Researcher of the Month – May 2018, Dr Johanna Stiebert

Johanna Stiebert is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Leeds and member of the Centre for Religion and Public Life. 

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

 The only reason I took Hebrew in my first year at Otago University (in Dunedin, New Zealand), where my research journey began, was because I needed a subject not offered in my hometown (Wellington), so I would qualify for the ‘Living Away from Home Allowance’. Essentially, I embarked on Hebrew because of the money – no nobler reason! I thought I’d take Hebrew for just one year and then continue on with my degree in English and maybe become a writer of novels and poems, or a journalist. But I got hooked on the Hebrew and continued studying it for an MPhil (at Cambridge) and PhD (at Glasgow). In my first job, at St. Martin’s College in Lancaster (now the University of Cumbria) I came close to throwing in an academic career and joining VSO (to teach English as a second language in Madagascar) – but then a job was advertised at the University of Botswana and the specifications seemed tailored to me. I applied, got the job and spent three years in southern Africa. After that I took another job at the University of Tennessee, where I met David and where our two children were born. The car dependency and gun ubiquity led me to wanting to leave the USA – which is when I came to Leeds (in 2009).

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

 In terms of who, lots of people inspired me: among them, my clever grandmothers, who never had my opportunities; my parents, who always said ‘go for it!’; and some terrific educators, including Judith McKinlay and Gregory Dawes (at Otago), Robert Gordon and Geoffrey Khan (at Cambridge) and my wonderful PhD supervisor, Robert Carroll. I’ve also been inspired by colleagues, among them, Musa Dube (at the University of Botswana) and Jim Fitzgerald (then at the University of Tennessee, now at Brown University). Above all, I’ve enjoyed being part of University life – continually meeting interesting people with various intellectual, creative and political passions – and teaching an array of students. Right now I’m particularly inspired to be working with Katie Edwards (at Sheffield University) and Caroline Blyth (at the University of Auckland) on topics of gender, religion and activism. Central to all three is our Shiloh Project, which we co-lead together.  Our collaboration has transpired in grant success and to projects based in all of Yorkshire, southern Africa and Ghana, all focused in some way on addressing gender-based inequality and its intersections with lived religion. I’ve found combining scholarship and social justice engagement highly motivating and enriching.

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

A book I have co-edited with Musa Dube, The Bible, Centres and Margins, is about to be published. The volume brings biblical scholars based in predominantly southern Africa into dialogue with counterparts in the UK, about questions regarding the politics of interpretation from postcolonial perspectives.

I’m currently starting research on a book on the topic of rape myths and the Bible. I’m asking myself how the Bible is complicit in the perpetuation of rape myths – such as victim blaming, for instance. While at the University of Bamberg for one year (funded by the Humboldt Foundation) I have been asked to give the annual Humboldt Lecture. My focus is the story of Potiphar’s Wife in Genesis 39, particularly her false allegation of Joseph’s attempt to rape her. I am looking at what this story yields about understandings of rape and about claims that false allegations of rape are pretty common. I’m also working on a grant application to explore intersectional approaches to biblical texts of sexual violence, as well as their afterlives in popular culture. As part of this, Caroline, Katie and I want to develop a reading strategy of ‘critical whiteness’. This will navigate both feminist critical approaches (with which we are aligned) and bring in more self-consciously matters of class, privilege, ethnicity, gender orientation and identity, ageism and ableism.

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

 My primary focus of study is the Hebrew Bible (which Christians often call the Old Testament). While this is an ancient text it is also persistently present in contemporary public life and modern idea-shaping. In my teaching I put a lot of emphasis on demonstrating the presence and impact of biblical texts in contemporary contexts. In my Ideologies of Hebrew Bible module we look at how biblical texts feature in a variety of ways in discussions on same-sex marriage, or the legitimation of the modern state of Israel, or the teaching of creationism, as well as in election campaigns in the USA. In my module on the Ten Commandments we discuss and interrogate the reasons for the ubiquity of this list of prohibitions in a wide array of manifestations of public life – such as advertising, law-making, popular television shows (e.g. The Simpsons) and films (like Exodus – Gods and Kings). Through my work with Katie and Caroline I have become increasingly interested in the presence and role of biblical themes and motifs in popular culture. Hence, I’ve written two articles on the character and masculinity of David in films and how these films reflect the times in which they were made. I’ll also be working with Katie, Vanita Sundaram (Education, University of York) and colleagues from across the White Rose Universities (Sheffield, York and Leeds), on a project that explores how biblical motifs in popular culture contribute to the formation of stereotypes about gender, gender-based violence and such notions as ‘purity’ and ‘morality’. So, in a number of ways the role of religion in public life is central to my work.

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