It was hot and dry. The young man swam in the Indian Ocean during the day. At night he would light "little fires to feel safe" and stare at the sky. He imagined that the beach looked pretty much the same as it had 10,000 years ago, as no one had ever settled in the area. He thought that he must be seeing the night sky the same way that primitive people had viewed it: intensely bright, with the constellations moving.
He walked back and forth on the white sandy beach,"listening to the dialogue of the motion and the sound of the waves," in this desolate spot with no one around except the birds flying overhead. Suddenly, he had an epiphany: everything that he had been looking for had been there all along and it had been easy to find! He had a profound sense that God existed and never doubted again.
Faith and art are topics that are often viewed as mutually exclusive. In our post-modern culture, where it takes a mere nanosecond to send a tweet around the globe and it is socially acceptable to post a Facebook message on virtually any subject, faith still remains a stubbornly private matter for many people, too embarrassingly personal to talk about in any public forum.
Art, on the other hand, is highly visible in the public domain, adorning the walls of museums and government offices, with it being de rigueur for public officials to attend the theatre and film festivals and to show their enthusiasm for the arts by fast-tracking those grant applications, while remembering to take out their own chequebooks.
No one understands this dichotomy better than Guy Rex Rodgers, executive director of the Quebec-based English-Language Arts Network (ELAN) and founder of the faith-sharing website The Believer's Dilemma. But, for the dapper 58-year-old play-wright, multimedia artist and community organizer who found God nearly 40 years ago on a deserted a higher purpose in life. He has dedicated his to cultivating both.
"The same kinds of questions that come out of faith are also involved in art," he says. "The fundamental questions about why we exist, why we were created, are involved in creativity."
He leans forward, looking at me intently, as if to discern whether I fully comprehend the nature of this relationship as I furiously scribble notes while he expounds on faith and the role of art in responding to all that we are and do.
We are sitting in a Presse Café on Ste. Catherine Street, across from ELAN, in the hub of Montreal's much-vaunted arts sector known as the Quartier des spectacles. Rodgers founded the umbrella organization in 2001 to create networking opportunities for English-speaking artists in all genres after his stint as the first executive director of the Quebec Drama Federation from 1985-89 and later as the first president of the Quebec Writers Federation beginning in 1992.
If the career trajectory of this transplanted Australian has followed a predictable enough course from the early '80s as a playwriting student with the National Theatre School in Montreal to being at the helm of an influential Anglo-Quebec arts organization in the new millennium, the same cannot be said for his unusual faith journey.
It has taken him on a winding course from his agnostic youth through many years of religious seeking, culminating in an impassioned decade as a Pentecostal before he finally settled in the United Church in which his mother was raised.
His religious avocation did not have an auspicious beginning. The son of an atheist father who had soured on religion because of his "dour Presbyterian Calvinist background" and a lapsed Christian mother, he found himself questioning the dogma of "faith in science" that was being inculcated in him as a 19-year-old science student at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, where he grew up.
"I began to experience an inverse crisis of faith in science," he says. "I realized that the large façade of science was not very deep. Suddenly, I discovered that everybody was religious in some sense. The problem was that there was lots of disagreement and it seemed that there was no place for me to gain a footing." He shifts on his seat, one leg on the ground, as if to illustrate the uncertainty of that period of his life before taking another sip of java and resuming his story.
"I asked myself, 'Where is the foundation to gain knowledge of God? If there is a God, why is it so difficult to know God? And, if God exists, what does God want from us?' "
I am impressed both by the precision of his questions and the earnestsenseof inquirythathebringsto themalltheseyearslater.
One morning he got in his car and started driving, with no particular destination in mind. He picked up two hitchhikers along the way—a guy and a girl—winding more than 4,000 kilometres down the coast from Queensland to New South Wales, heading for Perth.
The three-day road trip turned into a philosophical gabfest—just the kind of intellectual stimulation that he had been hoping for. After arriving in Perth, he stayed at the guy's parents' place for a few days before Christmas, where he hung out with his new friend, "listening to Pink Floyd and smoking dope." But not being a family member and feeling out of place, he decided to leave.
