As Natalie Wigg-Stevenson’s student I have read and reread Transgressive Devotion many times. Each reading is a new performance. The pieces fall together a little bit different, a scene that previously went unrecognized becomes indispensable; my life’s pressing concerns interpret the text for me and then are reinterpreted by the text. Explaining my new insights is like trying to recount a dream as it fades, or like an inside joke: “you just had to be there.” The complexities of the text ensnare the curious even as its ambiguities frustrate the more sober systematicians.
Following Natalie’s insistence that we question the contemporary virtue of “authenticity,” we are not so much compelled to solve the mystery box and claim its hidden insight as we are encouraged as participants to create the performance together. She is a gracious and welcoming writer inviting us, the readers, to bring our own theological fantasy to the text. Like my Brazilian friend Vini at his Halloween party, in an amusing malapropism, asking his costumed houseguests “what is your fantasy?” Each performance summons a new fantasy and a new theological unmaking.
Natalie’s genre twist invokes fantasies to rearrange our theological imagination: erotic, kenotic, masochistic, God’s fantasy or ours. These are fantasies that we are invited to imagine in the hopes that God will become present. In Transgressive Devotion these fantasies are not necessarily declarations of divine attributes, such as a God with Alzheimer’s, or the Holy Spirit as an STD; rather the book is an invitation to fantasize with them. A new approach to theology, or a new approach to how we imagine theology.
What follows in this symposium are five different performances of Transgressive Devotion, each with a different theologian as artistic partner. The participants of this symposium were invited with an idea in mind as to their potential responses, yet, trying to emulate the generosity Natalie demonstrates in the book, I left those expectations unspoken. The performances they returned conjured their own fantasies of God, pedagogy, theological method, mysticism, and faith. I am grateful to Natalie for sharing such a personal, provocative, and deeply devoted theology, and for each of the contributing panelists for their time and wholehearted engagement.
We begin with “Absence and Presence of a Performance Theologian,” a meditative performance by Mark D. Jordan. Jordan leads us on a search for the theologian, both the fantastical one subtly rendered in Transgressive Devotion, and the author Natalie herself. His sketch pursues questions concerning the academic, the artist, and the performer, and the embodiment of these questions in the theologian.
Rebecca F. Spurrier’s “On Ramps” queries the use of ramps and their edges: by those with limited mobility, by scandalous performance artworks, by teachers introducing their students to complex ideas, and in the image of the cross as a ramp. She also offers a critical challenge to Natalie’s deployment of disability theology which disables God and proposes Humanity as God’s caregivers: can disability only teach us about vulnerability?
Following Spurrier, Craig A Ford, Jr. in “Scenes for Being Seen” reads Transgressive Devotion pedagogically. Ford highlights the titular hinge that makes Transgressive Devotion important for his students, that of belief rooted in tradition that can simultaneously be challenged and questioned. He demonstrates how Natalie’s presence in the text with her doubts, fears, and desires out in the open humanizes an academic project so that students can see themselves in her story.
The kenotic revelation Ford has located pivots into the apophatic in Jennifer Awes Freeman’s response “Prayer, Liturgy, and Apophatic Theology.” Awes Freeman focuses on the “incantations and invocations,” Natalie casts to make God appear. Drawn to the mystical theology of the book, Awes Freeman nevertheless gestures to the benefits of a more direct dialogue with established mystics like Pseudo-Dionysius.
Hanna Reichel, in the final response “The Limits of Sex,” offers an extended meditation on the indecent. Reichel sketches the indecent across themes of desire, violence, submission, and epistemological imagination. Where is the power in theological performance, and what is to be done with it? That conversation, as they admit, will likely continue long past this symposium.
There’s a scene in this book with a ramp. For those of you who haven’t read it yet, I won’t spoil it. It comes from one of the many descriptions of performance art that animate each chapter of Transgressive Devotion. In turn, I offer my own encounter with a ramp, a performance that was conjured for me during the reading of Natalie Wigg-Stevenson’s theological page-turner.
The dance takes place on a six-foot platform, a ramp made of sculpted wood. A level plane toward the front of the stage tilts and warps at the back such that a gap or lip occurs two thirds of the way from the front. The ramp curves sharply up and away from the audience, arching and then dropping off abruptly, creating a path to nowhere, into the darkness, or, possibly, up into the illusion of a star dappled sky above it.
A performance of “Descent” by the integrated dance company Kinetic Light begins without chairs. One dancer alone, then joined by another, they propel their bodies with and without wheelchairs over every inch of the ramp’s surfaces, in thrilling ascents and descents, hanging from its edges at times. Their movements are exhilarating and sensual over the shimmer that could be tire tracks or the skidding of stars over the stage.
Dancer Alice Sheppard describes their choreography this way: “Over the course of the next hour, I will launch my body up, down and around the curvaceous plywood structure of our set. Bathed in the stunning projections of our lighting, video and projection designer, Michael Maag, I will sit on its peak, dive into its underworld and join my dance partner and collaborator, Laurel Lawson, as we move from wheelchair to floor, platform to valley, pushing, pulling, intertwining ourselves until the final moment when together we leap for the edge.”
In an interview with Alice and Laurel after one performance, an audience members comments: it looks like you are having fun on those wheelchairs? Yes, they confirm, wheels can be a lot of fun. But later, they remind audience members that their artistry was also made possible through falling and falling again during practice, through scratches, bruises, and marks on their bodies as well as with their muscles. Another person wants to know if they are “fully disabled.” Their movements ostensibly disrupt clear signifiers of disability.
Kinetic Light’s performance of “Descent’ ruptures and rearranges assumptions not only about disability but also about access, the ramp transformed from a hidden architectural accommodation at the back of a building into an arena of beauty, humor, sensuality, and intrigue. And through the performances, the ramp itself becomes animate, taking on “a presence” of its own. Audience members want to come closer, climb on it, and experience it for themselves.
In Transgressive Devotion, Wigg-Stevenson identifies her method of probing theological “edges” through performance art as cruciform. The cross is not a destination but a ramp that reaches out into space only to drop off suddenly, such that the theologian has no alternative but to fall. Such a ramp will never reach God, but in the falling that comes through descending outside the gates of some systematic theologies, God may appear, and those of us who have lost God or think we somehow had our God to begin with may fall and fall in love again.
I attempt to navigate such ramps with my students by performing the name of the Disabled God (among other names). I speak or pray this name, knowing that it will possibly create an opening, or what Wigg-Stevenson describes as a rupture, that encircles a space for God to come through a practice of human “unknowing rather than knowing, waiting for God to arrive.” But just as frequently, I also perform a soothing, a smoothing, a closing of this rupture by making the image more palatable, by making God make sense. My students and I create a safe space for disability rather than a capacious ramp with edges, where one or more of us may fall and be bruised and shaken as “we and God grope our way towards finding each other in the dark.” It’s so easy to make God feel safe, Wigg-Stevenson reminds us, or to believe that we humans are safe for God. Theologian Nancy Eiesland, one of Wigg-Stevenson’s interlocutors, warns about such risks: to be converted to the disabled God requires a radical rethinking of powers that have been systematically prescribed to God. Yet readers of Eiesland’s text invariably find ways to maneuver around her radical claims so that the power of the abled God the Father remains unscathed; we slap “new names on the old symbolic orders” by making disability a matter of human time that doesn’t really touch God. Wigg-Stevenson insists that we and God can handle this scathing; in fact we must if God is to appear to us. In Transgressive Devotion, she shows us how to how to do it, or rather shows us how it’s done to us. Moreover, she insists that performing such radical claims are vital to accessing the knowledge of God, of ourselves, and of the theological histories and futures that we carry in our bones.
