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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Q & A with Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza

This year marks the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion's 18th year of publication. Widely recognized as a prominent and trailblazing journal, JFSR was founded by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Judith Plaskow in 1985. From 1995-2000 Emilie M. Townes served as a co-editor of the journal; its current co-editors are Schussler Fiorenza and Kwok Pui-lan. This month, RSN: SBL spoke to Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza about her work on the JFSR, its founding and mission, and its relationship to the fields of biblical studies and religious studies.

SBL: When and why did you decide that a new journal such as JFSR was needed? Was there a particular moment, or cumulative thought process and experience that prompted the decision?

ESF: I met Jewish feminist theologian Judith Plaskow at a Conference on "Wo/men Doing Theology" in 1972 and then during my sabbatical year at Union Theological Seminary in 1974-75, where we regularly met at the New York Scholars in Religion meetings initiated by Carol Christ.

Judith and I talked on and off about founding a feminist journal that could shape the emerging field of feminist studies in religion and serve as a means for networking feminists in the field. After years of long discussions Judith said: Either we do something or we stop talking about it. Although we both were short on funds we decided in the early 1980s to take the risk and to go ahead, formed JFSR, Inc., explored different publishing possibilities, negotiated with Scholars Press, asked colleagues if they would join us, established an editorial board, and invested our own money to guarantee the publication of the first issues in 1985.

We chose Scholars Press because we were convinced that such a journal needed to be intellectually and financially independent. Vital to its survival were the needs to protect the integrity of feminist theological and religious studies and to institutionalize critical feminist studies in various forms. Moreover, we saw the need to create an intellectual forum where cutting edge issues and theoretical problems could be articulated and widely discussed. Finally, we were acutely aware that academic feminists required a venue to publish their innovative work if they were to survive as academicians under the law of "publish or perish!".

On all three counts such a journal was necessary since at the time 'malestream' journals of biblical and religious studies were not interested in publishing critical feminist work, and feminist journals for the most part were not interested in religion and did not have scholars on their editorial boards able to critically evaluate feminist theological and religious work.

Moreover, we both agreed that the journal should be critical feminist in perspective and not solely dedicated to the study of 'wo/men' or gender, as 'wo/men' are defined not only by gender but also by race, class, and culture. Thus we understood critical feminist studies as having the task of analyzing and changing not just gender relations but also race, class, and colonialist relations of domination.

From the outset, we decided that the JFSR should be a peer-reviewed journal with high academic standards that would carefully appraise each submission and give extensive feedback to the author. Such a review was to be "gender, race, class, ethnicity, age, religion blind" insofar as the names of the authors and their social locations were not made known to the reviewers. Moreover, we were clear that the JFSR should be interreligious and dedicated to the feminist study of various religions and theologies.

As we both were very much engaged in the feminist transformation of our own religious communities we wanted to locate the JFSR within religious communities of discourse rather than just to publish research about religion. In this way we thought to bridge the gap between religious studies conceived in objectivist terms and theological studies as committed discourses speaking from within religious communities. Finally, the JFSR aimed at cultivating interdisciplinary work, since in our experience feminist theological and religious studies were from their inception interdisciplinary.

Most importantly we sought to engender research and to publish intellectual work grounded in feminist movements and supported by feminist activists in and outside religion. Hence, the journal publishes regularly not only refereed research articles but also poetry, art work, letters, editorials, and review essays as well as three crucial sections for which we usually solicit materials: The Living It Out section brings reports of and critical reflections on the development and practices of feminist studies and movements within religions here in the U.S. and around the world. The Roundtable assembles different critical feminist voices to discuss controversial or methodological issues. Our new Cutting Edges section in turn will publish essays that are transgressive and creative at the same time. It invites leading scholars in the field to transgress the boundaries of their discipline, to model creative approaches for transforming religious studies and to submit path breaking work for the future.

SBL: What signs of change do you see in the discipline of biblical studies since your /pdf/ESF.pdf and the first issue of Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion?

ESF: Presently biblical studies is a wide open field and has the potential to become an intellectually creative and exciting discipline. Anyone looking at the program of the annual SBL/AAR meeting can see how much the discourses of biblical studies have changed since 1987 when I called for a paradigm shift in biblical studies. It is not surprising then, that the powers that be seem somewhat defensive and resistant to such change at times.

The danger in such a transition time is that the different directions in biblical studies cultivate their separate intellectual domains and do "their own thing" without engaging in critical dialogue and debate with each other. Then the different approaches do not learn from each other and often speak in different tongues.

