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Heaven's Gate

Drinking in AVAM's Fabulous and Fabulously Prescient Exploration of Beliefs

UNCONVENTIONAL: A detail of Tim Duncan's "500 Nuns Donate Their Brains To Science."

By Deborah McLeod | Posted 1/2/2008

The trouble between people began somewhere long ago. For starters, there's always Genesis 11's account: "And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which all the descendants of Noah had built. And He said, `Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.'

"So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the earth."

Now, here we find ourselves in 2008, with myriad engineering capabilities, spaceships even, our ongoing hubris, and our diaspora notions of truth and righteousness that have spawned such discordant testimonials regarding our beginning, our end, our purpose, and our founder. If Genesis may be trusted, it seems God, expressing outright concern about safeguarding his own omnipotence, does not relish too much human togetherness. That is either a serious roadblock or a big inducement to try again.

And what is there to do but keep trying, given the antagonism we exhibit in our numerous alienations? That is the very point of Rebecca Hoffberger's wonderful, dicey, inverted ziggurat of an exhibition, All Faiths Beautiful. Hoffberger has gone looking for representative descendants from those scattered sects to bring them together in her twinkling mirror-ball palace, a place where everyone can find reflecting fragments of the self in the mosaic of lucidity that issues from the mouths, paint cans, glue guns, and uncorrupted zeal of her confederation of innocents and truth-tellers.

The show is an inverted ziggurat because it starts small--a few postcards begin to make the point about human alienation and spiritual hope--and grows to be a great platform for the ideas of tolerance and reconciliation that the huge array of selected works in the floors above envisions. The postcards are a sampling of the 3-year-old global community blog PostSecret.com, originated by Marylander Frank Warren. Its gallery installation of four-by-six-inch cards follows AVAM's elliptical walls, drawing us up to encounter the bulk of the show. The PostSecret cards are an assortment of many individual votives made in one of the steadfast forms of visionary art--raw, candid, dreamlike imagery often articulated or enhanced by a scribbled revelation/supplication.

All Faiths Beautiful builds out from these shared materials of mankind's invented institutions. In its critical mass is a symphonic reply. It suckles first by initiating visitors into the primal Great Mother/Protector section, greeting them with Mona Webb's glass, jewel, and penny-encrusted figures, Sarwar Khan's sweet mixed-media/dogma works on paper, and Pamela Smith and her daughter Sophie Pickens' invincible and divinely lovely papier-mâché international goddesses. On an outer wall is a seven-panel trompe l'oeil mural by James Franklin Snodgrass imagining the population of the world materializing into a subtle image of a fertile reclining mother figure--an altogether different, more organic vision of Babel.

Each doctrine is provided a spokesperson. There are Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic, Quaker, Hebrew, Muslim, Sufi, and Buddhist artists in the show. While a couple of the viewpoints come from practicing ministers, most works are done either by students of a doctrine or its reformists. The most undeniably forceful work dealing with the sacrilege of misguided religious zeal is by a church leader. The Rev. Richard Emmanuel's memento mori composite sculpture is titled "Stillborn Jesus." A scroll hangs over a pedestal presenting an effigy of a shrouded infant. It indicates that it would be better for Jesus to have been stillborn than to have to witness the travesties carried out in his holy name.

There is political commentary throughout as well. Chris Roberts-Antieau's fiber book of civic etiquette welcomes visitors to thumb through it, to handle and turn the appliquéd pages of Gandhi's Seven Deadly Sins and leave their invisible fingerprints behind. Wealth without Work, Commerce without Morality, Science without Humanity, and Education without Character are among the cautions stitched into its brightly instructive pages.

Other works come from artists who look beyond particular canons to find inspiration and spirituality in biological and supernatural phenomena, psychedelic drugs, in the simple kindnesses of man, in cleanliness, animals, and trees. All Faiths' artists include some of the luminaries of idiosyncratic vision, such as Edith Valentine Tenbrink, who co-founded the Ancient Order of the Golden Precept with her husband, John, loosely basing her mystical paintings on fragmented ideas from ancient religious orders to illustrate their metaphysical lectures. Alex Grey's amazingly intricate Invisible Man-type images, featuring the human anatomy as the central sacred system, promote another personal pedagogy; he founded his Chapel of Sacred Mirrors in New York as a refuge for like-minded "transdenominationalist" thinkers.

To some degree, the form of individual liberty that accompanies mixing up an old doctrine or two to facilitate a private revelation is not so terribly removed from recasting a doctrine in one's own image for selfish or evil purpose and political gain. Unless any seeker of truth or faith is forced with blunt or sharp tools into basic fundamentalism, this is the natural result of their uncertain spiritual journeys. The ego is a busybody. Opportunism lurks. It's the moral of the Genesis story, what ostensibly worried God when he came upon Babel.

So to ward the miscreants off, a wellspring of enlightened viewpoints is silk-screened on AVAM's walls. Quotes from philosophers and spiritual leaders including St. Augustine of Hippo, Jelaluddin Rumi, Carl Jung, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Dalai Lama, and the ceremonial chief of the Teton Sioux, Fools Crow, guide us in contemplating our tendencies to go astray and how to proceed toward a selfless civic, but apolitical, ideal. And one of the inspirational examples that Hoffberger chose to enhance her concept comes from St. Gregory of Nyssa, via religion and philosophy professor Huston Smith, who said, "Concepts create idols, only wonder comprehends. People kill one another over idols."

We have to make a sharp distinction between authentic religion and hijacked religion. Authentic religion is a message of peace--no variations. The subject is tricky. But while you walk in a true state of rapture amid the many strains of wondrous idolatry--for, absent agreement on what is false, that is one of the functions of human creativity, is it not?--of All Faiths Beautiful, you can't help but feel that a benevolent blueprint for a new tower to pierce the cloud cover and ascend to heaven as one family has been laid out on a drafting table. H

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