Wigg-Stevenson performs experiences of God by drawing on the wisdom of disability theologians, among other scholarly and artist interlocuters. She does so explicitly through meditations on an aging God the Father in Chapter 1 and on humanity as caregivers of this disabled God in Chapter 6. She plays with the idea of a God who first appeared to her through an ethnographic encounter in which she and her interlocutors puzzled together over how to makes sense of God’s strange relationship to human time. In this fantasy of God—an experience rather than a description of God’s true nature—our Father has Alzheimer’s. From time to time, God forgets God’s children before God can remember them. In this disabling, God becomes vulnerable to humans, summoning human responsibility through God’s dependence on us, requiring that humans care for God and ourselves as we acknowledge that “we are the dependents on whom God depends.” Such strange asymmetries of power between God and humans are unstable, eluding some feminist fantasies of mutuality, but they are also necessary for the one who wants to be lured by God.
The imperative to care for God encourages me to feel differently, with compassion and curiosity toward God, about a creaturely response/ability to God and in turn to God’s creation. At the same time, I’m wary of the paternalistic and charitable renderings of care that so often structure theological and ecclesial performances of ability and disability. Such depictions animate ableist fantasies of disability even as relationships of care can become art forms of both verbal and non-verbal attunement to one another as Wigg-Stevenson describes. I get excited about an imagined future for theological anthropology that takes seriously the complexities of human communication and interdependence. I anticipate Wigg-Stevenson’s descriptions of caring for God in dialogue with scholar-activists like Leah Laksmi Pipiezna-Samarasinha who argues for care work as collaborative experiments in creating collective access or with Mia Mingus who probes the contours of asymmetries of interdependence through descriptions of “forced intimacy” or “access intimacy” with human others. For not only are humans not always safe for God but those of us who are abled are not particularly safe for disabled humans in most of our practices of care.
Performing disability through a disabled God the Father ruptures Christian attempts to protect God through the projection of divine invulnerability, creating new forms of access through which God can move toward us. Disabling God allows Wigg-Stevenson to suggest what might happen if humans not only felt God’s vulnerability but also loved the limits of such a God. While such disabling powerfully rearranges God’s omniscience and omnipotence, I wonder what appearances of God might be summoned through more transgressive images of disability. Might disabling God also draw from other sources of disability wisdom as God is called forth not only through associations between vulnerability and disability but also through pleasure, joy, and the “erotic ruination” of the disabled God? Might disability not only perform the intimacy and challenge of revering and tending to an aging Father but also choreograph the sultry wheeling movements of “Spirit on the slant,” of one who seduces through disabled power and transgressive enjoyment of disability? Such devotions might provide a mutually constitutive opening and transgress some ways that disability is evoked and performed not only by God but in and through predominately abled human communities.
Of course, this wondering is what Wigg-Stevenson anticipates, as she insists that no theological fantasy or performance will ever constitute the same God again. God’s inauthenticity, which is also God’s multiplicity, encourages theologians to experiment with undoing theological fixations. I laughed when, planning to reread some parts in order to grasp them better, I encountered a warning at the end of the book: God will not be experienced in the same way twice, even in a rereading of this book. The ethnographic theologian’s emphasis on the specificities of time and space are essential to Wigg-Stevenson’s practice of theology as performance art. We won’t be able to remember the past as it was, even as we can’t leave it behind; we have no choice but to begin again for God to appear.
Wigg-Stevenson is willing to drag God’s name through theological performances both past and present that may scandalize or initially feel harmful to some of us, even as these artistries may be experienced as strangely familiar by others. But she summons her own spells of protection in refusing a God who could rape or assault; she is unafraid to guard theological gates from an evil God. Such protective measures—naming a God who cannot sin and who only moves in response to consent—make me curious about how theologians mark the edges of our theologies as well as about the modes through which we become attuned to consent. For transgressive devotion as collaborative art form requires generative openings rather than coercive punctures in knowledge and love of God as names for God are not only conjured in personal devotion or theological construction but function as communal spaces—capacious tents—in which people of God dwell together for a time. I have in mind my students who wonder again and again what it means to carry particular understandings of God back into communities they love without violence or harm.
Wigg-Stevenson offers us a clue through the beauty of prose that lures a reader to come and stay with a God they may not allow themselves to love otherwise; “hidden desires pulled up and out to dance on our skin and desires unknown created.” Such artistry is vital, I imagine, to practices of attunement to God and others and to awareness of the affective structures between a theologian and those with and for whom she performs God. Of course, Wigg-Stevenson reminds us that discerning such consent is complicated by the fact that all of us hold many fragments of God within ourselves and our communities. She both affirms theological incoherence and suggests that theology as performance art may help theologians to integrate affective connections and linguistic understandings of God or live with the dissonance between language and feelings. She surfaces such fragments in her dialogue with ethnographic narratives, reminding us that all communities hold transgressive theologies within them and that we hinder encounters with God when we do not invite these theologies to speak to us even or especially when they don’t make sense at first.
Wigg-Stevenson insists that such surfacing is cruciform, testifying to the persistent scandal of a cross that some theologies have forsaken in their quest for liberation from the violence of God. I understand the linguistic connection, but I am curious about its affective structure: must this method begin at the foot of the cross? Might there be other efficacious ramps for transgressive devotion that move us more daringly along theological edges? Perhaps not, for as Wigg-Stevenson argues, “without death, there is not new life.” Eiesland identifies a different, yet resonant theological method through the companion symbol of resurrection: a “representational proliferation” of names of God that do not “portend chaos” but are rather an enactment of the “resurrection of God” as the body of God is “vivified by an insurrection of subjugated knowledges.” She challenges the Christian “to follow these images into the worlds they open.” In Transgressive Devotion, Wigg-Stevenson not only opens theological worlds I would never have entered on my own, she also shows me what it means to follow not out of a sense of obligation but through courageous desire for God. In so doing, she illumines new modes of ethnographic theology through cultivation of theological affections.
Scenes For Being Seen
The numbers are coming in, though by now this is probably a familiar tale. The Christian story is becoming one that people are relying on less and less to make sense of their spiritual lives. As one might expect, the statistics vary, but despite this it appears safe to say that about three out of every ten adults in the United States identify as religiously unaffiliated—a number which, among millennials (my own generation) increases to four in ten. There is an undoubtable trend here: the year I was born (1988), the percentage of religiously unaffiliated adults was 8 percent.
Of course, this phenomenon is not occurring only in the United States, but it is here nevertheless where I’d like to maintain my focus. After all, it is here where I find myself: a moral theologian, working as a professor at a small Roman Catholic liberal arts college, living also as a Roman Catholic who identifies as a gay black man. And at the end of the day, the reason why I, among other things, choose to remain Catholic; why I, among other things, choose to stay in theology, boils down to an observation that bring me directly to Wigg-Stevenson’s Transgressive Devotion. In a world that, in the West at least, seems to dispatch itself ever more quickly of the God(s) who once gave coherence to it, I find myself nevertheless being seen by that very same God. This is the theme that I’d like to work with, and it is the theme which, furthermore, I believe makes this book worth reading, worth thinking about it, indeed, even praying about. Transgressive Devotion is an example of a text that may, as Wigg-Stevenson hopes, make God appear in a moment where God seems to be disappearing from view.
