By Dr Johanna Stiebert
While I cannot take any credit, I do feel enormous pride for the vibrant event that was Orange is the new Bible, hosted by the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS) on 19 February 2016, and organized by TRS of Leeds alumni Joanne Merrygold and Lucy Skerratt and current TRS of Leeds PhD candidate Charity Hamilton. This event received funding from the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities (WRoCAH) and was an out and out triumph.
The full-day event constituted an interdisciplinary symposium exploring dimensions of the Bible and its cultural impact by interfacing ancient texts with the Netflix TV series Orange is the New Black. The result was a series of innovative papers using the cult series as a springboard for exploring biblical texts from new perspectives and popular culture in the light of its preoccupation with biblical themes and motifs. It demonstrated that biblical studies is dynamic and relevant.
Presenters ranged from undergraduates, to MA candidates, to PhD students, to junior and established academics – not all from biblical studies. The atmosphere was experimental and supportive and the standard of presentations and range of topics impressive and stimulating.
About the Presentations
The first presentation entitled, ‘Samson and the Salon: An Exploration of Identity of Hair in Judges 16 and OITNB’, was by co-organiser Lucy Skerratt. The paper explored how Nazirite Samson’s hair in the biblical book of Judges exemplifies his hyper-masculine identity and, hence, shaving his emasculation. This was juxtaposed with an investigation of hair as gender- and sexuality-signifier in settings such as prison where many markers of identity are suppressed.
Next, Christie Broom, an undergraduate from King’s College London delivered a passionate paper with the title ‘Jesus and Laverne Cox: A Theology of Transgender Acceptance’, on transgender and gender non-binaries in both the Bible and contemporary contexts.
After this, we were treated to ‘Taystee is the New Ruth’, a highly original reading of the character Ruth from the eponymous biblical book, by Sheffield University undergraduate Catherine Kennedy.
After a short break the day resumed with MA candidate and community worker Kirsty Mabbott’s ‘Chaos and Christian Anarchy inside Lichfield Penitentiary’, an advocacy for Christianarchy.
Next, we heard a paper by Jessica Keady, who is researcher of biblical studies at the University of Chester. As Jessica could not be present, her moving paper ‘Purification and Prison: Forming Jewish Identity in Orange is the New Black’ was delivered by Joanne Merrygold.
Next up, we heard from Laura Saunders, a Physics PhD candidate with a commitment to promoting the experiences and interests of LBBT persons in the sciences. Her sharp paper, ‘Orange is the New Black and Bisexual Erasure’ drew attention to the misrepresentation and marginalization of bisexuality.
This was followed by Sheffield’s Professor of Enterprise and Engineering Education Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, with ‘Let’s Toast to Engineering a Messiah!’ a demonstration of how difficult it is to manufacture a miracle.
After lunch we were treated to a paper by Michelle Fletcher, Associate Lecturer at the University of Kent, on the nature of ‘truth’ and the expectations created by sequels, entitled ‘“The Second Time Around”: The Demand for Different in Revelation and OITNB.’
Next came a series of papers by Sheffield scholars on the Bible and Television. Minna Shkul spoke on the nuanced depictions of Jewishness in the TV show Transparent and then PhD candidate Robin Hamon juxtaposed desert imagery in biblical texts (particularly the book of Exodus) and in the TV cult drama Breaking Bad. Then, MA candidate Emily Foster-Brown presented ‘Biblical Vampires: Salome in TV’s True Blood.’
The grand finale was a paper by Director of SIIBS, Katie Edwards on religion, rape culture and OITNB. This paper also inaugurated a project on rape culture and the Bible, which is a collaboration by Edwards and Caroline Blyth (University of Auckland).
About the Organisers…
Joanne Merrygold holds an MA and BA (Hons) in TRS from the University of Leeds. She is funded by WRoCAH and writing a PhD thesis on genderqueerness in the Hebrew Bible.
Lucy Skerratt holds a BA in TRS from the University of Leeds and is currently completing her MA at King’s College London. She is writing her dissertation on the topic of sexual health and the Hebrew Bible.
Charity Hamilton is a PhD candidate at Leeds, writing on theologies of female embodiment, with special reference to their implications for Methodist theology and practice.