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SPIRITUAL LIFE

Agnostic puts skill to use for a friend

Barry Moser wields his engraver's knife as naturally as if it were a limb. In his home studio atop a hill in South Hatfield, he cuts delicate lines of precise length into a synthetic polymer block the color and hardness of bone. He'll ink the block later to print the image on paper. It's laborious work. Carving one scene takes a day, he said, and ''I work 10-hour days."

This professed agnostic has put that hard labor to the service of creating religious images. Six years ago, his Pennyroyal Caxton Press version of the Bible made Moser the first artist to single-handedly illustrate the Old and New Testaments since Frenchman Gustave Dore in 1865. The trade edition sold for $65; 400 collector's editions cost $10,000 each.

Moser's current work appears in ''Deaths and Transfigurations" (Paraclete Press), a book of often religious poetry by his friend Paul Mariani, a Roman Catholic who tries to attend Mass daily and is the father of a priest. The book will be discussed by Moser and Mariani at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Boston College, where Mariani teaches.

Friendship had a lot to do with their collaboration. ''If Paul had written 'The Incredible Hulk' and wanted me to illustrate it, I probably would have," said Moser, 64. It's true that there are plenty of nonreligious works in Moser's corpus of almost 300 titles. But it's also true that religion retains an ''extraordinarily special interest" for this Tennessee-born, onetime fundamentalist preacher.

Attending military school in his youth, he'd go to revival meetings, but mostly to meet girls. Then a near-lethal mishap changed his life. A hunter's stray bullet punctured his shirt but missed flesh, leaving him so awed by his close call that he became a Methodist preacher. In the process, Moser fell in love with the sumptuous language of the King James Bible.

'' 'Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death' -- my Lord of mercy, what a marvelous line!" he said. Moser's fundamentalist faith did not survive the opposition to desegregation among many of his Christian brethren in the 1960s, and his congregation's shunning of a pregnant teenager. But disgust with the church did not poison his ardor for its scriptures.

His Bible drawings mixed the stark black and white of engraving with a secular humanist take on his subjects. ''They're not pious," he said of his illustrations. No halos for his Jesus, who has blood dripping from his crown of thorns to stress his human suffering.

Moser's book with Mariani brims with the poet's musings on his Roman Catholic upbringing and outlook, but Mariani said the pairing of skeptic and daily churchgoer was not the theological odd couple that you might expect. ''The reason I'm going to Mass every day is to try to get clarity. . . . It's as much a search for me as it is for Barry," he said.

Indeed, Moser's quest made him the man to illustrate the poems, said Mariani, who recalls a discussion the two had about Moser's spiritual questions when the latter was working on his Bible. ''He broke down weeping," Mariani said.

The cover illustration of ''Deaths and Transfigurations" exemplifies Moser's approach to a faith he does not share. His engraving is based in part on Raphael's painting of the glorifying change of Christ.

In Moser's engraving, a group of mourners are lowering a coffin into an unseen grave. Everyone is focused on the departed except for one man who stares dumbly upward at the hovering feet of the transfigured Jesus.

Mariani's instructions guided him in designing the picture, said Moser, for whom the Christian imagery obviously holds no meaning. Yet the artist finds drama elsewhere: ''The pathos of people burying their son or daughter or brother or husband, or whoever is in that coffin, is what resonates more deeply with me than the figure of the transfigured Christ."

Moser said his art is an attempt ''to see the holy in the ordinary . . . and to find my path to the holy through my work." But get him talking and you discover that he goes farther, that he's unwilling to let God's sinful people completely rob him of his God. ''My beliefs in this [Bible] and in -- all right, I'll say it -- in Christ will never falter."

An agnostic who places his faith in Christ? That is this agnostic's little secret, he confesses with a chuckle: His soul remains that of a ''wannabe Christian."

Questions, comments, and story ideas can be sent to spiritual@globe.com.

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