Science fiction has made theology interesting once again. The legion fans of Blade Runner and its derivatives or the millions who participate in Star Trek conventions may not have read the Bible or the works of Kant or the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius, but should the Reformation’s leaders (or a brilliant Roman or Greek poet) have watched the best of the sci-fi offerings over the last fifty years, from Star Trek forward to (say) Black Mirror—a stand-alone series of futuristic dramas that explore techno-paranoia and our collective unease about the modern world hijacked by Silicon Valley—they’d assume that philosophers and theologians created them. American viewers of sci-fi might never darken the door of a seminary and casually call themselves nones when asked if they’re religious, but they also happen to be theologically educated, philosophically attuned, even obsessed people, given their steady diet of brilliant and thoughtful sci-fi.
The questions raised by today’s sci-fi are liberating for religiously obsessed artists like me. I’m becoming more and more overtly theological both in my writing and painting than I’d dare to be without the inspiration of the best creators of sci-fi. Why religion-obsessed art in 2017? Because in a time when Trump hijacked the white evangelical vote mimicking the bitter radicalization of some Muslims, religion is not just relevant—it is deadly. It must be examined and, if necessary, knowledgeably resisted. Thus my paintings of late are my personal effort to do my bit in what amounts to a war of ideas.
In a time when Westworld dares to ask the big questions about personhood, and all Gene Roddenberry’s work at reconciliation, tolerance, and race relations seems to have been undone at a stroke by Trump’s fearmongering, I have no problem giving quirky, subversive theological titles to some of my paintings such as this one: “On the Day the World Ended God Inexplicably Only Raptured All the Pinocchio Dolls to Heaven along with Many Pink Cyclamens but Left Behind All the Christians.”
These days—as is reflected in a series of paintings I’m working on in order to put together a major show—I’m riffing on the ironic absurdity of fundamentalist religion per se and its political fallout. Another painting of mine in this theology-obsessed phase is called “When the Manna Ran out God Inexplicably Began Dropping Cyclamens, Old Teddy Bears and Champagne on the People of Israel and Unintentionally Killed Moses with a Good Bottle of California Chandon.”
Then there’s “On Inauguration Day 2017 God Tried to Punish Donald Trump by Showering Him with French Carbon Steel Knives, Pinocchio Dolls, Assorted Rubber Ducks and Pink Cyclamens but Inexplicably in a Fit of Gross Divine Incompetence Missed Trump by Miles and Crippled an American Evangelical Tourist Visiting the Wailing Wall in Israel as She Posed for a Picture.”
I’m also trying to unashamedly paint what seems beautiful to me in the most detailed and craft-centric use of oil paint I’ve ever attempted, taking longer over these works than I’ve ever spent on anything else. The titles may be my quirky answer to fundamentalists, but the paintings are in deadly and (I hope) beautiful earnest. They may be absurdist and symbolist works drawing on my childhood experiences as referenced by my including my own old teddy bears (!), but they are in the tradition of Hieronymus Bosch.
Bosch was a priest who dared to paint horrifying truths about the nature of spiritual struggle and damnation. My grandchildren are mesmerized by my Bosch art books. We encounter his hybrid creatures, his nightmarish scenarios, his religious and moral framework, and his pictorial versions of contemporary proverbs and idioms. Bosch would have understood why I began painting wooden Pinocchio dolls falling from the sky after Trump’s election. Social, political, and religious symbolism was his thing.
Bosch’s most famous triptych is “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (1495–1505). In the left-hand panel God presents Eve to Adam in a landscape populated by exotic animals and fanciful organic-seeming structures. The central panel is teeming with sexually energized nude figures engaged in self-absorbed joy, as well as fantastic animals. The right-hand panel presents a hellscape of tortured figures lit by fiery explosions. Bosch’s work has always struck me as ironic: serious but still poking fun at established superstitions to via his outlandish and clever exaggerations of the horrors of hell and the spiritual warfare his Church claimed was an actual reality.
Trump/Bannon (like some latter-day Savonarola-type inquisitors) have taken us back to the pre-Renaissance mind-set still present in Bosch’s terrors based on theological obsession. Bosch sums up this dark vision, which has been described in another context by the author William Manchester as A World Lit Only by Fire.
In the post-Trump Dark Age of unapologetic greed married to angry ego, I feel that my religiously oriented art and writing, for better or worse, is sadly in tune with today’s widely held worldview, dominated by religion and resurgent whites-only nationalism, lies (“alternative facts”), and a return to politicized prescientific superstition (there’s no manmade global warming and the Earth’s ten thousand years old!). I am also in tune with many other people who express longings for more than what rationalistic secular modernity offers. And I paint for people for whom the word beauty still holds meaning even now.