Religious Ferver

Religious Ferverpen & ink – 27" x 34" 

I was nine when my parents and I moved to Upper Darby. My mother found St.Giles, a small Episcopal church not far from our apartment, where she enrolled me in their Sunday School program. I was fortunate enough to have as a teacher, Miss Wilson, who eventually married the widowered minister of the church. Miss Wilson was a principal of the Samuel Gompers School in Wynnefield. She was a very attractive women in her forties, made more mature in her appearance by school-marm glasses and beautiful white hair streaked with gray. Most memorable for me is that she was an outstanding teacher who made bible stories interesting and related them well to a class of children ages aged 9 to 11.

My parents didn’t go to church, so I walked, or was driven by a church parent every week, and attended sporadically until age 12 or 13, when a friend in my class at school, as well as at church, asked if I was going to be confirmed. I knew little about what confirmation meant, but I said, “Sure!” and began to attend the classes held, again, by Miss Wilson.

Through the process, I  learned the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, and other parts of the religious ceremony, and eventually became an altar boy, lighting candles, handling the wine chalices, and grew to the point where I was able to lead the choir and minister in the procession from the rear of the church to the altar carrying the cross.

I found a purpose in the church, and spent my pre-teen and teen years in the Young People’s Fellowship, the choir, the theater club, and several stints as a Sunday School teacher, first of 5th and 6th grade girls, then middle school kids, and finally the senior class.

At about the age of 18 I began to read and question all parts of my faith. While I continued to go to church and even teach, I stopped attending the church service by the age of 20. I turned my teaching into talks about growing up and guided students through issues they faced in their own lives.

And then I quit it all.

I grew to view religion as a hypocritical hoax. The words that people said in church were inconsistent with the actions they followed in their daily lives. Boys I knew from church would cheat on their steady girl friends, steal from the local candy store, and be mean to people despite the teachings they learned that spoke of kindness.

I had always loved my church and the people in it. It was my guidepost. And then I found it to be a fraud, along with every other religious faith I encountered.

I married a Catholic girl who followed the rules, but didn’t act as she pretended to believe. It wasn’t here fault – it was just who she was.

In 1978 and 1979 I created two drawings that drew on my feelings about religion. In 1978 I created , Black Nativity a Christmas creche populated by a black Mary and Joseph. In the drawing, the manger was turned into an “ale house” with a star on it representing the Star of Bethlehem. In my drawing, Joseph is portrayed in a white suit and standing outside the manger while his bride remains inside in a wedding dress and blocked from him by a chair placed in front of the door, symbolizing her virginity. A black boy at right and the two women at the left take the place of shepherds questioning Joseph’s role, but they are there to support Mary, who is with child.
Black Nativity pen & ink – 26" x 22"

At the top of the building I replicated the painting by social realist artist Ben Shahn that martyrized Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants unjustly convicted of a murder and put to death for a crime they didn’t commit. A rooster and a hen replace the traditional farm animals of the manger scene, and a Silver Screen magazine is placed at lower right to indicate the time period of the illustration: the 1930s. A label peels from the top of the creche, providing a sense of scale to the scene, as it might be placed on a table.

My second illustration in 1979 that metaphorically mocked religion was Religious Freedom (since renamed Religious Fervor). As with other constructions I created in my drawings, the characters set on a clumsy stage are figures of the time, including evangelical leader Aimee Semple McPherson, Father Divine and various priests and ministers clustered in groups or walking alone, along with vaudeville and circus performers such as Ed Wynn, P.T. Barnum and Al Jolson in black face. I no longer remember the evangelist featured at left; I thought it was Billy Sunday, but much of the religious symbolism remains in mockery, such as a tiger training on a ball featuring the Madonna and child next to a block made of money. The staged clouds at bottom represent heaven.

It has taken me more than 50 years to truly understand faith and religion, and to lose the dogmas I accrued in my early years to once again gain an appreciation for the values of belief. As I have recently been writing about the human species, I have gained an understanding that humanity is only partially guided by realities, while the rest of what and who we are, is in the act of hoping and praying for something greater and better than ourselves to exist. Though human beliefs are often found to be hypocritical, outlandish, far-fetched, and impossibly naive, beliefs are many times is humanity’s only way to navigate the losses and tragedies of life, and find moral guidance in a world that cares little for us or what we do.

The Diverse Artistic Universe of George H. RothackerA Memoir is available on Click here for paperback or Kindle version. Please review the book if you like it!

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