Today’s blog post is a short interview with Natalie Wigg-Stevenson (@nataliews), who has recently published Transgressive Devotion: Theology as Performance Art¸ where she articulates her vision for a new genre of theology drawing from performance art. You can find out more about her book here.
Congratulations on your new book! What ideas emerge in the book that will be of particular interest to Shiloh readers?
One of the faith crises I grapple with in the book is what it means to trust that God won’t harm me in the intimacy of prayer, and how much some of the most beautiful Christian traditions have drawn connections between this prayerful intimacy and sexual intimacy. So, for example, I think of how the Annunciation has shaped the Christian imagination around prayer, and how impossible it is to trust that that Mary really had the space to consent to God when the power differential is so immeasurable. It’s very easy now to interpret the Annunciation as an act of sexual violence. And I didn’t want to take the easy/ish liberal answer of just dismissing that narrative as a false mythology or an irrelevant metaphor. But how do I stay Christian when faced with the possibility that God can so easily appear as sexually violent?
There is a strong and surprisingly mainstream sense in contemporary theology that sexual desire and desire for God are inextricably intertwined. Sarah Coakley has argued that this fact is most acutely recognized when we’re on our knees before God in prayer. People following this line of thinking seem mostly to skirt the issue of the power differential by doubling down on the idea that God is good and we have to trust ‘him’. So first, I wanted to grapple with the possibility that if we take the complexity of the Annunciation story seriously, perhaps we shouldn’t actually trust God in that moment. And then I wanted to explore the shape of what that trust should look like if we decide to consent to it.
One of the performance artworks I engage around these questions is Vito Acconci’s Seedbed, which is a very dangerous work that has frequently been interpreted as a form of sexual violence. I’ve done this to highlight how difficult these conversations can be. And while I’ve tried so hard to engage the issues with love and care so that the writing can offer something meaningful for the survivors of sexual violence, I, of course, remain in fear that my engagement might also further harm.
Tell us about yourself. How does your book relate to your work as a whole and how did this book come about?
At the scholarly level, Transgressive Devotion has grown out of fieldwork I did about 10 years ago in the church where I served as a minister. At that time, I was really interested in the relationship between what we might call everyday and academic theologies. With this new book I wanted to complicate that nexus further by adding the dimension of theological affect. The book is written at the place where the Christian traditions have shaped what we feel about God’s presence and absence in our lives.
As I finished my doctoral work, I realized more and more that my relationship with God was shaped by too many competing parts of my ‘self’: the charismatic evangelical self that had shaped my desire for God; the self of being an ordained Southern Baptist minister; and my training as a feminist, queer, bi-racial, theologian with a disability (the markers of most of these identities being pretty invisible on the surface, which produces a whole other set of issues). But these are not modes of a religious self that can play nice with each other! And my attempts at trying to get them to play nice led to a serious faith crisis. So it’s sort of playful but also very true to say that this book is the result of no longer playing nice…on the personal level, it’s about letting all those parts of myself – and the Divine that animates each one – play naughty instead.
What are the key arguments of this book?
The undergirding argument of the book is to show how theological fieldwork and/or personal experience has the power to rupture the kinds of theological imaginaries that our Christian traditions produce and rearrange them into something new.
The book is written as a type of performance art rather than as a scholarly argument, per se. Jacques Rancière, the aesthetic theorist, argues that art doesn’t merely represent reality to us but, rather, art ruptures and rearranges reality. In this way, our capacities to perceive that reality are transformed. Transformation becomes a mechanism for revelation in this argument. So, I argue that theology done in this mode — as a form of performance art – can use fieldwork, experience, practice, etc., to rupture and rearrange our theological imaginaries. Through our theological writing, then, we make these ‘performative utterances’ (to follow Austin’s theory of language), that invoke God or, even, write scripts for God’s own performance.
In one example, the first chapter is about the Father God being diagnosed with dementia, which circles back in the final chapter to a theological anthropology of humanity as God’s caregivers. I’m not arguing that God has dementia. I’m not arguing that God necessarily needs our care. But when I had my own faith crisis, it very much felt like God had forgotten me, and any assurances people tried to give me along the lines of, “even when you feel forgotten, God always remembers you” weren’t all that helpful to me pastorally. Instead, I wanted to write the theological feeling of being forgotten, precisely by deploying the affective structure of the Christian traditions to do so.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
It’s really easy to see the transgressive parts of the book. They’re on the surface to such a degree that they’re practically screaming in your face at times. But for me, writing it was also an intense act of devotion. So, what I want readers to take from it is that transgression and devotion aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, it’s in their tension that I finally found my way back to God; or better, that God finally found her way back to me.
Give us one quotation from your book that you think will make readers want to go and read the rest.
“The hyper-fragmentation and proliferation of academic theological sub-disciplines belies the fact that each one needs the goods of the others. But the solution here is not to try to integrate them back into a single discipline. Disciplinary fragmentation and incoherence do not necessarily make for inauthentic theology.” (p.9)