January 17, 2018

Can an Artist Really Be an Atheist?

Inside This Episode

Host Eric Huffman sits down with world-renowned street artist Sebastien “Mr. D” Boileau. Ever since his loving grandmother warned him, as a child, never to be alone with certain priests, Sebastien has always struggled with the concepts of religion and God. As an artist, however, he's constantly drawn to pursue transcendence and beauty. (Sebastien is best known in Houston for his 11,000-square-foot mural featuring Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel God holding a spray paint can.) This tension between spirituality and cynicism is what makes his art so powerful, and it led Eric to wonder, "Can an artist like Sebastien really be an atheist?"

For more about Mr. D, check out his website. You can view Mr. D's mural of God, Preservons La Creation, here.

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[00:00:00] <music>

Eric Huffman: We can find millions of reasons why we're all different. But there's one question that every human ponders at some point in their lives: How did we get here? No one knows. Maybe we're a cosmic accident or Maybe God did it. I'm Eric Huffman. This is Maybe God.

[00:00:19] <music>

Eric Huffman: In 2014, my family and I moved to Houston. I went for a walk near downtown one day and it was a beautiful afternoon. I was feeling pretty overwhelmed about having moved to a new city where I had no friends, no community, and no church to lead.

I turned a corner on Fannin Street and I saw this giant image of God painted on the side of an old office building. It was Michelangelo's famous Sistine Chapel God flying through the sky. But instead of reaching out toward Adam, he had a spray paint can in his hand. This mural is enormous, over 10,000 square feet. It's the largest mural in all of Houston.

But it also loomed large for me in another way. This image of God on the city streets, it really spoke to me. I like this idea of God, a gritty, edgy, provocative artist, even more than the classical concept of the magical old man in the sky. This artist really gets it. He gets God. I thought to myself, I need to meet him. And two years later, I did. You hail from Versailles, France.

Sebastien Boileau: That's where I came up.

Eric Huffman: Is that where you were born and raised?

Sebastien Boileau: Yeah, born and raised 1973 in Versailles.

Eric Huffman: My new church, The Story, Houston commissioned Sebastien Boileau or Mr. D. to create a new work, a giant indoor mural featuring the face of Jesus. One day I went to Sebastien's house to discuss the piece, and I plan to spend maybe 45 minutes with him but 3 hours later we had talked about religion, atheism, Trump, artificial intelligence, and the inner nuances of Filipino politics.

But we still hadn't gotten around to talking about the piece. As we spoke, I felt conflicted because on the one hand, I really like this guy. I mean, total man crush. But on the other, he kept insisting that he doesn't believe in God. I felt a conflict within him, too, because he would say things like, "I know there's some transcendent force compelling me to paint," and in the very next breath he would say, "I don't believe that God exists."

And I remember thinking, "How can an artist who so obviously gets God be an atheist? Since that day, we've become really good friends. Sebastien has even started coming to church at The Story, although he still calls himself a skeptic. So when did you realize you were an artist?

Sebastien Boileau: I actually broke my leg. This is interesting. I broke my leg when I was 13 and it was pretty bad. So I was home and didn't know what to do. So I started drawing and sketching stuff when I was bored. And next thing you know, a friend of mine had this magazine from the U.S. Because remember, this is pre-internet. This is 1987.

And I saw this graffiti movement, you know, the early graffiti movement on subways and I was like, "That's cool. People get to do that?" I didn't understand that it was not really legal thing to do. I started drawing. Kind of mimicking the New York style, the old-school bubble letters, and all this sort of graffiti vibe. And as soon as I could walk again and run again, I took it to the street because that's what I saw them do.

Eric Huffman: Wow. It's really interesting because I think me, as a layman, when it comes to art, especially graffiti art, I mean, I think about people getting into graffiti art already having been artists and they just get pissed off about something. You know, they get angry about something and they're subversive by nature or rebellious by nature and so graffiti is the expression of that. But it sounds like you just were drawn to the craft first.

Sebastien Boileau: I wasn't angry. It felt like such a freedom of expression. You know, once I clicked that you could say what you wanted to say, do what you want anywhere, any time. There were no rules. So as a teenage boy, that's very attractive, you know?

