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.
Danielle Lynch lives on Kabi Kabi land and works on Turrbal and Yuggera land.
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?
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.
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
This is a powerful initiative by artists in Myanmar.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Acts of watching, and being watched, are deeply ambivalent phenomena. The English language has a range of more or less positive terms for these acts: vision, seeing/understanding, perception, discernment, as well as a host of imaginative, even fantasy conjunctions around seeing: imagining, envisioning, fantasising, displaying, spectacle. However, it has to be said that the negative or potentially malevolent terms for watching and being watched trip off the tongue more readily: voyeurism, spying, surveillance, scrutiny, leering, ogling, peering, staring, eye-balling, monitoring, inspection, bugging.
In relation to the age of so-called ‘capitalist surveillance’ (Zuboff, 2019), critic James Bridle defines this age in terms of human belittlement. More than ever, writes Bridle, subjects are captured and categorised by pervasive mechanisms of surveillance, producing a ‘litany of appropriated experiences … repeated so often and so extensively that we become numb, forgetting that this is not some dystopian imagining of the future, but the present’. Shoshana Zuboff, the author of the 2019 work The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, which Bridle is reviewing, argues that around the year 2000 there was in many societies, globally, an exponential shift in modes of surveillance at both personal and social levels, through digitalisation. ‘Being watched’ takes on personal and transpersonal, ideological and more sinister overtones in Zuboff’s research into the netting of information by social media and governmental data collecting. Wikileaks is one, ongoing response to these phenomena, releasing as it has done over 10 million documents garnered by government and military media. In many ways the shift Zuboff describes might be better understood as an amplification of what prophetic novels such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty Four (1949), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and, differently, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) imagine. They are among many futuristic literary texts that evoke the suffocating and pervasive fear of being watched, hunted, categorised, known. The popularity of these dystopian texts is evidence of a widespread frisson, if not fear, amongst readers and film audiences, of the circumscribing of individual selfhood.
Zuboff’s research is prophetic, seeing into the consequences of present actions for a future hurtling towards us; and it enables me to take a fresh look (yes, the critic as watcher) into a 1986 Australian novel, That Eye the Sky, by well-known Australian author Tim Winton. Many of the texts named above probe threatened innocence and selfhood, as does Winton’s novel. However, That Eye the Sky is not dystopian. It is gentler, humorous, vernacular. Its brooding watcher – that eye the sky – takes the form of a glowing cloud hovering over the family house, and is mirrored in another watcher, a young, vulnerable boy entering early manhood, who sees things. Watching is part of the boy’s fertile and curious imagination, rather than being registered as malevolent. Theological, biblical, and mystical ideas about suffering, human love, trust, and hope flow through the novel’s vision of present and future, as the characters and their precarious forms of innocence are threatened by trauma, and by a wider urban world encroaching on their frugal existence. This is a remembered – mythical? – time before social media, set on the fringes of the urban, a time when children could go out and play alone, down by the creek, unsupervised.
Along with humour and the use of vernacular, That Eye the Sky creates its theology through a simplicity that underscores the darker, ongoing questions: is there an eye out there, watching? Is that eye benevolent, protective? Or neutral, deaf to human existence, or worse? The main character, twelve-year-old Ort Flack, asks these questions, as do readers, as the plot darkens.
Every ontological and social category in Winton’s That Eye the Sky is written under erasure, as already passing: childhood, hippiedom, Christianity, church, the bush, God, trust, knowledge, grief, love. As so often in the novels of Winton, the child, and a child’s eye-view, are central. Ort lives in a run-down house in the middle of the bush with his semi-hippy parents and sister. He is the narrator. He sees and feels things: clouds hovering over the house, red eyes peering in from the dark of the bush, a sky, benevolent or otherwise, looking down on him and his family, as trauma strikes. Ort is innocent, different, ostracised. He is sensuously alive to the smells and textures of the bush, to the sound of wind across the tops of the trees, observing the luminousness of moon and stars and the moods and feelings of his mother and sister as they grapple with the tragedy engulfing them. And he carries with him a constant sense of being watched over.
But Ort is also a voyeur. Turning thirteen, on the cusp of sexual awareness, and also alive to mystical possibilities, he peers through cracks and holes in the house’s walls, into bathrooms and bedrooms where he sees the desiring, lonely, threatened lives of his family: his mother, grief-struck and missing her husband Sam; his Dad, comatose, on the brink between life and death; his sister, Tegwyn, self-harming, promiscuous; Gramma, locked in dementia, and snoring; and Henry Warburton, the stranger who comes, in all his brokenness, to help, and to convert the family.
Outside the house – in the bush, down by the creek, with the chooks in the yard – Ort experiences a watching, brooding presence he cannot describe, but knows to be real. It is a force embodied in the cloud hovering above the house, in the stars and moon, in the beauty and ordinariness of the bush, in the strangeness of other people. It seems to be a presence neither malevolent nor benevolent, but Ort’s sensual experiences of it prepare him for the message from the stranger who comes to their door (Henry Warburton, injured preacher). Henry finally plucks up the courage to announce to the family that it is ‘God’ who hovers in everything, who watches over and cares for him and his family. Ort’s innocent openness allows him to receive the declarations Henry makes:
‘God told me to come to you’.
‘Ort, be quiet …’.
‘God is who made us and made the birds and the trees and everything. He keeps everything going, He sees all things. He is our father. He loves us’.
‘I thought it was just a word. Like heck. Is he someone? Mum?’
‘I never really thought about it, Ort … I, I …’.
‘So what did he send you here for?’ I ask Henry Warburton.
‘To love you’.