At the source of such a conviction on my part is Wigg-Stevenson’s recognition that, if God is going to appear to people—which, to be clear, is nothing less than the possibility of God’s continuing to enter into relationships with humankind—then the task of theology must be to set the scene for this encounter. This task is a particularly urgent one for my students, many of whom regard the possibility of religious belief to be at some distance from their experience, since for many of them (though I suspect this might be true of many people who are no longer students), they believe that God can be encountered only if one leaves one’s critical thinking skills at the door. The truth, of course, is that this is nonsense. God did not create our critical minds such that God can only be found when we take leave of them. Thus, if God is going to appear, then theology must set the stage for God’s arrival in the midst of our interdisciplinary, intersectional, and postmodern world—not, as some might have it, despite these realities. Theology worthy of the name today must, along with Wigg-Stevenson, believe that it can “participate in ongoing conversations of faith and those beyond faith as well” (134), and that it must be a theology that “opens out from and onto multiple collaborations” (124). It is a theology that must learn, that must co-create with other sources of knowledge. And all of this theologians do with eyes wide open to the real pain and suffering in the world. This is, in part, why Wigg-Stevenson sees her theology as theologia crucis, a theology “from the cross” that “extends the transgressive power of the cross to rupture, rearrange, and thereby transform creation” (13). Theology up to the task of making God appear, in a phrase, aspires to assist God in God’s ongoing activity of “reconstructing reality anew” (124). Indeed,
[theology] does so in order to construct that reality with a critical consciousness that enables ongoing social and theological transformation of it. Because in prayer we hope that God is appearing as one of our collaborators. God in us, and us in God, as we all transform and become transformed together (124).
Now how does such a reconstruction occur? How does one articulate theology in such a way that God might appear anew—I would even dare to say ‘resurrected’—before our very eyes? I believe that Wigg-Steveson’s answer to this question over the course of the text is to treat aspects of our contemporary, yet consistent human experience as a prism through which the Divine light might shine, granting the reader the possibility of the experience of a new hue of that light.
As I read, I imagine students in my future classes reading with me, bringing along with them their concerns that they most likely carry with them at the beginning of any religious quest—for some, these are postures like wonder and curiosity, but, given my experience teaching introductory theology courses in the core curriculum over time, I’ve come to know that they are more often respectful forms of skepticism, apathy, and irritation. And then I lay before them the question, “What does it mean for Christians to believe that Jesus is God?”
Wigg-Stevenson’s approach immediately humanizes the question, rendering it accessible. “To be made in God’s image actually requires that we also make God in ours” (109). The lesson here is that just as Jesus, using the raw materials of his own life, had to learn what it means to be God, so do we, by extension, use all of the various impressions and experiences we have of Jesus, with the hope that God will appear through them. This means that Jesus’s identity as divine both exists among and yet also beyond any of our understandings. Mediator, teacher, black, queer, fat, disabled— the sooner that we can recognize these identities as prisms—or, to use Wigg-Stevenson’s words, as soon as we can recognize these ostensible identities as ‘self-projections’—the sooner we can appreciate truly Christ’s kenosis. In virtue of our common humanity, Christ can be poured out in the full spectrum of our existence. It is in this encounter where we might find God. As Wigg-Stevenson writes,
In such a view, Christological self-projection might be less a problem and more a stop-gap measure on the jagged Way to God. Not a sin but a strategy. Because if Christ’s perfection can consist in his own striving towards it, then so too can ours. As such, Christological self-projection might be the very practice by which we and God grope our way towards finding each other in the dark, towards the uniting embrace that will either destroy us both or save us (109).
Importantly, this is not (merely) an individualized experience. It is, rather, very much a communal one. This is in part why, in the chiastic structure that organizes her text, Wigg-Stevenson juxtaposes her Christological considerations to her ecclesiological ones. For if all of our self-projections have value for finding the way to God in God’s fullness, then this is, in part, because our very selves, at an ontological level, are porous to the Divine. We all are the recipients of God’s kenotic, and therefore, sanctifying activity. For Christians, the lesson here is twofold: it means, first, that God’s salvific action cannot be limited to the institutions (i.e., the churches) that we create (127); and second, it means that the Church, as the collective body of all of our porous ones may not always only be porous to the divine, but might open itself up collectively to complicity with or even to the extension of evil in the world. “In the church I am writing,” Wigg-Stevenson remarks, “brokenness is not yet redeemed. In this church, the ever-present reality is that brokenness and its redemption live intertwined. Inextricable and inseparable, each disfigures the other till the story’s done being told. And it isn’t over yet” (133).
I think back again to imagining reading with my students. I imagine that Wigg-Stevenson’s theology could afford many of them, formed in the 21st century West, the opportunity to find themselves being seen by God—a foundational element of which is to have one’s concerns taken seriously. In the theological tapestry she has woven, Wigg-Stevenson validates the starting points of so many: feelings that the Church passes over (at best) or conceals (at worst) its sinfulness, brokenness, and scandals; feelings that there is no “one right way” to get to God, and therefore we cannot afford any exclusivist soteriologies; and feelings that, regardless of religious identity, we are all on a spiritual journey; that we stumble along, but that this is what it was like even potentially for the one Christians revere as the Son of God. For those who do not find themselves being seen by God in rosaries, rituals, and rubrics, this scene—their complex, postmodern lives where they are aware that persons and institutions who believe they possesses the truth without a humble consciousness of their own fallibility are ideologues—may grant them the moment to encounter God anew and potentially grant a new shape to their own existence.
But Wigg-Stevenson does not stop there. She continues more deeply into the human experience, employing aspects of theological method developed in queer, critical race, and disability studies. This is what she sets out to do: “Instead of critiquing restrictive images of God for the ways in which they contribute to human exclusion, then, I want to critique restrictive images of humanity that block the possibility for God to appear. It’s a failure of imagination—imagination for the sheer difference and danger of the living God—that keeps us from conjuring God’s terrifying presence among us” (35). Here, following in the footsteps of Marcella Althaus-Reid placed into conversation with thinkers like Kent Brintnall and Tim Dean who have worked on barebacking culture, Wigg-Stevenson hopes to produce a scene in which God can appear among communities of people whom society rejects because of their “unsafe” sexual practices. She does this by arguing, both brilliants and beautifully, that all sexual practices (vanilla, BDSM, even bug-chasing/gift-giving) all place us on the other side of safety, on the side of being opened up by another (163-165). Such is precisely what it means to be overcome by God’s Spirit—the Spirit of the God whose face humans cannot see and live (Ex. 33:20); the same Spirit who infected/inspired the souls at Pentecost. “In some ways, then,” Wigg-Stevenson meditates,
bug-chasers thus look more like the Pentecost community of early Acts than many Christians would want to admit. And the way their embrace of death makes their infinite exchange possible reminds Christians of our duty to embrace the same. Had I been there when—am I still there now?—I’m not sure I would have chosen the death that God freely offered.
It is once again here where I believe many of my students can have the possibility of discovering new connections with God in this age—beyond doctrinal prohibitions on any sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage, beyond teachings about LBGTQ+ people that they find to be outdated and discriminatory, perhaps even beyond their own comfort zones with theologically fruitful engagements with BDSM and barebacking. As I read with my imaginary students, I imagine that they can see in Wigg-Stevenson’s theology a scene where they might find themselves being seen by God—a place in their own lives where God appears, a place where God resurrects.
Of course, Wigg-Stevenson is conscious of how destabilizing all of this is. She recognizes, on the one hand, that without such new scene-creation, the Christian tradition sets itself up only for death: “We get bogged down in right belief,” she writes, “and lose track of the equally (if not more) important affective flow of theological desire. In other words, our desire for God. What we need, therefore, is a way to break the system open. It’s only when we’re willing to rupture and brearrange our traditions that we become able to perform new life from them” (11). But she also recognizes, on the other hand, that none of this is new. Writing, for example, about what it means to imagine God as a dementia patient who forgets about God’s creation, she writes, “Of course such a claim comes with theological problems. But that’s what God did in the incarnation. God set in motion a whole bunch of theological issues” (187). For my own part—just to provide one worry—I myself am unsure about how we make normative sense of theologies that foreground encounter with God in the ways that Wigg-Stevenson’s at times does. If God speaks both to the mystic who, like Beatrice, subsumes her encounter into self-transcendent erotic joy and to the person who believes, on the basis of that encounter, that committing a mass murder is a faithful act, we might need more resources than Wigg-Stevenson provides here, where we are presumably only advised to encounter different interpretations of God’s will with humility before presuming to speak (187-188).