Eric Huffman: Yeah.

Sebastien Boileau: I guess I was smart enough to be sneaky because I also caught on quickly that you couldn't tell your parents or you couldn't tell anyone. So you had this sort of mystery life.

Eric Huffman: Did you understand what the graffiti movement was about and what it was substantively responding to?

Sebastien Boileau: Not originally. I didn't catch it. Later on, of course I did. I understood that it came from... you know, it was the voice of the ghetto in America. Trust me, I've done my homework since and I've met so many people from the movement, from the original guys. Some are my friends nowadays, which is really strange. But back then, I was too young to understand. And I just fell for it. It was like a relationship. I mean, every day all I saw... I mean, I was going to school, of course-

Eric Huffman: How many nights a week would you go out?

Sebastien Boileau: As often as I could. You know, as soon as you could, you just get with your friends and plan. There was a lot of camaraderie, too. I mean, we didn't have cell phones or internet. So you had to get with people physically and plan things. So it was that sort of friendship. There was no business plan. Okay. So we weren't trying to make a living. We're just having fun.

But at the same time, we also quickly recognized that this was very powerful, being in the public eye, in the streets. I mean, I became famous very quickly in a way. You know, at least in my own little bubble, in my own world. People didn't know who I was but the name was there. Again, graffiti in Europe was different than the U.S. Here there's the stigma about gangs and violence. There it was very artistic very quickly. I think it comes from the... The Paris graffiti scene was instantly a quality artwork.

Eric Huffman: Did you get in trouble with your parents when they found out?

Sebastien Boileau: Yes and no. I mean, at that point I was so motivated you couldn't tell me anything. But one night I got chased by the police painting in Versailles on a train. The funny thing is, I was painting a message: [French 00:06:32] And there was a lot of drug activity around that time. And I felt like, well, I was just dealing colors. Like my deal-

Eric Huffman: You were a color dealer?

Sebastien Boileau: Yeah. Actually, I never finished that train of thought because I was chased, but I had a little motorcycle and I figured, "Man, they must've caught my license plate." So I knew the rules, and I knew that by 5 a.m. they could come knocking on my door, which they did. So that night I told my mom, "Mom, I got to tell you something. We should probably get ready for this." And sure enough, they came and took me in. That was the beginning of a two-year lawsuit with the train, SNCF train.

Eric Huffman: Was that big of a deal that they...?

Sebastien Boileau: Well, I had been doing quite a few, so they were kind of on me.

Eric Huffman: Yeah, you were Al Capone?

Sebastien Boileau: A little bit. I think they were thrilled to finally be able to catch me. But the funny thing is I was a minor, so they're really couldn't put me to jail for a long time. Just a couple of days. But the fine was ridiculous. It was like FF 110,000, which was, in 1991, 25 grand.

Eric Huffman: Oh, my gosh.

Sebastien Boileau: Yeah. And it was my mother's birthday. So we laugh about it today.

Eric Huffman: Today.

Sebastien Boileau: Today.

Eric Huffman: How many times has Sebastien been arrested?

Sebastien Boileau: Only twice.

Eric Huffman: Twice?

Sebastien Boileau: Yeah. I'm pretty proud of that. That's a good record.

Eric Huffman: Pretty low number.

Sebastien Boileau: Yeah. Yeah. But surprisingly, they were supportive. We actually made a deal. I said, "Listen, I'll keep the grades up and you look the other way."

Eric Huffman: Did you?

Sebastien Boileau: Yeah.

Eric Huffman: You were able to keep your grades up...?

Sebastien Boileau: Yeah.

Eric Huffman: ...and being out all night?

Sebastien Boileau: Yeah, absolutely.

Eric Huffman: Not only did Sebastien managed to keep his grades up, he went on to study business at a university in Paris.

How has that served you since?

Sebastien Boileau: It's one of the best advice I give artists. People ask me so, what should I do now? I'm like, I think you should take social media and business classes. Keep working on your art. Sure. You know, yeah, that's important. But nowadays it's not the best artist who is the most known or the most successful. It's a combination. It's a package deal. I mean, especially nowadays with the internet, it's crazy. It's changed everything.

