Burned out (by God?)

While walking with my wife Wendy the other night, our conversation took an interesting turn. She has been reading Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, and told me about how, in the early 70s, Smith and artist Robert Mapplethorpe would spend long evenings at Max’s Kansas City hoping to connect with Andy Warhol. For some reason, Smith thought it worth mentioning that they waited under the red glow of a light sculpture commemorating the bloodshed of the Vietnam war.

My wife is a good storyteller and the mention of a light artist jogged my memory — I was pleased to remember a New York Times piece about Dan Flavin, who turned out to be the creator of that sculpture in the back room of Max’s. The article detailed the challenges of preserving and presenting Flavin’s work: after his death and with the increasing value of his sculptures, Flavin’s off-the-shelf practicality often gave way to meticulous attempts to preserve his ephemeral creations.

What happens when a Flavin bulb burns out? Can you replace it with a bulb from the corner hardware store? Leave it dark? Or must you only purchase hand-crafted copies of the original bulbs that are officially licensed by the Flavin estate?

As the conversation wandered, my wife raised questions about the nature of certain religious experiences. Delusional? Bullshit? Philosopher Harry Frankfurt would say intentionally ignoring the truth of a claim and instead focusing solely on the desired affects of that claim is the very definition of bullshit. Considered as such, a religious pitch is no different than that of a used car salesman who will do whatever it takes to put you in that car today.

Do we partake in religion because of how it makes us feel — the emotions, the social comfort, the tradition — without care for the substance, or lack thereof, behind it all?

For me, a helpful metaphor for this kind of religious questioning is found in Patti Smith’s anecdote and Dan Flavin’s artwork.

When is a light bulb in a corner just a light bulb in a corner? When is it (or, for that matter, when does it become) a work of art?

Are we all waiting in the back room of an iconic nightclub under a museum-destined rosy glow for an appearance by one of the great artists of the 20th century? Or are we waiting, night after night, in a dingy bar that’s illumed by a buzzing fluorescent bulb, for an appearance by a manipulative narcissist who might never show up?

“Since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer?”, Piscine Patel, a practicing Muslim, Christian and Hindu, asks in Life of Pi. In Piscine’s view, God is whatever you prefer. Given his pluralistic embrace of major religions, he might say that the nature of these questions isn’t either/or: it is a bulb in the corner and it is a meaningful work of art.

The Flavin bulb captures something important, but to further tease apart the metaphor risks fracturing an already fragile construct. Sometimes, rather than fretting about meaning and borrowing the trouble of a burned-out bulb, perhaps we should simply appreciate the light—or the lack thereof.


Dan WilkinsonDan Wilkinson
Dan is a writer, graphic designer and IT specialist. He lives in Montana, is married and has two cats. He blogs at CoolingTwilight.com.

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  • http://allegro63.wordpress.com/ allegro63

    Ah, religion…God…in the eye of the beholder. That so resonates with me.

  • Alliecat04

    I’m sorry, but I kind of hate this. To me, it does matter whether what I believe is true. If I knew it were bullshit, I wouldn’t choose to believe it, regardless of how good it made me feel.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/unfundamentalistchristians/ Dan Wilkinson

      I think truth does matter and that we should do our very best to avoid giving or accepting bullshit.

      • Alliecat04

        Then I’m just not sure what you were saying here. :)

        • http://patheos.com/blogs/unfundamentalistchristians/ Dan Wilkinson

          Religion might be bullshit. It might not be. Certainly some forms of it are. How can you tell the difference? There’s not a quick and easy formula for truth. And truth, whatever it may ultimately be, often eludes us, hiding behind our perceptions and biases and limitations. Truth may not be relative, but our understanding of it often is. I think that there is objective beauty in the world. I think that art has inherent value and worth and meaning and significance. But someone else looks at a modern light sculpture and evaluates it as being bullshit — devoid of meaning and truth, merely a puffed-up self-indulgent charade. Those sorts of value judgments are subjective, and there’s no surefire way to resolve our differences. And so it is with religion. We should do our best to seek the truth, but we must recognize our limitations and acknowledge the perspectives of others.

    • http://allegro63.wordpress.com/ allegro63

      I get it.
      To use the bullshit analogy. To some its just smelly cow dung that you made the mistake of stepping in, but they know all cows must poop to remain healthy, to others its the stuff that makes for the tastiest tomatoes, bursting with blooms roses, and peonies that make poets weep.

