This is the first post in a two part post collaboratively written by Jenn Craft and Anna Blanch. Part II, titled, “Practical considerations when approaching collaboration theologically” will be published on 28 January, 2012.
Coming out of the Hospitable Texts conference last summer and our posts on “The Art of Craft (or the trouble with terminology)” (Part I & Part II) we started talking about collaboration as an “art.” Noting the rigorous demands of attending to a text (whether a literary text or some other artistic work) with a careful and nuanced exploration of its theological aspects and applications, we considered the fact that unless the educational structures that inevitably compel a discipline-bound methodology are fundamentally reworked, there would be no easy way to avoid the pitfall of over-specialisation. We began wondering aloud whether collaboration would be essential for the future of interdisciplinary fields such as theology and the arts, unless, that is, we are all to become renaissance women.
To speak of the necessity of collaboration is not to suggest that we shouldn’t set ourselves to the task of seeking out rigorous training and professional development — immersing ourselves in theology, philosophy, or critical theory (whether it be from a literary, historical, cultural, or political perspective), while maintaining a meticulous historicism and an eye to the importance of a nuanced and sophisticated close reading of the text. “If work is to be done well,” writes Wendell Berry, “there must be some specialization.” (Standing by Words, 84) But Berry also tempers his statement in a way that communicates our main point when he writes: “The refinement of specialization is analogous to self-absorption and is a kind of crudity. What is wanted in the disciplines is something akin to the refinement of courtesy, each acting out of a sense of the possible conviviality and harmony of all.” (Standing by Words, 84) In order to actually do good work, then, our specialist ears should always be turned outward, listening carefully for the potential notes to complete our individual songs, and being always ready to respond to others in the same way.
This “refinement of courtesy,” conviviality, and harmony in theology and the arts is what we are looking to accomplish, or at least begin to cultivate, through the art of collaboration. As Christian scholars, we may already be attuned to something akin to this – integrating our faith and learning with our academic discipline. But it seems we must go further than simply integrating. Our arguments (if they are to speak honestly across disciplinary boundaries) must be sufficiently nuanced, aware of the prevailing discourse and attentive to the particularities of each field. There is much bad interdisciplinary work (including all the “theology ands”… art, science, politics, etc.) Our question is whether collaboration will help us do good work.
In this particular context, we are talking about collaboration between scholars. Some scholars have started along this path with anecdotal evidence of those who check their literary critical work with a theologian (often a spouse or colleague in that field). But collaboration falls short when it merely ticks boxes of a checklist, and much interdisciplinary work falls down because it fails to adequately apprehend the current discussions in one or other of the fields in question. Collaboration is, rather, a set of skills that you learn in writing or working with someone. Not only must they be learned over time, but they must be learned in practice. Collaboration is somewhat kinaesthetic in that way: one learns by doing. The ‘means’ is fundamental to skills, knowledge-base and expertise of both parties. It isn’t just the literary scholar going to the theologian asking for helping with theological terms, but about the process of conversation between the two, meaning that the whole is made greater than that which either could accomplish on their own. By engaging in responsible and respectful dialogue with one another in our own fields and with those outside them, we might open up new possibilities in theology and the arts, always discovering new combinations of notes that might be put to the good work of the kingdom.
- Is collaboration commanded in the model of the body of Christ as consisting of many parts working together?
- Is there something particular about Theology and the Arts that will necessitate a more nuanced understanding and embodiment of collaboration?
- Is collaboration ‘best practice’ for interdisciplinary ‘Theology and ….’ scholarship?
Berry, Wendell; Standing by Words, Counterpoint, Berkley: 1983. reprint 2011.
Image: Anna Blanch. A photograph of the collaborative work, The Way of the Cross, by Jonathon Clarke.