Eric Huffman: That's really interesting. I mean, I coach pastors and preachers and church planters and it's pretty much the same thing I tell them. I'm like, work on your craft and study the Bible and all of that, but you need to know how to run a business, at least the basics of it. You need to know how to market yourself and your message. If you don't in this world, you'll just be lost. I mean, to artists, you'll just be a starving artist, as they say.

Sebastien Boileau: Yeah, Yeah. And I hate that cliché. I mean, I'm French. I defy it, you know.

Eric Huffman: Yeah, right. You defy it, though. I've seen that in you. I have a business sense about you.

[00:09:07] <music>

Eric Huffman: Sounds like your dad was a walking, talking French stereotype.

Sebastien Boileau: He sure was.

Eric Huffman: Yeah, He was into motorcycles.

Sebastien Boileau: He was.

Eric Huffman: He smoked cigarettes.

Sebastien Boileau: Absolutely.

Eric Huffman: And passionate guy. Artistic guy.

Sebastien Boileau: Yeah. Yeah.

Eric Huffman: And he was a chef.

Sebastien Boileau: Yeah. I mean, seriously, yeah. You could make a cartoon character out of my dad.

Eric Huffman: What did you learn from him?

Sebastien Boileau: I want to say everything, but that wouldn't be true. I've learned to not care as much what people think. I mean, I would rather people like me than not. I would rather please people than piss them off. But at the same time, I feel like you can't worry about what other people think all the time. Otherwise, you just don't do anything because there will always be someone to tell you, "Are you sure? You shouldn't do this?"

I feel like people who really make a difference in this world are the risk-takers, the people that just kind of throw caution to the wind. In fact, there's a quote in French. It says [French 00:10:28]. So the world will be rescued by those who don't comply, who don't give in.

Eric Huffman: Don't conform.

Sebastien Boileau: Yeah, don't conform. Exactly. I always thought that was so true.

Eric Huffman: And he taught you that in some ways?

Sebastien Boileau: He definitely behaved that way. But at the same time, he was a hardworking, good guy, always there for me. But he was a character. And I think characters make characters.

Eric Huffman: You've told me before that you were raised at least around religion.

Sebastien Boileau: Yeah, I was actually. My grandmother worked for a local church in a small town in the center of France near Orliénas. She was in the accounting. I remember the money from the, you know, Sunday thing. She was counting the coins in franc, French franc at the time. So I grew up around that environment.

As a kid, I remember riding my vmax, you know, I had a little track inside this beautiful church that's smelling like stone. I mean, Old World-

Eric Huffman: Was it Catholic Church?

Sebastien Boileau: Yeah. Yeah, it was. But my father was a little bit on the rebellious side, and he didn't want to push or promote religion with me. So it was around me, but I felt like my parents never forced me or pushed me to go to Mass on Sunday or take any kind of classes.

What's interesting is the location was small town, again, late 80s, and my first graffiti piece was literally down the street from the church on the side of an art gallery of all places. That's why when people tell me, "Oh you're painting God or you're painting Jesus or you're doing a piece was a cross, I mean, aren't you worried? Aren't you scared?" I'm like, "No. Why? Why would I?"

Eric Huffman: What do you think they mean? Scared of what?

Sebastien Boileau: I don't know. Consequences or judgment. And I was like, "Look, I've done so many crazy things as a kid, and I was fine and I didn't catch on fire." I just don't have that fear. I know a lot of people fear God, fear church. I don't fear a lot of things anyways. But I feel like it can be that clear cut, like, "Oh, if you don't do this, then you're a bad person." The whole judgment thing doesn't have any take on me.

Eric Huffman: Right.

Sebastien Boileau: My belief system is built on not organized religion, not, you know, going to a certain place on a specific day, like church on a Sunday. But it's caring and caring that cross, you know, being friendly and helpful and sometimes also rub people the wrong way if I have to.

