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I just finished reading a challenging and creative new book by biblical scholar Avaren Ipsen, called Sex Working and the Bible (Equinox, 2009). I will post a few thoughts about it soon, but for now I want to highlight some references Ipsen makes to hip-hop as it helped her think through some theological questions.

One of the book’s chapters investigates how to interpret the figure of the “whore Babylon” in the book in the Christian Bible called Revelation. One of Ipsen’s tasks in Sex Working is to correlate interpretations of sex work in the Bible from two perspectives: those of scholars and those of actual sex workers. When she gets to the “whore Babylon” in Revelation, she wants to think about how the language of “whore” might be functioning in its historical context and today. Does this image contribute to a freeing life for its hearers and those influenced by this text, or does it repeat hate speech in destructive ways? Why is Babylon, typically taken in ancient and contemporary perspectives to represent Rome, called a “whore,” and what is at stake in retaining or rejecting this language today? Such questions are especially acute because the Bible is potentially dangerous on this matter. As Ipsen carefully details, this “whore” is stripped, eaten, and burned in Revelation 17 — by God’s command: “And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the whore; they will make her desolate and naked; they will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire. For God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose…”

Ipsen wonders if the “whore” language should be read as an ambiguous kind of parody of imperial power, flinging back at Rome a hate word in circulation in the ancient world, and possibly signaling that prostitutes were part of the community associated with Revelation. She gets this idea from hip-hop.

In Ipsen’s words, “The main reason I attempted a reading that inserted prostitutes among the oppressed community of Revelation is because of my own upbringing in the underclass within the revolutionary left. The men of my ghetto childhood were often in a very unstable solidarity with the women [...] But with a lifetime of hearing the reverse slander of calling oppressive leaders and institutions ‘whores,’ Arundhati Roy, Dead Prez and Tupac Shakur gave me the idea of analyzing the whore metaphor in this same way as

reverse, parodic slander. [...] The late rapper Tupac Shakur, in his album called 2pacalypse Now has a song called “Words of Wisdom” wherein he insults the Statue of Liberty: ‘Lady Liberty, still the bitch lied to me.’ This one lyric made me imagine the author of Revelation denouncing a statute of Roma as a ‘whore’ in a similar manner: as deconstruction of imperial propaganda such as giant statues that promise the good life but do not deliver. I know Tupac was raised by a mother, Afeni Shakur, who herself was a left radical leader in the Black Panther Movement and that her son was not necessarily a misogynist, despite the ‘bitch’ language. Hip-hop and rap music were my hermeneutical point of access to Revelation’s whore metaphor because this music also is frequently denounced and dismissed for its language of violence, negative reciprocity, misogyny and homophobia.” (pp. 175-176)

She summarizes her hip-hop insight into scripture, which she also discussed with the sex workers in her study, by arguing that both the “whore Babylon” and the Statue of Liberty in Tupac’s music are forms of “derisive critiques of imperial propaganda couched in very offensive language. The offensive language is quite possibly an effective rhetorical strategy designed to provoke important necessary realizations. The vision of imperial Rome’s demise ultimately might very well be good news to Rome’s large population of prostitutes, but the offensive metaphor makes that outcome uncertain.” (p. 197)

This uncertainty is underscored and symbolized, Ipsen argues, by the frightening symmetry between Revelation’s disposition (and God’s disposition in Revelation) toward “whore Babylon” and contemporary accounts of violence toward prostitutes as well as the “whore” rhetoric that is often part of domestic violence and rape. Revelation sends a message that sex workers and many other women know too well, in Ipsen’s stark formulation: “Kill the whore.”

This is an important, and brave, book. I hope to write more about it soon.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, USA

2 Comments »

  1. Thanks much for this post — Ipsen’s book seems entirely fascinating. The “Tupac hermeneutic” for reading Revelation is an amazingly provocative suggestion. I’ll definitely be adding this to my list of future reading.

    Comment by Bridget — June 30, 2011 @ 3:32 pm

  2. Queen Berenice born AD28 see Luke ch 3 was the author of the New Testament including the Revelation of John so that the activities of the whore are largely autobiographical.

    Comment by Peter L. Griffiths — July 11, 2011 @ 8:12 am

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