around these issues.

Indicative Outline Content
The module addresses a range of important texts, approaches and critical frameworks in some detail, beginning with perennial questions over the nature of the Genesis texts before broadening out to introduce some lesser-known biblical stories and some lesser known responses to Bible from particular communities who do not identify with dominant cisgendered perspectives.

1. Gender Theory and the idea called “Sexual Identity”
2. Gender and Genesis: Eve and her Daughters
3. Gender in Genesis: Abraham and his Sons
4. Homosexuality? Sodom and Leviticus
5. Queer Readings of the New Testament
6. Tutorials in Preparation for Assessment
7. Marriage and Metaphor
8. The Bible and Sexual Violence
9. The Transgender Jesus
10. Onan in Biblical Reception
11. Is the Divine Body Gendered?
12. Class Debate: The Bible’s Role in Sexual Ethics

Indicative Reading
Beale, Timothy and David M. Gunn, eds., Reading Bibles, Writing Bodies: Identity and The Book (London and New York: Routledge, 1997).
Boswell, John, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980).
Blyth, Caroline A. ‘I Am Alone With My Sickness’: Voicing the Experience of HIV- and AIDS-Related Stigma through Psalm 88. Colloquium: The Australian & New Zealand Theological Review, 44.2 (2021), 149-162.
Butler, Judith, Bodies that Matter (London: Routledge, 1993),
—Gender Trouble (London: Routledge, 1990).
Cornwall, Susanna, Intersex, Theology and the Bible: Troubling Bodies in Church, Text and Society (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
Gagnon, Robert, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermenutics (Abingdon Press, 2002).
Goss, Robert E. and Mona West, eds, Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible (London: Pilgrim Press, 2000).
Macwilliam, Stuart, Queer Theory and the Prophetic Marriage Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield: Equinox, 2012).
Moore, Stephen, God’s Beauty Parlor and Other Queer Spaces in and Around the Bible. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001).
Myles, Robert J., and Caroline A. Blyth, eds., Sexuality, Ideology and the Bible: Antipodean Engagements. (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2015)
Nissinen, Martii, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998).

I’m trying to work out how much I want to adapt that outline to reflect my own areas of interest and (comparative) expertise (it’s not straightforwardly my area!). I’m tempted to include some material on sex work in the Bible, particularly some bits of Avaren Ipsen’s “Sex Working and the Bible”. I’d love to find some good material that things about marriage and sexuality from a Marxist perspective, or at least from the perspective of questions of households, property and inheritance. I’d like to find some resources for thinking about the relationship between sexuality and purity laws in the Hebrew Bible, especially some work on menstruation and purity from, ideally, a Jewish feminist/queer theoretical perspective. And in general, I’d like to find a bit more work on gender in sexuality in the Hebrew Bible by Jewish scholars.

I’m also trying to think through how I want to balance the biblical texts themselves, secondary material on those texts, and more general theoretical work on gender and sexuality. I’m wondering whether to structure the course by giving them some introduction to theoretical questions relating to gender and sexuality, then getting them to spend some time looking at biblical texts in class, then sending off to read secondary materials on gender and sexuality in those texts; but I’ve never run a class on that structure before and am nervous it might prove a logistical nightmare! As an aside, none of the students will have any knowledge of biblical languages (and mine is miminal). So, any thoughts, reading suggestions, dire warnings of what not to do etc would be gratefully received!

Punching like a girl

‘The female person who enacts the existence of women in patriarchal society must live a contradiction: as human she is a free subject who participates in transcendence, but her situation as a woman denies her that subjectivity and transcendence. My suggestion is that the modalities of feminine bodily comportment, motility, and spatiality, exhibit this same tension between transcendence and immanence, between subjectivity and being a mere object. We often experience our bodies as a fragile encumbrance rather than the media for the enactment of our aims.’
Iris Marion Young, ‘Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment, Motility and Spatiality’

Some time last spring I signed up to take part in a boxing match. I’d been going to a boxing gym to keep fit for a while: I got sick of the cheap gym I’d been visiting, with its constantly changing class times, and its ever-worsening instructors. I got tired of taking step classes led by men who looked embarrassed to be there, in such a feminine space, who didn’t think it was important to time the exercises to the music, let alone plan them in advance. I’d never felt at home there anyway: I was always too red-faced and visibly sweaty. I couldn’t wear the sleek black leggings that seemed to be the women’s uniform because I got too hot. My hair was always a mess and I didn’t wear make-up. Compared to the other women I felt what I often feel around large groups of women, that I was failing to perform my gender in the right kind of way.