      Religion, or rather the trappings of religion are the same way. To some there is meaning and richness in preaching and hymns, and cathederals, to others others its too restricting, preferring interactive dialog and looking at things without a set order or ritual. To some reading the bible brings them closer to God, to others, sipping coffee, listening to bird song, and contemplating the majesty of the surroundings of one’s back yard does. To the one, the other means are “bullshit” of little value to them personally.

      Its way too easy to see our “bullshit” way of looking at things to mean that it should also be that way for us all, but its just not true. Some of us love Monet, others Warhol. It is our personal perceptions, how we individually see things, that should matter to us, NOT whether others are supposed see it the same way or not.

      • R Vogel

        If I may expound a bit, I think it may be a bit more than just personal perception. A symbol cannot be true or false, but it can have efficacy i.e. it transmits something meaningful to a larger group of people either in general, within a certain cultural context, or over time. Generally it is about something ineffable whether you want to call it G*d or the human condition or the ‘ought’ rather than the ‘is’. This is why we can go to the museum and see a Monet or Warhol but not, alas, a Vogel. (I did a rockin Thanksgiving turkey from my handprint back in the day) There have been thousands, maybe millions of religions over the millennia, those that lost efficacy disappeared, while others have persisted. To attempt to apply the method of scientific inquiry to determine whether a religion is ‘true’ is not only inappropriate, like asking you to tell me how tall you are in pounds, it is fruitless. Each asks different questions and gives different answers. I think one of the things we need to be mindful of is if we continue to allow Christianity, or any religious belief, to be defined in the terms of scientific inquiry, as both fundamentalist atheists and Christians are wont to do, they it risks losing its efficacy, since it becomes more interested in ‘proving’ the Genesis account or apologizing for slavery and other terrible things contained therein, rather than furthering the Kingdom of G*d through rallying for a more just, equal, and compassionate society. Just my two cents.

        Clarification: I do not want to be accused of saying that a symbol that has meaning to you personally but is not efficacious generally has less value. It may simply be communicating meaning that is very specific or in a language that only you can understand. Unless it make you a jerk. Then it has less value. 😉

        • http://allegro63.wordpress.com/ allegro63

          To me it points to my favorite part about faith….the mystical side. It’s deeper, nearly impossible to clearly define, hard enough to explain, mostly introspective. Its not so much about whether something is true or not, but rather can we discover, learn, find meaning from it.

          And for the record, my limits of expertise of the visual arts cease at appreciation and the entry level art history course I took a few years ago,

        • Alliecat04

          Christianity makes a historically-grounded, potentially verifiable or otherwise statement: a man called Jesus Christ rose from the dead. If that statement is false, Christianity is bullshit holding together a nice collection of moral sentiments.

          • R Vogel

            We can’t even verify if Jesus was a historical person, much less if he rose from the dead. In the end, for many of us it doesn’t even matter. It is the meaning of the Cross (symbol for Jesus’ life and mission, not the literal instrument of his death), not its historicity that matters. For some people this is not sufficient, they want certainty. This is a very human response. It is reflected in the need for Fundamentalists to ‘prove’ (to their own satisfaction anyway) everything in the bible is ‘true’ including their way of reading it. Alas, I think certainty is unattainable except in very limited circumstances (It either is or is not raining outside), especially with regard to the questions with which religion wrestles. We can either become comfortable with uncertainty, interestingly science has done a great job at this while mainstream religion not so much, or limited the scope of things we talk about to very few subjects.

          • Alliecat04

            There’s a big whopping difference between clapping your hands and believing really hard that Tinkerbell will come back to life and a mature faith. If you don’t honestly believe that what you believe has a basis in reality, there are more useful hobbies.

          • R Vogel

            The human condition, wrestling with the question of what it means to be human; how to deal with death, suffering, tragedy and loss; how to love my neighbor – these are all a part of reality (to me the most important part) and what religious belief attempts to tackle. Far more important than if a dude actually lived in 1st century Palestine. The only reason to try and ‘prove’ one religion is so that you can disprove something else. If Jesus, then not Muhammad or Buddha or Joseph Smith. I have no desire to get into that kind of pissing contest. If it is important to you then you will likely end up an agnostic or atheist. Which is perfectly acceptable to me (not that you were looking for my acceptance)

          • Alliecat04

            See, here’s the thing: not Joseph Smith, not because I have anything against Mormons as such, but because it’s possible to do the research and find out that the real, live human named Joseph Smith was a very nasty sort. Are we not allowed to use our brains on the subject of Joseph Smith just because he called himself a religious leader?

