Updated: May 22, 2022
When I first read a review on Transgressive Devotion: Theology as Performance Art I thought I need to interview the author of the book. Dr. Natalie Wigg-Stevenson was so kind to accept my offer on Twitter. A very humble person with a mind I would like to explore. Natalie is an Associate Professor of Contextual Education and Theology at Emmanuel College. Her current research delves into how ethnographic methods, liturgical, feminist, and queer theologies, cultural theories of practice, aesthetics, pop culture, and decolonizing pedagogies. Wanna know more? Read!
Hi Natalie! I’m very glad to have you here. After stalking you on Google I figured out that you’re a theology professor at the University of Toronto. Can you tell us why theology?
That’s a great question! I’m sure your readership might not expect theologians to write transgressively. But I am, myself, a Christian, and as I graduated from my undergrad I realized I wanted to learn much, much more about what was possible for my faith. I quickly moved into scholarly disciplines of feminist and queer theology, as well as ethnographic approaches that sought to centre the experiences of everyday people in theological reasoning. Along the way, I became inspired by an Argentinian theologian, Marcella Althaus-Reid, and the theological genre she created and called Indecent Theology. Her goal was to dismantle the heteronormative underpinnings of what Christians typically believe, deploying narratives of non-normative sexual practice to do so. In her writing, God is queer, voyeuristic and masochistic—as well as many other things, besides. The Trinity – a Christian doctrine that God is three-in-one – is an orgy. Althaus-Reid argued for writing about God beginning from the sweaty scent of lemon vendors on the streets of Argentina who don’t wear underwear. She blew my mind!
This kind of transgression wasn’t entirely new in the discipline. The Bible has some intensely erotic stories in it. Medieval mystics used erotic language to talk about their experiences of the Sacred. But Althaus-Reid opened up transgression as a site for Divine revelation in some new ways for sexual and decolonial liberation. And that’s where my own work takes off.
That's fascinating. I believe that's true in all holy books. As you guessed I found you through your book, ‘Transgressive Devotion’. Can you tell us a bit about it? How does it relate to the subject matter you’re teaching?
Transgressive Devotion weaves together historic Christian theologies (what the dead white guys said) with ethnographic fieldwork I did in a conservative Christian church with performance artworks (e.g., Chris Burden’s Shoot, Vito Acconci’s Seedbed, ORLAN’s The Reincarnation of St. Orlan) with some more radical, cutting edge contemporary theologies to do edge play with Christian doctrines. In the book, I wanted to work at the place where Christians feel God rather than think God, and explore what would happen if we let ourselves feel the things we’re not supposed to feel. So, for example, I explore the experience of losing faith by diagnosing God the Father with Dementia and salvation as a form of erotic overflow. I’m not trying to write something true about God in the book (which is what most theology tries to do). Rather, I was trying to write potent lies to see where God might appear in and through them. My goal was to use words to lure God into our midst.
The Bible has some intensely erotic stories in it. Medieval mystics used erotic language to talk about their experiences of the Sacred.
I teach in a seminary and direct an MDiv program that equips ministers to lead churches. A lot of what’s in Transgressive Devotion doesn’t translate directly to that work. That being said, I see my vocation as a writer and teacher to be to help people expand their theological imaginations. This can only happen – in my view – when we bring all the messy parts of our lives into conversation with our sacred traditions. I want to keep it all on the table! If early feminists argued that the personal is political, I want to argue that the personal is theological.
That's an argument I won't argue against. The whole concept of this book is transgressive and it’s not just a title. Why transgressive?
Christians have always understood God as being – to varying degrees – transcendent. This means that if we’re to encounter the Divine, we need to transcend our selves as we reach towards Her. In other words, for Divine/human encounter to occur, both God and the human need to transcend – transgress – what we are. That’s the beauty of Christianity, I believe, that gets lost in the terrible culture wars that define so much of the way that we relate to the public sphere: not only do we transgress what we are to encounter God, but God actually chooses to transgress what God is to encounter us. I mean, that’s bananas! God becomes human and we become divine in that transaction…which I prefer to think of as a transgression, because transaction is just too economic and thereby capitalist a metaphor.
The problem, though, is that we too often long to protect ourselves from the immensity of transcendence. Transcendence is actually terrifying when you think about it. It’s the ultimate loss of control. So Christians tend to stop short of the edge we’re not supposed to transcend (we call this orthodoxy). But I worry that we stop much, much to short of it. And in so doing, our fear of transgression undermines our capacities for transcendence.
Feel God rather than think God
How did you connect BDSM to divine-human power?
Yeah, so this is where the edge play comes in. There’s a story in the Christian traditions that Jesus Christ was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Virgin Mary. Conservative Christians would maintain Mary’s virginity to various degrees. Liberal Christians typically just dismiss this as myth. Neither, however, take seriously the erotic dimension of the story. Lately, a few theologians have explored the narrative as Mary’s #mettoo moment. And while I find that a fascinating and important question to engage, I worried that it undermined Mary’s agency – sexual and otherwise – in the story. So, I wanted to find a third way.
Christians believe (to varying degrees and in various ways) that Jesus Christ is the saviour of the world. So, in the book I ask, was it as good for Mary as it was for the world? I wanted to explore the possibility that her divine encounter – the conception of Jesus – was pleasurable for her. Did she come? And if she didn’t, is there another form of pleasure she enjoyed? And how do we even begin to think about pleasure when the power differential is so high? These are questions we’re exploring right now as a society coming to reckoning around cultures of sexual abuse. We need to grapple with them in our sacred stories too.
