Articles

How To Be Alone

It all begins with knowing
nothing lasts forever,
so you might as well start packing now.
In the meantime,
practice being alive.

There will be a party
where you’ll feel like
nobody’s paying you attention.
And there will be a party
where attention’s all you’ll get.
What you need to do
is to remember
to talk to yourself
between these parties.

And,
again,
there will be a day,
– a decade –
where you won’t
fit in with your body
even though you’re in
the only body you’re in.

You need to control
your habit of forgetting
to breathe.

Remember when you were younger
and you practiced kissing on your arm?
You were on to something then.
Sometimes harm knows its own healing
Comfort knows its own intelligence.
Kindness too.
It needs no reason.

There is a you
telling you another story of you.
Listen to her.

Where do you feel
anxiety in your body?
The chest? The fist? The dream before waking?
The head that feels like it’s at the top of the swing
or the clutch of gut like falling
& falling & falling and falling
It knows something: you’re dying.
Try to stay alive.

For now, touch yourself.
I’m serious.

Touch your
self.
Take your hand
and place your hand
some place
upon your body.
And listen
to the community of madness
that
you are.
You are
such an
interesting conversation.

You belong
here.

– Pádraig Ó Tuama, ‘How To Be Alone’. Dumbo Feather.

Poem by Pádraig Ó Tuama. Illustration & Animation by Leo G. Franchi. Sound by Chris Heagle. Music by Gautum Srikishan.

Sources: Dumbo Feather; On Being; The On Being Project.

Theology

pawel-czerwinski-wZHDa7cD7Ps-unsplash

Before beginning the theological task please remove any and all parts of the self currently deemed unacceptable. If suitable replacement parts are available, attach and use these. Please note, these replacement parts must remain hidden at all times. Only socially sanctioned theological tools may be used. Until current guidelines for theological engagement are met, the preferred method of communication is silence.

All theology must be submitted in writing.

What was it for you?
Which parts of yourself did you
willingly slice off so they would let you do this?

You never get those parts back.

All you can ever do
is point to the place
they used to be
in an attempt to warn others
about making the same mistake.

But it rarely works
we all sacrifice ourselves on this altar

But sometimes
as our hand, poised, ready to remove
that very last piece
we hear the still small voice
whisper

stop

And the knife
slick with our own blood
slips through our fingers

and we see the Lamb

– Stacey Wilson, ‘Theology’. In God’s Image 40 (2021): 55.

Photo by Pawel Czerwinski via Unsplash.

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Stacey Wilson (usually) spends many hours at her local café glaring at her laptop as she attempts to put the pondering of her heart into words. Through her roles at intergen, CBM australia, and Surrender Co., she provides resources, training, and mentoring to support people in their intergenerational ministry journey. SHE LIVES AND PLAYS ON WURUNDJERI LAND.

Danielle Lynch on music, education, and meaning-making

Danielle Lynch, currently of Melbourne, recently of Cairns and originally of the north east of England, is a discerning Catholic who claims a rich musical background. These two elements combine in her commitment to ‘music as theology’, a commitment that led to a published doctorate in the field.

Danielle recalls, ‘When I was growing up, my grandma would sing songs to us when we went to bed, and we would watch musicals together – The Sound of Music, The King and I, the Rodgers and Hammerstein classics – so I was exposed to different musical styles. I had trumpet lessons in primary school, but it wasn’t until my brother taught me a few guitar chords that I hit it off with making music’.

‘In secondary school, I had piano lessons, and played in most of the school bands. Like most teenagers, music was an important part of my friendships and I played in bands with friends as well as writing some original songs’.

Sadly, those early songs are lost to history, but it was at university that ‘music and theology really started to intertwine for me’. Music, of course, has always been an integral part of liturgy and more broadly, of people’s religious experience. Readers-of-a-certain-age may even have played Living Parish Hymn Book bingo! However, music as theology – as a vehicle for forming and exploring theology – is different.

Music creates meaning

‘If theology is seeking answers to ultimate questions or if it is faith seeking understanding (St Anselm’s definition), then it seems to me that music is one of the more prevalent ways in which we create meaning and attempt to understand our experiences – whether we are writing songs, making music, or listening to music. My PhD was largely theoretical but since 2017 I have been writing songs which convey some of the things I’m thinking about or working on’.

