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Charlene van der Walt

1. Experiences within the Stellenbosch scholarly context

I am extremely thankful to be part of this panel and to explore within the confines of the IOSOT meeting, for the first time on the African continent, the importance and relevance of doing Old Testament scholarship by engaging and taking seriously issues of gender. I am doing this reflection self-consciously from this place and will briefly reflect, in the first place, on the development and status of OT Gender Scholarship at the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University and the importance and relevance of doing this work as an African University. Following from this brief contextual reflection I will focus my attention on the challenges and opportunities for growth concerning this line of theological reflection. It is a great privilege to share this space of reflection and contemplation with scholars from various contexts, showcasing a variety of interpretative tools and contextual foci, and yet, scholars always connected due to the common aim of laboring toward flourishing and communal wellbeing, and in so doing, expressing in an unambiguous way that our wellbeing is deeply contextual and profoundly communal.

I am deeply thankful to be part of a growing community of scholars within the Faculty of Theology concerned with contextual issues situated within the complex intersection gender, health and theology. As a community of scholars we are deeply indebted to those who have blazed the trail for gender scholarship within the faculty. Denise Ackermann, who functioned in the capacity of an extraordinary professor in the department of Practical Theology at the faculty, has been instrumental in asserting the importance of scholarly engagement developing out of a grounded contextual situatedness and directed to the development of a live giving community for all. Ackermann defines the liberatory aim of a feminist theory of praxis, as proposed and developed by her, as follows: “The commitment to the praxis of liberation for women from all that oppresses us. Feminism does not benefit any specific group, race or class of women; neither does it promote privilege for women over men. It is about a different consciousness, a radically transformed perspective which questions our social, cultural, political and religious traditions and calls for structural change in all these spheres.”[1]

Where Ackermann introduced issues of gender to the curriculum and local research landscape, other scholars soon followed, which increased teaching and research capacity within this field.[2] Of particular importance to the discipline of Old Testament scholarship and the establishment of a gender focus within the discipline has been the appointment of Juliana Claassens within the Department of Old and New Testament. Professor Claassens is a dear colleague and friend to all of us on the panel and in a certain sense our reflections today are because of her commitment to the establishment and enhancement of a gender focus within the confines of Old Testament scholarship. After teaching for a number of years in the USA on the completion of her doctoral studies at Princeton University, Claassens was appointed within the Department of Old and New Testament with a special mandate to pursue research which contributes significantly to the research aim identified for the Faculty of Theology as part of the Hope project, namely human dignity. Doing Old Testament Scholarship with a focus on human dignity enabled Claassens to combine her love for the Old Testament with the embodied contextual concerns and realities faced by so many on the African continent, which strip people of their sense of worth and human dignity.[3] The passion, energy and commitment brought to the field by Claassens has led to the development of major research publications, the fostering of a community of scholarship around these themes, and the transformation of especially the undergraduate curriculum.[4]

Beyond an excellent and rapidly expanding team of scholars involved within gender research and teaching at the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University, one of the most pertinent developments has been the impetus of the MTh Gender and Health program. In 2012 we were invited to develop a Master’s program exploring issues situated within the complex intersection of gender, health and theology. The invitation sprung from a growing concern regarding the lack of sufficient progress being made in addressing two of the United Nations’ Millennium Goals, namely maternal health and infant mortality. In the initial 2013 Pilot Program phase, the Church of Sweden, in collaboration with the Swedish Government Development Agency (SIDA), invited academic institutions, organizations engaged with the training of church leaders, and contextual impact partners to communally explore contextual issues situated within the intersection gender, health and theology.[5] Since its inception in 2013 the program has enabled 10 richly diverse students per academic year from a variety of backgrounds, and with a diversity of research interests, to engage in research combining the established knowledge base from the various classic theological disciplines with insights from gender scholarship in order to work toward health flourishing communities which encompass the following:

  • communities in which people are free to realize their Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR);
  • communities which affirm the dignity of all people regardless of their gender, race, class, sexual orientation, marital status, and religion, and where there is no discrimination on the basis of any of these;
  • transformed faith communities in which religion is not functioning as a barrier in the realization of SRHR but where religion acts in life-affirming ways.

The program aims at contributing to these transformed communities by developing competent and engaged change agents through the process of education. Fundamentally, the program is aimed at assisting students to develop the vocabulary to engage with issues within their various communities pertaining to gender, health and theology and to understand something of the complex constellation of factors constructing embodied realities such as HIV and Aids, sexual violence, toxic masculinity construction, and exclusivist practices of heteronormativity located within the intersection.

Old Testament research developed within the program has picked up on the important challenge identified by Serene Jones when she implores scholarship to find new routes through old landscapes: “The cartographical metaphor makes clear feminist theory is concerned not so much to reconstruct the terrain of faith as to provide markers for travelling through the terrain in new ways.”[6] The research developed within the program testifies to the imperative of reading texts from the vantage point of contextual settings and to employ the tools of various methodological schools namely: gender, post-colonial and queer. The aim is not to ignore or reject problematic or seemingly life denying texts within the Hebrew Bible, but to read these well-known texts “from this place” in the words of Teresa Okure[7] and to discover how these narratives become important reflective surfaces for contemporary readers as a space for the development of moral imagination as Martha Nussbaum proposes.[8]

