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.