Ethnicity, Race, and Religion

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Helen John and Rebekah Welton

Between 9th and 11th August 2016, the University of Exeter’s Theology and Religion department hosted a conference entitled ‘Ethnicity, Race, and Religion: Identities, Ideologies, and Intersections in Biblical Texts and Interpretation’. This was made possible due to an AHRC Leadership Grant, for which Professor David G. Horrell is the principal investigator.  It brought together participants from such diverse locations as Botswana, Belgium, the USA, and Australia, as well as from across the UK. Such a broad range of backgrounds, worldviews, and scholarly areas of interest precipitated three days of fascinating papers and discussions. In particular, the event was characterized by the desire to learn from one another’s knowledge of issues of ethnicity and race, whether focused on the text, its historical interpretation, or issues and approaches within the contemporary Academy.

 The first plenary address was delivered by Professor Musa Dube (University of Botswana) and was entitled: ‘The Bible in the Bush: The First ‘Literate’ Batswana Bible Readers’. Professor Dube introduced the audience to issues of translation and mistranslation in the Batswana Bible, reflecting on the way in which missionary control over translation both entrenched patriarchal systems in the missionised community and violated local beliefs by aligning positive spirits with biblical demons.

 In the second plenary, Dr Ma. Marilou S. Ibita from the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium presented on ‘Of Ioudaioi, Hellēnes and Others: Exploring the (In)Visibility of the Intersections of Ethnic Identities, Religion and Hermeneutics in Biblical Texts from a Lowland Filipina Christian Perspective’. Dr Ibita presented her dialogical approach, focused on ‘maximally Christian identity’ in partnership with ‘maximal solidarity’. This was illustrated by looking at the examples of the Filipina Christian traditions and highlighted the need to be open to biblical interpretations from diverse contexts. 

ERR conference 2 cropped The third plenary address was delivered by Dr Gregory Cuéllar (Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, USA) on the topic of ‘S.R. Driver and Higher Criticism: Mapping “the Differences of Race” in Genesis’. Dr Cuéllar took us on a journey through Driver’s reliance on theories of racial hierarchy in his (Driver’s) attempts to interpret Genesis narratives. It was particularly eye-opening to hear some of the ways in which Driver “identified the races” which made it clear that biblical scholarship needs to be aware of its problematic past and realize that “white” should not normative.

 In amongst these three plenaries were ten papers delivered by a range of scholars, from PhD students to experienced academics. There was an enormous range of topics, ranging from taxation to disability, food to film, identities to representation and biblical texts to biblical hermeneutics. The conference ended with a panel discussion, chaired by Professor Horrell and with input from each of the invitation speakers: Professor Musa Dube; Dr Ma. Marilou S. Ibita; Dr Gregory Cuéllar. One of the stand-out features of this discussion, reflecting on issues raised throughout the conference, was the extent to which participants felt Biblical Studies was characterized by a trend to marginalize non-normative readings, be they from locations further away from its Euro-American centre, or those which do not conform to ‘traditional’ methods of biblical criticism. The conference certainly asked some provocative questions about what precisely biblical criticism is or should be as we move forward into the 21st Century.

 Rebekah Welton is a PhD student in the Department of Theology & Religion; Dr Helen John received her PhD in the Department in April 2016

Mar Elian monastery – a model of hospitality destroyed

In recent weeks, IS overran Qaryatayn, a remote Syrian town in the desert between Homs and Palmyra. They also destroyed its monastery, Mar Elian.

Emma Loosley describes her deep connection with the community and the effects of the monastery’s destruction.

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From Mastermind to SST: making space for the female voice

Society for the Study of Theology Conference
Nottingham University April 13th-16th 2015

Penny Cowell Doe

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I approached this, my first academic conference, with considerable trepidation. It didn’t matter that, as a mature student, I had a whole professional life behind me of leading teams and giving presentations; this was going to feel like my first day at ‘big’ school.

Besides the unfamiliar context there were three additional reasons for apprehension: I would know very few people there; I was giving a short paper at my first conference; and, since my MA is in biblical studies, someone might notice my borrowed theological plumage. Continue reading

A (Non-Traumatic) Conference Experience

Karen O’Donnell

When I traumalogobegan my PhD I was excited to start going to conferences and even more excited to give a paper at my first conference. I eased myself in gently with a couple of small postgraduate conferences, giving papers on material I was very familiar with, before moving on to some of the big society conferences. I found myself leaving a fair few conferences feeling quite disappointed. Some were dreadful, some were just ok, all were exhausting. So it was with great trepidation that I set off to an conference entitled “Trauma: Theory and Practice” in Lisbon at the end of March. I was not disappointed and I want to highlight three ways in which this conference rose above the rest.

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The table with the newest menu? Reflections on the Twentieth Joint Postgraduate Religion and Theology Conference

David Tollerton

I should confess to a certain nostalgia associated with this conference. Nine years ago, a little apprehensively and with (apparently) slightly rushed delivery, I gave my first academic paper at the Joint Postgraduate Conference, held on that occasion at the leafy campus of Bath Spa University.

