Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The News in the News

From the inception of this project, my spins on these stories have always been linked to how the media treats them, and how those treatments get others to react. Here then is the story of Pamela Latrimore, as told by her on eBay, where she is in the process of selling this brain scan, where in the cerebral folds of her brain she has discovered the Virgin Mary.

Nothing shocking about that, right? Jesus and Mary have popped up in ultrasounds and MRIs plenty of times. It’s not even particularly surprising that it looks like this item will sell for more than $700. What’s interesting is how this event, for Latrimore, has spurred her campaign for awareness about Agent Orange dioxins that have long been polluting her hometown of Jacksonville, Arkansas. In her words from eBay: “Some do not see the image some do. I'm not here to dispute that. I see it and I think it is a blessing and a miracle. The miracle to me is people are now aware of this town.”

Yes, her explanation of all this is erratic in terms of spelling, grammar and capitalization, but this abstract from a November 4, 1991 issue of The Nation proves that Latrimore is not exaggerating the severity of illnesses and environmental issues that have plagued this town since the end of the Vietnam War. Apparently, the Vertac Chemical Corporation stored various toxins all over the town: “It is opined that no one knows for certain if a house or backyard isn't directly on top of a yet-to-be-identified toxic dump.” Yikes!

Latrimore says she is very ill and while she and others have long fought to save themselves, their town and other towns that suffer the same plight, dead ends are all they seem to hit. But now, this image of the Virgin Mary has garnered national media attention, including a potential appearance on CNN (according to Latrimore).

I’m just tuning in to this issue today. I can’t verify Latrimore’s claims, but searching around, they don’t strike me as outlandish. What does it say about the culture of media when real human suffering does not receive proper reporting until a purported image of the Virgin Mary in a brain scan becomes a part of the story? I’d say that the media, at least the mainstream media (CNN, I’m talking to you, too), has conditioned us to consider tabloid stories as hard news. That’s why banner headlines on AOL and Yahoo inform us about reality television dramas. If that’s your thing, fine, but that ain’t news.

More on this as it develops . . .

Update (12/18/08): The MRI sold for $730, going to an anonymous California bidder. With more than $100,000 in medical bills, this was clearly not about the money for Latrimore. According to this WFTS report, she is actually disappointed that the auction only received 21,977 views over the course of 10 days because she was hoping to raise even more awareness about the pollution that plagues her hometown of Jacksonville, Arkansas. It doesn’t seem like that CNN appearance ever happened – maybe it was too much news?

Friday, December 12, 2008

If Everyone Else Does It, It Must Be Okay

Connie Covert from Idaho Falls, Idaho, has come out of the closet. No, wait, she’s come out about her closet. According to this Local News 8 report, Covert first noticed an image of Jesus on this door in her home over 30 years ago but “was afraid to tell anyone fearing she would be called crazy.” All of the stories about Jesus and the Virgin Mary showing up in all sorts of places inspired Covert to make her secret public. Of the people she has shown, only about half see Jesus, while others see a hobo or a horse. I kind of see Macho Man Randy Savage.

Covert is not religious, but she interprets the face as a sign that something has been looking over her for decades, especially since her life is tragedy free: “Trailer hasn’t burned down or anything.” The article doesn’t establish any specific reason for Covert’s confession, though it does make clear that she has no intention of selling the image on eBay.

Attitudes change with the times. Sure, there is still plenty of bigotry and racism out there – all over the world – but it is fair to say that culture at large, as filtered through the media, has become more accepting of pretty much everyone and everything, even, apparently, how people will think of you if you claim to see Jesus, Mary or Mickey Mouse in a water stain. What once might have resulted in your neighbors inconspicuously whispering about you has become something of a status symbol, or at least a way to attract some attention and get your fifteen minutes of fame.

Maybe that’s the essence of this shift in perception, that getting noticed, being on the news, even for less than complimentary reasons, is the status symbol. Because if you read enough reader comments tagged on to the end of these Madonna of the Toast stories, plenty of people like Covert get ridiculed, pretty harshly at times. But, no matter what people write and say about you, if your story is out there, circulating all over the world, then you have arrived: I can be Googled, therefore I am.

Hopefully Covert doesn’t regret making her story known.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Sold – Jesus Doggie Door Goes for $1,185

The title says it all. No word about whether or not the winner of this auction is going to pay extra for Roger Bowman to accompany the framed object to its new home, but the sale does seem official. Scroll down to read more about this story.