As well as returning to songwriting, Danielle has been engaged in university tutoring and teaching religion to secondary boys at schools in Cairns and now Melbourne.

She finds the contrast life-giving and complementary: ‘My teaching as a tutor in theology at Australian Catholic University is better because of my experiences in school, keeping me grounded, and because I have to think on my toes to keep lessons on religion engaging for teenage boys.

‘My experiences with young people give me hope for a better world. The young people I teach find deep meaning in the social justice teachings of the church, and I have been blessed to work alongside students who give so much of themselves in service. This is a great reminder that real-life experiences are points of connection to the spiritual and divine’.

Being a teacher of boys is also an opportunity to send an unspoken message: ‘It’s important that they see an example of an academic female with strong leadership skills and that they have a teacher who is an expert in the field’.

The importance of ordinary

While she is, indeed, an expert, Danielle is no academic removed from reality. She is involved in music at both school and parish level and says, ‘I’m particularly drawn to theologies of popular culture which recognise the importance of the more ordinary elements of our lives through which we find or make meaning’.

In addition, she believes, ‘Theology needs to come down from the exclusive domain of the ivory tower. It’s important to highlight – and be reminded often – that theology is always on the run, as Sallie McFague suggests. It can never claim to be the whole truth, as our knowledge of God can only ever be incomplete and contextual. This suggests that all theologies should commence from a place of humility, yet that has been lacking at times.

‘Music is a great reminder of the partiality and temporality of our meaning-making. Songs can be both deeply meaningful and yet highly disposable. I think music can be one of the ordinary means by which we convey theology’.

To grasp what Danielle means, here’s an excerpt from her song ‘Broke the Frame’:

Remember all the ones whose voices went unheard

Though they spoke out, tore their souls out

In wanting to create a world which reflects reality

Of humanity, beyond the depravity

Of the structures they inherited which hold women back

They broke the frame of patriarchy

But no one ever told them they were good, so good.

You’ll grasp more if you listen to the song on her album, Into Silence.

Dignity and equality of all

Danielle is deeply aware of the inadequacy of the Church’s offerings to women. ‘I think we should take the dignity and equality of all people seriously. Church structures don’t do this at the moment. Pope Francis says a lot about respecting women but does not take seriously their scholarship or quote them in his encyclicals. The Catholic Church needs the wisdom of the people of God and needs to take account of the sensus fidelium in all people’.

‘There are highly accomplished and competent female theologians – not to mention others with significant knowledge and skills in other areas – who are ready and keen to take on leadership roles in the Church, and yet they are extremely limited in the places and spaces in which they can work. Catholic education is one place in which this is not so much the case, and so I’m glad for the opportunity to work in that field!’

One of the reviewers of Danielle’s book, God in Sound and Silence: Music as Theology, wrote, ‘This is an exploration of the means by which music might say something otherwise unsayable, and in doing so, allow for an encounter with the mystery of God’.

Danielle Lynch’s ministries of teaching, songwriting, and sharing her music are leading others to an encounter with the mystery of God.

This article was written by Tracey Edstein, and was first published in Madonna Magazine (Autumn, 2021, pp. 8–9). It is used here with permission.

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Danielle Lynch lives on Kabi Kabi land and works on Turrbal and Yuggera land.

‘Embracing the Subjective’: A Review of Sarah Agnew’s Embodied Performance: Mutuality, Embrace, and the Letter to Rome

Sarah Agnew, Embodied Performance: Mutuality, Embrace, and the Letter to Rome (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2020). 298 pages. ISBN: 9781725257849.

‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, making scholars the world over profoundly uncomfortable’ (John 1.14, Mossfield paraphrase).

At first glance, Sarah Agnew’s new book Embodied Performance: Mutuality, Embrace, and the Letter to Rome (2020) has a relatively straightforward goal: to develop a methodology by which contemporary biblical storytellers might share in a scholarly fashion the insights they gain into a text through performance. Indeed, the need for a such a methodology may appear self-evident and the reader might rightly wonder why no such method already exists. Yet, this absence in the field of biblical criticism reveals the deeper and more important project which Agnew undertakes in this book: challenging modern biblical scholars to take seriously the reality of embodiment and incarnation which lies at the heart of the Christian story.

