Different beliefs not to be feared

HERMAN GOODDEN

Our society has become reflexively and stridently phobic whenever religion turns up anywhere outside the carefully controlled confines of church services.

London artist Agneta Dolman had a wonderful exhibition at the Michael Gibson Gallery this month, Across the Sea.

This series of paintings on plywood panels was thematically influenced by two great Old Testament myths: the Creation and Noah’s Ark. Painting on wood helped Dolman evoke the ark, ingeniously working knotholes, grain textures and surface scarrings into her pictures. Her own experiences as a Swedish-born immigrant and a Christian helped her convey the wonder and awe that grip the geographical and spiritual pilgrim as she moves between two worlds.

Dolman’s images dramatically explored two over-arching mysteries of human existence; how we can feel so utterly lost and so completely at home in this universe. The world’s boggling immensity is captured in a number of images of the ark afloat–on a storm-tossed sea or placidly beneath the dome of a star-filled sky. The world’s engrossing beauty is depicted in such bountiful images as a flower exploding into seed and a murkily intertwined school of fish with piercing eyes that gleam in the dark. A touching picture, Let Them Be Fruitful, shows a male and female elephant heading off into the jungle to mate.

Though the religious inspiration in her work is unmistakable, when talking to Free Press reporter Sandra Coulson, Dolman tried to allay any anxieties of secular gallery-goers by insisting she was not in any way “proselytizing.” As a Christian writer, I recognize all too well where this wariness comes from and why artists sometimes feel compelled to hold back when alluding to what is a powerful force in their lives. We don’t want to look like religious maniacs.

Our society has become reflexively and stridently phobic whenever religion turns up anywhere outside the carefully controlled confines of church services.

This wariness can contribute to a quite absurd impoverishment in our discussion of art.

What does it mean to proselytize? It means to try to convert others to our point of view, to make others see and appreciate what we see and appreciate. That is precisely what any artist does whenever they exhibit their work. But religious artists are somehow made to feel that this is improper.

Imagine if an agnostic or atheist artist–say Picasso–succumbed to pressure to downplay his work’s deepest inspirations: “Thankfully, Picasso has not put forth his ideas with any real gusto or conviction,” an approving journalist might write. “While Guernica may seem to be a piece that says something negative about war, the artist personally assured me that he’s not out to change anybody’s mind. ‘I’ve always been careful to respect the views of those who believe that war is a force for good in the world,’ he said. These new works are visually diverting so long as you don’t look too closely or pause to reflect on the philosophy behind them. Don’t take this work seriously and it should be possible to leave the exhibition completely unchanged by the encounter.”

We’ve reached a tetchy, squeamish impasse when we’re reluctant to acknowledge decent or generous motives in folks who happen to believe differently than we do. It’s paranoid nonsense. It can work the other way too, with spectacularly silly results.

Consider the character assassination of the markedly unreligous John Lennon that appeared in this paper last week by the feverishly Christian (and poisonously uncharitable) Michael Coren.

With seeming deliberation, he misconstrues virtually everything Lennon stood for. Lennon never “said that he was more important than Jesus Christ,” as Coren avers. In exasperation at the shallow priorities of pop culture, he once marvelled that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” It was an astute point and within the demographics of Beatle fandom at that time, he was absolutely right.

Fastening onto just-released FBI documents tracing a fraction of Lennon’s charitable giving to IRA arms suppliers, Coren takes the bait and goes nuts with it; portraying Lennon as a supporter of terrorists who got their kicks by “ripping the guts out of mums and toddlers doing their Christmas shopping.”

Oh pulleease! Lennon could be vain, self-righteous, perhaps blind to a few of his weaknesses. But he was a courageous (if occasionally ditzy) advocate for peace and he was a perfectly brilliant musician.

Coren has passed damning judgement on a man he refuses to adequately or even honestly regard.

As Lennon himself wrote in Strawberry Fields Forever: “Living is easy with eyes closed; misunderstanding all you see.”

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Gooden, Herman. “Different beliefs not to be feared.” London Free Press (March 5, 2000).

Published with permission of London Free Press.

THE AUTHOR

Herman Goodden is a London freelance writer. His column appears regularly in Sunday’s A&E section..

Copyright © 2000 London Free Press


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