As an artist, I have to bring certain conversations. Not that I look for that friction. But I think it's like a relationship. You know, it's good to disagree so we can actually talk about it and see why.

Eric Huffman: In preaching, we call it afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.

Sebastien Boileau: That's what art does.

Eric Huffman: I think that's kind of what Jesus was about too. Somebody told me when I first moved to Houston that if Jesus showed up for his second coming in Houston, Texas, the first two places He would go would be the Third Ward, where there's all this poverty and desolation and need. And the second place He would go would be the River Oaks Country Club, where there's all this comfort and opulence and brokenness, but in a different way.

Sebastien Boileau: Sure.

Eric Huffman: You know, to kind of afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. I definitely see that struggle in you since I've known you. I wonder how much of a role has religion played in who you've become today in your worldview, especially when it comes to God?

Sebastien Boileau: I mean, not to rub people the wrong way, but when you have your grandmother whom you love and you trust, who's been around the church for decades, when she tells you "it's best you don't hang around these classes..." Like she was keeping me away from this very traditional culture that she knows so well. And she was like, "Some of the priests I would not recommend."

Eric Huffman: Why?

Sebastien Boileau: Well, she never really-

Eric Huffman: Tell me what you really think.

Sebastien Boileau: I think there was some abuse or some weird things going on that she knew better and so she kept me away. She was like, "Yeah, ride your vmax in the church, but that's that."

Eric Huffman: Wow.

Sebastien Boileau: And my dad, who was, I mean, as classically, you know, as a church boy, I mean for him to make that effort of pulling me away from that environment, I was like, "Okay, surely there's some stuff back there." So it's always brought this cloud of doubt big time. And then, unfortunately, I met more people that told me the same stories.

Eric Huffman: Yeah, I hear those stories all the time.

Sebastien Boileau: Of course, you so. Of course, you do. So then I realized, "You know what? There has to be another way." And that other way for me has been, you know, I don't pray because I really don't know how to. But I paint. And this is my way to connect. This is my way to reach people. And I feel. When I paint, I feel something.

Eric Huffman: Yeah, I can tell. It comes through. It really does. I know you believe in something. You know something.

Sebastien Boileau: I believe there's something beyond. I just don't believe in people. And if you look at history,  religion has been, in my opinion, as much of a plague as it's been good. If you look at current fanatics or even the history of crusades and all that, I mean, there's been so much damage done to humanity in the name of God. I am certain of one thing, God would not want that.

Eric Huffman: Yeah. It's interesting like when you look at some of the worst moments in human history and historically you just put them all on a list, the common denominator is not God. The common denominator is people. And with or without God, people seem to become or act like people and broken, selfish people over time.

And whether it's in the name of God or in the name of godlessness, there seem to be a pattern, a history, a predictable pattern of violence and oppression and things like that that we still see today. But I think you're right. I think that has less to say about God than it does say about people.

[00:16:44] <music>

Eric Huffman: Sebastien's doubts surrounding religion and God didn't stop him from painting that nearly 11,000-square-foot recreation of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel God on the side of an industrial building back in 2014. Unlike the original, Sebastien's God is holding a can of spray paint in his hand.

[00:17:01] <music>

Eric Huffman: Tell me about that project and what it meant to you at the time.

Sebastien Boileau: Growing up in Europe, especially in Versailles, my parents were always around culture, and so I love the classic aesthetic. But at the same time, graffiti spoke to me just as much. Which is more like decay and metal and urban environment. So I figured why not bring this image iconic—I mean, this is a 500 years old painting—into urban context and see what happens? I figured if I'm going to take this on, I better do a good job and go for broken and paint it as big as I can.

So I looked for the biggest wall I could get. And the idea was to discuss the idea of preservation of all creation, meaning that graffiti and street art for me disappear so quickly. Like everything I've done in my life in 30-year career, because this is 30 years this year, hardly anything is left. But I also wanted to surprise, maybe shock a little bit and out of them, and my head's going to roll for this. I really was worried about it but fear drives me. Like, I don't back away. I run towards it.

