Cultural Theory, Popular Culture, and the Biblical Studies Classroom
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Cultural Theory, Popular Culture, and the Biblical Studies Classroom

As universities across the country witness an epidemic of sexual violence on campus, it becomes clear that faculty have an obligation to address this reality, to raise awareness about the crisis, and to work to address its causes. Rape culture, the insidious and ubiquitous set of constructs that shapes gendered self-concepts and expectations about sexual assault, must be analyzed as part of this task. We face the challenge of using the classroom as a locus to examine and try to deconstruct rape culture. Pedagogical strategies are an important component of this, but so is theoretical grounding. Although it is important to notice both the overt and subtle manifestations of rape culture, noticing is not enough: in order to understand the formation and transmission of this culture, we must discuss what lies behind it.

Cultural theory provides language and a hermeneutical framework for the critical analysis of rape culture. In large part, it is due to the work of feminist cultural theorists that cultural criticism has been applied to TV, popular music and literature, advertisements, films, and even social media. Multiple hierarchies are present within these media: economic, racial, gendered, and class differentials play out in materials that are often treated as “entertainment,” which subtly and consistently shape concepts of reality for contemporary audiences, especially our students.

A connection exists between the Bible and popular culture. Not only does the reader of the Bible encounter cultural material that invites analysis in the text itself, but the afterlife of the Bible in multiple forms of cultural “output” has also made it an integrated part of media encountered even today. One need only watch the opening sequence of Desperate Housewives or take note of the archetype of the “female assassin” to see valences of Eve (specifically in Gen 3) and Yael (Judg 4–5). Models of masculinity that demand physical strength, power, and aggressiveness (for example, famous wrestlers) reflect the valorization of figures like Samson. Biblical characters and themes appear in famous works of art and even popular TV shows, and biblical passages are familiar to those who listen to music, ranging from classical to hip-hop. What this means is that the Bible exists not only as a text that students encounter in biblical studies classrooms but also as a source of models, constructs, and meanings that pervade today’s world. Applying a critical lens to both the text and its modern expressions creates the opportunity for deconstruction of both models and processes [End Page 167] of creation: Who benefits from these images? How does one population receive power when others are denied it? Who creates these pieces? How does the identity of the creator affect the output? What does that reveal about cultural production and its impact?

Sexual violence is a topic that is too prominent in not only the Bible but also contemporary popular culture. Biblical stories about sexual violence serve multiple purposes: some focus on the protagonist/perpetrator and his experience (David and Bathsheba, 2 Sam 11–12); some reflect political and national realities (the Levite and his concubine, Judg 19); some serve as theology (Hos 2; Ezek 16 and 23; Amnon and Tamar, 2 Sam 13); and some discrete cases might serve multiple purposes, including cultural critique (Shechem and Dinah, Gen 34). These stories and their accompanying models appear today. For example, the BBC show Luther depends on violence against women for its narrative tension in virtually every episode; the only woman who is not victimized is a violent psychopath. Rape is a plot development device in the critically acclaimed film Gran Torino. Sexual violence in the form of acquaintance rape has been used to advertise Mitchum deodorant, alcoholic beverages, sales at Macy’s, and more—the examples are too numerous to list. As in the Bible, sexual violence is a “fact of life” that serves a function rather than a construct that needs to be addressed directly.

Students are familiar with these images and stories. When they read the biblical text, stories about sexual violence resonate in the media that comes at them from every direction, and they can begin to ask the questions...