So it was with great pleasure that on Friday I travelled up a rainy M5 to the ‘Twentieth Joint Postgraduate Religion and Theology Conference’ at the University of Bristol. These days it’s a sizable affair, with over forty papers spread over two days. And although there’s the expected bias towards contributors from institutions in the South West it’s noticeable that the event’s reach has spread, with presenters coming from London, Cambridge, Glasgow, even Rotterdam and Genoa.

Wagstaff Welton John

PhD students Bethany Wagstaff, Rebekah Welton, and Helen John each delivered papers at this year’s conference.

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Religion, Gender and Body Politics: Postcolonial, Post-secular and Queer Perspectives conference, Utrecht

Susannah Cornwall

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It’s always exciting to be present at the start of something new, and it was a real honour to be invited to be a conference respondent at the Religion, Gender and Body Politics: Postcolonial, Post-secular and Queer Perspectives conference in Utrecht, where the brand-new International Association for the Study of Religion and Gender (IARG) was officially launched. Utrecht is also famous for the Domtoren (the tallest church tower in the Netherlands), and the Dick Bruna Huis, a museum celebrating everyone’s favourite rabbit character, Miffy!

The IARG is newly-minted, but there have been a series of smaller meetings leading up to this conference over the last couple of years. They’ve taken place at SOAS in London; in Oslo; in New York; in Turku, Finland; in Ghent, Belgium; and in Utrecht. Continue reading

Post-Graduate Teaching – Good for the Soul?

Karen O’Donnell

I came into my PhD study as a qualified secondary school teacher with a good few years’ experience of teaching Religious Studies, Philosophy, and Ethics to children of varying levels of inclination and ability. In some ways this has been both a blessing and curse when it came to teaching in Higher Education. A blessing in that I knew how to manage a small group of students and I knew that I could teach. I will never forget the fear I faced the very first time I stood in front of a group of year 9s to teach ten minutes on the Holocaust with no idea whether what would come out of my mouth would be any good or not!
But it hasn’t necessarily been an easy transition. boylisteningtheatreTeaching small groups of students for just a few weeks at a time is hard. Learning names is difficult in a short space of time and the kind of control I had in a secondary school classroom would be inappropriate in the university setting. Post-graduate teaching itself is not without its problem. Students are paying a considerable sum of money for their degree experience – can we justify allowing post-grads to teach when students are paying for ‘professionals’? Post-graduate students are often not unionised and without representation in larger discussions of teaching in the University. These bigger questions remain part of the reconstruction of the University in the 21st century.

I have to conclude, though, that teaching alongside studying for a PhD is an invaluable experience and one I would recommend for all PhD students.

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Rhetoric and Religious Identity. Thursday 23rd – Saturday 25th April 2015

A conference at the University of Exeter, held under the aegis of the South West Late Antiquity Network.


Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus. Picture by Giovanni Dall’Orto

The topic of religious identity in late antiquity is highly contentious, with significant debate revolving around the reasons for shifts in self-identifications, the degree to which any labels (ancient or modern) for religious categories reflect a real sense of unified social identity, and the malleability and potential overlapping of religious identities. Although most scholars agree that identities were constructed and expressed through forms of ‘rhetoric’, a systematic study of rhetoric’s meaning and influence in this context is still required.

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Workshop announcement: Exodus and the 21st Century Bible Film, 26-27 March 2015

David Tollerton

Bible films are currently undergoing an intriguing renaissance. 2014 saw two big-budget representations of the Hebrew Bible in the form of Noah and Exodus:Gods and Kings, and more cinematic treatments of biblical material are on their way: Mary and Last Days in the Desert in 2015, and Redemption of Cain, Ridley Scott’s follow-up David and a host of Jesus films all currently in development. In one sense the Bible’s representation in film had never really disappeared, with biblical allusions and archetypes scattered across 21st century cinema. However, Noah, and more recently, Exodus: Gods and Kings are of a different order, using A-list Hollywood stars to directly depict Bible stories for a contemporary multiplex audience. They are also contentious films, both facing controversies surrounding the ethnicity of their cast and religious communities uncertain at the prospect of their sacred texts being appropriated by secular filmmakers.

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Bowls, bowls, bowls…

Siam Bhayro

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In our department, we have a couple of projects that relate to the study of Aramaic incantation bowls, including the recently launched Virtual Magic Bowl Archive.

At first sight, these dusty little pots may seem of marginal interest at best, particularly for theologians and Bible scholars, but it turns out that they are a really big deal. For a start, they are the best epigraphic source we have for studying the everyday beliefs and practices of the various Christian, Jewish, Gnostic, Pagan and Zoroastrian communities of the near east in Late Antiquity and in the early days of Islam. While manuscript sources have been copied and subjected to repeated editorial activity over the centuries, often in order to present official histories, these humble vessels come straight from Late Antiquity and show us what we were never meant to see.

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