            I’m telling you, if I had hard, historical evidence that Jesus was a first century con artist who banged all his groupies, I would not be calling myself by his name. These aren’t spiritual matters; they are physical matters in the physical world. It’s as intellectually dishonest to take your brain of the hook in this instance as to pretend that dinosaurs walked alongside early humans 6,000 years ago.

          • http://patheos.com/blogs/unfundamentalistchristians/ Dan Wilkinson

            I tend to agree with that sentiment (as does Paul in 1 Cor 15), but not all Christians do. I would add a caveat that historical events of the past aren’t directly verifiable in any sort of absolute sense.

        • Lars

          That is a very interesting concept – efficacy lost. I can’t help but think of all the mom-and-pops shops swallowed up through the years by Walmart. If all truths are local, I guess you’ve got export your truth and make sure it’s bigger and louder than anyone else’s. The same is true of art, if you consider Transformer movies art like my 12 year-old does.

          The fundamentalists would take issue with how you go about furthering the Kingdom of God, however. A more just, equal, and compassionate society is precisely the wrong approach. Don’t you realize that God’s not establishing his Kingdom until everything in utter ruin, so why hold things up? (The sooner that belief loses its efficacy, the better.)

          • R Vogel

            I have no idea how mom and pop shops and Walmart relate to the discussion, nor Transformer movies. One is business and the other entertainment. Art is neither (although it may contain elements of both, thanks Andy and Pablo).
            I know what Fundamentalists think, which is why I walked away from Fundamentalism more than 2 decades ago. I agree that the faster those idea lose efficacy the better.
            BTW I love Blade Runner. What a great symbol for the struggle of man struggling to find meaning in the universe. That’s one we will still be talking about in 100 years, along with Do Android Dream… Transformers, not so much.

          • Lars

            I think back to my own childhood church, which was small and unassuming on the outside but quite lively inside. For various reasons, we eventually moved on. The next church had its own bowling alley, the next one had a rock band, etc. I found a small one in college I liked but my family, with a detour into home churches, kept trading up. They now attend a 5,000 member satellite church where they watch the pastor on closed-circuit tv while sipping a lattes from the coffee shop in the lobby. That was where I was trying to go. The mom-and-pop churches of my youth have been mostly replaced in larger cities by mega-churches that have outreach down to a science and celebrity pastors. Even my kids wanted to go there because the last time we visited they won prizes and candy in Sunday School! Now that’s efficacy!

            I’m probably overly cynical but art and church and substance have been mostly co-opted by Madison Avenue. That’s probably inevitable as society becomes more urban and “culture” – and cultures – becomes less distinctive. But, if “God is whatever you prefer,” a church’s job is to make you prefer them.

            It’s sad, really. Blade Runner could have been a hands-down, all-time classic. If only it could have been in 3D like Transformers… (But, despite that shortcoming it’ll always be in my top 5.)

          • R Vogel

            OK, now I understand. Thanks for the clarification. I generally stay away from equating church to religious belief. Churches, denominations, etc are just institutions. Like all institutions they take on a life of their own. They need to survive. I was trying to get at something more fundamental about belief.

          • http://patheos.com/blogs/unfundamentalistchristians/ Dan Wilkinson

            Blade Runner offers some deep food for thought regarding our spirituality!

        • http://patheos.com/blogs/unfundamentalistchristians/ Dan Wilkinson

          I generally agree, and that you make some important points that are well-worth pondering. But…I’d also say that scientific inquiry does and should have a role in religious faith. Exactly what that role should be is a wide open question, but it concerns me when we seem to want to segment and divide areas of knowledge and inquiry into too exclusive of categories.

          • R Vogel

            I personally think the only role scientific inquiry has in religious belief is providing the proper boundary. When the circles overlap as sorts of bad things result. Over the millennia religion has properly receded from areas where science had expanded. We no longer need religious belief to explain why it rains, or why the stars move the way they do, or where life came from. But we still have questions about what it all means, questions science will likely never be able to answer.

