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Rape Culture in Sermons on Divorce

Part of the Religion and Radicalism book series (RERA)

Abstract

In this chapter, Valerie Hobbs uses a critical discourse framework to study the violence implicit within evangelical Christian sermons on divorce. Her work in this chapter extends research on intimate partner violence by focusing on the construction of discourses about violence in 31 popular sermons on divorce, which either compromise or espouse efforts to combat violence against women. Through close analysis of these sermons, she notes that a significant number of pastors use euphemism for violence, frequently identify divorce (rather than spousal abuse) as an act of violence, and often appeal to biblical or religious authority to justify their requirement that women stay with violent men. In light of the role sermons play in cultivating problematic attitudes towards gender violence, Hobbs argues that these findings indicate a need for members of religious communities to examine closely the ways their own discourses promote rape culture.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    This source also contains a helpful overview of three decades of research on attitudes towards violence against women, including a comprehensive discussion of the range of social processes that contribute to these attitudes.

  2. 2.

    “So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him” (Acts 8:30–31).

  3. 3.

    See also Alsdurf and Alsdurf (1988), Bowker (1988), Wood and McHugh (1994), Rotunda et al. (2003), Horne and Levitt (2004), Levitt and Ware (2006), Moon and Shim (2010), Nason-Clark (2010), Pyles (2007).

  4. 4.

    A nominalization is the use of a nominal (noun) form instead of the verb from which the nominal is derived. Like passives, nominalizations can hide the identity of the one who commits an act or otherwise minimize the connection between the actor and their action. For example, compare “He violates” with “There is violation.”

  5. 5.

    The corpus comprises sermons by 27 pastors (26 pastors in the United States, 1 in the United Kingdom) who come from a number of Christian denominations, including (Reformed) Baptist (23 sermons), Presbyterian (2), Free Presbyterian/Free Reformed (2), Free Reformed (1), Family Integrated (1), United Reformed (1), and Reformed Presbytery in North America (RPNA) (1). These 31 sermons, which were downloaded 77,720 times as of September 2016, were selected out of the 100 most frequently accessed sermons on divorce available on SermonAudio. The selection process was as follows: identify the 100 most popular (most frequently downloaded) sermons; include the first sermon by each speaker; include two-part series if both appear in the top 100; exclude longer series.

  6. 6.

    While few, if any, studies exist which apply principles of CDA to religious leaders’ responses to intimate partner violence, relevant research includes analysis of political discourse on violence against women, which examines discursive strategies obscuring intimate partner violence.

  7. 7.

    Although, Meyer (2001) notes that the terms “abuse,” “domestic violence,” and “intimate partner violence” have become “banal and sanitized euphemisms” to some extent, “indicative of the depoliticization of women’s issues in general, and violence against women in particular.”

  8. 8.

    By explicit, I mean pastors used some form of the word “abuse” and/or else referred to some specific act of violence (either physical or emotional/psychological).

  9. 9.

    This is consistent with recent research (LifeWay Research 2014) which found that pastors seldom address domestic violence from the pulpit, despite evidence that one in three women and one in four men experience intimate partner violence at least once in their lifetime (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2017).

  10. 10.

    A national survey carried out by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) indicates that among mid-life divorcees, the top reason women seek divorce, including those who call themselves Christian, is physical and/or psychological abuse.

  11. 11.

    All quotations come from my own transcriptions of the audio sermons in the corpus, not from transcriptions provided on the Sermon Audio site.

  12. 12.

    http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=51407192031.

  13. 13.

    http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=82509230142.

  14. 14.

    http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=42011110020890.

  15. 15.

    https://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=6230484251.

  16. 16.

    http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=81111953461.

  17. 17.

    http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=3901194058.

  18. 18.

    “break” is a keyword (LL score = 34.34), and the semantic domain of “damaging and destroying” is likewise significant in WMatrix (LL = 8.96). A keyword is a word that is more frequent to a statistically significant degree in a text or corpus than it is in some (larger) reference corpus. A log likelihood (LL) score above 6.63 indicates 99 per cent significance.

  19. 19.

    http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=614101332325.

  20. 20.

    http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=128141030271.

  21. 21.

    http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=111407135590.

  22. 22.

    http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=52001151217.

  23. 23.

    http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=128141030271.

  24. 24.

    http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=6206111747.

  25. 25.

    http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=53011201704.

  26. 26.

    http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=10210211927.

  27. 27.

    See Van Dijk for a discussion of the systematic abuse of discursive power and “the consequences of such discourse properties on the mental models of the recipients” (2008, p. 821).

  28. 28.

    http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=3901212359.

  29. 29.

    http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=6206111747.

  30. 30.

    Ibid.

  31. 31.

    http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=102311132405.

  32. 32.

    http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=3130572956.

  33. 33.

    http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=82612111352.

  34. 34.

    See Günthner (1999, 2002) for an explanation of the use of discourse markers, among other devices, to signal evaluation of reported speech. The interpretation of the pastor’s use of “oh” to mark negative evaluation is further supported via examination of concordance lines from the Corpus of Contemporary American English (Davies 2008). Examples include where the speakers are marking reported speech, in some cases reinforcing their negative evaluation with further commentary such as “that wasn’t true” and “that’s completely unfair” (e.g. “The nurses were very matter of fact about it, ‘oh she’ll be fine, she’ll be fine’, and that wasn’t true”).

  35. 35.

    http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=11501125442.

  36. 36.

    http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=82612111352.

  37. 37.

    See Abdul-Latif (2011) for a discussion of how appeals to divine authority function as affirmation of a religious leader’s authority.

  38. 38.

    http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=82612111352.

  39. 39.

    http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=11501125442.

  40. 40.

    http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=3901194058.

  41. 41.

    It would be interesting to track where else such direct appeals to authority occur. When do pastors feel confident enough to state that their interpretation of Scripture is “from God’s lips to your ears”? A quick look at my reference corpus of over 100 sermons on non-marriage-related topics suggests that pastors say “Thus saith the Lord” most frequently when quoting this exact phrase from the Bible directly, rather than when they are offering their own interpretations. Further examination of this question would be of value, however.

  42. 42.

    http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=6210381919.

  43. 43.

    See Brinton (1992) for a discussion of the discursive function of the historical present.

  44. 44.

    http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=6210381919.

  45. 45.

    Ibid.

  46. 46.

    The pastor is referring here to Matt. 19:7.

  47. 47.

    Ibid.

  48. 48.

    See Hunt (2010) for a discussion of the tension between a perspective on conflict resolution rooted in some interpretations of Matthew 18 and an acknowledgement of the long-lasting trauma caused by violence.

  49. 49.

    http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=6210381919.

  50. 50.

    Professor David Engelsma is a theologian and pastor in the US Protestant Reformed Church.

  51. 51.

    Other themes related to the fostering of rape culture emerged from the data, which were not prominent but which warrant further discussion elsewhere. Among these were the portrayal of marital sex as compulsory and the framing of marriage as a form of conflict.

  52. 52.

    While this pastor is a Reformed Baptist, as were most of the others who mentioned violence explicitly, he is also the one British pastor in the corpus. This raises the following question which cannot be answered with these data: in what ways do cultural background and context influence pastors’ discourses about divorce?

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Hobbs, V. (2018). Rape Culture in Sermons on Divorce. In: Blyth, C., Colgan, E., Edwards, K. (eds) Rape Culture, Gender Violence, and Religion. Religion and Radicalism. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-72224-5_6

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