BDSM gave me a framework for exploring that power differential because BDSM eroticizes power rather than pretending it doesn’t exist. BDSM is shaped by significantly structured, ethical practices of complex consent. And that consent creates capacities for transgressions that create transcendence. The philosopher Karman MacKendrick has some brilliant work on how the prayer practices of Medieval ascetics/mystics resonates with contemporary BDSM practices. She argues that both pushed their practitioners up against the limits of their selves – not to negate the self but rather to intensify it. Given that Mary is the prototype for prayer in the Christian traditions, I wanted to explore how these sexual practices might open up a new understanding of how desire for God and sexual desire might entangle in our lives.
I wanted to explore the possibility that her divine encounter – the conception of Jesus – was pleasurable for her.
It inspires me how you look at all this. What is your definition of ‘transgressive spirit’ as you’ve mentioned it before?
I’ve actually been surprised though to see how many readers get hung up on the chapter with Mary’s orgasm (as it’s come to be called), because the one about the Holy Spirit seems to be much more radical (offensive?) to me.
The Holy Spirit is one of the three in Christianity’s triune God: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Christians believe that Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. So, I wanted to play with this idea of the Spirit as seed. (Interestingly, the image of Divine seed is not new, with an ancient doctrine calls the logos spermatikos. But I won’t get into that). To push the transgression further, though, I wanted to explore how dangerous it might be to take God’s seed into ourselves. And I used the cultural practice of ‘bugchasing’ to do so.
Bugchasers are a queer subcultural group who eroticize HIV and seek to catch it. It’s a sexual practice that is roundly condemned and which has devoted adherents. I drew on work by Tim Dean (an anthropologist of the culture) and Kent Brintnall (a philosopher of religion and theologian) to grapple with the theological questions we miss when we reduce fringe practices like these to an ethics of either/or, rather than exploring what visions of ‘the human’ are buried in or produced by them. I neither condone nor condemn the practice in the book because I want to hold the reader in that uncomfortable space of looking directly at what we don’t want to see—that there are ways to be human that undo rather than shore up the self, and that Christians are called to certain versions of these. I wanted readers to ask what it is about the bugchasers that terrifies them, and then to ask themselves what that could teach them about the ways they deny Divine power in their lives.
That's a whole new concept for me. The world today is becoming more and more complex. A mold of people who has no thought process when it comes to following random trends. What inspired you to write it? What inspires you in general in writing?
I think here we go back to my vocation, my call as a writer and teacher and, even, minister, to help people expand their theological imaginations. I write drawing on all the scholars, teachers, theologians, artists, friends, people in my care, lovers, etc., who have transformed my own theological imagination. And I do so to try to create something similar for others. I have no interest in converting anyone! But I do want Christians who read my work to see that the God we worship is so, so much more than the one who makes the headlines. That faith, spirituality – however we want to frame it – is a risky and wild journey that sometimes requires telling a little lie to find the truth. I want to tell great stories about what it is to be a human. That’s what inspires me.
at some point I just gave up
Do you think writing is connected to human emotions and experiences?
Yes! All that is to say yes! Both writing and reading are exercises in thinking and feeling. As a scholar, I believe my community spends much too much time on the former to the sacrifice of the latter. All ideas carry and produce emotional heft. All feelings shape and are shaped by the knowledge we carry in our hearts, minds and bodies. Writing is, for me, a way to process that, a way to bring it to words, and a way create experiences through which the reader can do the same. I want to churn readers’ guts as they read. I want them to close the book transformed – even if they don’t yet know how.
Why do you find the process of finding ideas scary?
Because people so often read them contrary to how you intended them to be read. I’m a control freak, haha. I can read my stuff later and feel like I got it so wrong or said it so poorly or didn’t do an interlocuter justice, or something else from the myriad of writer sins I’ve inevitably committed. There’s a terror to putting things down on the page AND to giving that page to others to read. It requires a letting go that I’m not all that great at. But the terror is what makes the whole thing worthwhile. Which, you know, is nevertheless kind of rough!
Understandable. How do you compare academic writing with nonacademic works? Which do you prefer?
This is a tricky one. I read much more non-academic writing than academic writing. And I’ve always struggled to write truly academic prose. So, at some point I just gave up. Perhaps that’s just because I’m not great at it. But my hope is that it’s because I don’t think standard academic prose is adequate to the task of shaping the kinds of ideas we want to communicate in the Humanities (and particularly in theology). Nonacademic writing has more freedom to be creative. And in the past few years that freedom has drawn my desire more and more.
Finally. Are you currently working on any fiction/nonfiction? If yes, tell us about it.
Yes, so in light of my desire to expand the creative possibilities of sacred writing, I’ve been taking a bunch of creative nonfiction writing classes and working on my ‘voice’ as a nonacademic writer. I’ve entered a few writing competitions and am working on some nonacademic publications. But the big project right now is a memoire weaving together stories from walking the Camino de Santiago and the pregnancy/labour narratives of my three kids. It’s tough to find time to work on it, unfortunately, amidst all the rest of life. But I’m hoping to have it done in the next year or so! In the meantime, you can find some of my other work in a forthcoming volume from The BC Writers’ Federation and the magazine Geez.
Thank you so much Natalie to join us today. This was an inspiring and thought-provoking discussion. Look forward to reading your memoir.
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