Believe it or not, I do read about more than questionable iconic forms showing up in surprising places. I actually read books, ones without pictures even. Check out The Millions if you are interested in my favorite reads of 2008. Contributors to the annual A Year In Reading comprise a roster of today’s most interesting and acclaimed writers.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

An Ode to Salsa

Recognizable faces and shapes have appeared on a dizzying array of substrates, formed by jet streams and condensation, frothing oatmeal, rust, wood grain and now, salsa – my favorite condiment. Of course, no proper story about a salsa-splatter Virgin Mary could originate anywhere else but California. After living there for 5 years I can attest to the glories of California salsa. Thanks to the close proximity of so much amazing produce, the state’s Mexican food is often accompanied by a range of salsa as varied as these Madonna of the Toast tales. Pineapple, watermelon, apple, mango, corn, pumpkin seed, tomatillo, heirloom tomatoes – all of these flavors of salsa exist. Free avocado salsa so plentiful you can fill a cup and drink it? Head to Cancun in Berkeley (portion of the famous salsa bar pictured above).

So to Bakersfield, California, we go, where, according to this FaceBakersfield story, Elvia Alvarez was making salsa. Some of it splattered against the wall, forming what Alvarez immediately recognized as the Virgin Mary. Since it has appeared, Alvarez also says her house has smelled like roses, although there are no roses in the house, or neighborhood. Such a scent may come in handy if she leaves that stain on the wall. Odors aside, Alvarez believes the image to be a sign from God that people should learn to treat one another better.

As you can tell from the photograph, this is a pretty standard tomato salsa that Alvarez was blending, nothing more than tomato, chili peppers, onion and cilantro. With the exception of tomatillo salsa, I prefer a chunkier, rustic salsa, hand-chopped and mixed, so a recipe like Alvarez’s doesn’t come out as spicy ketchup. I like my salsa to have a bit of crunchy texture, so those spikes of cilantro, jalapeno and onion really contrast with the tomatoes.

While its carbon footprint is questionable, one of my favorite salsas to make in the winter is mango salsa, thanks to the abundance of cheap South American mangos found at my Astoria produce stand of choice. Let them get really ripe and then chunk them, scrape all the flesh off the pit with a spoon, letting the juice run into the bowl, add some onion, garlic, cilantro, jalapeno, lemon, salt, pepper and you have a top-notch mango salsa, good with chips, on fish tacos or dolloped into a bowl of chili. If you’re really lucky, some of the mango juice will run down your wrist, hit the counter and congeal into the face of Frida Kahlo.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Jesus Doggie Door on eBay

For you long-time readers, this Jesus doggie door is nothing new. Back in January 2007, I blogged about Roger Bowman’s tale of disobedient dogs and how this scratch-formed Jesus face saved them from the pound. What is new, however, is this eBay auction – to the winner goes the doggie door, framed for posterity. Apparently, according to Bowman’s thorough eBay explanation, he has lost his job and needs a quick cash infusion to cover his mortgage.

Like the economy, plenty has changed about this story since it was first reported. One of the dogs is dead, and Bowman no longer believes that the image resembles the Shroud of Turin, though he maintains that it is Jesus, partly because of the iconic beard and long hair, but also because of other circumstances: “The compelling factor in judging this image is the convergence of both the image, which had never before been observed in any way prior to the day it was discovered in full form, and the fact it appeared on an item that was of extreme relevance to the most important issue facing my family at that time.”

As of writing this post, the current bid stands at $1,850. Needless to say, it has generated ample press, like here. It’s hard to imagine why such a personal object for Bowman would be worth much to anyone else, especially in this dire economic climate, but the display case alone is pretty nifty: “The backlight is created from ultra-thin fluorescent tubes that are housed in a pre-manufactured backlight device with a semi-opaque front. It is typically used to backlight transluscent [sic] store signs such as fast food menus.” If there’s one thing that says “classy” and “spiritual” to me, it’s fast-food menu lighting. Actually, the lighting is necessary if you want to see this semblance; it has been rigged to replicate how the sun lit the doggie door on the day when Bowman first noticed the image.

Should you want to kick in for airfare and provide notice one week in advance, Bowman and his dog Hercules will attend an “unveiling,” and presumably pose for some photographs.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Recognizable Is Not Always Reliable

Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris maintains a New York Times blog, Zoom. The November 12 post meditates on, among other things, “the perceived reliability of the source,” a topic inspired by a reader comment. Very apropos for stories about recognizable images appearing in unexpected places, no?

