In Natalie Wigg-Stevenson’s Transgressive Devotion: Theology as Performance Art, the author attempts to pray in public, but to do so in a way that will shock its readers into seeing and constituting reality differently. She writes as a performance theologian, both with the hope that her words might change their readers, and also that she might find her way back to God after she lost her way in academia and Christian ministry (196). Transgressive Devotion is at one and the same time influenced by queer, feminist, and other progressive forms of theology, and by evangelical, charismatic Christianity, with its visions, tongues, and supernatural events (198). In particular, this book is driven by a desire to re-center the cross in progressive forms of theology (13). Instead of seeing the cross as a tragic event, Wigg-Stevenson sees the cross as having its proper effect when it judges each individual (18), and when it hurts to remember (46). She admonishes Christians to submit at the foot of the cross and wait (14), while also problematizing romanticized vulnerability (23). In these pages, by her own admission, Wigg-Stevenson does not present a cohesive argument, by any means. Rather, she’s writing “the affect” (46) of her own experience of losing faith in God and trying to regain it. In this way, the author transgresses academic conventions and experiments with theological genre.
Chapter one is framed by a description of a piece of performance art from 1971. In light of the Vietnam war, two men want to show the audience what a shooting is like up close. One man intends to graze the other man’s arm, but the shot goes straight through his arm. The willing victim then runs toward the camera, apparently in shock. This piece of art is meant to evoke new ideas about God the Father, who Wigg-Stevenson imagines in the chapter in multiple ways: as an Alzheimer’s patient who forgets who we are, as the crucified Jesus, and as a wheelchair user. These images resonate with the author, who feels as though God no longer recognizes her as his child (31), and as though God is vulnerable, broken, and frail (34). Throughout, she draws on Martin Luther’s theology of the cross and Jürgen Moltmann’s understanding of the crucified God in order to question divine omnipotence, impassibility, and omniscience.
Chapter two begins with Seedbed, a performance wherein a man masturbates under a raised floor and whispers his fantasies, which are heard through a speaker in the otherwise empty room. Wigg-Stevenson uses a number of resources in this chapter: Seedbed, her experience teaching Beatrice (13th c. Flemish Cistercian nun) to her Southern Baptist church, Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is, Marcella Althaus-Reid’s indecent theology, and the practice of bug-chasing (gay men who want to be infected by HIV). She uses these resources to think about the relationship between eros and spirituality (54). Again, no coherent argument is offered. Instead, images are floated before the reader: a holy orgasm (56), the Father as the sperm donor in the conception of Jesus (63), the Spirit as Mary’s midwife and baby (64), Mary as a visitor to Seedbed who says “yes” to the masturbating man (68), the church as penetrated by the Spirit (68), the Spirit as the dominator who wants us on our knees and subordinates us (71), the Spirit as HIV itself (78), Christ as the masturbating man who is beneath the Ground of all Being and Spirit as his ejaculate (83). These images revolve around the theme of sex and violence. Wigg-Stevenson writes that “Progressives often want the sex without the violence. Conservatives can want the violence without the sex. And then there are some of us who just want it all” (83).
Chapter three begins with a description of a video of a woman getting plastic surgery and doing her own voiceover. The audience sees her getting collagen injections into her lips. She is having a series of surgeries to try to achieve Mona Lisa’s forehead, Venus’s chin (by Botticelli), and Europa’s lips (by Boucher). The effect is disfigurement, and the surgeries hurt. Wigg-Stevenson uses this performance art to talk about the ways that Christ disrupts history by moving back and forth through time (96), and the way that Christians hold together the real and the ideal when they talk about Jesus (108). By encountering Christ in the mode of self-projection, which Wigg-Stevenson thinks is unavoidable, she maintains we hold together the real and ideal, and both are disfigured (97). For her, this practice of Christological self-projection is the way Christians try to find God, just as God finds humanity by projecting Godself into humanity in the incarnation (109). Such mutual self-projection, we are told, will either destroy or save both God and us (109).
The fourth chapter is taken up with reflections on the church. It begins by describing a piece of art in which a piano hangs upside down in a gallery, and every so often erupts into disarray, so that onlookers believe it and/or all its pieces will fall on them. Then all the pieces retract into their places again before it erupts again. People wait for the next rupture, watching other people’s reactions. Wigg-Stevenson relates this artwork and people’s responses to it to the church, in which we are waiting for something yet unknown (125). This chapter is the doctrinal and methodological fulcrum of the book, by the author’s own estimates (124), and I think it’s the most lucid of the chapters. Here she engages in autoethnography partly in order to show that ecclesiology is not second order reflection on a first order event (122). Rather, for Wigg-Stevenson, “writing the Church” involves the writer in a deep way, and actually constitutes the church at the same time as it describes the church (123). She attests in this chapter to the church’s not-yet-redeemed brokenness (133), in part because she believes that Christ’s broken body is where God’s glory hides (135).