Nevertheless, the destabilizing novelty of Wigg-Stevenson’s theological insights are also deeply tradition-based, as any reader of the text will appreciate when they experience how Wigg-Stevenson’s scholarly conversation is with so much of the Christian tradition, both ancient and modern (for this, just follow the footnotes). It is this movement between the past and the present, between settled orthodoxies and new syntheses, that makes her writing particularly fruitful for new theological engagement today. The reader cannot fail to note, for example, the apophatic pulse that runs throughout the text, from Pseudo-Dionysian negation through the medieval mystical tradition (57-59). Nor can the reader—or, at the very least, this one—fail to see new connections between Wigg-Stevenson’s theology and the ecclesiology of Vatican II. One of the latter’s fundamental images, after all, is of a Pilgrim Church (cf. Lumen gentium, no. 48)—that is, a Church on a journey, making its way through a complicated world filled with sinfulness yet touched by grace, present in its members’ porous ontology.
More examples could be added, but at this point I will only add my gratitude. Gratitude for Wigg-Stevenson’s scene-making; gratitude for her creating spaces in the midst of our queer, postmodern, broken, and blessed world where we might find ourselves being seen by God; and gratitude for this text—a text that, I hope, my actual students this upcoming academic year will encounter in such a way that they might be able to see themselves in the Christian story that proclaims that God longs so dearly for them.
Prayer, Liturgy, and Apophatic Theology
Natalie Wigg-Stevenson begins Transgressive Devotion by narrating a disruptive moment in Marina Abramović’s 2010 performance “The Artist is Present,” in which a young woman disrobes in the middle of the gallery and is quickly escorted away. This is a fitting image for Transgressive Devotion: it frames the voyeurism of the book as we “watch” Wigg-Stevenson viewing and being influenced by the livestream of Abramović’s performance, and in the subsequent pages witness Wigg-Stevenson’s process and performance of losing and finding/letting go of faith. This voyeurism—or curated perspective—continues throughout the book, as, rather than include images of the performance art she references, Wigg-Stevenson directs our gaze through her descriptive recreations. Additionally, the figure of the denuded woman who disrupted “The Artist is Present” also resonates with Wigg-Stevenson’s own disruptive vulnerability in laying bare her innermost thoughts, questions, and hopes. She concludes this first vignette with the powerful statement, “Systems can be threatened most by the arrival of something vulnerable” (x).
The pages of my copy of Natalie Wigg-Stevenson’s Transgressive Devotion are dense with underlining, brackets, stars, and marginal notations—particularly in the “Opening” and “Closing” chapters, where Wigg-Stevenson articulates most explicitly what many religious educators experience, namely the professionalizing of one’s religious identity (6–7, 196–99). This ambiguity between academic study, professional position, and personal belief/experience is often confusing and exhausting, in part because (in my experience) with little time to reflect on these dynamics, one plows ahead with the status quo. Thus, Wigg-Stevenson’s invitation to not only acknowledge the existence of fragmentation and incoherence but to appreciate them as authentic is refreshing and revelatory (9).
In Transgressive Devotion, Natalie Wigg-Stevenson puts forward—or rather, performs—an example of a “performance theologian” who through her multiple, fragmented, transformative, out-of-time approach to the divine, aims to make God present. This performance embraces multiple selves, identities, experiences. It does not shirk from pain, danger, or disbelief. In this work, Wigg-Stevenson’s touchpoints include her own personal narrative, field work at a Baptist church, academic theological texts (mostly modern and contemporary), and performance art. She engages liberation, queer, disability, womanist, and feminist theologies to construct a bodily and embodied theology that is characterized by a deep desire for collaboration with the Divine and with others—one that is mutually transformational.
In writing this response, I hope to avoid that all-too-common academic phenomenon of asking a book to do something that it’s not trying to do. Still, I can’t help but approach this book from the specifics of my own academic and personal location as a historian of medieval Christianity, a visual artist (with a distant background in theater), and a practicing Orthodox Christian. And admittedly, it is out of those identities, experiences, and biases that I offer the following comments. As Wigg-Stevenson declares, “This is my story, no one else’s” (132).
While I don’t intend to critique a theologian for not being a historian, I do think that direct engagement with primary sources would be warranted and in keeping with Wigg-Stevenson’s invocation of Elizabeth Freeman’s concept of “dragging” through time (19–20, 185). My two main offerings have to do with 1) apophatic theology and 2) liturgy and sacramental theology. These are both mentioned in passing in the book, but I believe are arguably essential to Wigg-Stevenson’s project and thus could be brought to the fore.
Apophatic theology (also known as the via negativa) permeates the pages of Transgressive Devotion from the very start, as, for example, in the “Opening” Wigg-Stevenson writes of losing her belief in God, “It was a negation of my knowledge of God. Not a negation of what I knew but rather a negation of my knowing. It was an invitation to stop searching and, instead, be found” (7). While she only explicitly names the “long and important tradition of apophatic theology” on page 59 and elsewhere references Pseudo-Dionysius through the lens of Sarah Coakley (150, 178), I read the book as apophatic in its approach, as Wigg-Stevenson “drags” us into the obscuring mists of unknowing.
Direct engagement with Pseudo-Dionysius may have provided even more of the language with which to dismantle—or, perhaps, disable—language itself. Wigg-Stevenson’s description of the negation of her knowing resonates with much of Pseudo-Dionysius’ work, as, for example, in The Divine Names, when he declares that God is “known through knowledge and through unknowing,” and that “the most divine knowledge of God, that which comes through unknowing, is achieved in a union far beyond mind, when mind turns away from all things, even from itself…” He begins his Mystical Theology by advising the reader to “leave behind you everything perceived and understood, everything perceptible and understandable […] to strive upward as much as you can toward union with him who is beyond all being and knowledge. By an undivided and absolute abandonment of yourself and everything, shedding all and freed from all, you will be uplifted to the ray of divine shadow which is above everything that is.” Pseudo-Dionysius explains that because the Divine is the cause of all beings, “we should posit and ascribe to it all the affirmations we make in regard to beings, and, more appropriately, we should negate all these affirmations, since it surpasses all being.” Because God is beyond all knowing, God is beyond language and therefore we are compelled to employ an abundance of language, images, and so on, to expose their very limits.
Moses ascending Mount Sinai is the central image of Mystical Theology: as Moses draws near to God, “he plunges into the truly mysterious darkness of unknowing.” Denise Levertov gestures to this divine elusiveness in the first line of her poem “Suspended” when she writes, “I had grasped God’s garment in the void / but my hand slipped / on the rich silk of it.” This slipperiness occurs in personal un/knowing too, as echoed in Wigg-Stevenson’s concession that, “Anything approaching authenticity appears only in the realization that I’m not who I thought I was” (7).
Wigg-Stevenson’s references to kenosis and theosis in her call to mutual submission and consummation with the divine—a union with “God’s erotic ruination” (156)—may have also benefited from a consideration of the hesychast tradition (from the Greek for “stillness” or “tranquility”), in which figures like Gregory Palamas practiced a psycho-physical method of prayer that was characterized by the attachment of breath to the recitation of prayers (e.g., the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”). That is, the mystical is tied to the physicality of the body, to the measure of breath.
To conclude this point while on the topic of language, I will admit that I still struggle with the book’s chapter titles, which follow the topics of “traditional” systematic theologies (i.e., Father, Spirit, Son, Church, Salvation, Humanity). Wigg-Stevenson provides a kind of apologia for this choice (8–11), but in a book that does so much to shake off constraints of “tradition,” etc., the chapter titles read to me as dissonant, as evidence that Wigg-Stevenson is still bound by her evangelical formation (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing!). But I wonder what it would look like to follow Pseudo-Dionysius’ ascent into the mists of Mount Sinai and to cast off these terms. Or rather, to pile on more and more and more until they give way to the presence for which Wigg-Stevenson longs.
