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Take God out of your religious box

DamienHirstsSharkBy taking us on a lyrical journey via rainbows, smokers and the art world Norwich social worker and writer Ben Bell encourages us to look afresh at God.

If you try to contain God in a box – a box of religion, your idea of how it all goes down – then you kill the reality, which is the mystery, the unfathomable depths of God.

I spoke with a friend about the need to view God in a broad way: as the Father God of the Bible; the creator of the universe; the question for philosophers; the grounding of self-awareness that is ‘exploded’ from the inside out by psychotherapy. And so viewing God holistically is, in my opinion, vital. It is all the colours of the rainbow, not just one.

I like rainbows because they have a foot in both camps: science and religion. They are balanced out that way, inclusive. Just like the common ground shared between Christians and smokers – they both challenge death and they are both becoming increasingly marginalised (being in a minority is always a protection against the ‘Pharisee disease’). You can call yourself a Christian, but bear in mind that Christianity is only mentioned twice in the Bible, and Christ was not a Christian. There is a sense in which the title is not important, and of course, it can be restricting.

I expect it could affect the self-esteem of smokers that you have to stand outside of a building nowadays to pursue your habit. Even the fact that I called it a habit, I bet that affects your self-esteem too, if having to stand outside didn’t already. You should just give up, that would be the logical solution. But since when was life logical, except in matters of life and death? I’m very illogical, I lack self-esteem and I have bad habits. Smokers are my friends.

Following the rainbow’s ever-expansive arch, let’s make a comparison, or a point of contrast, to show the massive shift that has and is occurring in the art world - from traditional to modern. Before, it was pictures of recognisable, easily explainable scenes, personages, flowers. Then some, such as Van Gogh, Turner and Picasso began to interpret the natural world more individualistically, using new styles and brush strokes to achieve a fresh and unique perspective.

Then more changes came with conceptual art – where it is not about the aesthetic pleasure derived from the art, but the idea behind it, that is the thing.

So Marcel Duchamp says a urinal can be art, and introduces a radically different idea of what art can be (if you don’t appreciate the image, then the poetic playfulness in the title ‘The Fountain’, must at least make you smile!). It is only art in this case, because it is taken out of its original or functional-mundane context.

It’s the same with Tracey Emin’s bed, or Damien Hirst’s shark in a tank, entitled ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ (pictured).  Why can’t something personal to everyone, like a bed, be art or something that would usually only be in a natural history museum? Things being taken out of their original contexts and put into new ones is also evocatively postmodern. Oh the times they are a’ always a’ changin’. A patchwork quilt of a patchwork quilt…

Inevitably, the general consensus is that the former – a well painted picture of a country scene or a vase of flowers etc. – is liked more by the general public than the latter – they don’t care about the concept behind it, they want something to evoke certain sensations within them, of joy and rapture, intrigue, a smile, not disgust at seeing something that requires no technical skill to make.

Though of course there are others that understand, appreciate and gain much from something that challenges them more; they get the irony, the subversion, that art can’t be defined by its context, which is ever-moveable, so anything and nothing can be art, and creativity is not exclusive to the aesthetic, or the hand-crafted.

So going back to the idea of putting God in a box, or the docks, it is about chasing, reaching for, recognising, not denying and not defending against the ever-new. But some people are not interested in progression, they want what they know and like. This doesn’t necessarily imply ignorance – they are open to new concepts, slants on things, but they stop where others progress.

Religion and art should reflect the world in which we live, so that we can relate to them, but at the same time add a new, special, exciting, spiritual or transcendent element. A little bit more than love. A little bit more than emotion. A little bit more than intellect. A spice to add to the spices…

God could be seen as the ultimate paradox, an implausibility to the rational human mind, being both beyond time, and intrinsically woven into it - dualism and theism (spice ‘em up a bit, c’mon, you boring title-clingers on, unloosen your grip an’ get terrified at the awesome awesomeness!).

Movements in art and the history of the church are all inevitable, pieces of the human striving jigsaw, a need to create, evolve, destroy and start over. Relationships. All we got. When we have exhausted all possibilities, God gives us a new sunset.

Can I get an amen again…? When’s last orders? Wouldn’t you like to know!


Ben Bell works as a social worker and writes fiction that covers themes of faith, conflict and personal journey.  He attends St Stephens Church, Norwich.  His latest book, ‘Bookcase’, by Ben Bell is available via online retailers.

The views carried here are those of the author, not of Network Norwich and Norfolk, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate between website users. 
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Photo:  The side of "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living" from Damien Hirst in the Metropolitan Museum of Art at 1000 5th Avenue in New York City by Rupert Ganzer on Flickr under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License. 

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