Oh, the Things You See in West Michigan

As I was driving home today I got passed by the Jesus Mobile.

I like the stance. It’s got kind of a Kung Fu or Jew-Jitsu aspect to it, like he’s ready for action and about to start smiting. Or, as my brother put it, looking like he just shoved somebody onto the subway tracks.

I hope to see this thing in ArtPrize next year. It’s way better than this year’s first place Hover-Jesus.

There are a few more masterpieces to choose from on the artist’s website in case you’re thinking about upgrading the paint job on your car. A couple of them are all blood and gore Jesii, meant to make you feel bad, but my favorite has to be Sexy Alluring Jesus, showing off a bit of skin and winking with that come hither look, beckoning you to stick your finger in him. Hot.

Stop Doubting and be Creeped Out

Holy Flying Christ! It’s ArtPrize!

It’s hard not to get a little cynical about the annual ArtPrize competition in Grand Rapids. The event name itself gives me a twinge of agony every time I consider it. ArtPrize. It cuts right to the point in an almost patronizing way. In case we find ourselves walking around downtown and forget why we’re seeing all sorts of art, it’s because there’s a prize involved. It’s like the teacher trying to dumb down a concept for the lowest common denominator in class.

Don’t get me wrong. I usually have a lot of fun walking around and taking in all the different works of art around the city. The key is that you have to get off the beaten path. It’s a competition in which anyone with a text-ready phone can be a judge. The result is that the usual high traffic areas are often filled with large and memorable gimmicky pieces that, while often fun to look at, aren’t really the most artsy pieces. They often lack any real depth and are only there to collect votes, like last year’s giant steampunk pig (which was awesome, by the way) or this year’s guys painted bronze acting like statues (blech).

In the interest of full disclosure, I know absolutely nothing about art. That much should already be obvious.

Which leads me to my rant about this year’s top ten. There were three in particular that made me facepalm when I found out they were finalists. There were a couple bronze-painted construction workers who, for the most part, stood still except for the occasional surprise movement that you could see in any touristridden city in the world, as well as a wax-museum-grade sculpture of Grand Rapids’ only claim to fame, America’s first accidental president, A Narcissistic Gerald R. Ford checking out his own bust.

But those two are merely tasteless hors d’oeuvres compared to this year’s winner. That’s right, I’m talking about Hover-Jesus. Er, I mean, Crucifixion, by Mia Tavonatti. Here he is, in all his hackneyed glory, soaring through the clouds on his trusty airship made of wooden beams and rusty nails:

This thing is made of tiny shards of stained glass that she individually selected and carved. There are even little glass circles for his nipples. It must have taken an awful lot of time, and as our previous ArtPrize winners have shown, that’s what we Grand Rapidsians adore. Our votes tend to appreciate hard work over content. She had an entry last year using the same medium and won second place. The only thing missing was Jesus. That correction netted her $250,000 this year. Congratulations, Mia, you gamed the system. I only wish I had thought of it first.

Which is why I’m announcing my entry for next year’s competition. I’ve learned the ArtPrize game. Years one and two showed me that whatever I make, it has to be big. Last year’s entry also showed me that you don’t even have to create art; you can get by with just a pencil, a wall of paper, a projector, and some photograph you find in granddaddy’s shoebox. Seriously, the dude who won last year just used a pencil and a projector to magnify an old military photograph from 1921. He’s like a human laser-jet printer. It was genius.

All I need to do is combine that with what I’ve learned about Jesus to make my vision complete. I submit to you my proposal for a thirty foot tall, pencil-drawn reproduction of this masterpiece I found wandering around the internet:

I’ll have some stiff competition, but my art will be loved. Next year, vote for me. And Jesus. And Santa. And 9/11. To vote otherwise would be unAmerican.

Actually, don’t vote for it. Vote for what you like, but for Hover-Jesus’ sake, just make sure that the next time you visit ArtPrize, you go off the beaten path. There is a lot of good stuff out there if you take the time to look. Just try and avoid all the gimmicky kitsch so prevalent in the open spaces.

Introduction to a Nonbeliever

I wrote the following at the request of a Christian friend at Love Life, Embrace Risks, and Live for Eternity, to portray the viewpoints of an atheist for a Christian audience:

I am an unbeliever.

However, I am not “unchurched”. I have known the power and love of the church firsthand and had attributed it to my personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I was raised in modern Baptist home with loving parents and a life rich within the church. I was saved early on and until I reached the age of twenty-five, my life was devoted to living for Jesus and spreading His Word and love.

Yet, I have rejected the church and the Bible, notions of Jesus, the Christian and Jewish God, Heaven, Hell, and an afterlife. You may ask why.

My journey was never intended to draw me away from the Christian faith. Rather, I made it a goal of mine to become closer to who Jesus truly was so that I was able to serve him better. I made an internal pact with myself and God that I would see this line of questioning through to the end. I had anticipated coming out the other end with a much closer relationship with God through Jesus.

However, my quest began to show me, slowly at first, then like a tidal wave, that there is nothing unique about Christianity; that, instead, it contains as much (and as little) truth as all other religions, and that the things I thought were truths were far from it, that the power of the church and things attributed to God and Jesus were actually of a more sublime nature, more akin to the social cohesion obtained through the common human experience resonating in all ancient texts and mythologies.