So, surprisingly, a local church and I don't remember which one because we were literally moving buckets that day, they came and they were amazed by the project and they actually blessed the wall. And this entire project was outdoor. And for two weeks it was raining, and I am not making this up, the rain never touched the wall because it was wind-driven, so it was coming from the south and it's a five-storey building. So we were wet, but the wall was never wet.

Eric Huffman: Wow.

Sebastien Boileau: All right. This is crazy. So we were able to paint in the rain as if there was some, I don't know, something happening.

Eric Huffman: What I'm curious about is weather... So I think my interpretation was my interpretation, but I think it might have been born out of little naiveté, too. I think I just assume sometimes people think the way I think.

Sebastien Boileau: You want that. I want people to make their own stories.

Eric Huffman: I really want to know what was in your mind and heart about what you wanted to say, if anything, about God, whether it was anything from like I thought God as creator to, you know, kind of the idea of God is absurd.

Sebastien Boileau: I mean, clearly putting a spray can in one of the most... You know, I've put a red nose on the Mona Lisa before because I think the art world is a circus. I really don't hate religion or the art world. I just like to pick on things. Just like I don't mind if I'll dish it out. And when people come after me... because I still think it's healthy. It's better than being ignored.

So even though I don't really believe in God, I would like to, but it's just not there yet for me. It's like I'm doing these projects so that I will meet people like you and I will meet people that will engage me and challenge me so that I can challenge them and engage them, just like we're doing right now.

Eric Huffman: So this is what happened next. So I saw this piece a couple of years ago and it just stuck with me and we were getting ready to do this series about a book in the Bible called Hebrews. But I just thought this book was written perfectly for Houstonians. And we were thinking, you know what says Houston to us? What image could we put on our wall that says Houston?

And we were going to ask you to do some kind of a replica on our back wall of the graffiti God-image. And you were very gracious with us and heard us out. But you really started initially to push back against that because I think you wanted to do something new, something fresh in this space.

So we sat down, you and I, in your home in Midtown. I had blocked out 45 minutes for that meeting, and three hours later, you know, my day was wrecked, but my heart was full and I had a new friend. And it was amazing. But from the very start, you really wanted to do a Jesus piece?

Sebastien Boileau: Yeah. Some of the greatest people I've ever met in my life had strong faith. My girlfriend is incredibly religious but in the best possible way. She's just kind sweet person who goes out of her way to help. So obviously, The Story, Houston, I've met so many of you. I think religion can bring the best and the worst in people.

So I want to side with the good guys because it's always going to be that sort of battle, you know, good and evil. So I think people have that choice, that free will. I understand that. So that's why I do side with the good guys whenever I can. And if I see a bad guy, I think our current president is not ideal, then I'll go after it.

Eric Huffman: What was it specifically? Because we were going to pay you just to do the other piece or some version of the other piece. We talked about doing the hand, but you really wanted to just do a Jesus piece here. And the way you've executed this Jesus piece, I'll talk about in a minute, the disposition on His face, the expression on His face says something more than just, you know, "I painted Jesus."

Sebastien Boileau: Right.

Eric Huffman: And so there's something going on whether or not you can name it with you and Jesus that I want to know about.

Sebastien Boileau: Well, jokingly, sometimes people have told me, "When you let your hair down, you look like Jesus." So, first of all, the painting is 8 feet tall by 28 feet wide, and it fills up your entire stage. So the idea was just to do one Jesus, but do many, because I feel like all of us, including me, we all have a little Jesus in us, whether we want to admit it or recognize it.

Eric Huffman: You're preaching, man.

Sebastien Boileau: Yeah.

Eric Huffman: So just about the time you were supposed to get started on this painting, you were all set up and ready to go in your outdoor studio workspace, a little storm rolled into town and change all of our lives.

Sebastien Boileau: We had a little storm.

Eric Huffman: Right. How did Harvey impact this project?

Sebastien Boileau: Everything was put on hold. Everybody was preparing for chaos. And chaos it was. I mean, we were all traumatized, whether you are completely affected or not. But I felt like a baker should bake after the storm and a painter should paint.