Morris cites two very different examples to explore the idea of “reliability”: Colin Powell’s now infamous 2003 testimony during the UN Security Council, when he held up a vial that “could have” contained anthrax; the classic Ansel Adams photograph Winter Sunrise, Lone Pine, CA, a print that Adams took the liberty of spotting out an “LP” on a hillside because he found the Lone Pine initials a desecration of the natural environment. In both cases we as viewers believe the subject presented. With Powell, because he was, and is, a distinguished figure, an expert, etc., he knew what he was talking about; Adams’s reputation as one of the greatest nature photographers of all time results in viewers assuming that he always presented nature exactly as it stood before him when he snapped the shot.

The perception of a source’s reliability builds trust amongst those informed by the source. As Morris describes it: “The saddest thing of all is that without trust, civilization would be impossible. We can’t possibly ever know everything through first-hand experience. We can’t check everything nor hold everything up to scrutiny. We have to depend on others for information. In some cases, the dependence on others is not critical; in others, it is of crucial importance.”

Morris also mentions the human propensity for mistaking an image for the object itself, a notion dating back to Plato, which I cover in Madonna of the Toast and have discussed here countless times. He follows this thought with another question: “Why do we trust our eyes?” I don’t think it’s our eyes that need to be questioned, however, as they are only two surface parts of “seeing.” It is our brain that makes us trust, or distrust for that matter.

(Purported Jesus image on a laptop screen, which is being auctioned on eBay.)

Now, the stories that populate this blog are not of “critical importance,” but a great majority of them come to us via a media source, starting from a network affiliate covering a local happening, followed by rebroadcasts on other affiliates, sometimes inspiring a gathering where people gawk and pray, which in turn creates more media interest. People, at first, respond to the news report that relays the image of the image you may or may not get excited about, or believe. But, in the case of my recent Infotainment post, the news source didn’t even bother to report facts about an old Youtube video of a Jesus cloud. Yet, the report circulated internationally.

Here then, in such stories, the reliability of two sources comes into question, that of the discoverer and that of the report of the discovery. When someone sees a Virgin Mary stain on a window or the shape of Jesus in a tree stump, that is the story. Rarely do the media outlets do anything journalistic, they just pass along something they’ve been told and it becomes “news.” Ever since I began nosing around in these occurrences, I’ve been fascinated by the cultural ripples they create as perpetuated by the media. The recipients of these media-generated stories react in one of two ways: with utter devotion, or utter derision. Yet, either stance accepts the reliability of the two sources in question. People either see the face of Jesus in the stain, or quip that it looks more like Charles Manson or Jerry Garcia. I’ve never come across one of these stories where a news item concludes with evidence suggesting, or proving, that the image in question was manipulated.

Is it me, or in this realm is the reliability of a source unimportant, a non-issue? Why is that? In matters of global affairs and art, to name but two, it’s a huge issue, but with these stories reliability seems to get a pass.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

French Toast for Muscles, and Jesus

It’s not the first piece of toast emblazoned with an iconic face to come out of Florida, but it is the first piece of French toast with the face of Jesus, and two swans, at least that's what Troy Eckonen sees. I dare you to tell him he's wrong.

It was during breakfast at Mack’s CafĂ© in Pompano Beach when he noticed the visage. According to this First Coast News report, Eckonen “and friends also see Christ's left arm raised and holding a cross, as well as two birds over the left shoulder.” Eckonen says he will not sell his Jesus French toast on eBay – probably because it will be worth much more to him in the business it brings into his gym.

Turns out Eckonen is a body builder and owner of Tropical Gym, which seems like a pretty serious gym, judging by its website with lots of photographs of Eckonen and various Mr. Olympia’s. This is Eckonen:

This photo gallery has been set up on Tropical Gym's website with more images of the French toast, replete with the important question, “What do you see?

Sound familiar? It’s the Madonna of the Toast catchphrase, and it’s finally taking off! Of course, if I ran into Eckonen and he wanted to claim it as his, I’d probably give him credit if I thought it would keep me from being mauled and splattered into something that people have to squint at and wonder what it is.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

And the Angels Sing

The election is over (YAAAAY!), and so now it is back to business as usual, or as usual as matters can be in these parts. This story is a pre-election story, but just about a week old. It came to me via a Google alert, and I was tickled by the fact that the writer cited this here blog to give the story a bit of context (though she should have mentioned the book, too).

