Dave Bonta, Via Negativa  October 22, 2007

Walking with whatever

We’re rapidly approaching the peak of fall color now. Almost all the trees and shrubs in the understory had turned, and shone like stained glass in the morning sun. As I started up the trail, I found myself thinking of a poem by my friend Teju Cole that I had just re-read a couple hours earlier: “The God Walker.” It originally appeared last year in his blog miracle speech, which is no longer online, but was also included in a soon-to-be-published anthology of blogger poets called Brilliant Coroners, of which I have an advance copy. “In the forest near my house / I have taken my god for a walk,” it begins. This is “a household god, / bred for an apartment’s confines,” but by the end of the poem, seduced by the forest smells, he “goes a little wild.”

“Walking with God/Jesus” is one of those clichés that makes intellectual snobs like me keep Protestant Christianity at arm’s length. I like how Teju subverts it in his poem, going out for a walk not with some abstract, omnipotent father-figure but instead with something like a familiar spirit — if not, indeed, Man’s Best Friend (”his wolf ancestors calling to him, / the god flares his wet nose”). “Household god” makes me think of the fetishes — described as “gods” in the King James Bible — which Rachel stole from her father Laban when she fled with Jacob (Genesis 31:19-34). I like the recognition that our images of the divine are limited not only by our own imaginations, but also by the physical environment we associate them with, and our tendency to keep them on leashes. One of my biggest problems with most formalized religions is the way they domesticate and sanitize divinity in the process of making it safe for mass consumption. Usually the trickster persona is the first to go. And once god(s) can no longer legitimately just fuck with people or unleash chaos without having their divinity called into question, you enter the maze known as theodicy, or “justify[ing] the ways of God to Man,” in Milton’s memorable phrase. Aspiring to worship an omnipotent God, we end up instead with one alarmingly subject to human approval, and risk psychological damage in the process by creating a situation where if bad things happen, it can only be our own fault — or at best, the fault of a fallen trickster turned into a cosmic bad cop.

A slightly more conventional but equally creative and whimsical take on divinity comes from another blogger friend, graphic artist Natalie d’Arbeloff in her new book of comic strips, The God Interviews. I bought a copy from her when I was in New York last month, and actually got it inscribed by God, as channeled by Natalie. He gave me two Xs, which I hope represent kisses — if not, I could be in big trouble.

But probably not from this God, who is very much the all-loving sort. He gets out of the theodicy trap in the usual way, by talking about freedom, though with a fun analogy: “You know that thing when a novelist creates characters and they start to have a mind of their own?” God asks. “Yes, but that’s fiction. I’m talking about reality,” says Natalie’s cartoon alter-ego Augustine (no, not that Augustine). “In this reality I’ve given my characters freedom,” says God.

“Freedom to destroy ourselves and the whole shebang?”

“Freedom to reach my destination in your own time in your own ways.”

“And the destination is?”

“Love, naturally.”

Can you really call it freedom, though, if a higher power had to grant it? To my way of thinking, freedom of action is intrinsic to all living things. If it makes sense to talk about divinity at all — and an intuition of “something more” often persuades me that it does — then I think we must be careful not to separate it too much from the way things naturally work. My worldview doesn’t have any room for a supernatural, I guess. The new idea of divinity as an emergent property of complex living systems has definite appeal, though, especially to someone with a strong animist bent.

It’s only fair to point out that Natalie is very much a visual thinker, and the power of her argument is diminished by reducing it to text alone. God is of necessity anthropomorphic — male and brown-skinned, usually barefoot and wearing a t-shirt that says “God,” though his size and sometimes his apparel varies to suit the occasion. So again, as with Teju Cole’s poem, this is divinity as real people experience it, not as priests or theologians or smart-ass poet-bloggers think it should be.

Nor does d’Arbeloff neglect the via negativa. My favorite section, Chapter 12, begins with a visit to a bookstore, which is having a “SUPER SPIRITUAL SALE — All the Answers For the Price of One!” It includes a paean to the power of the imagination reminiscent of William Blake — and given Blake’s understanding of how the prophets could claim to speak for God, that’s probably no accident.

Isaiah answer’d: “I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discover’d the infinite in everything, and as I was then perswaded, & remain confirm’d, that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences, but wrote.”
(The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)

Natalie’s version of this is a little more self-reflexive, and of course a lot funnier. “What do you think of all these people who claim they talk to you?” Augustine asks as they leave the bookstore. “You’re talking to me, aren’t you?” says God. “But I don’t claim to be really real!” Augustine says in a tone of honest indignation.

In the panels that follow, the analogy between artist and divinity is, um, drawn out especially well. The last panel employs a visual quote of the two-faces-or-goblet figure from Gestalt psychology to great effect, with the words “What is really real about you?” inscribed on one of the two, nearly identical profiles, and in the black goblet-space between them: “That which cannot be imagined.”