As soon as the blue sky came back, the first thing, the initial thing that came to mind was to write the word Houston across the entire piece. And I figured since the initial background is going to be kind of abstract, at least the letters of Houston will shape the overall abstract portion of it. Obviously, now we can see it, but it's there. So the spirit is there.

Eric Huffman: Right. We actually unveiled it two weeks after Harvey, I think, and we had, with us, that day, the guys from the Louisiana Cajun Navy who had come to our aid in our time of need with their boats and their courage and their willingness to again put their lives on the line for others.

And they looked at the painting and one of them cried—the biggest and baddest of them all was in tears. He was broken down by it. And just because, again, the look on Jesus' face is so resolute. It almost says, we will rise. You know, we will rise from this. And it really gave those guys and all of us, I think, a real sense of hope.

Sebastien Boileau: You know, it was strange because I questioned, should I be painting right now? Is that relevant what I'm doing? Am I doing the right thing? I was questioning the decision of doing it. At the same time, I figured I know a lot of people are being tested right now, physically, emotionally, their faith is being tested. And I heard from so many people, just thank you, we needed this, this sense of life is coming back to normal. It was a very, very-

Eric Huffman: You know what's interesting? I think about this sometimes. Our first conversation was here at The Story when you came just to see the space. And we talk about Houston and about how badly Houston sometimes needs an awakening because Houston is so progress driven, it's so utilitarian and it's about success and looking good and making money and all the stuff that Houston's about.

I don't believe God sent the storm, but I believe that He can intervene after the storm to bring something better about in us, to show us our better angels, and to remind us what life is really about. And it's not about the corporate ladder and it's not about bigger house and what neighborhood you live in. It's about living, it's about sacrifice, and it's about community. And seeing Houston come to life in a new way was pretty miraculous.

Sebastien Boileau: I agree. I agree 100%.

Eric Huffman: For people that aren't familiar with this piece, it's 8 by 28, as Sebastien said, and multiple colors, multiple layers. It has hidden code words all throughout it and names of people important to you and Houston and Harvey all over it. I mean, that's kind of your style. I heard you call it Canpressionism, which is kind of graffiti meets impressionism.

Sebastien Boileau: Correct.

Eric Huffman: You're up close to it and it looks like just madness and chaos. And the further away you get, the more sense it makes. But there's four Faces of Jesus that are visible on this painting, and each one has a slightly different look to it. But I've heard people come and say opposite things about the same Jesus.

So they'll say, "This Jesus looks angry. This Jesus looks pissed off. This Jesus looks depressed." People will come the same day and say about the same Jesus, "This Jesus looks hopeful, He looks resolute. He looks determined."

Again, we kind of get back to our, you know, being in the eye of the beholder. But the truth is Jesus was all of those things. If you read His story, He was angry. He turned over tables in the temple.  He was ticked off at religion just like you are, just like many people are. But He was resolute and He was intent on laying His life down for others. And I just think it's fascinating how all that comes through in your work.

Sebastien Boileau: I wish I had an answer for every question, but sometimes it's in you. You experience emotions that are hard to explain. I mean, as an artist I feel blessed that I can actually convey that.

Eric Huffman: Right. Yeah. So we didn't want to let you do this painting at first. We wanted the original replica of the other one. But you talked us into this. And on the day that we decided to let you talk us into this, I sent you a text. Tell me about where you were and what happened.

Sebastien Boileau: That is a true story. I had to screenshot everything to prove it to you because I have a lot of flaws, but lying is not one of them. So I was on my way to South Carolina for the total eclipse. And so we are literally boarding the plane and I turn around and I had to take a photo., I felt really weird doing it, but this gentleman looked like Jesus and he was all by himself. I mean, this is a true story.

Eric Huffman: You really did. You sent me a picture.

Sebastien Boileau: I sent you a picture. And at the exact same moment, I look at your email before I had to put on an airplane mode and you're like, "Okay, good. Feel great about it, dah dah dah." And I turn around and there's this gentleman sitting in the plane that is all by himself and has this sort of like the same... sort of not smiling, not sad, just there. And he really looked like Jesus by all measures how we all envision.

Eric Huffman: Yeah.

