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Bible and Bedlam: Madness and Sanism in New Testament Interpretation

This project, conducted by Dr Louise Lawrence, aims first, to probe and critically question the exclusion and stereotyping of certain biblical characters and scholars perceived as ‘mad’. Such judgements illustrate the ‘sanism’ (prejudice against individuals who are diagnosed or perceived as mentally ill) perpetuated within the discipline of Western biblical studies and testifies to the ways in which the discipline has, at times, uncritically absorbed medical models which view mental illness as a functional or biological defect in need of diagnosis and treatment. As a result, biblical studies has perpetuated (often damaging) social/cultural assumptions surrounding such conditions: for example violence, extremity, chaos, genius or creativity and often communicated in psy-medical terms (psychosis; schizophrenia; asociality) and psy-legal terms (insanity; incapacity) etc. Second, the project seeks to highlight the widespread ideological ‘gatekeeping’ − ‘protection’ and ‘policing’ of madness in both western history and scholarship − with regard to celebrated biblical figures including Jesus and Paul. Third, it initiates creative exchanges between biblical texts, interpretations and contemporary voices from ‘mad’ studies and sources (autobiographies, memoirs etc.), which  are designed to critically disturb, disrupt and displace commonly projected (and often pejorative) assumptions surrounding ‘madness’. Voices of those subject to diagnostic labelling such as autism, schizophrenia and/or psychosis are among those juxtaposed here with selected biblical interpretations and texts. I propose that these exegetical experiments which draw on the experiences of post-1970 survivors/consumer/ex-patients and mad-identified groups can function as communicative spaces where ‘norms’ of madness can be re-negotiated. Such perspectives resist bio-medical models that frame ‘madness’ as pathology, deficit or mental disorder and instead constructively fore-front lived experience in all its diversity.