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!

Help me plan an Introduction to Political Philosophy

Next semester I’ll be teaching a module on political philosphy to a mixture of first year students taking courses in Philosophy, Religion and Ethics and in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. This is the rubric I’ve inherited:

This module introduces themes, theoretical perspectives and concepts in the study of politics and political philosophy and aims to develop an understanding of how political institutions operate and of how they are underpinned by adherence to a variety of political philosophies, or ideologies that act, globally, to order the global environment. The concepts and institutions studies are from a western perspective in order to, first, ground students in a knowledge of these themes per se but, second, to provide a framework for comparative study of non-western polities analysed in greater depth in Levels 5 and 6, such as those in the Middle East and China, in order to gauge the extent that western concepts of politics have been adapted, accepted or rejected in different environments. This is achieved by a pattern of lectures, seminars, tutorials and workshops.

Set texts look at key political thinkers from classical times through the Enlightenment to the present day (for instance Machiavelli, Locke, Rousseau, Smith, Burke, Marx & Engels, Gramsci, Marcuse, Hayek and Habermas) in order to examine such issues as power, justice, order, war, legitimacy, accountability, sovereignty and other issues of concern to the practice of politics and government at country specific, regional and local levels.

It’s essentially an introduction to modern Western political philosophy, then, and I’m grappling with the question of how to “teach the canon” whilst also trying to remake or decolonise it. I have eleven weeks, and this is the sketch I’ve got so far: I’d really appreciate any critiques, suggestions about how I could organise it better or differently, and recommendations of good primary or secondary reading either for myself or my students:

1 Introduction: what is political philosophy (with some selections from Nancy Fraser or Michael Freedon)
2 Hobbes
3 Locke
4 Rousseau and Louverture
5 Marx (with some space in the lecture for talking about Adam Smith and Marxisms-after-Marx)
6 J S Mill (perhaps paired with Wollstonecraft?)
7 Hannah Arendt
8 Foucault on disciplinary societies
9 Judith Butler on grievable lives, Agamben on homo sacer
10 Neoliberalism (Hayek)
11 Sara Ahmed on the cultural politics of emotion

Help me plan a course about Jesus

Next semester I’ll be teaching a module on ‘The Many Faces of Jesus’ that I’ve inherited from a predecessor. This is the module description and indicative course outline I’m working with: I’ve got some freedom to work within these constraints but what I teach has to broadly fit this framework, which has been officially approved by the department (in case any pedagogy nerds are interested in the different constraints at play in UK teaching):

This module engages critically with some of the key ways in which the Christian tradition has understood Jesus and his saving significance. The module begins with a study of key New Testament texts concerning Jesus. Then crucial debates in the patristic era will be looked at in detail, including the critical decisions reached at the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon. Contemporary discussions surrounding the historical Jesus and Christ of faith will also be evaluated, as well as contemporary theological understandings of Jesus. The module will also examine non-Christian understandings of Jesus, especially in Judaism and Islam.

Indicative Outline Content
a.i.1. Who did Paul think Jesus was?
a.i.2. Who did John think Jesus was?
a.i.3. Who did Jesus think Jesus was?
a.i.4. How on earth did Jesus become a God? The Arian Crisis
a.i.5. Was Jesus truly human? The Nestorian controversy
a.i.6. The Chalcedonian Definition… and its Aftermath
a.i.7. The Birth of Jesus in Contemporary Theology
a.i.8. The Death of Jesus in Contemporary Theology
a.i.9. The Resurrection of Jesus in Contemporary Theology
a.i.10. The Quests for the Historical Jesus
a.i.11. Jewish and Islamic perspectives on Jesus
a.i.12. Can a male saviour save women?

It’s obviously going to be a bit of a whistlestop tour of Christology through the centuries, and I’m struggling to work out how best to manage things – I’d like to give a bit more space to non-Western Christologies in the second half of the model, and I’d really appreciate any recommendations for good primary and secondary readings to assign my students. Is there anything important missing from this outline? Are there any books I really have to read as I get planning? I’m definitely going to go back to Virginia Burrus’ Begotten Not Made, Boyarin’s Border Lines, and I’m trying to figure out if there’s a way to squeeze in Du Bois’ Jesus Christ in Texas.

The wrath of God in America

Today we discussed Romans in class, and I described the traditional reading somewhat uncharitably: there’s something wrong with us such that it’s impossible for us to do the right thing, but if we believe in a certain story, then it’s alright. I know I should be more respectful, but no one seemed very disturbed by it. Perhaps I can get away with it because it’s obvious that I know a lot about the Bible and it means something to me (albeit in some kind of weird way). And in fact, that’s what motivates my dismissal of the traditional reading — it renders Romans (and the Bible more broadly) meaningless.

The traditional narrative of salvation, especially in its Protestant inflection, is one that never made much sense to me. I struggled mightily with it, growing up in a particularly evangelical/fundamentalist corner of the Church of the Nazarene. I could never figure out why I as a Gentile ever needed to be released from the burden of the Jewish Law, why “works righteousness” was such an appalling thing, why getting baptized or going to the altar to ask forgiveness wasn’t a “work,” etc., etc. Ultimately I tried to square the circle by joining the Catholic Church, which at least seemed to offer me some objectivity.

That objectivity no longer appeals to me in the same way, but I still can’t get my mind around the Protestant problematic of faith and works and justification. On a practical level, raising children within the Protestant problematic seems like a recipe for neurosis at best (me and all my closest friends) and moral nihilism at worst (all the evangelical Trump supporters, the most prominent of which are precisely the sons of the first wave of leaders).