Sebastien Boileau: And I looked behind and said, "This is crazy. I want you to witness this or people will think I'm making stuff up."

Eric Huffman: A hallucination or something?

Sebastien Boileau: Right.

Eric Huffman: Do you ever feel like God's in heaven going, "Sebastien, what's it going to take, man? What's it going to take for you to believe I'm here? I stopped the rain from hitting your painting, first of all and then I put Jesus on a plane behind you, and I put all these people in your life, I put these in your life, etc., etc.."

Sebastien Boileau: Well, I feel like even if... you know, I'm still doing my thing and I think I'm contributing to make the world a better place. I think maybe somehow I'm part of this whole process, but I just maybe don't want to admit it because I don't know. Maybe it's a bad habit, you know?

Eric Huffman: I have a theory. I think that there's a lot of really brilliant, creative, educated people in the world who have experienced one too many hypocritical Christians or hypocritical religious people, or they've experienced one too many holy wars or acts of violence in the name of God.

And even if they have all these core beliefs and these experiences and they are connected to God in some way, they don't call it God and they don't call themselves believers because they cannot ever bring themselves to associate with though that brand of person.

Sebastien Boileau: I mean, you're right. And this is why, honestly, I connected with what you guys do here because I feel like it's... I feel at home here. I really do. Because I've experienced that from my upbringing. But one time that I just could not believe it. I was actually in Puerto Escondido surfing in Mexico and this Irish priest, I mean, as picture perfect of an Irish priest, you can imagine, he was there at a bar, by the way.

Eric Huffman: Evangelizing?

Sebastien Boileau: He was just there. And then I saw his little outfit and little white-

Eric Huffman: His little outfit.

Sebastien Boileau: I was like, "Oh, you look like..." And his accent was so classic Irish. I was like, "Okay, we're going to have a good time. Hey, I'm French." And I was with another French buddy. And within five minute it went from a really pleasant moment to the guy was grabbing my arm. I thought it was going to draw blood. He was squeezing my forearm so hard, trying to convince me that religion dah dah dah. He was just preaching. And I was like, "Okay." I actually had to walk away. I was like, "Look, I don't want to punch a priest, but you're asking for it." I mean, it was to a point that was unbelievable.

Eric Huffman: I'm sorry.

Sebastien Boileau: No, I'm sorry. In my mind, I was thinking, "Please don't force me to do that. I mean, I'm a nonviolent guy, but, you're going too far." So literally I had to walk away. And I realized that person is doing a lot of damage to his faith by acting like that.

Eric Huffman: Yeah, well, you've been around The Story long enough to know I'm pretty sure that Jesus would have walked away with you.

Sebastien Boileau: And I did walk away.

Eric Huffman: Yeah. That's why we really talk a lot about Christianity not being a religion. I think the Pharisees were religious, and I think Jesus was sacrilegious or irreligious in their eyes because He would walk away from situations like that angry because "You're ruining it, guys." I feel like that's what He's saying to the religious leaders is you're just turning so many more people away than you are bringing to God or to Jesus."

I look at this piece and I have seen people feel something when they look at it and feel connected and closer to God. But I'm just curious, what has changed in you, if anything, since doing this piece? I've heard you in the past call yourself... not an atheist necessarily, but more of an agnostic. Is that kind of where you would still self-identify?

Sebastien Boileau: I don't. You tell me.

Eric Huffman: I'm not sure, man. I'm not sure anymore. But I don't want to hurt your street cred and the art community.

Sebastien Boileau: And I don't think you can hurt anything. People have tried.

Eric Huffman: Here's what I think. I think that God created us to live a certain way, to be involved in this creation process with Him. And I think God created us to be about cultivation and restoration of creation in ourselves and each other. I think that's the whole work of Jesus in our lives.

You've been around The Story. I've seen you around on Sundays and stuff. That's what we're all about, really, is rejecting any notion that Jesus came to start some new religion that we all have to, you know, sign on to and buy into and become members and support the institution. I think that stuff is repulsive to Jesus.

