September 2, 2008

Kathleen McPhillips - Public Voice

Originally Posted November 2007

There are two questions I want to raise here involving religious scholars and the public sphere. First, many scholars are also activists, so I want to use the term 'scholar' to indicate a person who is negotiating the public sphere in a complex manner. For example, I am supervising three post-graduate students, one of whom is writing an account of women and Buddhism while herself a practising Buddhist. The second student is writing a thesis on Islam and Christianity which comes out of her work in setting up an inter-faith dialogue group in Sydney. The third student has written a thesis on feminist spirituality and art, while herself an artist and feminist pagan.

So the first question is about where these - and other - scholars make interjections into the public sphere. From my observation, I see that they are actively involved in numerous places, including the various local groups that they belong to; their own faith practice; and the work of writing. They are continually making bridges between what they experience/do/practice in the community, and what they read, research and write. They write for scholarly journals and local newsletters. They also broaden this out to connected issues and are politically active, such as [for the Buddhist student] protesting against the recent political oppression in Burma, climate change and environmental campaigning [for the feminist pagan], and multi-faith, multi-cultural celebrations and anti-racism work [for the inter-faith dialogue student]. Without doubt, these three scholars are active in the public sphere at various points.

The second question relates to access to the public sphere. In particular, the ways in which certain voices and opinions are legitimated and others discounted. This is related to power and wealth in capitalist democracies. Over the last five years particularly since 9/11, the use of the public sphere for the articulation of multiple voices has become problematic and I believe, we have witnessed both a moral and political surveillance of voices that are not consistent or in agreement with those in power. If I can give an example here. Each year the Blake Religious Prize ( is held in Australia, attracting many diverse art works. This year, one of the pieces was a statue called "The Fourth Secret of Fatima" depicting a traditional image of the Virgin Mary wearing a blue burqa by the artist Luke Sullivan. Before the majority of people had been able to view the piece, the newspapers grabbed it and ran headlines such as "Christianity is mocked again" and "Sneering artists ridicule the faith". Nearly all major politicians (mostly male, Christian and white) and many Christian clerics (also male and white) were cited as stating that the piece was deeply offensive to Christians.

The question of what the piece might be trying to convey, what the artist himself has to say about it, what Muslims and Jews might think of it, and indeed whether it is good art were buried beneath the loud knee-jerk reaction. The fact that the statue may have been a powerful comment on religious traditions as patriarchal, hierarchical, institutions where women remain second class citizens was completely lost.Clearly, the artworks in the Blake Prize were not created to "be offensive". The artists are not "using" art to drive home a political message. They were created to express certain concerns and communicate these concerns to an audience in a creative and lively way. Opportunities for thoughtfulness and debate were lost and this is what concerns me most: the lack of spaces in public culture to debate issues and raise questions.

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