Continue reading “Punching like a girl”

Toxic call-out culture and toxic assets

In the phrase “toxic call-out culture,” I’m interested in the word “toxic.” The last time it was part of a widely used set phrase was back in the good old days of the Global Financial Crisis, when we heard a lot about “toxic assets.” The theory was that if those individual assets could be isolated and excised, then the banks would go from strength to strength. But the metaphor already gave the game away — it is in the nature of a “toxic” element to pollute everything else. And in reality, the toxic assets may have had higher toxin levels, but they were a symptom of a system that was toxic overall.

Similarly, the idea in “toxic call-out culture” diatribes is that if the left could get rid of this one element, they would be successful. But again, the very metaphor implies that the entire left is polluted already. And even if we concede that “call-out culture” gets out of hand or becomes an area of disproportionate focus, such events are only particularly vocal instantiations of core convictions of the left — above all, a preferential option for those historically oppressed and excluded, as well as the recognition that those from historically more privileged groups need to be held accountable if they want to participate in the struggle for liberation.

On a local tactical level, some particular instance of “call-out culture” could certainly be judged counter-productive or ill-advised, but on the level of global strategy, getting rid of the impulse behind “call-out culture” would mean giving up on being the left at all. If call-out culture is “toxic,” then we can only conclude that the left as such is toxic, as it surely is for those commentators who make use of the trope.

Man and the Man of Man

I am aware that it is my male privilege speaking here in part, but when I read older texts that use “man” to designate all of humanity generically, it doesn’t sound offensive and exclusionary so much as old-timey and mildly comical. I can’t help but read it mentally in the voice of the portentious movie trailer narrator (an association that was cemented in my mind by the shark fishing episode of Fishing with John, where the pompous narrator declares that for the sharks, “Man is on the menu”). There’s something about it that always feels overblown, somehow, as though a declaration about “man” is always intended much more grandiosely than an identical claim about “humanity” or “human beings” ever could be.

Some of that goes back to the syntactical possibilities the old-fashioned usage opens up: “man” can designate every individual human being and humanity as a whole. The word itself draws humanity into a unity in a seemingly much more organic way than the more abstract term “humanity.” “Man” has a story in a way that “humanity” does not, in a way that “human beings” never could.

Someone who can use the old-fashioned term “man” unironically believes in progress — or its opposite. A recent example is telling here. In the title cards for Battlestar Gallactica, we learn that “The Cylons were created by man.” It’s a weirdly archaic way to designate the creation of hyperintelligent androids — but it fits because it was a mistake, and one that decisively affects not only every single human being but the prospects for humanity as a whole. In BSG, the human race can be “man” because it has collectively sinned, been punished, and attempted (however incoherently) to redeem itself.

That is to say that “man” is first of all a theological term. It goes back to that first man, Adam, who was individually the entire human race and whose actions set humanity permanently off course. The optimistic, progressive “man” is the second Adam, Christ the redeemer, who reverses the work of his predecessor. It is a gendered term, undoubtedly, but it is so not simply because of its literal verbal meaning, but above all because it is drawing on a patriarchal religious tradition. “Man” is masculine in form because in that tradition only individual men had full legal agency — and hence full responsibility.

I don’t want to go back to that term, nor to its presuppositions. There’s something about its grammar that I would like to retrieve, though — the notion that humanity is more than the sum of all individuals, that we have a collective fate (if not a collective destiny), and that we can collectively make a decisive and irretrievable mistake. We didn’t lose those notions because we lost the term, of course — if anything, it was our increasing inability to imagine collective agency that allowed the edifice of “man” to crumble and become less an offence than a joke.

The bitter irony is that this shift in consciousness occurred just as humanity — I want to say “man” here — was polluting the earth in such a way as to endanger its ability to support life. In other words, humanity lost a sense of its collective agency and responsibility just as it started to commit what might amount to the unforgivable sin, the one that leaves no one behind to do the forgiving.

There is another aspect of the grammar of the term that is worth noting, however — it is in the third person. “Man” views humanity from an outside perspective. Especially in light of the theological resonances, we could say that it views humanity from a God’s eye view. And from that perspective, “man” is not so much an agent as a pawn — in a divine plan of salvation, which needs him to sin to get things rolling, just as much as in a narrative of progress. Perhaps “man” does not designate collective agency so much as collective guilt (the first Adam) or collective election (the second Adam).

