Sunday, April 29, 2007

Where Technology and Religion Meet

Or have a near miss, it's hard to say. According to, last week Brian Martin did a Google-map search for Mt. Sinai, and discovered this cloud over the holy mountain's location. This Jesus sighting has a few catches, however. First: the actual location of the peak from which Moses brought down the Ten Commandments remains a mystery, and may or may not be the physical Mt. Sinai in Egypt. Second: the YouTube video, the story's original source, has been removed. Third: upon some Google mapping over Egypt and Israel, I didn't find any clouds in any of the images.

Why post this, then? Well, I can't "prove" any of these manifestations that I report. I'm just relaying the stories, and adding my two cents every now and then. So, it is very possible that Martin did indeed come across this image of a Jesus cloud over some part of the Middle East where someone believes Mt. Sinai once stood. That's another part of this story that I like: Martin sees the whole body of Jesus, not just His face. He sees the head, shoulders, belt around His robe and legs. The cloud on the left does possess a human form, like a men's room sign, or a Lego figure.

The Jesus association must stem from the fact that Martin had Bible stories on his mind.

And, if you've been paying any attention to this blog, you know that I have a soft-spot for these occurrences that rely on technology, like the Star of David in oatmeal. Thanks to satellite imaging, we can see most any part of the globe from the comfort of home, at times in amazing detail. It makes sense that these innovations would reveal holy icons to certain people, as it seems more and more apparent to me that we cull more and more understanding of the world around us from technology, whether it is the Internet, television or airplane. Such developments shrink the world, and suggest that we can capture anything, even if it is as difficult to grasp as faith, or a cloud.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Jesus Didn't Use a Footstool to Wash Feet

This footstool, discovered in a home on Church Street in Toledo, Ohio, has reaffirmed Roberto Colon’s faith. According to Colon, and his wife, the face of Jesus can be seen on this worn, wooden piece of furniture, though Colon concedes that the face is easier to see from a distance. Reported by WTOL, the broadcast includes a mention of Donna Lee, a person I interviewed for Madonna of the Toast because of the Jesus pierogi she fried up one Easter morning a few years back. You’ll have to read the book to find out more about Lee, but I can tell you that during the course of our conversation she belted out an excellent rendition of “New York, New York.”

Lee sold her divine foodstuff on eBay for $1,775. For now, Colon plans on keeping the footstool, though he hasn’t ruled out auctioning off the item. He thinks bidding would begin at $100,000! When Jesus washed the disciples' feet, it was an act of humility, something Colon may get a dose of with such grandiose monetary expectations. Good luck, Roberto.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A Beatific Bank

Just before Easter, Ann Stromile's niece discovered this face of Jesus. From across a rural road in Plain Dealing, Louisiana, sunken into the bank, it looks back at Stromile's home. Reported last week by KTBS in Shreveport, it's worth checking out the video. At 75, Stromile serves as witness to this sign from God. Two rainstorms have come and gone, but the image in the red-clay bank remains unchanged.

The face looks out from underneath the base of three pine trees. Notice the beard of needles. The eyes and nose are apparent, but it is really the fallen needles that suggest Jesus, though the roots gnarl into Christ's Crown of Thorns.

There have been some visitors, maybe more since this news broadcast, though it is clear that the visual presence bolsters Stromile's faith. She may just be sitting out on her porch at this very moment, the pine trees rustling in the night breeze.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Of a Cube and a Watercolor

Rainy here today, throughout much of the northeast so it seems, an inside day to be sure. I’ll give myself credit for picking up a copy of the Times last night on my way home. It’s been a while since I devoted a healthy portion of a Sunday to the newspaper.

The article “A Cube, Like Mecca’s, Becomes a Pilgrim” got me thinking about Madonna of the Toast and the associative power of the visual, when what we see, what is before us, is so clearly not what we perceive it to be, or hope it to be, though it creates all sorts of reactions.

