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Taking another look at the biblical Ruth & Naomi

Elon University's Summer Undergraduate Research Experience helped senior Shelby Lewis create an academic project that examines the lives of people described in the Old Testament Book of Ruth.

Elon University senior Shelby Lewis with her research mentor, Associate Professor Lynn Huber, chair of the Department of Religious Studies

Elon University senior Shelby Lewis knows her undergraduate research project offers debatable interpretations of a biblical saga.

For the religious studies major who grew up in Greenville, North Carolina, that was to be expected. After all, she said, any time you put forward ideas that go against traditional understanding of a text as revered as the Bible, you’re bound to raise eyebrows.

Taking on that challenge as part of Elon’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experience program, Lewis analyzed the Old Testament’s Book of Ruth by comparing its themes to three novels: “The Color Purple,” “People in Trouble” and “Oranges are Not the Only Fruit.”

The Book of Ruth describes one of the closest relationships between biblical women. A young widow joins her widowed mother-in-law on a journey through Judah, forging bonds that illustrate love, devotion, family and faith.

Characterizing the relationship between the two women opens the door to many interpretations. The Elon Leadership Fellow said she wants to make those prospects more widely known as a way of inviting LGBTQIA people into communities of faith.

“The Color Purple” by Alice Walker demonstrates how someone can have multiple identities, which at times may be at odds with each other. “Oranges are Not the Only Fruit” by Jeanette Winterson sheds lights on maternal relationships. And Sarah Schulman’s novel “People in Trouble” parallels the Book of Ruth with a young female protagonist who resists traditional ideals of motherhood while proving that young women “are capable of harboring great wisdom.”  

Raised in the Episcopal Church, Lewis said her research isn’t to prove wrong existing interpretations of the Bible. Rather, it’s to open the door to alternative readings of religious texts. What’s important, she said, is not to assume that all stories involve heterosexual norms and motivations.

One of the most common assumptions is that same-sex relationships are a modern phenomena when, in fact, they have existed for as long as humans have maintained a written record. “How can we re-appropriate this biblical text for more readers?” Lewis asked. “A lot of times, religious texts are used to actually exclude LGBTQIA folks.”

When LGBTQIA worshippers hear exclusionary messages from the pulpit, they often are left with a choice, Lewis said. People can hide their orientation, or if the ostracism is strong enough, people may choose to leave their religious communities. Lewis uses an academic approach to explore an emerging field in religious studies that leads to biblical interpretations more welcoming of all people.

It’s an approach that fits with Lewis’ determination to be a voice for marginalized groups. “Visibility is a critical component of empowerment,” said Lewis, who points to a 2014 civil rights class that traveled to Selma, Alabama, as a turning point in her desire to be a force for social justice. “When someone says ‘she’s like me,’ that speaks volumes.”

Professors who work closely with Lewis praise her determination and academic curiosity.

“She is intellectually fearless,” said Associate Professor Lynn Huber, Lewis’ research mentor and chair of Elon University’s Department of Religious Studies. “She wants to explore and find new ideas, and she’s willing to go places with her scholarship that other students might be hesitant about.”

Lewis plans to share her research this spring at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research, scheduled for April 7-9, 2016, in Asheville, North Carolina. She will then discuss her findings on Elon’s campus during the Spring Undergraduate Research Forum later the same month.

In addition to her undergraduate research project, the graduate of Ayden-Grifton High School in Ayden, N.C., previously served as co-president of the Interfaith Community at Elon University and is an intern in the Truitt Center for Religious and Spiritual Life. She is the daughter of Tony and Mary Lewis, of Bath, N.C.

Lewis currently plans to pursue a career in higher education, working with young people who are grappling with issues of identity. For now, she said, research is a way to advance the cause of civil rights. “Progress is going to be made,” Lewis said, “but it’s not going to happen without a fight.”


Eric Townsend,
11/7/2015 10:00 AM