This chasm in biblical studies is instantiated in the two different journals of the SBL: JBL and Semeia. It plays itself out devastatingly in doctoral education and in hiring policies. Whereas in the beginning of my career this schizophrenic split of the discipline made itself felt in terms of critical historical and theological-confessional studies, now it is played out in terms of exegetical-historical positivist and theoretically sophisticated biblical criticism. Hence, it is important to create venues-like JFSR—that facilitate critical discussion and reflection on the discourses shaping biblical studies.

SBL: How have you found the reception of JFSR in biblical scholarship? Can you see any definite impact it has had in the academy?

ESF: The JFSR was never conceived of as a biblical studies journal, although over the years we have published many articles on feminist questions in biblical studies and much of the published material provides critical knowledge to scholars in the biblical field who are interested in becoming competent and in participating in interdisciplinary discourses. After the demise of Scholars Press we were grateful that SBL took over as the JFSR's publishing agent but it is not the journal's publisher which is JFSR, Inc.

Although the journal's subscription base is small and it has barely survived on a shoestring budget (but remained out of debt), the JFSR is internationally recognized as the premier academic journal in the field of feminist studies in religion. It has greatly contributed to the discourses in all fields of religious and theological studies. Several publishers have told me that they read every issue of JFSR very carefully because they want to identify new talent and new areas of inquiry. Conversely many of our authors landed a book contract because their work made it into the pages of JFSR.

JFSR has not only shaped feminist studies in religion as an academic discipline but also has modeled interreligious and interdisciplinary religious studies in a feminist key. While biblical studies have become more and more interdisciplinary they have not yet been sufficiently conceptualized and institutionalized as interreligious studies.

However, the journal could not have survived and promoted intellectually excellent academic feminist work if it had not been able to attract scholars of high quality to its editorial board and its dedicated group of affiliated reviewers, as well as our student assistants who in the last years have functioned as managing editors. Any success the JFSR has had is due to their untiring work.

While it is common academic knowledge that one furthers one's career by doing unpaid work for scholarly journals and professional societies this is not the case for feminist work since it is still put down as ideological and not highly prized in the academy. Hence, a heartfelt thanks is due to those who have supported the JFSR over the years. We are also grateful for the institutional support we have received first from Manhattan College and from Harvard Divinity School.

SBL: Was there a reason for referring in the mission statement to a commitment to the "transformation of religious studies"?

ESF: Because of its commitment to transform religious studies, including biblical studies the JFSR was able not only to sustain its high intellectual standards but also to engender areas of scholarship and research that previously have not existed. Most importantly, it has introduced voices into the academic discourses of religious and biblical studies that for centuries have been excluded. Together with other critical feminist scholarship JFSR has sought with some success to change the exclusive discourses of religious and biblical studies and to bring about a shift from a positivist, value-detached, scientistic disciplinary ethos to one conscious of its social location, political function, and disciplinary exclusions. As a result, the journal has had an important path breaking, informative, and socializing function also for biblical studies readers because it models the future directions the discipline needs to take.

SBL: How do you understand the relationship between "religious studies" and "biblical studies?"

ESF: If it relinquishes its positivist ethos religious studies can function as an umbrella term that includes biblical studies. Biblical studies have been conceptualized both in theological terms and in cultural-religious terms. On the one hand, biblical studies has been concerned with the theological authority with the bible. The adjective "biblical" designates a canon of writings that constitute the Holy Book of Christians, Muslims, and Jews. The biblical canon owes its existence to religious authorities in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the three "biblical" religions. Thereby the writings collected in the bible whose composition is different for Jews and different Christian denominations were turned into "Sacred Scripture." Although theology is primarily a Christian term, the "bible" is often understood also in the two other biblical religions in such canonical "theological" terms.

On the other hand, the bible is revered and studied as a classic of Western culture. If "biblical" studies are conceptualized primarily as religious studies then the bible is understood as a classic that has and still shapes Western culture and so has also functioned as a tool of colonization. Both the cultural-religious and the theological-authoritative understandings of the bible have excluded wo/men and marginalized men from hegemonic religious and theological institutions and discourses. For this reason, critical feminist studies seek to transform both cultural religious and theological biblical studies. JFSR encourages and publishes research that contributes to such a transformation.

SBL: The journal speaks of having "two parents," "the academy, in which it is situated, and the feminist movement, from which it draws its nourishment and vision." If you could look 10 or 20 years into the future (to continue the metaphor) would you like to see the journal "adopted," and if so by whom and if not why?

ESF: I would hope that in ten to twenty years the journal is sufficiently established that it does not need to be adopted but will be inherited. However, it may want to spell out its parentage somewhat differently. It needs to continue to consciously and explicitly situate itself in the critical rather than the hegemonic discourses of the "academy." For instance, it needs to continue distinguishing its intellectual location from functionalist gender studies that seek to "fit" into hegemonic academic discourses and do not want to change them. Moreover, the JFSR must remain conscious that it did not inherit its creative brilliance from academic masters and fathers but that it owes it to the international feminist movements and struggles of the last centuries. Therefore, JFSR needs to valorize its transnational feminist location also in the future.

