A Different Way to Read the Bible: Interpretation That Meets the Needs of Our Current Context
Religious Institute’s Seminary Spotlight with Rev. Dr. Cheryl Anderson
What’s your theology of sexuality in 10 words or fewer?
Sex makes God tangible.
Growing up, what did you learn about sexuality in religious spaces? And how, if at all, has that influenced your approach as a scholar and teacher?
I did not have a religious upbringing and, as strange as it might seem, I think it may be an advantage as a scholar. My research area is the HIV and AIDS pandemic, and I try to give people who are of African descent and Christian a biblical basis for adopting effective prevention methods. Wherever Black people are, whether on the African continent or in the diaspora, we have disproportionately high HIV infection rates. However, sex can seem to be a taboo subject in our churches. Of course, that’s not unique to African-American churches, but an unwillingness to deal with the issue could contribute to our infection rates. The fact that I didn’t have a religious upbringing may help me to be more comfortable dealing with the range of issues concerning sexuality and sexual expression.
When I started teaching at Garrett-Evangelical nearly twenty years ago, I was reminded of my lack of a traditional church background by students from more conservative theological backgrounds. They complained that I wasn’t sensitive enough to how traumatic the historical-critical approach to the Bible was for them. Since then, I’ve learned to spend more time helping students make the transition from the church to the academy. Nevertheless, I sometimes think that the discomfort students feel with this information never really gets resolved, and it could be why some seminary-trained pastors fail to share what they have learned with their congregations once they graduate. A different kind of Christianity is taking shape in this moment, and it is one that allows us to belong as whole human beings, including our differing genders and sexualities — and it will require reading the Bible in new ways. I certainly hope that pastors who have been exposed to this academic information will use it to reshape the Church’s understanding of the Bible and its meaning for people of faith.
What do you wish every graduate theological student knew about religion and sexuality?
Traditionally, the Christian church’s acceptance of sexual expression has been limited to procreation. As a result, some of the controversial issues of the day such as birth control, abortion and same-sex relationships reflect that discomfort with non-procreative sex. Until we address that fundamental issue, there will be discomfort around teaching seminary students that non-procreative sex occurs and that it can be good and holy.
I think that the message students get in seminary is essentially sex-negative. We require students to have a sexual boundaries workshop before they graduate, but that’s just to define the boundaries so they don’t run afoul of the law. It would take a different commitment to have workshops on healthy intimate relationships — especially those without violence or coercion. It would mean addressing the quality of these relationships and how to create healthy and holistic ones. We’re all the poorer — as a society and as the church — without these discussions in seminary.
How have your students challenged or surprised you in conversations about religion and sexuality?
I’ve taught my course, “The Church, the Bible and HIV,” four or five times now, and what surprises me is how few African-American students have taken the course. The course usually has a majority of white students (some even have come from other seminaries in the area) and a large percentage of whom are also LGBTQ+ students. What I find challenging about the low numbers of African American students who have taken the course is that we’re the ones who are disproportionately impacted by the disease. As African Americans, we must find a way to stop new infections. I can’t help but wonder if that low enrollment might be related in some small way to traditional understandings of sex as a taboo subject or one that has historically associated sexual expression with shame.
As you know, our newsletter is called “Sexuality: From the Seminary to the Sanctuary.” How do you help students make connections between their theological education and their practical lives and ministries?
As part of my HIV work, I have spent time learning from theologians and biblical scholars who were faculty members in South Africa. They emphasized “contextual readings” that paid close attention to the contexts in which biblical texts were written as well as the contexts in which they are being interpreted today. Since that experience, I always incorporate in my teaching the contemporary setting and the observable consequences of particular interpretations on various populations. I want students to learn that, just as those biblical texts were written to meet the needs of those historical contexts, they can and should be re-interpreted to meet the needs of our current context. I would hope that, by engaging today’s broader world in our academic readings, students would be able to make the transition from seminary to the sanctuary more easily.
Lastly, three quick-fire questions:
Book/activity/article that has had the most impact on your thinking about religion/sexuality?
My own book, Ancient Laws & Contemporary Controversies: The Need for Inclusive Biblical Interpretation, Miguel De La Torre’s book, A Lily Among the Thorns: Imagining a New Christian Sexuality and Jennifer Wright’s book, Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire.
Favorite self-care practice?
I’ve practiced transcendental meditation since I was a college student and it has been a very important aspect of my life. It relieves stress and it helps me to stay balanced.
What are you currently reading?
Monique Moultrie’s Passionate and Pious: Religious Media and Black Women’s Sexuality.
Rev. Dr. Cheryl B. Anderson is Professor of Old Testament at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, and she is an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church (Baltimore-Washington Conference). She earned her doctoral degree from Vanderbilt University and, earlier in her career, she practiced law in Washington, D.C. for nearly ten years. Her current research interests involve contextual and liberationist readings of Scripture in the age of HIV and AIDS. Her publications include numerous articles and two books: Women, Ideology, and Violence: Critical Theory and the Construction of Gender in the Book of the Covenant and the Deuteronomic Law and Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies: The Need for Inclusive Biblical Interpretation. She has held several leadership positions with her professional association, the Society of Biblical Literature, including serving on its Council (2008–2013).
This interview was taken from a longer conversation and was edited for brevity and clarity.
The views expressed here belong to the interviewee, and the ideas within are their intellectual property. Please cite accordingly.