“Playing with Fire”: A Feminist Corollary
By James N. Hoke.
I ponder this scenario often: a student comes to my “Introduction to Biblical Studies” class wearing a t-shirt that says “God Hates F***”. Do I make them remove or cover it, leave the classroom? Do I drop my lesson plan and engage it right there? Do I let it be—to see how others react, due to fear as a contingent, queer faculty member, or because of “free speech”?
At the start of the 2016-2017 academic year, the University of Chicago sent its first-year college students a letter that said, “Our commitment to academic freedom means we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings’…and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” I was—and am—among the letter’s critics (including some internal faculty dissent). At the time (on a now defunct Facebook account), I pointed to how the value of “intellectual rigor” that undergirds the University’s defense is not neutral: rigor at the University of Chicago generally means that of an intellectual tradition dominated by heterosexual white men.
My critique ignited a deeper pedagogical concern that takes a much more personal nature. You see, I consider myself a “survivor” of the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, which closely adheres to this same defensive sense of rigor. I survived constantly having to defend my feminist and queer ideas about biblical texts within this more “rigorous” intellectual canon. I survived often being the only person expressing these ideas. I rarely had allies to take them up, support them, or help me in my defense; meanwhile, most others, having the benefit of many voices, peppered me with questions: But have you read this optional article? Or looked into John Chrysostom’s interpretation of Romans 1:18-32? And considered its translation into Latin? (No, but while y’all were doing all that together, I was reading Rhetoric and Ethic, Gender Trouble, and Sister Outsider on my own, off the syllabus.) I survived, but not without harm. Eventually, I stopped defending my ideas, developed a tendency to stop them mid-sentence, and eventually kept silent. Others have shared similar and more drastic survival experiences and scars.
It is this experience that prompts my pedagogical dilemma, because, for all these scars, when I teach the Bible, one of the first readings I assign is very “UofC”: Margaret M. Mitchell’s “Playing with Fire: The Task of the Divinity School.” In it, Mitchell eloquently compares “talking about religion” to “playing with fire.” She points to how both can be dangerous, but both are ultimately essential: we need fire to live, and we need to talk about religion. Indeed, we ignore both at our peril. It’s a great teaching tool that helps me frame class conversations and gets students talking.
But her text responds to previous UofC controversies surrounding “free speech”, this time during the 2008-2009 academic year, when the University had been criticized for (1) allowing Westboro Baptist Church to protest on campus and (2) lack of balanced representation on a panel discussion of the conflict in Palestine/Israel. Mitchell rigorously defends free speech: it can and should be challenged, but offensive, hateful, and harmful speech should not be removed or prevented. How can I teach this text when I know we disagree? Can I justify giving it to students if it might tacitly endorse this University? My revelations above and reflections below represent a pedagogical corollary to “Playing with Fire”—a way for me (and hopefully others) to keep teaching this text. After all, just like the Bible, Mitchell’s text is subject to interpretation. I can find meaning in her words even if I disagree with her interpretation or intent. I can apply them otherwise, hear them from my experience. I can decenter it from its author, just as I and other feminists decenter Paul.
So, I do agree with Mitchell: “While no statement should be censured, none likewise should go unchallenged. Free speech does not mean free to pontificate; it means free to converse—to speak with others—about things that matter. It also means being open to counter-statement, counter-argument, counter-evidence” (4). Like the wo/men who surround biblical texts, I want my students to engage in conversations about things that matter to them. This means we must be able to disagree, hear things that aren’t always comfortable, and discuss difficult topics. If we don’t, I’m usually just left pontificating—and the Bible doesn’t matter to any of us.
But, returning to my opening scenario, this does not mean that I don’t ask my hypothetical “God hates F***” student to cover the shirt or leave. No matter how much I try to decenter and share my power in a class, because of my responsibility as a professor, I have been given a role of authority in my classroom: my students are watching how I respond to such an incident. How I respond will determine whether or not they feel empowered to participate in my class (and potentially beyond it). So, I will explain my reasons to them, and if this student would like to disagree, I am open to conversation and counter-argument, between just us or with other students from class—but only those who choose to engage it. With this and any other slur or hate speech, I will not force students affected by this speech (in this hypothetical example, including myself) to be harmed by it in my classroom in ways that can hinder how they participate and learn to converse. I will not force these students to leave the classroom: physically, emotionally, or vocally. Freedom to converse about difficult topics does not require the conversation being set on one party’s terms. That is not a conversation.
After all, we do not “play with fire” willy-nilly. This returns me to Mitchell’s text and the idea where I suspect we would most disagree: Playing with fire requires, she says, “a proper and prepared place” (5). This means many things for the task of talking about religion, but the most important for me, in my classroom and as a feminist, is that it requires a SAFE SPACE: an affirmation that hateful, abusive speech and discrimination against others (especially racial, gender, and sexual minorities) will not be tolerated because it hinders conversation. It requires trigger warnings so that students who have experienced traumas can be prepared—in whatever form that takes for them—for the content and conversation around it.
For those of us who have been playing with fire long enough to lead a classroom—“people who know where fire comes from” (5)—we must strive to obey the imperative to “do no harm” (even though we will make mistakes as continuing-learners) so that all our students are “free to converse” within and beyond our classrooms. In conclusion, if the task of teachers and students of religion is to “play with fire” then it imperative for us to recognize and admit that some of us have already been burned with scars that hinder our ability to converse fully, especially when “prepared” scholars permit our wounds to be reopened in the name of intellectual rigor.
 A canon that, following Audre Lorde, one could identify as “the master’s tools.” See “The Master’s Tools Will Not Dismantle the Master’s House,” in Sister Outsider (Berkeley: Crossing Press, 1984), 110-113.
 Many of these experiences, in recent years at this Divinity School, were shared as comments on the defunct Facebook posting mentioned above. More generally, similar experiences have long been shared as critique, especially by queer women of color.
 Further quotations from this essay will be parenthetically cited by page number.
James N. Hoke is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at Luther College in Decorah, IA, where he teaches students how the Bible matters in introductory courses to Biblical and New Testament Studies as well as classes such as “Hidden Figures in Early Christianity” and “Food, Politics, and Bible.” After “surviving” an M.Div. at the University of Chicago, he received his Ph.D. in New Testament and Early Christianity, with a concentration in Women and Gender Studies, in 2017 from Drew University’s Graduate Division of Religion. He is currently revising the manuscript for his first book, Under God? Romans in Feminist and Queer Assemblages, which develops theories of queerness and feminism by reading Paul’s letter to the wo/men of Rome.