Fragments for Fractured Times
Nicola Slee on why she was drawn to create a book of fragments, and why she hopes that each fragment will prove bigger than the whole.
Like much British theology, my own work eschews the large-scale, systematic or comprehensive approach typical of Germanic theology of the first half of the twentieth century and favours the small-scale, the incidental, the narrative and metaphorical, the particular. I am drawn to poetry and liturgy, as well as homiletics, as primary forms of theology-in-the-making, where religious practice and the language of poetry and prayer shape and articulate the sense of God and the ways of the Spirit in the contemporary church and world. I realise that my own shaping of theological forms, texts, language and convictions has very often come about in response to specific invitations from different groups and individuals – to preach, pray, conduct retreats, lecture or engage in conversation. Maybe this is partly because I work well when there is an external demand or deadline set by a speaking engagement or performative piece; but it is more than that. It speaks of the invitational, conversational and contextual nature of all theology which is created anew out of the confluence of time and space, place and social-political moment, calling new truths out of the givenness of scripture and tradition.
To speak of the givenness of scripture and tradition should not suggest that scripture and tradition themselves are stable, unchanging categories. As new discoveries of the past are constantly made, including the discovery of ancient scriptural manuscripts and the emergence of new interpretations of old texts and traditions, so the ‘givenness’ of the past is constantly unsettled and reformed by the creative breath of the Spirit and the emergence of new human knowledge and wisdom. Invitations from diverse groups in different settings and places can help to unearth such new knowledge and therefore give expression to new theologies. This is perhaps particularly so when those who consider themselves to be marginal to the mainstream – however we might construe the ‘mainstream’ and whoever it is who decides – invite fresh tellings of the Christian gospel in response to their own marginalisation and their urgent needs for justice and inclusion. At least some of the theology in this book has arisen out of such invitations from those at the margins; and even to speak of ‘margins’ may unhelpfully reinforce the unjust power dynamics between margins and centre, those with less and those with more power. For the place that is often regarded as marginal is, I suspect, much closer to the centre of God’s heart than places colonised by those who claim to represent the mainstream, or who behave as if they are at the centre of power.
What I offer in Fragments for Fractured Times, is therefore a gathering of fragments collected from diverse times, places, settings and occasions; fragments which do not necessarily make a whole, in the sense of a comprehensive, systematic, ‘finished’ article, but which might, together, add up to more than the sum of its many parts.
The metaphor of ‘fragments’ is, in fact, one which has appealed to and been used by a number of theologians over the past century, and continues to attract contemporary writers. I use the metaphor in conjunction with other, more domestic metaphors drawn from women’s lives, craft and art – metaphors of the web, tapestry, knitting and sewing, as well as metaphors of the table, all of which have been employed by a range of feminist theologians and thinkers to reflect the artistic, creative, material and embodied work of women down the ages. What feminist theology brings to the table of scholarly thinking and embodied practice is, I want to suggest, something creative, artful, prophetic as well as playful – a resource for Christian living and thinking in times when coercive, patriarchal religion is rightly rejected and condemned by many who are all too well aware of the harm it has done to women, children, ethnic minorities, LGBTQI+ folks, those who are differently abled, and many more.
I offer fragments, morsels, grains, scraps, plates of diverse cuisine and ingredients, some of which may appear very slight and small, whilst others are more substantial; perhaps this book is rather like a meal composed of many small courses, meze or tapas. Like such a meal, the pieces can be dipped into and out of in any order the reader fancies; some may be lingered over to appreciate their flavor, whilst others may be passed over. I offer these fragments into times I describe as ‘fractured’ – cracked, broken, split apart, crazed, ruptured, fissured – in which grand narrative and shared ideologies have broken down irreparably in favour of local, contextual and multiple narratives and ways. In the period during which I have been bringing this book together, such a description may take on new force and resonance as the world reels from the deadly Corona virus and continues to seek to respond to the climate catastrophe which surely represents the greatest threat to life on earth in our time.
It is too soon to know what lasting impact these crises are going to have on humanity and on theological enquiry; maybe there is a chance that the global pandemic of Covid-19 will bring the different nations, cultures and religions of the world together in a way that we have not seen previously, to share knowledge and expertise and to support one another in this common threat to our humanity. Whether the fragments I offer in this book can speak into this new global reality remains to be seen; yet I am hopeful that feminist and practical theologies have both the characteristics and the courage to meet the challenges of our time. Both feminist and practical theologies have shown themselves willing to dive into the depths of human experience at the extremities of agonizing suffering and oppression, on the one hand, and in the celebration of divinely-resourced human capacity, creativity and compassion on the other. Eschewing essentialisms and dogmatic certainty, both feminist and practical theologies represent lived wisdom for our time which can adapt and respond creatively to new situations and global crises, continually drawing out new treasures from ancient depositories of scripture and tradition.
This is an edited extract from the introduction to Fragments for Fractured Times, published this month. Order here.
Nicola Slee is Director of Research at Queen's Foundation Birmingham and Professor of Feminist Practical Theology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. She is a published poet and an acclaimed author in the fields of feminist and practical theology, spirituality and prayer.