Centre for Religion in Public Life, University of Leeds: Dr Katie Edwards Researcher of the Month
Dr Katie Edwards (pictured in the middle) is Lecturer of the Bible in Contemporary Culture and Society and Director of the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies. She is also Co-Director of the The Shiloh Project and a host on current BBC4 series, ‘Beyond Belief’.
Tell us a little about your ‘research journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now?
My PhD focused on representations of Eve in contemporary popular culture. Cheryl Exum was my supervisor and my academic career is thanks to her, really. I wanted to leave during my doctoral research programme and I stayed because she helped me get through the worst time in my life. She has encouraged me – sometimes sternly – right from the beginning. She’s a very dear friend and her integrity is refreshing in academia, where I’ve found a surprising amount of back biting and unnecessary nastiness. I’m where I am right now because I discovered that my only way through academia would be through collaborating with kind, fun, creative (and super intelligent!) people. That’s why I love co-directing The Shiloh Project with Johanna Stiebert and Caroline Blyth – I feel like we can make differences, whether to the workplace or wider society through collaboration.
Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area?
I was taught by Cheryl Exum, David Clines and Stephen Moore as an undergraduate at Sheffield and they sparked my interest in Biblical Studies. I became interested in the ways that biblical figures function in popular culture as vehicles to communicate messages about gender, race and class. Caroline Blyth (University of Auckland, NZ) and I met at a conference in 2012 and I liked her immediately. We have very similar research interests and, during a visit to Sheffield in 2014, we hatched plans to create a centre for the study of religion and sexual violence. In 2016, Caroline was over in the UK again, this time visiting the University of Leeds, and we raised the idea of our now long-held ambition to create a research centre on rape culture. Johanna ‘The Dynamo’ Stiebert immediately started to put our plans into action and that was the start of The Shiloh Project. The Project is dedicated to the study of religion, rape culture and the Bible and we have a book series with Routledge Focus, several externally funded projects, and a forthcoming podcast, hosted and produced by theologian and journalist Rosie Dawson. I feel like I’m doing important work with great people and it’s a real privilege that my work gives me such satisfaction and the freedom to work on issues that mean a lot to me.
What are you currently, or about to start, working on?
I’m currently working on a few things… I’m leading on an AHRC funded project with Johanna, Caroline and Richard Newton (University of Alabama) that explores sexual and gender based violence in the Bible and its afterlives in contemporary popular culture. The podcast – which will launch very soon! – is part of the work of this project team. I’m also working on a couple of books. Caroline and I are writing a book on teen Bibles and purity culture and we’re co-editing a companion to Eve. Right now, I’m completing a monograph on Jesus and sexual violence. All the volumes will be published with Routledge. I’m also presenting the Beyond Belief series for Radio 4. There are only a couple more episodes left in the series and I’ll miss discussing the programme themes with guests each week. I’ve loved it.
In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the role of religion in public life and the relationship between the two?
My research is all about the role of religion in public life – that’s my main interest. My work focuses on the function, impact and influence of the Bible in contemporary popular culture, which is in a constant state of retelling, reinterpreting and re-appropriating biblical stories, characters and figures. The Bible is integral to our most influential modes of production and, therefore, the study of the afterlives of biblical stories and characters is essential for the understanding of some of the biggest issues of our time. For a few years now, I’ve been working on popular cultural appropriations of Mary, Mother of Jesus and representations of whiteness, purity and respectability. White women must do the leg-work to recognise, acknowledge, and address our complicity in the violence, both actual and structural, to people of colour and our scaffolding of white privilege. When Beyonce used Virgin Mary imagery in her pregnancy and birth announcements (along with other religious imagery), she made a powerful political statement drawing on a complex tradition of political resistance to disrupt white supremacist narratives of black motherhood. That imagery had the power to knock Trump from the front pages of the press and to dislodge the centrality of whiteness from religious iconography. If that doesn’t prove the value of studying the role of the Bible in popular culture then I don’t know what does!