Dr Helen John
Honorary Research Fellow
I studied for my undergraduate degree in Theology & Religious Studies (University of Manchester) and then qualified as a teacher (PGCE). Having taught Religious Studies and Philosophy in UK secondary schools for many years, I returned to university and specialised in Biblical Studies for both my MA and PhD at the University of Exeter.
I am an interdisciplinary researcher, mainly drawing on resources from Anthropology to inform my approach to biblical interpretation. Cultural Geography and Folklore Studies are areas I have a developing interest in. My AHRC-funded doctorate focused on cross-cultural interpretations of a series of New Testament texts. These were gathered during fieldwork conducted in Namibia. My PhD also examined the religious landscape of Northern Namibia (the Owambo region), investigating the interactions between Christianity and indigenous worldviews and practices.
I taught the Body & Culture (LIB1103) module in the Liberal Arts programme at the University of Exeter (2017) and am now developing my next research project, which will be a multidisciplinary study of landscapes in the New Testament.
PhD Title: Bodies, Spirits, and the Living Landscape: Interpreting the Bible in Owamboland, Namibia.
My doctorate (awarded April 2016, supervised by Dr. Louise J. Lawrence and Professor David G. Horrell) brought together enduring interests in biblical interpretation, Anthropology, and the cultures of Southern Africa. Funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council, I undertook a study of contemporary biblical interpretation and identity (in light of pre-colonial beliefs and traditions) in a Northern Namibian village. This interdisciplinary study drew upon methodological influences from both Anthropology and Biblical Studies. It involved 12 months of fieldwork (ethnography and contextual biblical interpretation) in a village in the Ondonga area of North-Central Namibia. It was an extraordinary privilege to spend the year living in such a beautiful location, and to be welcomed into a community so supportive of my project. It would be fair to say that challenging living conditions pushed me to my physical and mental limits; I was not used to living in relative isolation, without running water and electricity, and with the likes of searing heat, scorpions, and the most unreliable vehicle ever to grace this earth! However, the experience was hugely enriching and enabled me to gather fascinating data (and a renewed appreciation for home comforts). The results of my study challenge the notion that pre-colonial worldviews and practices are no longer in evidence in Ndonga belief systems. The study also offers cross-cultural interpretations of a selection of New Testament texts (Wedding Parables: Matthew 22:1-14 and Luke 14:7-11; Jairus and the Haemorrhaging Woman: Mark 5:21-43; The Gerasene Demoniac: Luke 8:26-39; Jesus Calming the Storm and Walking on the Sea: Mark 4:35-41 and 6:45-52; Resurrection Encounters: Luke 24:1-49).
Articles arising from doctoral study:
‘Legion in a “Living Landscape”: Contextual Bible Study as a Disruptive Tool (Luke 8:26–39 Interpreted in Owamboland, Namibia)’, Expository Times 128.7 (2017): 313-324.
‘Conversations in Context: Cross-Cultural (Grassroots) Biblical Interpretation Groups Challenging Western-centric (Professional) Biblical Interpretation.’ Biblical Interpretation. (In Press)
‘“They are like Brother and Sister’: African Indigenous Religion and Christianity in Owamboland, Namibia’. (Forthcoming)
My wider academic interests are New Testament interpretation (anthropological, social-scientific, post-colonial, African), Anthropologies of ‘personhood’, landscape, and ‘things’), Southern Africa, African Traditional/Indigenous Religions, contextual Bible study. I have presented papers in diverse conference settings, including those of the European Association of Biblical Studies (Cordoba, 2015), the British New Testament Society (Edinburgh, 2015; Chester, 2016; London, 2018) and SBL (San Antonio, 2016; Berlin, 2017). I am a member of the steering committee for the Society of Biblical Literature’s Contextual Biblical Interpretation seminar.
I am keen to develop research collaborations around the themes of land and landscape.
September 2013 - October 2014: Participant-Observation, Ethnography, Contextual Bible Study in Owamboland, Namibia.
May 2016 - August 2016: Preparatory fieldwork for upcoming research project. Namibia & Zambia.
January 2018 - March 2018: Participant-Observation, Cross-Cultural Biblical Interpretation Groups in Owamboland, Namibia.
I am teaching the undergraduate Liberal Arts module Body & Culture (LIB1103) at the University of Exeter in 2017, whilst also assisting on ‘Deviant Bodies’: Disability Studies and the New Testament (THE3179) and pursuing my own research interests. I am currently focusing on publishing outputs from my doctoral study and developing a multidisciplinary project on landscapes in the New Testament. Whilst I might dream of researching and travelling through the landscapes of Southern Africa in a well-equipped Land Rover, I have a suspicion that I will be waiting a long time for such a job to be advertised. I look forward, instead, to further opportunities to combine my loves of research and teaching in a Theology and Religion or Liberal Arts setting.