Associate Professor Matt Tomlinson, CHL
Of Gods and Theology: Culture, religion, spiritualism and theological dialogue
Back in March 2020, Associate Professor Matt Tomlinson from CHL published his book, God is Samoan: Dialogues Between Culture and Theology in the Pacific. In this book, Matt engages in an anthropological conversation with the work of “contextual theologians,” exploring how the combination of Pacific Islands culture and Christianity shapes theological dialogues. More recently, at the beginning of 2021, the book saw its paperback launch. On this occasion, we caught up with Matt for a chat on his research, the book itself, and his other areas of interest, which includes Spiritualism and spirit mediums…
Tell us about yourself and your research interests.
I'm originally from New Jersey in the USA. Growing up in a not-very-religious household in the 1980s, I was struck by the way evangelical Christians were trying to take political power, which seemed to go against the 'separation of church and state' we read about in school. This kindled my interest in studying how religion and politics go together in different places, and at university, I realised that anthropology was a good field for studying this kind of thing. My wife and I moved to Australia in 2005 when I took a job at Monash, and I've been at ANU since 2012.
Tell us about your book, God is Samoan: Dialogues Between Culture and Theology in the Pacific. How did the idea for it originate?
I was conducting research at the Pacific Theological College (PTC) in Suva, Fiji, back in 2008–2009. I was supposed to be developing a project on Christian institutions, but fieldwork wasn't going smoothly because Fiji was still in the wake of its fourth coup. Partly by necessity, I spent a lot of time at PTC, where I became fascinated by a field called ‘contextual theology’. Contextual theologians draw on concepts of culture to describe how God relates to humans. To simplify a bit: God relates to Samoans as a Samoan, Fijians as a Fijian, and so forth. I noticed that PTC's largest student group, historically speaking, has been Samoans. I figured that if I wanted to learn more about contextual theology, and how it could help anthropologists think more critically about cultural framings of divinity, I ought to spend some time in Samoa.
What strikes you as the key takeaway of the research you’ve showcased?
The main theoretical argument in the book is that dialogue and monologue always go together. This might sound a bit abstract, but I'm basically arguing that even the most open-ended conversation has limits, and that even seemingly one-way speech (like from God to humanity) is always open to the influence of other voices.
Dr Matt Tomlinson. Photo Credit: Maria Saulo-Hamilton
Who is the intended audience of this book?
I'm hoping it will knock John Grisham off the bestseller list. But, even if it doesn't, I hope it will interest people who like reading about the Pacific Islands, religion and society, and what we mean by ‘dialogue’.
What was your favourite or most memorable thing through the journey of putting this book together?
The best part was spending time at theological departments and schools. I conducted research in Samoa (at Piula Theological College), American Samoa (Kanana Fou Theological Seminary), and New Zealand (the University of Auckland), in addition to PTC in Fiji. I was warmly welcomed and supported at all of these places, and the theologians I met were open to conversations on all sorts of issues. Plus, every day spent in Samoa is a good day.
What was the biggest challenge you faced?
When I began the project, I was thinking of it in terms of traditional fieldwork: hanging out with people, living local, learning what people's daily activities and concerns are. But I quickly realized how little I knew about theology in general, let alone contextual theology specifically. So I wound up reading thousands of pages of dissertations and journal issues to give myself a baseline understanding of Pacific contextual theology, and in the end the project features the writings of theologians more than descriptions of daily encounters. In other words, the book is ethnographically grounded but text-centered.
What’s the plan for the future?
Obviously, to get the book greenlighted as a major motion picture. But seriously, I am continuing to have conversations with theologians, though I am not sure when or where my next Oceania-focused project will develop. At the moment, I am in the thick of a project on Spiritualism in Australia. Spiritualism is a religion in which mediums speak with the dead, so, this is a bit of a different direction for my work. I've trained as a spirit medium and yes, I will conduct a séance for you if you like, although no one calls them ‘séances’ anymore.
Can you share something bizarre or fun related to your area of research?
It turns out that theological colleges are haunted places: lots of ghosts and spirits roam about! I discuss this on pages 76–81 of the book, which probably makes it the most fun section to read.