Liturgy and Sacramental Theology
The back cover of Transgressive Devotion describes it as “theology which is a liturgy of divine incantation. In other words: this is theology which is also prayer.” Of course, liturgies (and liturgical texts in particular) are theology/theological. But in what sense is theology “a liturgy”? Are we to take this in the literal sense of the Greek as a “work of the people”? In an evangelical context, does theology replace or serve as a kind of liturgy? In reading this book, I wondered whether the author was intentionally using “liturgy” and “performance art” interchangeably in some instances. And if not, perhaps she ought to. After all, the liturgy is indeed embodied, performed, and performative—very much, for example, like the contextual and dynamic performance of gender. Wigg-Stevenson offers in this book a theology “as performance art” and “as prayer.” Likewise, as Susan Wood has noted, “in the liturgy we do not acquire knowledge about God; we acquire knowledge of God.” The liturgy is where the ecstatic and the everyday meet.
Sacramental theology is another related concept that is barely mentioned in Transgressive Devotion, but seems to me to hover behind much of the book’s concern with materiality, embodiment, performance, and the divine. I expect that this lacuna around sacraments reflects the author’s own evangelical context (as implied in her brief discussion of the eucharist in a footnote on page 47)—so at the risk of prescribing something across ecumenical lines, I suggest that Wigg-Stevenson consider the constructive potential of the liturgy and especially of sacraments as loci of the interpenetration of the human, material, and divine.
In these ways, theology, mysticism, and liturgy are interdependent. I often return to the following passage by Vladimir Lossky, which captures the availability and necessity of the mystical:
Far from being mutually opposed, theology and mysticism support and complete each other. One is impossible without the other. If the mystical experience is a personal working out of the content of the common faith, theology is an expression, for the profit of all, of that which can be experienced by everyone. […] There is, therefore, no Christian mysticism without theology; but above all, there is no theology without mysticism. […] Unlike Gnosticism, in which knowledge for its own sake constitutes the aim of the gnostic, Christian theology is always in the last resort a means: a unity of knowledge subserving an end which transcends all knowledge. This ultimate end is union with God or deification, the theosis of the Greek Fathers. Thus, we are finally led to a conclusion which may seem paradoxical enough: that Christian theory should have an eminently practical significance; and that the more mystical it is, the more directly it aspires to the supreme end of union with God.
Transgressive Devotion is a compelling and exciting work. I recognized myself in so many passages such that it was like reading my own diary (that is, if I had time and energy to maintain one!). There were numerous instances in which I noted something in the margin only to find Wigg-Stevenson take up the issue or author in the next page, such that it came to feel like a dialogue. In her “Opening,” Wigg-Stevenson states that, “Art does more than just represent reality to us. Art has the power to reorganize the very structures by which we perceive that reality” (1), and in the “Closing,” she muses whether this book is “the record of a performance, or is it the performance itself?” (201). I think it may indeed be both. Transgressive Devotion articulated something I have long intuited but hadn’t fully verbalized—the best art and poetry often does. I am grateful that Natalie Wigg-Stevenson has given us this vulnerable and powerful offering, which challenges systems and offers resources for renewal.
The Limits of Sex
In her new book, Transgressive Devotion – Theology as Performance Art, Natalie Wigg-Stevenson (NWS) takes theology to the limits – and beyond. That, of course, is the point of transgression. As she notes early on, there are two kinds of transgression: the easy kind of transgression for transgression’s sake, and the more serious one, where ultimate devotion “cannot play it safe” as it reaches deeper into unknowing, even unbecoming (68). NWS’s project is of the later kind: It performatively explores the affective contours of a God whose desire disrupts all categories and transgresses all boundaries – and of how her own desire for this God. It grapples artistically, intellectually, and viscerally with the ineradicable risk and violence such a relationship is haunted by on both sides.
Love and power constitute an old paradox for Christian theology, love and violence seem to be an outright contradiction. Ever since their existential and political dilemma became more acute in the mid-20th century, Western constructive theologies have tended to privilege love over power as an attribute of God. De-emphasizing or outright dismissing comparisons of the divine-human relationship to that of lord-slave, father-child, husband-wife due to their patriarchal, racializing, and sexist implications (and applications!), they have increasingly emphasized strands of the Christian tradition that talk about love in terms of friendship or desire, strands that emphasize relationality, mutuality, and participation. There is a lot of merit in these critical reformulations, both for theology and for interhuman ethics. But is their account maybe as sanitized as the accounts they replaced were problematic, and at the end of the day similarly reductive of the messy complexities that mark divine and human realities?
NWS does not argue against progressive theologies of love or conservative theologies of power due to their obviously projected nature. If anything, she celebrates projection “as a strategy” (109). She does, however, “problematize the kinds of romanticized vulnerability” (23) that attend the one and the “over-protecting [of] God from humanity that also over-protects humanity from God” (78) that attend the other. But is it even possible to do justice to both the intimate love and the power gradient in the God-human relationship? What images might conceptualize a relationship in which love, care, and desire on the one hand, and domination, submission, power, and even violence on the other are not mutually exclusive?
“Dogs,” my esteemed colleague John Bowlin recently proposed in his Inaugural Lecture at Princeton Theological Seminary. “BDSM,” NWS responds in this moving and thought-provoking volume. Where Jesus declares his disciples to be friends instead of slaves, yet in the same breath demanding obedience to his commands (John 15:14-15), Bowlin invokes the image of dog training as one that affords faithful companionship and mutual care, yet still accounts for an enormous disbalance in terms of power, agency, and understanding. NWS, in turn, eroticizes the entanglement of desire and power as the distinctly sexual pleasure of vulnerability, self-negation, and surrender. Both images – dog training and BDSM sex – are arguably rather marginal to the biblical and theological canon, yet both of them bring to light important facets of the problem theologians encounter when conceptualizing the divine-human relationship.
Is the human desire for God like the desire of the dog for the approval of its master when it fetches a stick, gaining satisfaction from the obedience to the command? Is God’s desire for the human being like that of a master who trains an animal companion until it delights in obeying at a flick of the tongue or a gesture of the hand? Even as Bowlin highlights potentials for mutuality in a human-canine relationships, his proposal sits uneasy with me for a variety of reasons. The term “dog” is so heavily laden as a racialized slur that it hardly seems capable of effecting the aspired move from the semantic space of slavery to the semantic space of friendship. And then the image valorizes domestication in more than one sense, as could be discussed more in depth if Bowlin were the focus of this panel.
NWS chooses to remain in the human-human realm, and avoids some of the additional difficulties that attend Bowlin’s proposal for interspecies companionship. She invokes BDSM sex as a site where love, desire, and intimate vulnerability are coupled not only with intense power dynamics, but domination and submission, pain and violence. Where Marcella Althaus-Reid famously compared Jesus in his submission to the father to a “bottom” and his “leather daddy,” NWS provocatively asks if her own sexual desire to be pierced and overcome by one who is more powerful than her could not be the place where sexual desire and love of God coincide – and where her desire might mirror God’s desire for God’s own “erotic ruination” (Kent Brintnall), as expressed kenotically in the incarnation.
Mirroring divine transgressions
The incarnation and its violent culmination at the cross is, after all, the place where love and power become entangled beyond theological resolution. As NWS notes with reference to Luther and Moltmann, the cross complicates and implicates divine power with weakness, divine absoluteness with divine relationality, God’s ultimate presence with God’s death and absence, redemption with pain, and love with violence. It puts risk and pain at the center – not just of our humanity or of our experience of God, but of God’s experience of our humanity in ways that threaten to make God’s divinity unrecognizable.
NWS puts the scandalon back into the word of the cross (1 Cor 1:18). The pieces of performance art and sexual metaphors that she offers disrupt sanitized and romanticized accounts of vulnerability, divine or human. Self-identifying as a theology “not of the cross, but from the cross” (21), NWS performatively mirrors and invokes its disturbing divine transgression in the transgressive intellectual, artistic, and existential moves she makes in an attempt to “participate in” or even “bring about” this God.