German artist Gregor Schneider had been commissioned to build a 46-foot tall cube of aluminum scaffolding draped in black muslin for the 2005 Venice Biennale. Organizers of the exhibition refused to show the work, however, concerned that it would anger Muslims because of its resemblance to the Kaaba, the most sacred place in Islam.

According to News Channel 5 KRGV, after a five-year-old girl painted on this bathroom wall in Edinburg, Texas, the adults espied the Virgin Mary. The parents had let their kids use watercolors on the wall because the bathroom was about to be remodeled. But now, the painting will remain, the bathroom’s new interior will work around the image. Unlike most of the stories I relay to you, this one is unique in that the girl was painting. She hadn’t just lopped a branch off a tree or fried up a pierogi. The report on this visual manifestation is brief, so there is no indication as to the family’s religious beliefs, though judging by their reaction, and by the fact that they recognized Mary in the first place, I’d bet they are religious in some way. It’s no great stretch to imagine that the girl has been exposed to Christian iconography. So, unlike many instances of pareidolia, this one has a source of inspiration, even if it is totally subconscious. The girl was not trying to render an image of the Virgin.

While Gregor Schneider’s cube clearly echoes the Kaaba, he was not trying to craft a replica. He first started sketching the Kaaba because of “his interest in shadowy and isolated spaces.” Several institutions refused to host the cube, but is has now found a home in front of the Hamburger Kunsthalle, as part of a show honoring Russian artist Kasimir Malevich. The Kunsthalle’s director justifies his decision to show the piece, in part, because he views “the black square as the quintessentially radical modern form.” The other reason the museum agreed to install the cube is because after they consulted with representatives of several Muslim groups, everyone agreed that it will foster open dialogues about religion and culture.

After all, this is not the Kaaba on display in Germany; it is not as large as the holy structure, it is made from completely different materials and there is no Arabic calligraphy on the muslin. Be that as it may, one of the world’s premiere contemporary art exhibitions balked at this work in order to avoid controversy! This blows me away, as the feared controversy was going to be roiled up, supposedly, by an object that would remind certain people of a holy place in Saudi Arabia.

This watercolor reminded the parents of Mary, not a specific painting of her and not her face, but her iconic form. Granted, very few people will consider the cultural ramifications of this visual form, but it was powerful enough for remodeling plans to be altered. And it got some media attention because this painting conjures feelings related to a visual icon cherished by many. The same is true for Schneider’s cube.

I am baffled by many people's reluctance to engage in real conversations, the ones that can make you uncomfortable, angry, sad and confused. The essence of both these stories resides in how iconic visual cues inform our actions. More than ever we need to pay attention to what whips people into action because these are the events we should examine and discuss, even if they don't make sense.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Another Virgin Mary

I know, the image quality is less than ideal, but here is another Virgin Mary. Like most sightings of Mary, Her presence is more an issue of shape. This one was found in Albuquerque, New Mexico, last week on Good Friday. Leo Korte and a friend were cutting a cherry tree when they discovered the Virgin's likeness in the wood's rings. The form became even more clear after they rubbed the wood with oil. The following day, the cherry tree blossomed.

It's hard to think too much about spring blooms here in New York today, where's it's cold and wet.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Two Potatoes, Two Crosses

Brad Edwards from WOOD TV in Grand Rapids, Michigan, helped me with Madonna of the Toast by sharing his first-hand account of the Pope Pancake story. He emailed me this past Sunday, Easter, alerting me to the fact that the book was going to be mentioned on air, all thanks to this potato.

Found by Elizabeth Sachs of Marshall, Michigan, as she prepared a twice-baked potato for her son, she believes the cross is a positive sign, no matter what others may think. She says it is "definitely a for-real sign from God," which has "changed everything." You can watch the piece, and even get to see some footage of the book -- thanks, Brad!

This raw potato was cut open way back in 2005 in Joshua Tree, California, by a personal chef, by a personal chef that specialized in raw foods. (I made up the last part.)