He had run out of money, so the man's parents gave him some cash for gas, some non-perishable food and a pup tent. He then headed south again. He was feeling the need to be alone anyway, having just left his own parents' home without leaving so much as a note. It would be another two weeks before they would receive a telegram from their missing son letting them know that he was all right.
"As a parent, I look back now and wonder what they must have been going through," he says somewhat sheepishly.
He eventually arrived at a pristine beach about 160 kilometres south of Perth, where he pitched his tent on Christmas Day. He would stay there for about a week, walking back and forth along the shoreline in deep reflection.
"I was feeling empty. I needed to find an answer." He did, in one moment of searing clarity.
The insight changed his life and shifted his focus. He embarked on a 20-year intensive study of theology, history and religion that continues to shape all his endeavours.
These days, though, the nature of his work is such that his focus must be pragmatic.
An organization like ELAN is founded on the premise of faith in art. On a practical level it helps individual artists working in diverse areas to find outlets for their personal creativity by providing a structure for fruitful collaboration.
"Running a non-denominational arts organization is a lot like being in charge of a small church," he says. "You have a few paid staffers and a large core of dedicated volunteers. The ELAN community has people who are gracious and full of joy, but also people who are hurt and destructive. Even the most irritating people have elements of humanity. You need to help them find a positive path to direct their energies."
His task—not always an easy one—is to create an environment where there is mutual concern and respect. Artistic expression poses its own ethical dilemmas and egos can get in the way. The inevitable question arises, "Is it more important to be a star or a competent artist?" In a media culture where instant celebrity can be acquired simply by getting on a reality TV show, artists may be tempted to ignore the muse and run after fame and fortune instead.
Do the dots connect between faith and creativity in his life?
"I constantly feel inspired through prayer. Spirituality is an integral part of how I lead my life," he says with the quiet conviction that only a true believer can summon.
It wasn't always this easy. There was a time when he wasn't forthright about his faith, when he would "sneak off to church." But when he gained clearer ideas of how faith worked, he was more at ease in talking about it. He now finds that the more transparent he is about his beliefs, the more people come away with a very different picture of faith.
"The experience of faith gives me confidence," he says.
Beyond purely creative concerns are the ever present political realities that can never be ignored. Rodgers sees parallels between the marginalization of the anglophone community in a nationalist Quebec and the isolation that many Christians and other people of faith feel in the hypersecularist culture of a province where identity politics are the order of the day, leaving very little room for cultural differences or religious expression.
It's no secret that anglophones tend to see themselves as a beleaguered minority. Rodgers believes the "hated anglo" has indeed become the "great unlovable villain" in the minds of too many in the political class, a convenient bogeyman to lash out at whenever things aren't going well.
But weren't there injustices in the past that needed to be rectified? "Sure, but anglos are bilingual now and more integrated," he says. "I am not responsible for the actions of the British army or the English capitalists of a bygone era."
This self-described "Anglo-Québecois" identified with many of the aspirations of French-speaking Quebecers when he first came to Montreal because of his Aussie background. He was particularly attracted to the burgeoning homegrown artistic culture in Quebec, not unlike the indigenous culture of Australia, where many shows are produced locally and the music scene doesn't simply turn out cover versions of English songs.
Like many young men of his generation, he played in rock as well as blues bands back then—mostly guitar and harmonica, with some keyboard. This was at a time when the country was going through a period of national affirmation and there was a resurgence of interest in Australian slang known as Strine. So when he arrived in La Belle Province, he found himself immediately attracted to bands like Beau Dommage, which unabashedly made use of joual, a Québecois dialect, in their songs.
There were other affinities.
However, his mandate now is to represent the English-speaking arts community. And English Quebecers in general have become more accepting of a different set of rules, he stresses. So he doesn't see any need for the grand mea culpa.
"If we can contribute to making francophones feel secure, if we recognize their rights, we can allow each other to flourish and actually contribute to the well-being of the group, without compromising our own position. Our mission is to educate people about the historical problems and their causes by presenting a more accurate portrait and a more modern face."