The reading of Romans I find in Ted Jennings, Neil Elliott, and others presents me with problems that make sense. What do we do when law seems impotent to produce the justice it aims for? How can we maintain integrity while living in a corrupt system that coerces us into complicity with injustice? What would it mean if we really didn’t have to be afraid of death anymore? I find it hard to believe in the resurrection of the dead, but it at least means something in a way that finagling your immortal soul into heaven simply does not in my view.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but I am sure that the wrath of God is revealed against the American Empire, as sure as Paul was that the wrath of God was revealed against the Rome of Caligula and Nero. We are living in Romans 1 every time we turn on the TV news. It doesn’t take divine revelation to know that things can’t go on like this forever. But we go along with it, for the most part, because we’re afraid — more and more afraid as we become more and more precarious. All our politics, our collective life has to offer us is fear.

The resurrection may be a fantasy, but it’s a fantasy that does something, that opens up a space for transformation and hope. A man was subjected to torture and a shameful, painful death, but through some divine power he was able to overcome literally the worst the world could dish out to him — and so we don’t need to be afraid anymore. He is starting a team that we can join so that we don’t have to be afraid. And when we look at the style of thought that something like the resurrection might make possible, then we can look for other things that might fulfill a similar role. Could we arrange a society where we didn’t need to coerce each other with the threat of death, exclusion, starvation, and shame? What would have to happen to make that possible?

Constructing a tradition

As most readers of this blog know, I teach at a school in the Great Books tradition. While Shimer is more liberal and open to contemporary sources than most schools in that tradition, our curriculum remains pretty firmly within the classics of the “Western tradition.” I think it’s fair to say that the current faculty are all pretty convinced of the need to add further diversity to our curriculum, though there are disagreements on how best to go about it. For classes with a modern focus, it’s a little easier, because there are more texts and other materials reflecting diverse gender, sexuality, race, class, etc., backgrounds available — “diversity” in the sense it is normally used in contemporary discussions. For classes with a pre-modern focus, the problem is often harder. Continue reading “Constructing a tradition”

Curriculum brainstorm: Ancient and Medieval survey

Next year, I’m going to be teaching Shimer’s senior capstone, which is purportedly an overview of the broad Western tradition (ancient and medieval in the fall, modern in the spring) with an emphasis on the concept of “history.” That narrative is becoming less and less compelling to most students, and the through-line of the focus on history tends to get a little lost amid a very crowded reading list (my list will seem crowded, but it’s nothing compared to the existing version!). So I’m going to have a chance to make some changes, to lighten the load somewhat and to incorporate more contemporary perspectives.

I don’t know how much flexibility I’ll actually have, but my mind has started to churn about what I would do with the concept if I had a totally free hand. Accepting the “ancient and medieval” frame for the fall, and taking into account that we have a 13-week semester and that the capstone class meets four times per week (and we generally do 20-30 pages of reading most days), this is what I’ve come up with so far. (Note that most of these books will be read in selections.)
Continue reading “Curriculum brainstorm: Ancient and Medieval survey”

Thoughts after spending a year with The Phenomenology of Spirit

As I’ve often mentioned, I’ve spent the last year working through Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit in an independent study with a student who is a committed Marxist and thus very highly motivated to understand Hegel. To weigh in on a recent online controversy, I’m going to say that we shouldn’t ban independent studies, because this has been incredibly rewarding for both of us. I am increasingly committed to doing a reading group on Hegel’s Logic this summer, mainly for the sake of striking when the iron is hot — and because I think I have grasped the inner necessity of the project of the Logic in terms of what Hegel is doing.

I read the Phenomenology as an attempt to cure individualism. We see a variety of attempts by the subject to grasp the world purely individually, punctuated by abortive intersubjective encounters (the master-slave dialectic, most famously). A basso continuo throughout is the recurrence to language — already in “Sense-Certainty,” language is the crucial lever for undermining the pretenses of immediate knowledge (“here,” “now,” “I”), and it comes back at all the most important turning points in the argument. The main narrative culminates in an intersubjective encounter that, through the mediation of language, provides both the beautiful soul and the man of action with access to a dimension that exceeds the individual (both individual moral judgment and individual action and intention), that dimension that Hegel calls Spirit. Finally, the subject has become substance — the bare self-assertion and self-reference of the individual is given its genuine content in the social reality that shapes the subject and confers meaning on the subject’s action.

Once the existence of Spirit has been phenomenologically adduced from the perspective of the subject — through twists and turns that, shall we say, vary in their persuasiveness and apparent necessity — we then turn, in the “Religion” section, to the phenomenology of Spirit, the appearance of Spirit to itself. This section recapitulates the previous development in a certain way — which makes sense, since the overarching thesis governing every development was “it was Spirit all along!” — but from a new perspective. We learn that Spirit first becomes self-aware through the “picture-thinking” (Vorstellung) of religion, paving the way for Hegel’s remarkable interpretation of Greek culture in terms of “religion as art.” Christian theology begins to overcome that mere “picture-thinking,” but Hegel believes we must carry it forward in conceptual form, because only thereby can Spirit become fully conscious of itself. While “picture-thinking” is a necessary and legitimate mode of thought, it necessarily obscures the movement of thought itself, insofar as it presents the object as though it were something foreign to the thought of it. Only the concept (Begriff) allows thought to simultaneously grasp the object and the fact that it’s grasping it.

And that, apparently, is the project of the Logic — a conceptual-discursive account of what religion was trying to do via “picture-thinking.” I’ll believe it when I see it.