          • http://patheos.com/blogs/unfundamentalistchristians/ Dan Wilkinson

            I think the circles have to overlap. Things might get messy, but that doesn’t mean that bad things have to result. You’re right that questions of meaning seem beyond the realm of science…but if science can be be used to shed light on how our minds work and how we understand the world and why we act and think the way we do … then such questions and answers do overlap with questions of meaning. Likewise, issues of morality and human dignity and human rights are often rooted in religious belief, and can help guide our scientific inquiry. For me, there is plenty of gray area that we should not only live with, but actually embrace.

    • http://rolltodisbelieve.wordpress.com/ Captain Cassidy

      You can’t “choose” to have faith. You either have it or you don’t. Try “choosing” to believe deep down in Santa right now. You can’t–because you know perfectly well that he can’t possibly exist. It’s up to you whether or not that makes the concept of Santa bullshit, right? You may still indulge in the idea for children or buy Santa-themed games, toys, or ornaments, or even enjoy watching Christmas specials about him, or you might reject the whole shebang. Same for religion. Every single person who subscribes to a faith system does so because it feeds him or her somehow–not because it’s objectively true, because there is not a single religion whose truth claims have been demonstrated to be so, not a single one out of tens of thousands of years of human history and untold thousands of religions.

      I ended up leaving Christianity many years ago when I realized that not a single one of its major truth claims was actually objectively true. My religion’s leaders had made clear that this religion rose or fell on the strength of its objective truth claims, so when I discovered they weren’t true, I had a big choice to make: reality or my faith. I chose reality. Over time, I came to realize that those truth claims were really my religion’s least damning facet. I call this choice the terrible dilemma, and I think it’s a cruel and unnecessary torment. If your faith rises on objective truth claims then it will fall apart once you realize how few of them are really objectively true. But it’s okay for many folks that Christianity’s claims aren’t objectively true. There are tons of Christians–and the majority of Jews, too–who accept the Bible’s mythic nature. There’s a world of nuance in the religion that I didn’t have access to then that you do now, so perhaps you’ll find an equilibrium.

      But if not, then yes, you’re right. If objective truth is what matters to you most, and that’s okay if it is, then I’ve no doubt you’ll soon be noticing a bunch of free time opening up in your social calendar. I just hope you don’t face that awful moment I did long ago. That was horrible, and I’m still a little torqued that I was set up for that showdown like I was.

  • R Vogel

    I love the analogy between art and religion! Well done. I think also like art, an artists interpretation of their own work, or what they were trying to convey in creating it, becomes less important than what it invokes in the viewer. I think of poetry and a student’s invariable question ‘But what does it mean?’ as if every poem is a puzzle to be solved. Sometimes we just have to be comfortable with unknowing.

    • http://batman-news.com Anton

      Sometimes we just have to be comfortable with unknowing.

      My sentiments exactly. The quest for certainty has to be one of Homo Sap’s least endearing qualities.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/unfundamentalistchristians/ Dan Wilkinson

      Art always requires a viewer/listener/reader … and that viewer will always bring their own meaning to the work, a meaning that is just as important, if not more important than anything the artist may have originally intended.

    • http://rolltodisbelieve.wordpress.com/ Captain Cassidy

      If we were meant to be certain, there’d be a little something more to be certain with. I’m okay with not being certain. I don’t trust anybody who claims to be so.

  • Andrew

    Throwing this out there. It’s obvious none of you are Christians.

    • Raymond Watchman

      If being a Christian means being a village idiot, then yes, you are correctly stating the obvious.

    • Adam334

      Hi Andrew, I suggest you go to their “What We Believe” page. I think some of them have a relationship with Christ, they’re just “swayed by winds of doctrine”.

    • http://allegro63.wordpress.com/ allegro63

      Obvious? Based on what?

  • Adam334

    This writer would do better to read and believe God’s Word than to philosophize about religion….

    • http://allegro63.wordpress.com/ allegro63

      Religion has a lot of philosophy to it. In fact the two are kissing cousins. What is beautiful about this peace is it discusses perception from a personal level. Yes its philosophical in nature, but so was the book of Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs, as well as other passages in the Bible.

      Philosophy seeks to examine the big questions of life, try to understand them and seek solutions. Religion does the same thing, only adding the element of the divine in the mix.