Q&A with Johanna Stiebert about her new book, Rape Myths, the Bible and #MeToo

Johanna Stiebert is Professor of the Hebrew Bible at the University of Leeds, and a member of the Centre for Religion and Public Life. Her new book, Rape Myths, the Bible and #MeToo, has just been published by Routledge, and is the inaugural book in a series focused on current work being done by The Shiloh Project. For the readers of Religion in Public, she answers some questions to introduce her book.

How has this book come about?

This book has come about through a collaboration called ‘The Shiloh Project‘, which is co-directed by Caroline Blyth (University of Auckland), Katie Edwards (University of Sheffield) and myself. The Project was founded in early 2017 and explores intersections between rape culture, religion and the Bible.

One day we were contacted by Rebecca Shillabeer, the editor at Routledge who commissions leading books in all major areas of Religious Studies and Theology. Rebecca proposed that the three of us co-edit a series based on the Shiloh Project and suggested a format of short volumes in the Routledge Focus series. We jumped at the chance!

This volume is the inaugural volume in the series. It builds on my long-standing interests in the areas of texts of gender-based violence in the Bible and on how such texts are interpreted in and exert impact on the contemporary world. It reflects particularly on the #MeToo movement and on the rape myths (that is, the stereotyped and prejudicial falsehoods about rape, rape victims and rape perpetrators) that sustain rape cultures.

What is the key argument that your book develops?

The book develops the idea that there is value in reading the ancient texts of the Bible, which continue to exert influence into the present, in the light of the revelations of #MeToo. Not least because both reveal abundant indications of a rape culture background and of the disturbing prevalence of sexual harassment and gender-based violence. Of course there are considerable differences, too – and these are explored as well – but there do seem to be rape-supportive structures and rape myths at the root of both contexts. The argument is that rape culture needs to be better understood before it can be actively and effectively resisted. The book aims to take a step towards detoxifying rape cultures particularly through the promotion of a better understanding of the religious structures and sexually violent sacred texts that often underpin them.

What insight does the book provide into the relationship between religion and public life?

The book explains what is meant by ‘rape culture’ and by ‘rape myths’. It locates #MeToo in a wider context of feminist digital activism and summarises key texts of gender-based violence in the Bible (both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament). It explores the affinities and distinctions between ‘biblical’ and ‘MeToo’ contexts and it makes a case for research-based activism for resisting rape myths, particularly when these are shored up by biblical proof-texting. All of these have value for public life and will, I hope, open up important conversations about the role of religious institutions in better resisting gender-based violence and better supporting victims of sexual abuse.

There are also five further volumes forthcoming in the series (with yet more on the way), all of which will take aspects of this important conversation further. Look out for them!

Give us one quote from the book that you believe will make us go and read it.

“…#MeToo has provided a strong impetus for calling out not only powerful and abusive individuals, but also powerful and abusive texts and interpretations. And this, I hope, is another step in the direction towards stemming and dismantling rape culture. While it may feel like a small step, it is clear to me that the most horrific of sexual crimes are built on edifices of other, including less invasive, actions and attitudes. It is, therefore, a step worth taking.”

Read here for more details and for information regarding the Book Launch being held on Friday 20th December 2019.

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