Found near Johnny Mercer’s Pier in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, this shell immediately struck the stroller as resembling the Virgin Mary. According to the article, “like a good entrepreneur,” the person that found the shell, no doubt reeling from religious ecstasy, put it up for sale on eBay. Nothing surprising in that, but what is surprising is that the shell sold for $135 after 26 bids.

The shell’s ribbing does create the effect of a robe, and its belled shape echoes the iconic form of Mary, but I’m not quite sure why this item would sell while so many other more or less similar items do not sell, or sell for a couple of bucks. I guess some people really like shells.

But that’s the beauty of these stories, there is so much you can never know and wondering can be the real joy.

I wonder why a pier in North Carolina is named after Savannah, Georgia’s most famous son?

Sunday, November 2, 2008


Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote.

Story of the “Potatobama” image here.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

This Is Infotainment

I’ve never been to Australia, but from what I hear there is a different sense of time down there. This news item from the Macarthur Chronicle confirms my understanding. This article about the video above is from the paper’s October 28 issue, but the video was posted on Youtube a year ago. Hardly breaking news, or even news for that matter. The paper didn’t even bother to get the real name of the person responsible for the footage.

Someone using the handle “tubeoffroad” shot the video, thinking the wispy cloud resembled Jesus with outstretched arms. The video has gotten over 8,000 hits, which is nothing when compared to other similarly themed videos, some of which have been viewed over 400,000 times.

This particular video has also generated a smattering of comments, most notably one from tubeoffroad: “WOW! Today, 28 OCT 2008 I'm on the front page of Macarthur Chronicle local newspaper. Unbelievable! About time I made the front page.”

I’ve never even thought to look at Youtube for these sorts of clips, but I guess that’s because I’m interested in how the media gets hold of these stories. But, in this day and age, Youtube is a very real facet of the media. The viral nature of this website, and many others, is such that if you get enough people viewing whatever it is that you’ve created it becomes news. A great example is the Obama Girl. That video was originally posted in June 2007, and since then more than 10-million people have viewed it with new comments popping up every few minutes. The video and its star, Amber Lee Ettinger, have been topics of pretty much every major news outlet. So, tubeoffroad’s attitude is kind of understandable within this context, as s/he clearly had the expectation of the video translating to news media/pseudo-celebrity status.

I used the word on this blog for the first time a couple of posts ago, but this story is the essence of “infotainment.” I’d much rather squint my eyes and try to discern a religious or secular icon than spend my time figuring out which parts of the news are truly newsworthy and which parts are just people trying to get notoriety. I guess it’s all kind of the same anymore . . .

Monday, October 27, 2008

You Just Have to See, Even If You Aren't Looking


When I returned from Germany, I had waiting for me phone messages and emails from my cousin, a guy I always thought of as the big brother I never had. He had been traveling for work and was in a hotel room in New Orleans, drinking Dr. Pepper out of a plastic bottle, when he discovered what struck him as an image of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus. Now, my cousin does not go to church, but he has heard me go on and on about these Madonna of the Toast stories. For as much as I can ramble on about these things, I just assume most people, especially my family, are nodding politely but then getting on with their lives: jobs, significant others, children, hobbies, friends, etc.

But here we see how that intrinsic human trait of seeing recognizable forms in unexpected places is in all of us, no matter our motivation, or lack thereof. We’ve been playing phone tag, but I can assure you that my cousin was not thinking about how he could find me something to blog about. He was just sitting there, watching TV, maybe checking email, quenching his thirst, thinking about anything any of our minds may land on during those quiet moments of aloneness: tomorrow’s meeting, an old pet, politics, the best friend from high school that you haven’t seen since high school, what to have for breakfast, death, the meaning of life. And suddenly, manifesting in some alchemy of condensation and carbonation, a form that looked to him like a scene from a medieval miniature painting: the gowned Virgin swaddling Jesus in the manger.

It’s one of these examples that makes you squint, but it doesn’t really matter what we see. My cousin saw it. He didn’t call any local television stations and you won’t find this bottle being auctioned on eBay. He was surprised to make the discovery, however, because it was not something he ever expected to find. If you sift through previous posts, you’ll find that many of the people were looking for something to help guide them, but just as many were shocked, the same as my cousin. How any of us see and filter the world we inhabit is subjective – and that’s the point. Meaning, or a lack thereof, can be found just about anywhere, even if you’re not looking for it.