As with all of the chapters, chapter five opens with a description of a piece of performance art. An artist has made a giant sand sculpture of herself, and then filmed herself in various relations to it. The artist sits with the audience who is watching the film, and she describes the sand sculpture erotically while miming a masturbation rite, using a mini-excavator. Then the film shows the artist in an actual excavator, destroying the sand sculpture. It finishes with the artist naked at the shores of the water, and then walking in. In this chapter on salvation, Wigg-Stevenson explores the cross, sacrifice, suffering, and sex, desire, and orgasm. She claims that although liberal feminists have denied the importance of the cross (142), we should instead allow it to “rupture and reorganize” the kinds of self-sacrifice God wants from us (145). The author imagines God as a masochist, teaching us what power-in-vulnerability can be (154) within a relationship of consent (151), where God’s dominion of us requires that we have a safe word and that God will listen when we utter it (158). Wigg-Stevenson imagines the incarnation, the cross, and orgasm as forms of self-negation and violence (155, 163). As such, she believes that kenosis (self-emptying) animates theosis (union with God) (164). More specifically, ecstatic (knowing beyond words) kenosis and erotic theosis are the ground of reconciliation, because they “restructure our memories” so that glimpses of God’s kingdom come into view as déjà vu (164, 166).
The final chapter is a reflection on humanity. It opens with an artist who allows people to do whatever they want to do to her for 6 hours, and she provides props that could bring her pleasure and/or pain. She remains passive throughout as they hurt her, care for her, and attempt to make her commit suicide (until gallery workers intervene). In this chapter, Wigg-Stevenson attempts to show how she seeks to live in light of her understanding of God (175). She imagines that our task is to care for God (173). By “attuning” ourselves to God, we both empathize with him, and also differentiate from him enough that we can see what he might need. Using “attunement” as a key concept to understand divine/human agency, Wigg-Stevenson claims that such agency is non-competitive because self-negation leads to self-differentiation (179). Returning to the idea of God as a dementia patient, she says that we grieve for the attributes of God that are no longer able to manifest in the world as we’ve organized it, and by doing so, we invite new divine attributes to come forth (180). Wigg-Stevenson also suggests that Christians should not make other Christians’ authenticity their target when they disagree, but should instead imagine that God isn’t speaking consistently to everyone (182). Worship, liturgy, and prayer, are therefore imagined as practices that can reorient God more responsibly to creation (184). In prayer, we remind God of reality, and we stimulate an emotional bond between God and ourselves (185).
Wigg-Stevenson closes the chapter with a plea for humanity to listen to others in humility and let it be a productive challenge (188). She also reminds her readers that the book has engaged in theological fantasy rather than representing God. But – she adds – the line between fantasy and reality is blurred (175).
Reading Transgressive Devotion is like reading someone’s theological dream-journal. There are slivers of clarity, glimpses of the profound, but the text moves at a quick pace and with such fragmentation that the effect of reading it is – at least for me – disorientation. In addition to the disorienting experimentation with genre that happens in these pages, Wigg-Stevenson also challenges progressive theologians in a number of ways. She wants to re-center the cross, while many progressive theologians wish to re-center the incarnation and/or resurrection. She wants to transgress theological boundaries, while many want to expand those boundaries. She focuses on violence, death, and suffering, while many progressive theologians focus on healing, life, and joy. She plays with affect in this text, while others aim for conceptual clarity. She uses masculine pronouns and images for God throughout the book, where most progressive theologians do not (for her reasoning, see p. 186, fn.13). On all of these issues, I would have appreciated further elaboration and clear argumentation. But that is not what Wigg-Stevenson is up to in this book. Whatever one makes of the disturbing moves made here, most who read it will be impressed by Wigg-Stevenson’s self-disclosure and creativity. She offers her theological imagination here in ways that will doubtless affect its readers.
I recommend Transgressive Devotion to theologically-trained readers who are already familiar with queer theology (esp. Marcella Althaus-Reid) and feminist theology (esp. Sarah Coakley), and who are interested in experimentation with theological genre and rhetoric. If you are looking for convincing argumentation, this is not the book for you. But if you want to explore Wigg-Stevenson’s theological fantasies, and if you revel in poetic suggestion, this book will no doubt keep you mesmerized.