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  • Biblical Studies and Childhood Studies:A Fertile, Interdisciplinary Space for Feminists
  • Kathleen Gallagher Elkins (bio)

Don’t you know about people this first and most crucial fact: every single one is, and is painfully every moment aware of it, still a child. To get beyond the age of about eight is not permitted to this primate…. It’s something people don’t discuss, because it’s something most people are aware of only as a general crisis of sense of inadequacy, or helpless dependence, or pointless loneliness, or a sense of not having a strong enough ego to meet and master inner storms that come from an unexpected angle…. At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim. And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them. It’s their humanity, their real individuality, the one that can’t understand why it was born and that knows it will have to die, in no matter how crowded a place, quite on its own. That’s the carrier of all the living qualities. It’s the centre of all the possible magic and revelation.

—Ted Hughes

In a letter to his adult son, poet Ted Hughes asserts that every adult is, in some important respects, still a child;1 in the same way, an academic field, like feminist studies in religion, remains shaped by its own childhood even as it has grown and come of age. From its infancy, feminist biblical studies has been an interdisciplinary field—even though certain narratives about the development of feminist studies in religion suggest that interdisciplinarity came later, these are fields that by necessity and by definition have been interdisciplinary (even if there have also been learning curves and missteps along the way). Intentional, committed, and sustained interdisciplinary conversation is a strategy to resist [End Page 146] being harshly “disciplined” (a problem named by our panel’s organizers) as feminist biblical scholars and to more robustly participate in struggles for justice.

By continuing an intentional commitment to interdisciplinarity, feminist biblical studies can move into its future in a way that renews and sustains feminist connections and collaborations. The specific example I suggest here is interdisciplinary conversation with the emerging field of childhood and children’s studies. Multiple other examples could be added, of course, but as fields of study, childhood and feminist studies are both interdisciplinary and attempt to creatively bridge the divide between academic inquiry and advocacy or justice work. I briefly introduce the field of childhood studies, especially as it intersects with biblical studies, and then discuss where I see the most helpful questions, practices, and issues for feminist biblical scholars to engage. These kinds of conversations and coalitions—with scholar-activists in childhood studies who are also engaged in justice work—can reframe and rejuvenate key feminist conversations about issues like family, agency, interdependence, obligations to others and self, rights, and growth.

Childhood studies emerged as an area of academic inquiry in the early 1980s; there were precursors to this emergence, of course, as childhood had always been an important feature of psychological theories and educational fields.2 But the field itself began to develop more robustly in the wake of a few key developments: the publication of Philippe Ariès’s foundational book in 1960 on the history of childhood in the West, the institutionalization of feminist studies in the academy, and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989.3 These factors, among others, enabled childhood and children’s studies to coalesce and mature into a distinct field, complete with academic journals, conferences, and departments in universities. For their part, biblical scholars have been slow to address issues of childhood and children related to the biblical text, even though, as Marcia J. Bunge notes,

The Bible is teeming with direct references to children, childhood, and adult-child relationships. Biblical passages refer to the conception, birth, and naming of children. They give accounts of childhoods, sibling relationships, and children’s birth order…. Biblical texts also often refer indirectly or metaphorically to children...


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pp. 146-153
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