In the Public Square with: Matthew Tan

Matthew Tan. Photo: Robert Hiini
Matthew Tan. Photo: Robert Hiini

Meet the theologian of the zombie apocalypse. Well, that might be overstating it a bit, but the cultural phenomenon of zombies has certainly kept Sydney-based theologian Dr Matthew Tan up at night as he prepares for the publishing of his second book, Redeeming the Flesh: the Way of the Cross with Zombie Jesus. The Singapore-born and Brisbane-raised Tan is a lecturer in theology and philosophy at Campion College. The Catholic Weekly touched base with him on his current work and the influences feeding his very original perspective.

You have a book on zombies coming out. So … what’s that about?
It looks at the question of why zombies have such a hold on the popular imagination. Zombies have great anthropological, social, cultural and theological relevance to us.

I’m basically saying that zombies are theologically potent because they show us how much Jesus loves us (laughs). When Jesus loves us, he saves us not just at the level of ‘soul’ but at the level of ‘flesh’, by redeeming our dead flesh with his own living flesh, to borrow the image from Paul’s epistles.

That’s a pretty weird and wonderful way of writing. Do you go looking for the weirdness, or does the weirdness find you?
Usually, the weirdness finds me (laughs). I come across some cultural phenomenon – whether I see it or read about it – and it piques my interest when I can find parallels in the theological heritage of the Church, whether in the early or medieval Church Fathers, in the thought of contemporary theologians like Joseph Ratzinger, or in postmodern theologians like William Cavanaugh.

The Anglican philosopher and theologian John Milbank says we need to make the word strange again. I see it as a continuation of that project; to bring out the weirdness and awkwardness in theology to help us make sense of the weirdness of life. Theology can do that in a way that some of the products of secular culture, which we frequently use to make sense of our life, cannot do.

Was there a pivotal moment when you decided you wanted to pursue theology or was it something you stumbled into?
It was definitely something I stumbled into. I had no intention whatsoever of being a theologian. I had every intention of pursuing an academic profession, but in another discipline. But I found as I was doing my doctoral dissertation that theology was the only discipline in which my thesis question could be answered.

Do you find that some people have an expectation that you must be closer to God because of your job; that some people think you are a holy man?
Anybody who thinks that I’m holy doesn’t know me very well (laughs). It’s an ongoing process of self-reflexivity. On the one hand you do need the life of prayer in order to be a good theologian.

You must have an attentive interior life to be a good student – a good scholar. But I find that the more I do those studies, the more I actually fail to create adequate spaces for prayer. It’s a bit of a self-indictment really. You affirm that you need an interior life and then your reading constantly exposes the extent to which you have failed.

How do you deal with that?
Embrace my humanity, embrace my limits, and confess my failures wherever I can.
It’s also about acknowledging your need – my need – for community. You’re not an intellectual on your own. You are always swimming in the thoughts of other people; interacting in the lives of other people. That’s where I get my raw material.

How do you stay connected? What do you do for kicks?
I cook a lot; everything from Italian to Chinese, Indian, Malaysian. And I have board game nights; board games like Ticket to Ride; card games like Bohnanza. I also meet up with friends as much as I can. Conversation makes an outing: ideas and the nitty-gritty of life – even something as simple as where to buy the best tomatoes (laughs).
Part of the reason why I take those things so seriously, particularly as a theologian, is that in a way it is enacting our sacramental imagination.

To live the life of a Christian is not to be stuck in the world of ideas but also to live out that life in an embodied fashion.
If you want to integrate yourself into the will of God part of that will involve integrating oneself in the world God has created. And that includes an attention to food, and the best place to buy tomatoes (laughs).

Part of the reason food is so rubbishy right now is that we have made a virtue of disengaging ourselves from the world. Attention to good food, in a way, bespeaks attempts to reverse that disengagement.

Now, it can be done in a really self-important sort of a way. But it’s the extent to which the main focus is the food and not the person creating the food that one can actually be said to be really, truly integrating oneself with the world that God has created.

So there is a theologically informed posture involved in appreciating food properly.

You are teaching people in their late teens and early twenties. Are there any things you wish you could impart to them that one simply can’t pick up at that age, or that you wish you could impart to your younger self?
I’m still trying to work it into classes but there is a case of really learning to appreciate encounter – paying attention to the lives of the people that God has created.

Particular encounters with people are not a detraction from theological orthodoxy.

There’s a tendency for theological orthodoxy, or orthodoxies of any kind, to be completely disconnected from the lives of the people who have to live those orthodoxies out.

Part of the living out of our orthodoxy in a way that is in keeping with the logic of the incarnation comes in the form of a thoughtful engagement and a thoughtful encounter with the people we meet.

The Church teaches that every person we meet is another Christ. Over the years, I’ve fallen prey to this myself and treated ideas as if they were another Christ and not the people who have to live out those ideas.

You have friends right across “the spectrum” of the Church. Is that something you’ve deliberately cultivated?
I try to have friends across as many parts of the Church as I can. It is part of what it means to be Catholic; to be universal and not to be partisan. I think partisanship has caused a lot of damage to the Church and is not something that is actually native to the Church. It’s a foreign body – a virus – that has infected the Church.

Have you been following the election? What are your thoughts?
I try not to because doing so depresses me.

But I thought you were interested in particularity.
(Laughs) I know, but (the theologian) William Cavanaugh talks about this. He suggests that (formal) politics, rather than being a deeper engagement with society, is actually a form of disengagement from the society that we’re in, precisely because the ‘society’ or ‘communities’ that are championed by political leaders are very often simulations of real society or communities – ‘community’ in the abstract.

Using glib words like ‘values’, all sorts of tropes, it basically shows that a lot of our leaders are pedlars of images of a society to which we don’t actually belong.

Are there any books you wish your fellow Catholics would read?
That’s hard. If I had to pick three: William Cavanaugh’s Theopolitical Imagination, which brings together political analysis and liturgy and is well worth reading. The second, Chanon Ross’s Gifts Glittering and Poisoned, which looks at the issue of what he calls ‘spectacle’ – the spectacle of the image, of the concert, those kinds of things – and looking at them theologically.

The third one: Joseph Pieper’s Faith, Hope, Love, on the theological virtues – particularly his chapter on hope. It’s one of those fantastic, classical works that looks at hope in such a way that it continues to be fresh with every reading.

Also there’s another one (laughs), a book by R J Snell called Acedia and its Discontents, which looks at the vice of sloth. It completely changed the way I looked at the vices, particularly the vice of sloth, which I believe is the one we experience the most. It was just a fantastic exposé on how it works and just how damaging it is and what can be done to combat its effects.

How about on the cookery front?
There’s one by Antonio Carluccio – Simple Cooking. I do not like recipes that are ostentatious or complex. Very, very simple Italian dishes that are easy to make and authentic at the same time.

Dr Matthew Tan blogs at the Divine Wedgie – divinewedgie.wordpress.com – and his first book, Justice, Unity and the Hidden Christ is available from wipfandstock.com

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