Tegwyn groans. ‘I thought you said you were alright’. [to Henry]
‘Did you get our names from God?’ I ask him. ‘How did you know our names? You knew all our names, and you knew about Dad’. (88)
The novel’s theology is alive with humour and with Ort’s openness, if not naivety. Mother and son are persuaded by the stranger to give ‘God’ a go, although teenage Tegwyn is a harder nut, sceptical, infused with sexual more than metaphysical needs. Ort is particularly intrigued with the promise of being known, named, understood. This openness rings true psychologically, for Ort is a vulnerable twelve year old who is being confronted with the possible death of his father, a figure who has been completely benign and loving in his son’s life. Alice, his mother, is equally child-like in many ways, loving, trusting, unused to asking metaphysical questions: ‘I never really thought about it, Ort’. This is, clearly, a world before Google, before social media, where information, authority and knowledge have different parameters.
And so, the household receives another pair of eyes, another watcher, into its midst – Henry and his message – through need and trauma. Winton is rarely judgemental of the watchers and their objects of desire. All are whirled in a dance of fear and longing, a need for certainty when none is available. Alice and Ort find some comfort in the evangelist’s definitive theology and practical compassion, clutching for reassurance. Their baptism, acceptance of daily bible readings and communion lead to the wonderful (horrifying!), parodic account of the fundamentalist church just down the road, towards the end of the book. The haplessness of Alice and Ort’s one-time visit to the church at the back of the Watkins’ drapery store is superbly rendered, as Winton satirises a self-righteous, fear-mongering brand of 1960s Christianity. The church service is full of rigidity and surveillance: the mark of the beast, the wrath of God, plagues upon men; a place where ‘everyone in the room is looking at us’, and where the preacher declares in a booming voice: ‘Read the signs! Read-the-signs! The Antichrist himself comes … The-need-is-great! Pressing. Urgent. How will we stand in the tribulation?’. Winton creates the jerky stresses and freighted vocabulary of the preacher who condemns the heathen world, a world against which salvation is available for a narrow band of believers. But it is the innocence and intuitiveness of Alice that wins the day. Refusing to succumb to the judging eyes and exclusions of the congregation, she jumps up to leave, pulling Ort with her. Alice declares, in the full force of her outraged innocence:
‘You don’t have to shout. We’re not animals, you know. And not even God’s animals should be shouted at like they’re made of mud’. (126)
Simmering in the background of the narrative, across these events, is the presence of the father, Sam, comatose, hovering between life and death, watched over by Alice, Ort, Tegwyn and Henry Warburton. There is never any doubt that all the family, and the stranger, unconditionally love and watch over Sam who seems to see nothing, staring vacantly as they feed, bathe and talk to Sam, taking him for walks in the wheelchair.
The novel draws rapidly to a climax. Against all this festival of watching and being watched, the characters and the readers are drawn inexorably to a scene, narrated by Ort, that resolves nothing, finally, but that points towards new possibilities:
Everywhere, in through all my looking places and all the places I never even thought of – under the doors, up through the boards – that beautiful cloud creeps in. This house is filling with light and crazy music and suddenly I know what’s going to happen and it’s like the whole flaming world’s suddenly making sense … [I] burst into Mum’s room and there’s my Dad with these tears coming down his cheeks, pinpoints of light that hurt me eyes … His eyes are open and they’re on me and smiling as I come in shouting ‘God! God! God!’ His face is shining. I’m shaking all over. ‘God! God! God!’ (150)
Ort’s eyes are opened – ‘the whole flaming world … suddenly making sense’. His father’s eyes are open, and expressive for the first time. And ‘that beautiful cloud’ has moved from symbolic, ambivalent presence to a sensuous, infiltrating, clarifying atmosphere, bringing father and son to a crucial moment of … resurrection? Renewal? Clear-sightedness?
The reader is left in a place that is not certainty, but something is coming to a climax. Ort’s innocent expectations are turning to action, and images of eyes, seeing, tears, ‘pinpoints of light’ predominate in the final scene. Ort says his father’s eyes are ‘on me and smiling’, and miracle, or at least a change, is happening. Certainly Ort – full of hope and love – is expecting miracle.
So what does That Eye the Sky offer readers, when we reflect on the phenomena of watching and being watched? God had been unknown to Ort – ‘I thought it was just a word. Like heck. Is he someone? Mum?’ But the child entering into early manhood has also long intuited, in the natural world and in his family relations, a presence that ‘keeps everything going … [who] sees all things’. As the child literally takes to heart the biblical injunction to anoint with oil and pray for the ill, he grabs the safflower oil and the big black family bible, believing, hoping, seeing what he so desperately needs to see, his father, eyes open and smiling at him; light and music filling this house of trauma; the whole world suddenly making sense. For this climactic moment, and possibly into the unwritten future, that watching eye is powerful, intervening and benevolent.
[Reposted, with edits, from Ethos.]
Lyn McCredden is Professor of Australian Literary Studies at Deakin University, Australia. She is the author of Intimate Horizons: the Post-colonial Sacred in Australian Literature (with Bill Ashcroft and Frances Devlin-Glass, 2009), Luminous Moments: the Contemporary Sacred (2010), The Fiction of Tim Winton: Earthed and Sacred (2017), and a poetry collection, Wanting Only (2018). She LIVES AND PLAYS ON WURUNDJERI LAND.
In this year’s ARPA Awards, the Australasian Religious Press Association awarded silver prize for ‘Best Theological Article’ to Jason Goroncy for his little essay ‘On the Gifts of Street Art’, which was published in Zadok. Regardless of the merits or otherwise of the essay, it’s encouraging to see theological engagement with the arts recognised in this way.