Luckily, photographs of this other holy potato in various stages of shriveling exist on this website. You'll have to visit if you want to know how the tuber looked on Day 6.

Oh yeah, some cursory Internet research suggests that there are no potatoes in the Bible . . .

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Boil Me a Star

Where one story ends, another inevitably begins, or continues or, in this case, predates. The Easter story would never have happened without the Passover story. Passover began last week on April 2 at nightfall, and will end April 10 before nightfall. That is a Star of David there in the foam of simmering oatmeal, the first example of a Jewish icon appearing that I have read about. This article from the Jewish Journal indicates that there are no known occurrences of pareidolia in Judaism. Passover oatmeal cookies are common, but this isn’t a Passover story, because Gary Marcus made this breakfast a few weeks ago at his home in the Northridge section of Los Angeles. He called for his wife Marsha to bring a camera, and she brought her cell phone.

I’ve been talking, and thinking, about Madonna of the Toast quite a bit lately, in a way, so it seems, more than when I was putting it together. Part of this is because I’ve been engaging with people about the book, the stories and the ideas behind them. And one question that has come up a few times is, Do these occurrences happen more frequently now?

Because the phenomenon that has become known as pareidolia is such an intrinsic human trait, documented over hundreds of years, it is fair to say that such visual manifestations have always happened, we have always facilitated their appearances. Today though, the rate at which information zips all over the world, has unquestionably accelerated our knowing about – well, almost everything really. With a camera phone at hand and good Internet connection, if you choose to, you can arrange to never miss much, even the unexpected and the previously unknown.

Gary Marcus recently lost his job of 24 years, so Marsha approached a rabbi for a blessing, which had been delivered three days before . . . via email, a common practice for this particular rabbi.

Our understanding of the world we inhabit has changed quite a bit due to technology: the wheel, fire, printing press, television, Internet. Doubtless, all of these factors play into how people react to the visual manifestations of religious and secular icons. A thorough analysis of the matter requires more thought and time, but I will say, when we live in a world where religious piece of mind is emailed, it should come as no surprise that people are eager to share their discoveries, no matter how personal, with anyone that wants to take a gander. We relay stories that mean something to us, and though they may not mean the same thing to others, or mean anything at all, the fact that we can know about them with such ease, weaves them into our cultural fabric. It doesn't so much matter if these events happen with greater frequency these days, what matters is that they happen, and people react.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

A Good Friday, Indeed

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Aaron Fraser roasted some peppers recently at Cowboy Coffee in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada. Turns out the face of Jesus awaited him beneath the parchment paper he used to line the pan. And because of it, the CBC's The Current interviewed me about Madonna of the Toast and the human tendency to "etch meaning into the meaningless" as the show's host Avi Lewis put it (as borrowed from Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn).

Fraser's story is interesting because he saw the form and immediately, and with complete forthrightness about his motive, tried to make a buck off the greasy splatter. You'll have to listen to hear the rest of that story. I don't want to spoil it, but I will tell you that on the same day he roasted those peppers, Fraser found 10 (presumably Canadian) dollars.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Deep in the Heart of Texas

When Irma Vega's husband came home from work the other day, he was bearing a gift. The shape of the Virgin of Guadalupe was noticed by the man after he unearthed this rock at a construction site in San Antonio, Texas. Irma recognized the shape, too. As did the priest who blessed the rock. The Vegas feel lucky, and have created a shrine. In this report from WOAI, their home address is made available, so you can go visit the rock!

Before I started working on Madonna of the Toast, I had written a short story called "Flint Ford." Because I have long been interested in notions of meaning, its origination, dissemination and import, I incorporated the Virgin of Guadalupe into the piece, which is set in Texas. I had been in touch with Drew Burk, editor of Spork, and he ended up publishing the story on the website in two installments. Go here to read the portion about the Virgin. Go here if you want to read the story from the beginning. A slightly edited version of "Flint Ford" will appear in a forthcoming print edition of Spork.