Addressing the grievances of people who are alienated from religion in general, and institutional Christianity in particular, is a more complex matter. Rodgers frankly acknowledges that creating rapprochement between francophones and anglophones is "kids' play" compared to the efforts required to build bridges between the Church community and its detractors.
"I have friends who are rabid atheists," he says, explaining that they have thrown off their faith because they are so turned off by the excesses of the clergy, past and present. Everyone has heard stories of how poor francophones were held down by their priests, who aligned themselves with the English oppressors during the Duplessis era, a narrative that has reached near mythic proportions in today's emotionally charged political context.
"Some people find Christianity to be the big ugly religion," he says matter-of-factly. Then why do its most virulent critics often turn a blind eye to the historical reality of the evils of atheistic regimes of Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany? "The anti-religionists get around the problem of evil in secular societies by saying that any destructive ideology is really a form of religion, which is the true enemy."
Still, there's little doubt that the binary optics of condemnation and salvation, a cornerstone of fundamentalist Christian beliefs, are anathema to cosmopolitan sophisticates and offensive to the members of religious minorities. As a result, many user-friendly churches have watered down their theology in the hopes of recruiting religiously savvy consumers to their folds.
Rodgers says that these churches prefer to emphasize the Golden Rule of Jesus, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," in the spirit of inclusiveness without committing them to a public profession of faith.
However, he feels that they have lost something in the process. For at its core, Christianity is about personal transformation. This ex-hippie who once played in a Gospel band believes that we must draw on the spiritual power of the Gospel to be lifted up and out of our mundane material existence.
"I would like to see a new kind of expression of Christian faith take root, one with a message that is at once transformational and inclusive," he says. The problem, he adds, is that right now Christianity presents two very different versions of God's plan for us.
On the one hand, we hear that we are all loved by God; on the other, that we are going to hell if we don't shape up. This may involve turning our backs on the call to holiness, but it may also mean something as blameless as not having been born into a Christian family, or simply choosing to embrace a different set of religious beliefs and rituals.
With these concerns in mind, Rodgers set up a website to help spiritual seekers address some of their questions and hopefully find the answers that they need by providing them with some basic information about the history of Christianity and its theology.
He interviewed many theologians before going online and has high hopes that the new website will help people connect with like-minded souls and provide a much needed public forum to talk about religion. "It hasn't gone viral yet, but it receives thousands of hits per month from 21 countries and is constantly growing," he says with obvious pride.
He laughs, throwing back his slightly longish hair, when he recalls the time that a friend of his daughter asked if she could interview him for a school project about people's religious habits. He is married to a francophone lawyer, a lapsed Catholic who struggles with the whole issue of faith, and his children attended a French non-confessional school. His daughter, who had had a completely secular upbringing, asked him, "What do you people believe?" "I felt like some kind of anthropological freak," he says, still bewildered.
He thinks that there is a real divide between franco-phones and anglophones on matters of faith. Social research does in fact show that anglophone Catholics are more likely than their francophone counter-parts to practise their faith. But, is there a similar divide between anglophone and francophone artists?
Rodgers thinks there is. "Over the years, I've heard all kinds of stories from anglophones of all walks of life about their religious experiences, some even involving mystical brushes with angels," he says, his face brightening.
However, I remind him that the main political narrative that holds Quebec society together strongly supports a negative view of the role of the Church in the history of this once very Catholic province. He nods in agreement. Given the fact that artists are the storytellers of any nation or people, it's perhaps not so surprising then that members of the francophone creative class feel they don't have permission to flesh out their personal stories in any way that allows for a constructive and realistic account of the role of faith in their lives.
Rodgers remains centred in his own faith, though, despite the naysayers all around him. "Daily prayer gives me tremendous peace and strength," he says again. And fellowship with members of the Mount Bruno United Church congregation, in a suburb on the south shore of Montreal, is also a pillar in his life.
If there is one thing that comes shining through in talking to this unapologetically upbeat Christian with a public vocation, it is that he refuses to buy into the secular-religious divide that defines so much of politically fashionable discourse. He is who he is, a complete whole, one man striving to master the art of faith.