In this case, the loss of “man” would be a first step toward a meaningful collective agency — a step into a “world come of age” in which humanity could start to say “we.”

A theological reflection on the Obamacare repeal vote

Today, I hope there is a hell. If such a place has a use, it is to house people who celebrate with a cold beer after voting to endanger the lives of millions to enrich the already wealthy. These people should be trembling in fear before the justice and wrath of God. But since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practise such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practise them.

Online leftist activism: A beginner’s guide

My experience teaches me that the online left abides by certain unspoken rules that help everyone to remain as woke and unproblematic as possible. At the risk of breaking the code of silence, I will list the most important rules as I have come to understand them:

  1. The correct position is always already known.
  2. It’s never your responsibility to actually explain or even state the correct position.
  3. Failure to hold the correct opinion must be treated as tantamount to actively harming people.
  4. Outrage and exasperated impatience are the only acceptable rhetorical stances.

This is the strategy that has led the left from strength to strength in recent years. We should all be proud to belong to a group that understands so perfectly exactly what needs to be done and how everyone should behave.

The Prince of This World event wrap-up

pid_23793My thanks to everyone who participated in the book event. This has been a fun and varied conversation about Adam’s excellent book. In case you missed it, Adam has responded to each post in the comments sections. The Anselm discussion below Linn Tonstad’s post was a particular highlight. If you’re coming to these posts after the fact, you might start with Dotan Leshem’s reflection which provides a nice summary of the text.

Some Seasonal Thoughts on the Passion of Torture by Bruce Rosenstock

Thinking, Willing, Blaming by Linn Tonstad

In the Shadow of Eleggua by Jared Rodríguez

Freedom, Responsibility, and Redemption by Amaryah Armstrong

After the Eschaton by Marika Rose

All Too Humans by Dotan Leshem


All Too Humans: The Prince of This World book event

This response in our book event on Adam’s The Prince of This World is by Dotan Leshem, senior lecturer in the School of Political Science at the University of Haifa.

The Prince of the World is a very ambitious and most welcome book. It offers an important contribution to the re-emerging literature that seeks to criticize the modern West by conducting a genealogy that traces its constitutive concepts in (Judeo)Christianity and in doing so forces the reader to rethink the present. Adam Kotsko does so by narrating a history of a (surprisingly) neglected figure in the abovementioned literature–Satan. In the first part of the book, Kotsko samples what he identifies as exemplary texts that capture the essence of seven different “paradigms.” Each comprises the pre-modern history of the devil, beginning with the deuteronomistic paradigm and ending with the medieval, of which the first six are the summarized in two tables (P. 44, 95). This historical narrative that follows the twists and turns of the role assigned to the devil in Judaic and Christian theology allows Kotsko to turn in the second part to a more elaborate discussion. This discussion deals, in most parts, with the problem of evil and free will of which the devil himself occupies a relatively small role in medieval Latinized Christianity with excursions into modernity. In his conclusion, Kotsko focuses on demonstrating how secularized modernity is very much trapped in a world molded in the middle ages, which for Kotsko, if one may use this term in a naïve way, is the source of all contemporary evil. Admirably, Kotsko goes one step forward from where most critical accounts in general–the genealogical ones in particular–stop and sketches some notes towards a new paradigm. Continue reading “All Too Humans: The Prince of This World book event”

After the Eschaton: The Prince of This World Book Event

Francis Fukuyama was right: we were at the end of history, the ‘happy 90s’ a brief millennarian period before the arrival of judgment day: the global financial crisis. We live now in

a secularized version of the medieval world structure. At the foundation is hell, where bare life is produced and reproduced, while the pinnacle is the global elect, that small minority on whose behalf all the glory is extracted from the damned. In between, there is the aspirational zone of purgatory, where by dint of hard work and sacrifice, we can all make it to heaven assuming we have all of eternity to work off their debt.

The Prince of This World, 202

We have entered, that is, what Will Davies calls the age of ‘punitive neoliberalism’, distinguished by ‘the sense that the moment of judgement has already passed, and questions of value and guilt are no longer open to deliberation’ (‘The New Neoliberalism’). The better angels of political liberalism have fled, leaving us with nothing but the cold heart of the social contract: the insistence that we are free and the intensifying desire to punish us for the uses we have made of that freedom. The world has already ended; can’t you hear the weeping and gnashing of teeth? Continue reading “After the Eschaton: The Prince of This World Book Event”