Augustine reportedly described doubt as faith talking to God. Performance offers space for such existential paradoxes, too: Unadorned and raw, NWS narrates her own loss of faith and engages in all kinds of heterodox doubting and un-knowing, all the while firmly remaining in the religious mode of prayer. But even more than talking to God, the book presents a performative attempt to bring God back, an invocation or even incantation of the God whose absence NWS discovered one day, a cry of unfulfilled and insatiable yearning. In this way, it is also a kind of Pascalian wager: “kneeling” not as an act of making oneself belief, but of making true one’s refusal to let go of the God one believes in, or even of the God one finds oneself unable to believe in. In a word, it speaks of a desire for God that promises to ruin her.
NWS unabashedly frames her longing in terms of sexual desire – not of the sanitized pious kind, but of the ravenous and even self-destructive desire to be overwhelmed by God. The images she explores in her “cruciform performance” (21) to give an “affective structure” and meaning to her experience and non-experience of God are graphic and complicated, haunted by unsatisfied desire and raw thirst, by violation and brokenness, by loss and mourning, but also by beauty and care, and by glimpses of redemption and grace. As the book circulates through a variety of creative scenes and images to envision how the mutual desire and mutual vulnerability between God and the human being might be better described – than, say, patriarchal romantizations of divine vulnerability into a “zimzum” movement of “free creative self-limitation,” or in domesticated versions of relationality that leave the question of power unaddressed –, performance art and BDSM sexual practices become recurring lenses for the entanglement of power and desire, vulnerability and violence, care and creativity.
Speaking submission rightly?
NWS’ invocation of BDSM sex conceptualizes the human-divine relationship as a scene of mutual desire that not only accounts for, but even cherishes, the difference in power and agency within the scene, without relinquishing notions of consent and mutual care. Divine masochism conceptualizes the radical openness of God to intimate encounter with humanity that might not only risk suffering, but actively seeks God’s ruination in kenosis and incarnation. As a “bug chaser,” Jesus not just risks, but finds pleasure in his ontological contamination by humanity. At the same time, masochistic desire offers alternatives for conceptualizing the human partner as well, allowing e.g., Mary’s impregnation by the Spirit to be something other than the “rape by the God-cloud” which Althaus-Reid saw in it.
NWS notes that some readers might object to BDSM as a theological lens due to its scandalous and supposedly “unethical” nature. Of course, BDSM culture – with its high standards for communication and consent, its cultivation of honesty and trust, its measures for safety and accountability, and its prioritization of care and pleasure – actually has quite a rigorous ethic. Ironically, however, it occurs to me that it might not so much be its “transgressive” nature (which seems quite consonant with a theology from the cross), but actually its strong ethical standards that set BDSM apart from the theological relation NWS describes. We might ask whether the cross does not imply that the safety and accountability measures that ethically structure the BDSM encounter and ensure its pleasure for all participants, are glaringly absent in God’s kenotic movement. Of course, that would depend on your theology of the resurrection.
Beyond the question of safety and consent also lies the question of kenosis’s ontological movement. In BDSM, the principal equality of the partners is not only assumed, it constitutes a necessary precondition for negotiating the sexual encounter. It is only within the created sexual scene that a power differential is enacted and performed for mutual enjoyment. Limited to a highly controlled scene (although the extension of the scene can vary significantly), this power differential is thus temporary, subject to negotiation, and potentially even reversible.
Interestingly, in NWS’ theological scenes both partners seem to derive their personal satisfaction primarily from masochism. This disposition prompts role-switching that increasingly subverts and undermines the power dynamics to the point where the identities become blurred, reversed, or altogether undone. Not unsurprisingly, this blurring of the roles is also a recurrent feature of NWS’s discussion of performance art, where she repeatedly inquires (and not always conclusively identifies) the theologian “in this parable.”
NWS alludes to the communio idiomatum as the exchange of properties between the divine and human natures of Christ. The theological tradition has of course emphatically denounced the possibility of a symmetric exchange as much as it declared any “confusion or change” between natures impossible. Maybe this is part of the over-protection of God from our humanity that NWS challenges. In systematic-theological terms, her sexual invocations of mutual desire, consent, and pleasure can then be read as calling the theologian to first of all finally accept the genus tapeinoticum or kenoticum (which posits a symmetrical rather than one-way ontological communication) and then to extend what is said about the union of natures in Christ to the union between God and human being at large. Drawing the consequences out further, we might add the challenge to theology to develop a reciprocal theology of consent and care, a BDSM version of theological notions of covenant, maybe. Of course, all of these connections are drawing NWS’s evocative performance back into the terms of systematic theology, while NWS does not aspire to even an “unsystematic” systematic theology.
Between God and the human being, however, there seems to be an initial and principal inequality in all senses imaginable. In turn, it is only within the created scene of their encounter that God and the human being performatively enact a role play of equality, mutuality, and participation. It might be worth to investigate more systematically (you know, that’s just my training…) how transgression and risk in God’s kenosis might be similar to those in BDSM, but also the ways in which their structure differs. If the play indeed unfolds in the opposite direction – “equality on the basis of inequality” rather than “inequality on the basis of equality,” or maybe: “enacted mutuality and partnership based on inequality,” rather than “enacted power differential based on mutuality and partnership” – then Bowlin’s canine imagery may end up modeling this aspect of the divine-human relationship more closely than BDSM (while, of course, both images might also not be mutually exclusive, indeed, their convergences could be exploited further).
Everything is about sex, but sex is about epistemology
Queer theology is about sex, and it should be. But why? For some, because sex is inextricable from our complex and beautiful humanity. For others, because “everything is about sex, but sex is about power.”
Is the desire for God like the longing for a lover? Christianity has a long tradition of invoking bridal and sexual imagery, from the song of songs to the mystics. NWS builds on this tradition and takes this imagery further – evocatively and provocatively, transgressively and thought-provokingly. NWS also seems to take it quite literally. In doing so, NWS aligns with the erotic tradition in mysticism and celebrates desire (in all its complex entanglement with power) as a mode of knowing – and unknowing – God, while drawing less on the critical tradition in mysticism, apophaticism, and queer theology.
Maybe NWS’s Mary ends up looking a bit too much like NWS herself. Maybe I am not as convinced as her that “my desire for God and my sexual desire” actually can or ought to “co-constitute each other in union with God” (160).
With Marcella Althaus-Reid, who after all is one of NWS’s formative influences, we might insist that “there is more to queer theology than sex…” (Althaus-Reid, Outing Theology, 67) and claim that while everything is about sex, sex is about epistemology. As other images – of God the father, God the Lord, God the husband, God the mother, God the slaveholder, God the friend, God the lover, God the dog trainer, and so on – so also the God seeking “erotic ruination” may serve to draw out particular aspects of our understanding of God.
The more transgressive images have the epistemological advantage to help bring aspects of God into view that have been sanitized or excluded in dominant accounts – indecency “helps us see,” as NWS aptly maintains (80). NWS is particularly attentive to the ways in which restricting images of God has not only served to exclude certain expressions from humanity, but also restricting images of humanity has barred us from perceiving certain aspects of God. Expanding the range of images into “indecent” ones returns us to what Luther famously called the ‘backside’ of God revealed to us in the cross. As NWS herself reminds us, Luther’s theology of the cross was less about atonement and more about epistemology. Similarly, I would have loved for her to steer beyond the aim of inclusion (whether of God’s or the human being’s difference) to that of deconstruction.
After all, no image is transcontextually, intrinsically “transgressive.” Every image has normative potentials that we might want to hold loosely, especially when applied to God, lest we run the risk of what Linn Tonstad has called “corrective projectionism.” Taken literally, sex – even “good” sex and even the most “transgressive” sex – is just another image, and there are limits to sex when it comes to the knowledge of God. Over-identifying God with the object of our sexual desire is no less problematic than over-identifying God with our will to power.