I think He really came to set us free. And when I look at your work, I see freedom. When I look at your work, I see transcendence and I see a desire for others to experience their freedom in transcendence. So if you're asking what I think, I'm not here to judge at all where your heart's at. But the Bible says if you are to judge, then judge someone by their fruits, the fruits of their life. What does their life produce? From looking at you, literally, I see Jesus. So that's where I'm at.

Man, what are we going to call this painting?

Sebastien Boileau: Well, that's up to the people to decide actually. I give enough of my heart and soul painting it, but I wanted this to be a community effort. And going back to what you just said about my work, I invited dozens, if not 100 plus people here. And all of them felt, walking out, felt good, felt like this was time well spent. They needed this. Some use these words, "I needed."

Eric Huffman: Wow.

Sebastien Boileau: And I'm not saying this because I'm trying to be nice.

Eric Huffman: Here's 20 bucks. For those of you listening, I'm slighting him a 20. No, no.

Sebastien Boileau: And as long as I feel like it's a positive effort, I will always endorse that because I think that the world needs more positive.

Eric Huffman: I'm happy to report that our mural has a name now. On December the 10th, hundreds of people voted and decided to call it Love Has a Name. It's perfect. I believe Jesus is God. I believe God is love. So yes, love has a name. His name is Jesus. Perfect.

But in light of my conversation with Sebastien, it's also a painful reminder that when people think about Christianity, love isn't always the first thing to come to mind. The other night, my wife and I were watching the news, the first report we saw was about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The images on our screen were awful children on death's doorstep, their parents desperate to find food. One father held his tiny baby boy in his hands and said his mother won't stop crying. She can't produce milk to feed him. It was devastating.

The very next story on CNN was about how the Vatican was restoring one of the pope's houses by pouring thousands of gallons of milk on the walls to get just the right look. In that moment, my wife and I had this feeling of disgust and I said, "I know it's unfair to blame the Vatican for not using every ounce of milk to feed kids in Yemen." But in that moment, at a gut level, that's how it felt to us.

And that's how a lot of people experience Christians and Christianity. Like, we're out of touch. They see us fighting tooth and nail about all the wrong things, gender and sexuality, and politics while children are dying, people are suffering.

Sebastien believes in some kind of creative force in the universe, but he won't call it God. Sebastien loves our church, but he'll probably never become a member. He believes in Jesus, but he might never call himself a Christian. Why? Because he doesn't want to be associated with most of the Christians he's known or seen in the media.

A few weeks ago, I was texting with Sebastien. He had offered to teach a painting class to some homeless youth at one of our partner ministries. And I texted him saying, "Thank you, Sebastien. You're a good man and a great Christian. That's right," I said, "I'm sorry to be the one to break it to you." And he replied, "I'll embrace it. I'm comfortable with that. It was my dad's name, after all. Christian. It's even hidden in the mural. Go look for it. I did and I found it—The word Christian hidden deep in a painting of Jesus.

There are so many people who feel the same way Sebastien does. "There's something out there I believe in. But I'd rather call it the universe than God. So I don't sound like one of those religious people." It's basically where we get the phrase spiritual, but not religious.

If you're listening and that describes where you are on your journey, I would just encourage you to do what Sebastien did with this mural to forget about religion and go straight to Jesus. Don't listen to what guys like me tell you about Him. Go find out for yourself.

I think you'll be surprised how spiritual but not religious Jesus was. When I discovered Jesus for who He really was. I realized for the first time in my life, Maybe God isn't all about rules and restrictions. Maybe God is about love and freedom and beauty. Maybe the reason people like Sebastien are so inspired to paint the world is because they're made in the image of God. And Maybe God is an artist, too.

[00:38:26] <music>

Julie Mirlicourtois: Maybe God is produced by Eric Huffman, Brandon Duke, and me, Julie Mirlicourtois. Our sound engineer is Pat Lowery, our editor is Brittany Holland and music is by Nathan Bonus. If you have questions or doubts you'd like us to address in upcoming episodes of Maybe God, email us at [email protected] or start a discussion with us on our Facebook page, Maybe God Podcast. And don't forget to subscribe today on Apple Podcast or your favorite podcast app.