Like in other academic fields, the watchwords of modern biblical criticism include objectivity and reason. As a performer-interpreter of biblical texts, however, Agnew became increasingly aware of intuitive, subjective insights that the act of performance gave her into Scripture. Noting increasing interdisciplinary evidence of ‘embodied cognition’ (that is, knowledge gained through the body), and building on the growing field of Biblical Performance Criticism (BPC), Agnew consequently developed her Embodied Performance Analysis (EPA) to allow the subjective to speak into contemporary scholarship. In her own words, ‘EPA invites the physical, emotional, and relational aspects of human meaning-making to contribute to conversations generally dominated by rational objectivity’ (142). Here, Agnew seeks to transcend the limits of BPC (with its focus on how a text was historically performed) and embrace the subjective, contemporary performance as a realm for authentic interpretation and meaning making.

Yet, Agnew’s EPA method does not seek to supplant traditional, objective scholarship. Rather, through a three-stage process of preparation, performance, and critical reflection, Agnew hopes to create a dialogue between reason and embodied knowledge. In the EPA framework, therefore, ‘the performer-interpreter employs tools of the body, emotion, and audience, integrated [my emphasis] with a range of pertinent exegetical approaches, to discern meaning in a biblical composition, presented in an Analysis comprised of Performance Interpretation and Critical Reflection’ (132). It is this interaction between Agnew’s observation of her embodiment of the Word (through movement, tone, hesitation, voice, and gesture), and preexisting scholarly debates over the meaning of a text, that makes Embodied Performance most compelling to read. For, as a preacher, I am conscious of the ways studying a text with the goal of proclaiming good news to my congregation presents unique understandings that I could not have gained in the seminary library. Likewise, Agnew’s insight into the text through her performance of it, offers another rich lens of meaning to me as both a preacher and a disciple. Agnew, however, seeks to go a step further – not just naming insights in an interesting way, but enabling them to participate in ongoing academic debate.

What Agnew demonstrates in Embodied Performance is that, when given voice, performance may indeed contribute significant value to biblical criticism. For example, in preparing to perform Paul’s letter to the Romans, Agnew noted the way she would step intuitively to one side or another as she embodied different voices or personas in Paul’s argument. Agnew was surprised, however, to find herself stepping in a new direction when speaking the words at Romans 7.15, ‘I do not understand my own actions’ (NRSV). In engaging with preexisting commentaries, Agnew discovered an ongoing dialogue between scholars over the meaning of the ‘I’ in this discourse at the end of the chapter. While some argued that Paul was referring to himself, others suggested that the ‘I’ was a rhetorical device with which Paul sought to include his audience in the narrative of sin. For Agnew, however, her body’s movement revealed ‘instinctively this felt like a discrete, new, voice’ (166). Consequently, Agnew concluded, along with the second group of scholars, that the ‘I’ of Romans 7 was ‘an “every-person” caught up in the cosmic battle of good and evil’ (167). While Agnew’s conclusion may not be unique (indeed, it is well within the bounds of the existing debate), her embodied insights offer a new interpretative lens that helps ‘tip the argument’ where traditional scholarship had reached an impassable stalemate. Embodied Performance Analysis then may indeed offer meaning to biblical scholars in a way that alone studying words on a page may not.

Of course, as with any new methodology, Agnew’s Embodied Performance has some limitations. Agnew herself highlights the omission of some difficult passages (such as those dealing with the place of Israel in Romans 9–11) from the performance for lack of an appropriate way to parse their meaning with sufficient nuance; the need for other performer-interpreters to also use and test the method; and the risk that the performer may impart too much of their own theology into the meaning-making process. In addition, I note that Agnew’s critical reflection on the performance at times blurs the line between performance insights (that is, meaning derived from the act of performance and contributed to scholarly debates), and performance choices (that is, those places where Agnew chooses to perform a passage in a certain way because of the scholarly position, without necessarily offering any new insights toward it). In Embodied Performance, Agnew does begin to take steps towards addressing some of these limitations (such as using omission as a source for exegetical discussion, or noting audience reactions against those places where she intentionally imparted too much of her own theology). Nevertheless, none of these issues prevents Agnew from demonstrating her key point: performance does indeed have important insights to contribute to biblical scholarship.