2. Challenges

The ongoing scholarship being developed and research produced within the program has challenged us to continuously reflect on a number of issues and I would like to reflect briefly on three theoretical concerns. Firstly, seeing that the research done within the program develops from the basis of theory inherent to the classic theological disciplines that function as a springboard into the intersection gender, health and theology, it has been a great exercise in finding ways to mainstream gender theory into the theoretical landscapes of different theological disciplines. The most creative discussions within the program has been at the critical intersection points of discipline specific theory and method and the insights from gender theory. The program has greatly enhanced interdisciplinary discussions amongst students and staff. Secondly, it has been a serious and continuous challenge to stay true to the imperative of doing theological reflection from specific embodied contexts. Rather than exclusively focusing on theoretical problems, students are encouraged to develop their research from real concerns that they themselves experience or witness in their society. Thirdly, one of the greatest gains of the program has been the insight that, in order to truly engage the complexity of embodied contextual realities, it is vital to take into account the intersectional nature of issues informing oppression. The intersectional approach engages with gender concerns not in isolation but by reflecting on the relationship with race, class, sexual orientation, culture, and religious identity. By exploring intersectional axes of oppression, the discovered imperative of queer theory to destabilize the norm has lead us to the understanding that our work will always be on the margin. Constant reflections on power dynamics encourage us to position our work in such a way as to trouble, destabilize, question, push back, and deliberately choose against dominant ways of speaking, writing, and being.[9]

In conclusion, I would like to briefly and personally reflect on a number of challenges faced when journeying through the Old Testament landscape from the starting point of contextual gender concerns and by employing tools developed from this theoretical basis. It is remarkable to note that the work being done from a feminist, post-colonial or queer perspective and concerned with intersectional issues related to gender is still often considered ‘soft science’. Within international conference settings, work done beyond the mainstream is often grouped together in sessions and in the process remains on the isolated fringe. It is noteworthy that this approach in terms of conference scheduling was not followed here at the IOSOT and work being done with a gender focus was incorporated into discipline informed sessions, leading to sometimes awkward, yet always new, creative and dynamic conversations within Old Testament scholarship. Secondly, considering the contextual starting point of this work, it remains ever evolving and never complete as the faces of oppression change and new unholy alliances are formed. Resisting injustice, dehumanization and the erasure of people is work that never ceases and can take its toll personally, intellectually and emotionally in the long run. The importance of a community of scholarship and care cannot be underemphasized and making fragile connections in our states of vulnerability opens up the possibility of compassionate solidarity. Michael White suggests that, when people stand together in solidarity, however briefly and partially, it “…provides us with the opportunity to look back on our taken-for-granted ways of thinking and being in the world.”[10] White believes that this makes it possible for people to “think outside the limits of what we would otherwise think, to challenge aspects of our own participation in the reproduction of dominance, and to identify options for action in addressing disadvantage and inequality that would not otherwise be available to us.”[11] Finally, and probably most importantly, the incomplete, unfinished, ever changing nature of scholarship involved within this complex intersection challenges scholars to continuously ‘lean into discomfort.’ This scholarly discomfort is often painful but remains a shadow of the experience of those living their lives in the often dehumanizing intersection of gender, culture and religion in Africa.



[1] Denise M. Ackermann, “Meaning and Power: Some Key Terms in Feminist Liberation Theology,” in Scriptura 44 (1993): 19–33, 24.

[2] Both Elna Mouton and Jeremy Punt from New Testament studies have done important work in the establishment of a gender focus within the discipline through high quality research publication and teaching and in so doing has contributed greatly to the development of young scholars within the field. Research and supervision capacity within the faculty involved with the development of gender research now extends to a number of engaged academic scholars within all the major disciplines and from various centres connected to the faculty.

[3] For more on the Hope project initiated by the late rector of the University, Russel Botman, please see:

[4] The undergraduate curriculum at the Faculty now boasts a number of courses including insights from gender, post-colonial and recently also queer scholarship.

[5] The four academic institutions from the African continent involved within this collaboration has been the Faculty of Theology of Stellenbosch University together with partners in South Africa (UKZN), in Tanzania (TUMA University) and Ethiopia (Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology).

[6] Serene Jones, Feminist Theory and Christian Theology: Cartographies of Grace (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 19.

[7] Theresa Okure, “Reading From This Place: Some Problems and Prospects,” in Reading From This Place: Volume II. Social Location and Biblical Interpretation in Global Perspectives, ed. F.F. Segovia and M.A. Talbot (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 52–66.

[8] Martha C. Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 183.

[9] In line with Bronwyn Davies I choose to use the term ‘troubling’ which she describes as follows: “The particular meaning of trouble that I am intending here is the same as when we say ‘the seas were troubled,’ where trouble means to agitate or to make rough. I use the word troubling, rather than ‘deconstructing’ or ‘putting under erasure,’ since I find that too many readers of deconstructive texts take deconstruction to mean dismantling that obliterates the binaries and the boundaries between them. Binaries are not so easily dismantled, and deconstructive work often can do no more than draw attention to the binaries and to their constructive force. For some people, in some readings, deconstructive work may facilitate a different take-up of meaning, beyond the binaries. But this does not undo the continuing force of relations of power that operates to hold the binaries in place. I choose the word troubling to represent more closely what it is that deconstructive work can do.” Cf. Bronwyn Davies, (In)scribing Body/Landscape Relations (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2002), 14.

[10] Michael White, Narratives of Therapists’ Lives (Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications, 1997), 141.

[11] White, Narratives, 141.

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Charlene van der Walt,

is currently appointed in the Department of Old and New Testament at the Faculty of Theology at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa as the Research and Program Coordinator of the Gender Unit. Her monograph, Toward a Communal Reading of 2 Samuel 13: Power and Ideology within the Intercultural Bible Reading Process, was published in 2014 as the second volume in the new Intercultural Biblical Hermeneutics Series (Elkhart, IN: AMBS). In addition to this Charlene is also an ordained minister of the Dutch Reformed Church and currently serves as the pastor for the Maitland Community Church and she works as a researcher for Inclusive and Affirming Ministries (IAM), an organization that tries to promote dialogue around issues of diversity within faith communities.

© Charlene van der Walt, 2016,, ISSN 1661-3317