Speaking of finding images in unexpected places, I came across this tidbit on what seems like a great food blog: Bread and Honey. The image above is a photograph of a bag of frozen organic broccoli – a vegetable an old buddy of mine always calls the “virtuous veggie.” Obviously, these tiny faces in the florets are the handiwork of some rogue graphic designer, but it just goes to show you: when you take the time to look, you never know what you might see.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Joe the Plumber of the Toast

Geez, you leave the country for a week and lose all sense of what’s going on. What’s the deal with this Joe the Plumber guy? I’ve talked to some people, Googled around a bit and I think I have a handle on him and how he has been inflated into a political idea. Strikes me as little more than a media melee. This eBay auction for the piece of toast above seems to bolster my theory.

This is the world of infotainment, people.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Religulous Review

The Boston Globe’s website reported last week that the Mercy Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts, will remove the window upon which the image of Virgin Mary was spotted, and subsequently attracted hundreds of visitors. Says hospital spokesperson Mark Fulco, “Removal of the window is not only a prudent decision at this point but is necessary for returning to normal operations.” The widow will be studied and then perhaps made into a display. Fulco, echoing a message from the local Bishop, asked that “attention now be placed on prayers for the people in the hospital as well as the sick and infirmed throughout our world.”

These were the kinds of stories that I had hoped Bill Maher’s new movie would cover. But, aside from the poster’s toasted countenance of Maher, there really isn’t that much directly in common between Religulous and Madonna of the Toast. I thought there would be. I thought that he would be lampooning the commercialization and media sensationalized aspects of religion by making examples of these stories that anyone reading this is fond of, for whatever reason, be it religion or absurdist comedy. But that’s not what the movie is about.

In Maher’s words, he is “preaching doubt,” asking what’s so great about faith. What has made Maher popular, and a reason I have been a fan of his since Politically Incorrect, is his ability to get under people’s skin, pushing all the right buttons so as to bait answers – or more accurately lack of good answers – in order to make his point. He’s done it with politicians, celebrities, activists, writers and now with self-proclaimed true believers.

Unfortunately, the movie only focuses on Christianity, Judaism and Islam, making the glaring omissions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Paganism and really any other –ism you can think of a real shortcoming for a movie that calls into question the notion of “faith.” That’s the disconnect – if Maher were really looking to pick a fight with humanity’s panache for faith, he would really have to go after ALL religions. The movie would have been more successful had Maher better identified what really drives him nuts about faith: hypocrisy and self-serving contradictions that take advantage of people looking for answers to life’s mysteries and hardships.

So, the interviews with Jeremiah Cummings and Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda play right into Maher’s objective: to reveal how religion, for these two, is a means to bilk money from their respective congregations so as to keep them dressed in fine tailored suits.

But, when he talks with Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss, an anti-Zionist Jew infamous for going to meet with Iranian President Ahmadinejad, Maher shows his hand; he only really wants to talk to people with answers that are caricatures that he knows are coming, playing into his true agenda – to make these people look like hypocritical idiots (some of them are). But the rabbi does not let Maher get a word in edgewise, which frustrates Maher enough that he abruptly ends the interview. It’s a great scene because both men are accustomed to talking their ways around interlocutors. In this case, Weiss betters Maher by answering questions with orations that Maher interrupts with a different question. The new question only spurs a new oration, however, taking Maher off his talking points.

Maher is preaching to the choir in Religulous. No one struggling with a dilemma of faith will walk out of the theatre with their troubles assuaged because Maher doesn’t really tackle the issue of faith, at least not as it applies to all belief systems. He reminds viewers that the Jesus story borrows heavily from the story of the Egyptian god Horus. This is not news to serious students of religion and myth and I imagine most people who see the film will know this, and will appreciate most of Maher’s points.

There are a few moments, however, where Religulous dovetails with Madonna of the Toast, and that is when individuals are talking about their faith, not as a means to proselytize but to simply get through life. Such is the case with the truckers he interviews at a truck-stop church. One driver in particular tells Maher, “When I seen what I seen, you can’t change what I believe.” This guy isn’t talking about seeing the Virgin Mary on a window. He’s talking about how faith pulled him out of a bleak life of addiction. So, for this guy, faith did factor into making life better. If it had been an image of Mary that got him around the bend, it’s really the same metaphor, right? This guy saw something, thought about what it meant to him and changed his behavior based on this vision.