But what of the average preacher or congregant? As a Minister in a local congregation, I had some mixed reaction to the utility of Agnew’s book in my context. As a preacher, I noted the encouragement to engage with my subjective insights into a biblical text as part of the interpretative task. Throughout my reading of the text, however, I was also conscious that I am not a biblical storyteller and wondered if I should ever have occasion to practice Agnew’s EPA methodology myself. Yet, this is not what Agnew asks of either the biblical scholar or the local church leader. Instead, Agnew encourages us to hear the insights gained by biblical storytellers as a key part of the ‘fullness of human epistemology’ (191) and to be open to the knowledge of embodied existence for understanding the meaning of any biblical text. And so, if the only outcome of my reading this book is that I begin to include EPA scholars in my weekly reading in preparing the sermon, then it seems to me this shall have been a book worth reading. For Agnew’s Embodied Performance challenges both the Church and academia to embrace the embodied Word. The question that remains is: will we?

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Daniel Mossfield is a Minister of the Word of the Uniting Church in Australia. He serves in rural NSW, working at the intersection of traditional and emerging forms of church, and is passionate about the sacramental nature of preaching and what it means to be the church in a secular age. He lives and works on Gundungurra and Wiradjuri land. 

Uncommon Goods: Conference and CFP

We imagine a brand space for public theology, one that breaks down disciplinary boundaries, and one that seeks to learn, and to disrupt, its own discourse. We think there should be a place in Australia for a public theology like this! The Cooperative was launched to work towards this goal, to make space for unlikely conversations, and to gather with as many collaborators as possible in asking questions about the common good.

Our first conference, taking place on invaded land, will trouble these questions and ask what it means to be a public, have a commons, in the aftermath of colonialism. Our call for papers welcomes scholars from all fields and looks forward to lively discussion.

– Dr Janice McRandal, Director of The Cooperative

Speaking through Glass: An Exhibition


Where: Centre for Theology & Ministry, Pilgrim Theological College, 29 College Crescent, Parkville.

When: 28 January – 1 April, 2021. M–F, 0900–1700.

A window. A garden. A bench. An Artist. A Poet. A passion … to hold this community in Scripture.

In the quaint suburb of Fairfield, stands a small church. With a large glass window.
Replacing the stained glass window with transparent glass was a conscious choice – to let the community see what happens inside.

Pearl Taylor, Emmanual, 2020. Gouache on paper.

An invitation. But what happens when nothing is happening inside?

During Melbourne’s COVID-19 lockdown, this thin sheet of glass became a liminal space for connection with the community.

In March 2020, a collaboration between lay preacher Nickie Williams, poet Kirsty Sangster, and artist Pearl Taylor formed, guided by the liturgical calendar and inspired by poetry. The words simmered for Pearl, resulting in a response artwork in the window. Helping people engage, feel connected, ponder, laugh, stay curious, and contemplate.

Pearl Taylor, Lit From Within, 2020. Lino carved block print on paper.

The Speaking through Glass exhibition captures this collaboration of community installations – from Lent to Advent. As we step back towards each other, the gallery experience walks you through a taste of how creativity can connect with a community to speak the values, wisdom, joy, and lamentation when the church doors were shut. Centered around artworks by Pearl Taylor, the body of work comprises of drawings, etchings, lino prints, paper cuttings, and paintings. Alongside this walkthrough is a display of Pearl’s pigeons, a growing body of work that discusses the hierarchy of purity and the relationship our culture has to the pigeon/dove dichotomy. Pearl asks us to see these humble creatures as the daily expression of the sacred and to reassess the essence of the divine. Juxtaposing the lofty white spiritual connotations with the lowly domestic everyday dweller, Pearl’s passion is in reclaiming the Paloma, the Columbidae, the pigeon, the dove.

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Fairfield Uniting Church and all exhibition artists recognise the Wurundjeri people as the traditional owners of the land upon which this collaboration is taking place.