Debi Alper, Debi Alper  June 24, 2007

I've read the book and it is full of wit,wisdom and beauty. (Bit like Natalie then ...)


The Revd Dave Tomlinson St Luke's Vicarage, London N7   June 2, 2007

...The God Interviews which I enjoyed greatly. I particularly like your portrayal of God. It's a very interesting way to explore who we understand God to be.


Beth Adams, Cassandra Pages  April 14, 2007

The Theology of (Bl)Augustine

There are two pages in the back of Natalie d'Arbeloff's just-launched book, The God Interviews, where, in small italic type, readers' comments are quoted. For those of us who read the Interviews in their original format, on Blaugustine, some of the names will be familiar, and we won't be surprised by the quotes. Here's one that pretty much sums it all up, from Dick:

"Now this is a God I might get along with. The only God with whom I'd want to share roomspace."

That's the first problem with religion - most of us we don't want to be in the same room as the God we were taught about. So is it possible to ask, afresh, who this guy is, anyway? This God the philosophers say has deserted us, the God who seems so remote and out of touch with 21st-century reality that more and more people describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious" so (I suspect) they won't have to admit to belief in an increasingly unbelievable deity?

Well, Augustine takes us along as she gets to know this suddenly quite approachable, t-shirted, rather long-haired and kindly God. And rather than fend off all the Big Questions she throws at him, he answers: sometimes enigmatically, but often directly and surprisingly. If there's one word to use to describe their dialogue, how about "refreshing"? Especially so for those of us who have asked these questions throughout our lives and gotten unsatisfactory, conflicting, or no answers at all from people who purported to understand and interpret "The Word."

It's not surprising, therefore, that Natalie d'Arbeloff's brilliant and touching comics appeal to the intellectual doubters out there. I just want to say that there's a lot here for people who DO describe themselves as believers but for whom - I'd guarantee - the meaning of life and God's relationship to human beings are still problematic. Augustine allows us to whine, complain, cry, and be cluelessly thick right along with her, while God remains compassionate, funny, patient, unpredictable, maddening, and - at times - wonderfully clear. Natalie's drawings are full of life and joy, and an inventiveness I am sure she doesn't take full credit for. I'm also not sure she'd call her work "theology" but in MY book, this is the only kind of God worth studying, and the only kind of theology worth taking to heart.


Anthony Dyson - Artist/author/printmaker  April 14, 2007

It took me half an hour to read through your God Interviews on the train as I returned home after Thursday's launch, but I haven't stopped reflecting on it since; and I shall return to it again and again. In one of his writings the late Cardinal Basil Hume proposed that for many Christians the apparent absence of God is a source of great perplexity; in your honest, profound and humorous interviews, Augustine has gently persuaded the deity to emerge from the mists for Him, in turn, and equally gently, to persuade her of the uselessness of attempting to fathom the unfathomable. Your insights are a wonderful, heart-warming gift.


Lucie Pereira - Lulu UK Newsletter: Adventures in On Demand Publishing   April 5, 2007
Featuring UK Lulu Comic Authors and The God Interviews Book Launch Invite

...Last, but not the least, comes Nathalie D'Arbeloff's philosophical piece, The God Interviews which I have read with great pleasure: it is not only beautifully drawn but also a book that will make you think a lot... A book you can read very quickly but which you do not easily forget. God is imagined as a black man wearing a cool white T-Shirt with 'God' written on it; he is interviewed by Augustine, the author's alter ego. Both cute and very profound.


Willie Hewes - COMIXTHING Exhibitor Reviews  March 17, 2007

The God Interviews are the brainchild of Natalie d'Arbeloff. They are playfully drawn-and-written discussions between Augustine (representing the author) and God — airy, evasive and meandering philosophy in closely knit pictures and words. Why should I read it? For the charming unpretentiousness and unusual style. The God Interviews first appeared on Augustine’s blog, where other examples of Natalie’s work can be found.


Simone Lia - Author of graphic novel "Fluffy". March 12, 2007

I totally love it, it's inspired, thankyou for signing my copy and the picture of God. I loved the artwork and design but even more, the content. What I thought was particularly brilliant was the way that God doesn't speak in speech bubbles but sometimes in the leaves or in books or in thoughts - it's so true and you communicated it so simply and honestly. Also I thought that it was touching that sometimes you are cradled in God but sometimes God is small and you can take him for a walk and I think that's true as well that God although he is almighty can allow himself to be as vulnerable as a baby.


Michael Scott - Photographer, Chichester. March 10, 2007

Its a beautiful and brilliant production, so incredibly creative and amusing. I particularly liked your message of ‘Love’, especially the fun treatment in Chapter 13. The beach and swimming scenes in Chapter 10 are yet another example of your vision and inventiveness, but then so are all the cartoons. The whole book is a wow of divine surrealism!!!


