Current research projects – up-coming events – reports on conferences in Exeter and elsewhere – what you should be reading and why – who's in the news, what's in the news and what we think – your on-line research community
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.
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.
I prefer my coincidences less gruesome. On Wednesday morning a group of my undergraduate students handed in essays focused on blasphemy, freedom of expression and social cohesion. Approximately one hour after the deadline, gunmen shot twelve people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, the reason widely held to be the magazine’s dissemination of cartoons depicting Muhammad. As I write this, media outlets across Europe are now exploring the same core issues that my students grappled with. Every lecturer likes to feel that their subject area has contemporary relevance, but the extremity and violence of recent events renders such sentiment profoundly uncomfortable.
Some commentators have stressed that the Charlie Hebdo shootings should be viewed as unprecedented. Amidst the outpourings of reflection and emotion that have followed the event, I imagine a few of my students might wish they could re-edit their essays in light of what has happened. But I suggest here that immediate re-evaluation is troublesome. The fixed points and ambiguities are essentially no different now than they were prior to Wednesday morning’s violent acts. Murder was wrong then and it is now. The ethics of offence were complex and debatable before and they are complex and debatable now.
L-R: Bethany Wagstaff, Mitchell Travis, Susannah Cornwall, Andrew Worthley, Christina Beardsley, Stephen Whittle
On 30th-31st October, the inaugural meeting of the Variant Sex and Gender, Religion and Faith research network took place at the University of Exeter. A small core group of scholars will be meeting together several times over the next year to discuss themes including:
How are variant sex and gender understood and responded to in the Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions?
How can the work of academics researching variant sex and gender in Christianity, Islam and Judaism be informed by, and be made more accessible to, faith communities and intersex and transgender support and advocacy groups?
How do support and advocacy groups for intersex and transgender people promote spiritual as well as physical, psychological and emotional wellbeing for their members?
What are the implications of the law on transgender and intersex for faith groups in Britain?
Just over a year ago, I set off with my backpack to a village in the Ondonga region of Northern Namibia, not far from the Angolan border. My research centres on investigating the identities and belief systems of a village community in that area, to be researched through a programme of contextual Bible studies. In other words, I aimed to facilitate groups in the community to discuss their interpretations of a series of New Testament texts. This was with a view to understanding how the influences of both traditional culture and worldviews, and Christianity inform the community members’ understandings of the text and their wider identities and beliefs.
On Tuesday 21 October, St Mary le Bow Church, London, Christian Aid launched its latest report Tax for the Common Good. This report brings together two subjects that are usually far apart: theology and tax. Esther D. Reed and other authors look at what lessons the Bible may hold about matters such as the purpose of tax, how governments should apply it, how companies and individuals should pay it and what they should expect of governments in return. Download the report here.
Esther explores what Christian ethics can tell us about the taxation of multinational companies. She argues that such companies are required to pay more tax than the law requires of them, if failure to do so would damage the conditions required for everyone to flourish. She further argues that the fact of human sinfulness makes it necessary to have coercive measures at national and international level to prevent tax evasion and restrain tax avoidance.
In his foreword to the new report, Christian Aid’s Chair, Dr Rowan Williams, expresses his hope that the report will stimulate thought and decisions among people who are able to influence the behaviour and policies of companies, ‘so that tax justice at last becomes a reality’.
On 7 October 2014, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the President of the Methodist Conference hosted an Ecumenical Day of Reflection on Mining with representatives of leading mining companies, as well as representatives from non-governmental and other faith-based organisations, and church leaders from other countries. The Day was a follow-up to a Day of Reflection at the Vatican in September 2013 attended by senior mining company executives, led by the CEO of Anglo American, along with church and religious civil society representatives.
I wrote this article for The Tablet about the value of digital archives in research. Earlier this year, The Tablet made its archives – stretching back 100 years – freely available online. My article reflected on how research has changed in the last decade and the value of digital archiving.
This is the first in a series of blogs celebrating The Tablet’s new online archive, where for a limited time you can view for free every page of every issue since 1840. PhD student Karen O’Donnell discovers how two leading figures of the twentieth-century Church related to Mary
When I began my undergraduate degree 13 years ago, the concept of using the internet to facilitate research was in its infancy. There was uncertainty about how to reference material found online, most of my lecturers were late adopters of the new technology so the internet was very much unknown to them, and most of all, there was little information online.
If you wanted an article, you went to the relevant section of the library and, if you were lucky, found the journal you wanted or, alternatively, cajoled someone else in your class into parting with the volume you needed and hurriedly made your notes. Times have changed!
The blog was first posted in February 2014 and you can read the full content here.
Karen O’Donnell is a PhD student at the University of Exeter, working on a theology of women and Eucharist which uses the insights of trauma theory.
“The world watches in horror as rebel extremists surge across Iraq. Videos graphically depict the daily violence in Syria. Closer to home, yet another gunman has razed innocent victims in a public place. Behind closed doors, domestic abuse abounds—incidents per year in the United States alone are estimated at over 960,000.
How can we possibly think that a God of love has created this violent, hatred-filled world? It is one of the hardest questions Christians face.
I did not expect to find an answer to this question when I first came across Andrew Elphinstone’s book Freedom, Suffering and Love. Elphinstone was an aristocratic clergyman trained at Eton and Oxford. Queen Elizabeth was a bridesmaid at his wedding. What could this entitled man have to say to about violence and injustice?
Dr Susannah Cornwall Advanced Research Fellow (HASS Strategy)
Sex, gender and sexuality remain live issues both within the academic study of theology and in the churches. But despite the extensive conversations that continue to rumble on over issues such as same-sex marriage, there’s been relatively little room given (at least in this country) to interplays between the excellent academic theological research on sex and sexuality that continues to be done, and the concerns of people working in or training for Christian ministry.