The details of my deconversion are long and winding, full of twists and turns, and I’m working on piecing together the tale in its entirety. But let me first get a few common misconceptions out of the way.

Accusations

1. You never were a “true” Christian.

Yes, I was. If you doubt the commitment I had to Jesus, I am writing a more longwinded version of my conversion, my Christian life, and the circumstances that caused me to leave the faith. However difficult it may be to understand that a believer could stop believing, it is true. I’ve got plenty of family and friends that would stand behind my life as a Christian.

2. You left Christianity due to sin.

My deconversion began with the simple request to know God more. The journey carried me through the various Christian beliefs, until ultimately finding no god at the end of the tunnel. I knew that in order to attain a closer relationship to God, I would need to remain pure of thought, mind, and deed. It was probably the most sin-free time in my life.

3. You are angry at God.

This one is hard to explain to someone who believes that beyond a doubt, there is a God. Let me try: I am as angry at the Christian God as you are angry at Zeus. The concept of God, while not foreign to me, is utterly lacking in substance. I can’t be angry at what I don’t believe exists, no matter how much you disagree.

4. You are angry or have unresolved issues with the church.

This is utterly false. My childhood in the church was fantastic and unbelievable. Most of my social life was inside the church and there was a never-ending fountain of fun things to do, lessons to learn, and spiritual “truths” to behold. The same goes for college.

If I have any underlying tensions with the church today, it is due to the dogmatic approach to scripture, the absolute assurance that the rest of the world wants what they have, and the willingness to assert those beliefs onto others unquestioningly.

5. You’re exaggerating your previous claim to Christianity.

Nope. I’ve got plenty of family and friends to vouch for me on that count.

6. You’re lying.

Come on now, really? I know this is posted on the internet, a veritable treasure trove of truth, but in this article, I have strived to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

7. You are unhappy or bitter.

Absolutely false. While I struggled through the deconversion process spiritually and emotionally, today I am more spiritually fulfilled and happy than ever. To assume that a lack of beliefs in Jesus causes unhappiness and bitterness is to ignore the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

8. You’ll be back to Christianity, there’s a lot of people praying for you.

Ten years ago, I was certain that I would never leave my faith. If I were to make such a promise now that I would never leave my non-faith, that would mean nothing. But, now that I am able to read the Bible and see the faiths of man for what they truly are, I very much doubt that I will be returning to any faith, at any time. Those prayers, however much in earnest, have had no affect.

9. Your life has no meaning without Christ or the hope for heaven.

I’d prefer to think exactly the opposite. The fact that I know this is my one and only life to live causes me to make every moment worthwhile. While I don’t doubt that there was a time I questioned this very topic, I now see more meaning in my present life other than waiting for some future reward or trying to convert others to my belief system.

10. You are arrogant for not recognizing the creator.

On the contrary, I consider myself rather humble in this sense. I know that I am a speck of dust on a speck of dust on a speck of dust in an infinitely (or finite, we’re still looking into that) expanse of universe. I don’t assume that there is a maker of the universe, of supernovae and galaxies, of relativity and of quantum mechanics, who was greatly interested in the animal sacrifices of ancient Jews, or the sexual life of people today. That is what I’d call arrogant.

Assuming Too Much

The details of my decision are too many to name here. I won’t go into exactly how or why I came to this my worldview today, but I’d like to get a few things off my chest seeing as how I have a Christian audience.

The terms “godless” and “atheist” are unnecessarily looked down upon, and a lot of that comes from the portrayal of unbelievers in religious circles hammered in by religious texts. We are frowned upon by most organized religions. Most unbelievers tend to keep their unbelief quiet in order to not disturb the peace, and because we don’t adhere to a central doctrine commanding us to tell others of our beliefs.

I challenge believers to open their mind to the overwhelming fact that nonbelievers can be good people in no need of conversion: ones that are completely happy, spiritually fulfilled and generous towards humanity without the need to subscribe to a certain personal relationship or set of rituals or beliefs. We don’t all want to be Christians, nor do we have the same relationship that you have with Yahweh. If we make you queezy, ask yourself why you may believe negatively about unbelievers, or why you may look down upon them for not knowing the deeper truths you may consider yourself to hold.

I view religion (or personal relationships with Christ, if you prefer) more as a construct of social life built out of primitive fears and superstitions, mixed with the intrinsic nature to want to be good. There are other ways of fulfilling that goal without resorting to beliefs in deities and afterlives. Some people fill that gap with an overwhelming obedience to an interpretation of God and Jesus through the Bible, and I can understand why because I’ve been there. The spiritual highs that are attained through acts of worship can be adequately described in terms of psychology and neurology (albeit dryly). I no longer fool myself into thinking such experiences are the cause of a higher power, and somehow that makes the experience of life on Earth all the richer for me.

I can’t speak for all unbelievers, just as no Christian can speak for all others qualifying themselves as Christian. I know that there are atheists born again as Christians, and I know there are Christians born again as atheists (myself included in the latter). This all seems characteristic of the human experience, so I am unable to speak for all.

I am an atheist. But that is only the beginning.