Ernesto Priego - Never Neutral   March 8, 2007

The God Interviews... a deliciously funny, touching, intelligent and delicate book that turns philosophical dialogue into a feast of color and joy and complex innocence. Natalie is a true artist in the whole sense of the word, which in this case means for me that she has a total commitment to her work and employs every possible medium available to her. Outside of the traditional circuits of comicbookdom or literary or artsy fartsy snobbery, her paintings, illustrations, objets d’art, sculptures, sketchbooks, prose and comics compose a very complex corpus of beauty and intelligence that has yet to be discovered and appreciated by a larger audience.


Edward Monkton - Author of "The Interesting Thoughts of Edward Monkton". February 6, 2007

It’s wonderful. Beautifully produced too. Both light and profound... playful and searching... a joyful and mischievous dance across the soul.


Ivor Robinson - Designer Bookbinder  February 2007

I have been so enjoying The God Interviews....The whole concept and production is brilliant. Your art-work demands that one goes through it time and time again, picking out the smallest details. It makes one wonder how long it was in the making - and the answer is probably life-long!


Dem Stimson - Guild of Ghostwriters   February 2, 2007

Brilliant Stuff Elsewhere... Natalie's brilliantest, bestest and biggest delusion is now available in touchy, feely, order-it-over-the-internet form via Lulu. If you didn't read her wonderful Interviews with God when serialised on Blaugustine (the colourful blog she shares with Augustine, her cartoon soul who gets to interview God), now is your chance. And if you did, now is another chance. ORDER YOUR COPY NOW!


Rachel Rawlins - Frizzy Logic  February 1,2007

I’ve found God AND mortality. Not bad for a weekday lunchtime. Mortal(ity) and God. On the left...we have Ivy Alvarez with mortal, on the right we have Natalie d’Arbeloff (in the guise of her alter ego Augustine) with The God Interviews. Both have very recently been delivered, after long labour, of a book. As you can see. I shall endeavour to review both when I’ve read them in their entirety. So far I can say I thoroughly recommend both babies-books.  Also I can say that I find it puzzling that the name Natalie d’Arbeloff isn’t as famous as that of Maira Kalman. The latter is a wonderful artist who’s clever with words. So is the former. The latter has book deals and a blog with monthly posts which is syndicated by the New York Times. The former, utterly mysteriously, does not....Anyway. The point of this digression is to suggest that anyone who wishes to support an artist and writer of true talent, grit and determination can easily do so by offering her a lucrative book deal for the follow-up which is already in the pipeline. Or failing that (if you don’t happen to be a publisher) buy the first instalment!


Jean Morris - This Too February 1, 2007

AUGUSTINE INTERVIEWS GOD: Artist, writer, blogger Natalie d'Arbeloff has a book out, collecting her cartoon alter-ego Augustine's wonderful series of Interviews with God...I loved these clever, beautifully drawn cartoon strips on her blog, Blaugustine, but I love the book more. The full-colour artwork asks to be stroked and looked at from all angles, and the deep themes and thoughts ask to be held. I'm an atheist myself, but the poignant, hilarious existential dialogue between Augustine and her God speaks no less to me, to all of us. A sample of the God Interviews is on Natalie's website, and further preview on the Lulu sales website. They deserve great success, and we all deserve their beauty, wit and consolation.


Andrew Schamess -   February 1st, 2007

The Most Delightful Thing on the Web

The most delightful thing on the web right now is Natalie d’Arbeloff’s collection of cartoons, The God Interviews. Her alter ego, Augustine - already the heroine of several graphic novels - converses with God on topics ranging from love and death to weight loss. I found out about this from Rachel, who has written a great review of the collection on her own site, Velveteen Rabbi. Natalie’s cartoons are innocent, subtle, web-savvy and utterly charming. Did I say wise? They’re wise, too.
You can see a few of them by scrolling through her blog, but you should really get her book. It’s twenty-five dollars, on Lulu. Did I mention it would make a great gift? No, really, it is marvelous stuff. Remember how much pleasure you got from reading Kliban, or early Doonesbury, or Calvin and Hobbes? Or - in my case, anyway - Sylvia? It’s like that.


Annie Gottlieb - AmbivaBlog - January 31, 2007

What Does God Really Think of Richard Dawkins?

It's not as simple as "He doesn't believe he exists."
Natalie D'Arbeloff has an exclusive. Natalie has put the first series of The God Interviews cartoons into a beautiful and mysteriously touching book....It makes Neale Donald Walsch look like a windy impostor.


Mike Kessler - The Buck & Mike Blog January 29, 2007

I was reading a blog by Rachel Barenblatt called The Velveteen Rabbi, one of my favorite blogs. Rachel writes about a comic called The God Interviews. I wound up buying the online version of the book. It straddles a line between reverence and irreverence, allowing it to be loving and funny and insightful. Maybe not perfect, but it’ll give you something good to think about.