Of course, NWS knows that, and her book is evidence that she does. It celebrates desire. It provocatively uses complex sexual images to rethink divine desire and desire for God, divine vulnerability and our vulnerability to God. It appreciates the capacity of sex to hold complexity and contradictions, to transgress norms and boundaries, and to allow us to think relationships that are at the same time caring, risky, vulnerable, painful, and pleasurable. But it also uses a whole range of other images – like the one of “God with dementia” (which makes me want to write a whole second response to her book!) and, of course, the image of the theologian’s co-creative performance with God the artist. NWS emphasizes that none of these images are meant as new representations of God, but rather modes of unknowing that might help us to rupture the dominant images limiting our experience of God. And, maybe most importantly, she performatively plays with them.
With its raw and personal voice, the riveting performance pieces it discusses, and the transgressive sexual images it invokes, NWS’s book truly performs anew the scandal of desire and vulnerability, suffering and redemption that Christians profess the cross to be. This is not the easy transgression for the sake of transgression, but the hard transgression out of the need to do justice to the contradictions and complexities of God and human beings. At the same time, they encourage a divine play – a notion that could once more be taken either from the imaginary of performance art or BDSM scenes – with images and roles, with power and its relinquishment, with interpretation and unknowing, with control and creative openness. This play invites the theologian to write herself into the parable – whether she may or may not be the original artist, whether the artist remains present and kenotically, masochistically passive (like Abramovich), or absenting in their omnitemporality (like the God with dementia), and to wrestle with what faithful living in the shadow of the cross, in the ruins of God might look like. The book resonates with me on more levels than fit into a book review, and will continue haunting and inspiring my imagination in the future!
Absence and Presence of a Performance Theologian
Transgressive Devotion is beautifully compact and elusive. The book arranges many voices within a mirror-pattern. The pattern produces layers of repetition: crisscrossing theological narratives, a cycle of performance pieces, excerpts from classroom transcripts. One prominent repetition plays variations on a single question: Could we replace the artist with a theologian in the retold performances that punctuate the book? Let me add more variations to that question on the way to posing a few others.
Until the book’s last page, Wigg-Stevenson answers the refrain-question with a corrective “No.” “The theologian is not the artist in this parable” (50, 84, 110, 135, 168, 193). If the book circles around Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present, the Theologian remains an absent artist, if an artist at all. Only at the very end does the reader hear, “The theologian is an artist in this parable” (203, emphasis added). The concluding parable is the story about a performance with which the book began.
What has changed? The book’s earlier efforts to substitute a theologian for the artist in famous performance pieces slip or slide. The theologian keeps popping up in other roles. She becomes the audience or the (inept?) assistant, a possible viewer who may regret missing an offensive performance, an off-screen composer of sub-titles, a late-comer who inspects the set’s machinery, someone who carries her blushing reaction home, or someone faced with an unavoidable choice about how to respond to displayed vulnerability.
These are illuminating mis-steps in trying to fix the analogy between a theological writer and a performance artist. Until the end, when a theologian joins a reimagined scene from the closing day of The Artist is Present at MoMA. That Monday morning, Abramović’s performance suffered (included?) an unscripted disruption. The artist took her usual chair in the middle of the museum gallery, ringed by an audience around the walls, some seated and some standing. A very patient volunteer was permitted to approach (thus becoming a temporary performer, an alternate artist—roles blur). The younger woman was supposed to sit on a second chair, then face Abramović for as long as she chose. Instead, she removed her dress to stand naked. Gallery guards rushed forward to re-clothe her and expel her from the museum. (As the volunteer, Josephine Decker, later pointed out: So much for improvisation.) But Wigg-Stevenson imagines that moment branching into an alternate performance: Suppose that Abramović responds to the disrobing by embracing her new partner. “And the people keep watch. The theologian is an artist in this parable” (203, emphasis in original).
An artist. Which one? A reader might find the performing theologian in the young interloper. Abramović could then play God the Father, waiting in exhausted vulnerability for human care. After all, her flowing, regal robes (sometimes white, sometimes red) resemble depictions of the Ancient of Days. The older-woman-as-Father would embrace the theologian both in welcome and for physical support: “Hold me up.” Or are those robes an academic theologian’s regalia, traditionally trimmed in red and often quite opulent? (Theology once declared itself queen of the sciences, after all.) Then a reader could recognize in the younger woman an eager recipient of theology’s teaching. The embrace would be a transmission: “Receive the tradition.” However we read the embrace, Wigg-Stevenson adds, “And the people keep watch.” Should they clap, sing, or shout with approbation? Should they maintain their vigil for a short while before rushing forward to join the lace of bodies?
The theologian is mostly not present through this book, I said. But Wigg-Stevenson is, of course, on every page. She chooses, arranges, and explicates the wide range of discourses. She also presents herself. Right at the start, she informs readers that she is an “ordained minister, academic theologian, and everyday Christian” (2). That perfunctory string of labels is qualified—or rescued—by more nuanced disclosures. The author is an adult woman of “mixed” or multiplied race and complex citizenship. She is a female preacher in a tradition still discomfited by them. She is an appointed teacher in the church—or, at least, its basement. On some pages, she is visibly a current member of an academic guild. The author means to change its rules for expert discourse—but she is anxious not to be counted out before she has finished talking.
Some of the book’s pages are configured in a recognizably academic pattern. Two discourses unroll simultaneously, distinguished typographically and separated by an invisible line of status. Following academic custom, the invisible line is horizontal. The discourse below the horizon, at the bottom of the page, is called “footnotes.” Humanistic lore recognizes many species of footnotes, from the strictly citational through the effusive or scathing to the endlessly discursive. The footnotes in Wigg-Stevenson seem to me precautionary—like ancient gestures meant to ward off the evil eye. She inserts them to pacify any edgy guild-guards. She hopes to keep the enforcers from interrupting the text’s embraces—of God, of its readers. Of course, the risk is that the footnotes can begin to seem the more authoritative of the two discourses on a page—the fuller story told over the heads of non-academic readers.
The triumph of scholarly apparatus is the opposite of what I take Wigg-Stevenson to want. Footnotes pay a price of admission or toll for publication. Perhaps readers should also regard the most sprawling footnotes as satires. (Or they might be used as diagnostic tests: academic readers who feel themselves irresistibly drawn by them should take special care.) What is more important, the footnotes function as specimens for Transgressive Devotion’s larger efforts to dispel the illusion that relations between writing and doing are straightforward. Whenever the book approaches a theological genre, it encourages the reader to ask sharp questions: How can truths appear in this kind of text? Which truths is this genre most likely to leave out? What truths must any text miss?
The questions become sharper when we turn to writing about performed art—which is one reason that the book features it. Texts enter into many relations with the event(s) of a performance. For example, a text can be the plan or script for what is going to happen. We stretch the notion of script in one direction to include the artist’s private scribbles or drafts, in another to cover published set of instructions (like the list of 72 objects and the waiver for Abramović’s Rhythm 0). Scripts are often succeeded by records, which can be “literal” (a basic news article), critical (a review or denunciation), or parabolic (Wigg-Stevenson’s retelling of the performances she features). But the realm of performance-texts expands well beyond these categories: there are scripts or “cutting continuities” for documentaries about famous performances, narrative histories of performance art, theories of theatrical embodiment with examples, political or psychoanalytic reflections on the performer’s motives or the audience’s attractions… As the texts multiply, they trouble the notion of performance as a single event. A performance piece can obviously be a series—or a series conceived as a distributed event. (Abramović’s daily sittings are combined to claim the record for longest performance.) The duration of any single action or time-unit within the event can be indefinitely divided by technology or imagination. By words, too: imagine an imitation of Joyce’s Ulysses featuring protagonists in mid-town Manhattan on May 31st of 2010, the last day of Abramović’s performance. The interwoven plots might end with a reconstruction of the artist’s interior monologue during the guards’ removal of the naked participant. All ambient events would be gathered into the artist’s sitting.
