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I’ve been following Ryan Bell’s Year Without God on and off, on Facebook and his blog. I’d heard him preach at a conference for clergy involved in PICO and been very impressed by this Seventh Day Adventist pastor and his passion for economic justice, so when I heard about his year-long experiment in “challeng[ing] his beliefs and let[ting] the world watch,” as his girlfriend Rebecca Pratt summarized it, there was no question but that I’d be among the watchers.

Now, the year has ended, Bell is firmly humanist and atheist, and the responses from many Christians, especially Adventists, are predictable: a sense of loss (“Very sad”), concern for his well-being (“I will pray for him”), anger (“He has made a calculated and sharp deal with his Master”), dismissal (“It is apparent that Brother Bell was living a lie for much of his life“), condescension (“Send him a Bible”), and running through them all, a powerful assumption that no one can be happy without the kind of belief that they themselves have (“Sad, dark and empty life”).

It’s tempting to see these responses as evidence that his former co-religionists are a particularly smug and self-righteous lot, and that if the tables were turned–if, say, a Unitarian Universalist became a Methodist–we liberal-religionists wouldn’t respond this way. However, I’m afraid many would.

Would we be able to let them go to their new spiritual home without criticizing it–“Christianity is just a myth–I prefer reality”? Would we insist on rewriting their life story–“You must not have understood science to begin with”? Would we proclaim our superiority with statements such as “Well, some people need a crutch”?

I cited the Christians whose responses to Bell’s journey have been defensive and judgmental. Fortunately, many others seem secure enough in their own faith to wish him only the best, accepting that spiritual paths other than their own might lead to a person’s being good, happy, and fulfilled. I hope every Unitarian Universalist who ever meets an ex-UU will do likewise. “Not all those who wander are lost,” we seekers like to say. And not all who choose a different path than ours are heading in the wrong direction.

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Something happened to me several sessions back. I was drawing away, trying to pay attention to what was really before my eyes, how the light fell, how the shadows were shaped, what was the length of this limb, the bend of that joint, when suddenly, quietly, something turned right around inside. It felt as if I were on one of those big rigs that camerapeople sit on to shoot a movie scene from above, and it spun around 180 degrees and I was looking out from the model’s point of view. Instead of trying to draw what she looked like, I was trying to draw what it felt like to be her at that moment. And I thought, I’ve been doing this all backwards. I don’t want the viewers to see what I see; I want them to feel what the model feels.

Not that I know what that person feels, of course. But I know what it feels like to be a body, to twist my foot this way, to bend over so that my breath comes a bit short. I know what it’s like to be a human being who’s carrying a whole history inside. Maybe if my drawings help the viewer to feel some of the physical reality, not just see it but feel it, they’ll also enter empathetically into what it might be like to be that person. What is she thinking about? What worries, memories, speculations are in her mind? What emotions are occupying her right now? What events brought her to this moment in her life, and where does she imagine she’s going next?

It was humbling. Here and there, though, looking back at drawings I did months before that chair spun me around, I can see that happening. This next one made the cut and was photographed on account of the stretch of the left arm and the slightly uncomfortable twist of the right foot. Looking at it, I begin to feel what it might be like inside this person’s skin.

140217c 7min

The next one is the same day, the same model, and again I like the gestural quality best, the sense of what it’s like to be sitting there, turned that way. Now, her left arm looks tacked on like a Barbie’s, and I somehow situated her navel a couple inches above where it really is, so I can’t bear to put it in the very limited rotating gallery on my home-office wall. But I like a lot about it, particularly the tilt of her head and the feeling of her left hand pressing down on her thigh.

140217f 20min

On this one (another day, another model) I just like the hand, especially the thumb. It’s very sketchy, but I got a lot across in seven minutes. Also, it represents the fading of my Fear of Buttocks. It’s just so hard to draw that part of the body without it looking like a cartoon: a caricature, the two scoops we all know are there but are actually very subtle. I’ve really worked on it.

140303c 7min

Sometimes I feel the urge to use the tip of a charcoal pencil to draw contours of shadows and planes. It’s very spontaneous, the loosest I usually get. I’ve been fearful that it will be gimmicky, but it evokes a whole different kind of energy; I want to remember that and listen to when the situation is calling me to use it.

140303f 15min

Same day, same model, different kind of marks. Here what works best is the hands, and again the gesture that makes me feel in my own neck the tension of that twist, and makes me feel in my own belly the way his belly folds on itself.

140303g 40min

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