To facilitate communication and research in and between such international feminist religious and theological movements in a context of globalization we have just established an international editorial board which is intercultural and interreligious. We hope that their presence will facilitate the publication of more critical feminist work from different parts of the world and foster the critical transnational, interreligious feminist dialogue we already have begun. What we need most therefore are funds for translations.


SBL: Do you think that biblical studies or religious studies have made the

most significant changes in terms of widening the spectrum of voices over the last 15 years? Could you mention a few examples?

ESF: Both biblical and religious studies have not much changed in the last 15 years. They have grudgingly tolerated the new and different voices on the margins of the discipline or have thought only to appropriate and integrate their critical power. As long as doctoral students are socialized into the hegemonic discourses of the discipline these voices will remain muted and marginal.

If one looks, for example, for senior African American 'wo/men' in the field one will find more in religious than in biblical studies but not many on the whole in either. The academic imperative "publish or perish" with its bleached out criteria of excellence is one major reason for their absence. Eurocentric articulations of the field of biblical studies and its "standards of excellence" are another.

As womanist ethicist Katie G. Cannon, who has served on the editorial board of JFSR from its inception, elaborates so eloquently:

By way of personal anecdote, a world-renowned white male scholar once ranted and raved in his critique of my work, "How dare you make me feel! ...I should be able to read this paper and not feel anything!" And because my paper evoked feelings, which appeared to be a threat to this man's person and his intellectual property, the professor concluded that such an embodied paper was so bad that he could not even flunk it. Ironically, the focus of my paper was "The Agony in Gethsemane." So this world-renowned scholar insisted that I, an allegedly unqualified inferior woman of African descent, must master his dispassionate style. Painstakingly I rewrote tedious drafts, until I learned how to disassociate and become disembodied. I bleached and neutered myself so that I could write inert dense, oblique prose from the neck up. Yes, this senior professor believed, like so many powerbrokers today, the damnable lie that so-called academic rigor and scholarly excellence equal value- free, dispassionate, color-blank, experience-distant, mathematically calculated objectivity. [JFSR 16/1 (2000) 100f]

SBL: What kinds of events or structural changes in the field would mark for you a sense of disciplinary impact or integration, perhaps influenced by the work of JFSR?

ESF: In her book Wo/men of Ideas and What Men have Done to Them (1983) the Australian feminist theorist Dale Spender documented that in the last 4-5 hundred years (I would add probably in the past 3000 years) wo/men have again and again produced new knowledges that challenged the status quo but were suppressed and forgotten again and again so that every third or fourth generation of wo/men has been forced to reinvent the wheel. I have always resonated with this observation because I myself belong to the interim generation of wo/men who, despite their otherwise excellent "higher" education did not learn anything about wo/men's history or wo/men's intellectual contributions to science, philosophy, or religion.

When students ask me with whom I studied feminist theology, I point out that feminist theology did not exist when I was a student and so we had to invent it. This query reveals that many today take the existence of feminist theology and studies in religion for granted and are not aware of how easily they can be erased and forgotten again. It is my hope that the JFSR will avert such feminist historical forgetfulness and prevent feminist intellectual tradition and work from sinking into oblivion again.

I also hope that more schools and institutions will nurture ministerial and doctoral students so that they do not need to "bleach out" and "neuter" their intellectual feminist voice and creativity in order to become professionals. Only if we are able to transform the often dehumanizing socializing processes of biblical education will JFSR be able to survive and thrive because its future depends on the coming generations of feminist scholars and their intellectual work.

Moreover, I hope that the standards of academic excellence will start to require from all academically trained students not only literacy in feminist, postcolonial, multicultural, and ideology critical studies but also immersion in feminist movements for change so that more male scholars of all colors become qualified to publish in JFSR. Until now most of the articles submitted by men have not passed the "blind" review process of our editorial board.

Finally, I hope JFSR will find more readers in biblical studies and receive the intellectual, financial, and institutional support that enables it to remain independent, to continue and improve the interracial, intergenerational, intercultural, international, interreligious, and interfeminist intellectual work that we have done in the last 18 years.

To find out more about the JFSR, visit

Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza is the Krister Stendahl Professor of Scripture and Interpretation at Harvard Divinity School and is a past president of the Society of Biblical Literature. Her many influential publications include: In Memory of Her, Rhetoric and Ethic, and Wisdom Ways.

Citation: Moira Bucciarelli, " Q & A with Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited March 2005]. Online:


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