I offer this novelistic fantasy to articulate a lurking question: Isn’t every book of theology the record of a bodily performance—typically, a series of sittings much longer than the one Abramović undertook? Wigg-Stevenson opens by juxtaposing the artist sitting in the museum with her own sitting at her computer. A small “window” on the screen livestreams the passing minutes from the museum. Readers are implicitly invited to imagine a reversed performance piece: The Theologian is Writing. Certainly the text that they read records a sustained performance. But it is also a script for the readers’ own performances—in reading, thinking, imagining, feeling, and moving or doing. Books of theology provide instructions for future performances. Writing theology is a way to connect performances—more vividly and perhaps more consequentially than by livestreaming. Deliberately, I talk about theology books without specification. Is a performance theologian’s book distinguished by self-consciousness of its performative aspects? By a livelier sense of how it hopes to move readers?
And what about that Book underneath most Christian theology? On some traditional readings, Christian scriptures record a long pedagogical performance for which God is the artist. The “letter” of scripture tells of deeds that God inspired so that they could be remembered in community story, in study, or in prayer. The deeds are arranged in scriptural texts to change lives. These particular scriptures culminate—again, on traditional readings—in the fourfold telling of the deeds of Jesus of Nazareth, a figure who teaches at least as much by doing as by saying. Wigg-Stevenson remarks at one point, “An ecclesiology essentially writes a hybrid church into being” (122). Scriptures are texts that help write hybrid lives into being.
Just here, at the end, I shift more explicitly from the performances of Transgressive Devotion to my own writing, not least of this text. In the Christian traditions that have shaped me, there is another body intimately associated with God: the sacramental body bequeathed by Jesus of Nazareth when he last shared a table with his students. (Sometimes there was a table on the set for The Artist is Present, sometimes not.) On some traditional accounts of the Eucharist, Christ’s body and blood can never appear as they really are. They remain irremediably hidden under the appearances of bread and wine. Even so, they are said to be really present. Set aside tedious technical debates about “real presence.” My concluding question is simpler. How might the being present of a eucharistic body augment—or upset—the pattern of Wigg-Stevenson’s compact, elusive book? Does a “real presence” that is physically indistinguishable from mere absence resemble a loss of faith that is actually “a negation of my knowledge of God” (7)? – Imagine that Abramović rises, strips off her own dress, and puts it over the younger woman, as concealment, but also gift of bodily union. – Or is the yoking together of “real presence”/sensible absence another way of saying that the performance theologian must “get at all these things obliquely” (21)? – Imagine that Abramović had put up a sign outside the room prohibiting any record or recording of what happened inside: no livestreaming, no photographs, no audio recordings, no press reports, no anecdotes, no whispers, no silent charades.
I can’t picture Abramović doing that. But a performance theologian must risk more than a performance artist.
2.13.23 | Natalie Wigg-Stevenson
Response to Mark Jordan
I have both read and heard Mark Jordan say that if theologians dare attempt describe God, they must first learn how to describe an egg. His suggestion that theology doctoral programs require a course in creative writing is a foundational inspiration for my ongoing attempts to hone my theological voice as a literary one. Jordan’s response moves through Transgressive Devotion, connecting words to image to story to generate interpretations much wilder than scholarly convention typically allows. In other words, he reads the book as literature, as I had secretly hoped he would.
Or, at least, I think that’s what he once said about theological writing. It’s possible that I’ve made up the egg part or imported it from elsewhere. Because, as I’ve taken up Mark’s call into my theological writing over the past decade, my process of (re)writing his words through mine has likely transformed them. My body at my desk has usurped his to my own use.
But I digress. Or perhaps not. In his response Jordan weaves my words back into his, retelling my stories (many of which are already retellings of other people’s stories) with his own playful slippage. He animates the life around the text, keeps it alive by changing it. I hide myself in so many characters throughout the book. In Mark’s reading, I realize how often I was hiding from myself.
This is nowhere more evident than what he does with the interaction between Abramoviç and Josephine—which he makes take place on a Monday morning. I didn’t know that’s when it happened. So, did Jordan mis-read me or does he know something I don’t? He also rightly suspects that I see myself in Josephine’s unrobing. But whereas I thought I wrote her as bold and even naughty, he sees her as a patient and more than a little nervous. It’s true, I always write myself much cooler and more confident than I am.
These small slips pave the way for what Mark does with the image of Abramovic as the Father. In the book’s final pages, despite all the vulnerability I had tried to write into God’s mindbody, I hadn’t taken this Ancient of Days to the brink where Jordan takes her. It’s there on the page now, I can see it. But she wasn’t that way in my mind as I wrote. My Abramovic Father God remains regal in her (ambiguous) robes, too regal to know she’s falling. But Mark transforms her hug into a request for support: “hold me up,” she whispers. So did I have to tell myself God didn’t know he was broken so that I could break him to be able to write what I did? And what changes if he was in on the whole thing all along?
Once again, the revelation reveals to me myself: I might want to change theology’s “rules for expert discourse – but [I’m] anxious about being counted out or silenced before [I] have finished talking.” Mark’s right: I wrote satire and provocations into those footnotes, yes. But then all too often I know I wrote them as a “price of admission,” a “toll for publication,” a trepidatious request to be taken seriously (I had my friend Travis Ables read them all to make sure I wasn’t accidentally saying something stupid). They are, as Jordan puts it “ancient gestures meant to ward off the evil eye.” I claim lineages that don’t necessarily claim me. Perhaps this whole Syndicate roundtable is just my further attempt to convince myself I belong.
In other words, I might complain incessantly about my academic regalia every time I have to wear it. But I always zip it up carefully in its cover before placing it back in the closet. Perhaps I want the opulence more than I want to admit.
Finally and, perhaps, most importantly, Mark raises questions about how the performance of Transgressive Devotion connects with God’s own “long pedagogical performance” through the Christian scriptures and with the “‘real presence’ [of Christ] that is physically indistinguishable from mere absence” in the Eucharist. What if Abramoviç places her cloak over Josephine as an act of both concealment and bodily union?
My original plan for the book included sections on the performative and pedagogical nature of both Scripture and Sacrament (as Awes-Freeman calls for her in her response). But, alas, I couldn’t make those sections work. I think because I could never get their oblique balance right. Both are so hidden in my own fleshy faith that each draft of them was either too direct or too confusing. So let me try at the oblique once again.
I am playing a game of hide and seek with two of my daughters. I open my eyes to see their toes poking out from underneath the living room curtains, which shake slightly from the impact of hushed giggles. I can see the curve of each child’s shoulders indent the curtain’s fabric as they face each other to whisper. “Shush!” giggles the older of the two. Her finger to her lips shakes the curtain more. Flesh to my flesh, bodies with which mine had once been united, their bond is now to each other as they hide from this parent who looks on, knowing. “Ready or not,” I freeze the moment in my mind, “here I come!”
I included a much less detailed version of this story in Transgressive Devotion, one image on a list of images trying to capture something true about God. Here, though, Mark helps me see the image once more through my own formation in God’s scriptural pedagogy and in Christ’s sensible absence. He helps me see how it takes both of these daughters and me — all three of us together — to make this image for the Divine work. Not for some Trinitarian reason (though I like the poetic resonance). But because their Divine performance requires a witness, and that witness can only see when she’s caught up into the Divine life, when I give myself over to their game. Ready or not, here I come.
The lens Jordan’s question brings to this performance theology – which, he reminds us, begins in a kind of doubt that, through grace, is transformed to unknowing – is that on this side of the fall union always requires concealment. This is why Exodus 33:20 is such a refrain in the book. We can never look at God directly. Only obliquely. And we can only ever write God the same way.