Maher asks, “Why is faith good?” This isn’t a hard question to answer. Faith on an individual level is inevitable, whether it is religious or agnostic. At one point Maher posits, “Doubt is humble.” That’s tough to argue, but it is a statement of belief, no different than a statement of faith: “I believe . . .” The tough questions deal with how and why faith is used to take advantage of people or to sell a product.

I credit Father Reginald Foster, not Bill Maher, for getting in the best line of Religuous. The Catholic priest and Vatican Scholar tells Maher, as the two are standing outside the Vatican: “You have to live and die with your stupid ideas.” “Your” is the key word here. We are inundated with ideas from friends, family, media, religions, governments and academies. It is up to us to interpret them and live with our interpretations. Yes, certain of these ideas are biased, illogical and inconsistent, but that’s not a secret. Yes, some people are not necessarily equipped to make those distinctions, but is that the fault of the ideas, or the reason for them? I think it is the latter, which is a hugely more profound and complex question than the point of faith.

All of these bodies of ideas are human creations, no different from the wheel, the printing press and computers, and they should be examined as such. While Religulous offers some genuinely funny moments, it only skims the surface of “faith” as an idea. Maybe that’s for the sequel, the one that Maher and his director Larry Charles will let me help write.

I’m off to Frankfurt for the Book Fair, so I won’t be posting for a while. But, if any of you readers have seen Religulous, I’m interested to read your thoughts.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

What is the Why?

From Springfield, Massachusetts, a Virgin Mary on a window of a Catholic hospital. Reported by the Boston Herald, this faint iconic shape on the second-floor window of an empty office has attracted hundreds of people, prompting the hospital to up security, according to a spokesperson for Mercy Medical Center.

Mark Dupont of the Springfield Diocese had this to say: “The way the colors cascade would give the outline of a very common artistic impression of the Blessed Virgin . . . It’s understandable how people would see an image in it.” As always when it comes to church officials addressing these events, Dupont was careful not to claim divine intervention, rather choosing to revel in the crowds’ supplications marked by tears, prayers, rosaries and candles.

So, another example of a Virgin Mary appearance garnering the attention of the faithful, and the media. What to make of it?

Recently on the New York Times blog By the Numbers, Charles M. Blow posed the question “Why is America so religious?” His question is rooted in “a study entitled ‘Unfavorable views of Jews and Muslims on the Increase in Europe’ (which is quite disturbing). The report is part of the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project.” Part of the report reveals, statistically, that poorer countries tend to contain more religious populations, with one major exception: the United States. From the study:

Despite its wealth, the United States is in the middle of the global pack when it comes to the importance of religion. Indeed, on this question, the U.S. is closer to considerably less developed nations such as India, Brazil and Lebanon than to other western nations.

See, there's the United States, there "in the middle of the global pack."

By virtue of how religion plays into politics and culture, we know this already. The frequency of these Madonna of the Toast-type sightings also backs up what these statistics suggest. But what does it really mean? What is the why?

I haven’t seen it yet (though I blogged about it last year), but I bet Bill Maher’s new movie, Religulous, touches on this question. I’m aiming to see it this weekend and will report back. In the meantime, the Times has published a review.

Lots of folks don’t like Maher, and I can understand where his detractors are coming from. I like him though because he’s not afraid to ask tough, sometimes unanswerable, questions, knowing they will irritate people. Doubtless he would have plenty to say about the Virgin Mary window and the Pew report.

Bill, feel free to drop me a line. We should talk.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

And Colombia Makes 17

That’s 17 countries where Madonna of the Toast-related stories have originated, a figure that says quite a bit about the human fascination with the image. In the US, 26 states have hosted various visual manifestations of religious and secular icons. From Jesus and the Virgin Mary showing up on an smorgasbord of substrates to the Arabic for Allah in gristle, the Star of David in oatmeal and Elvis and Yogi Bear in all sorts of places, people see forms they want to recognize all over the world for a host of reasons.

I’ve been meaning to tally all of this geographic data for a while, but news of this Colombian Jesus spotting on the shriveled leaf of a plant that needs watering has spurred me into action, and allowed me to rationalize not having a great image to show you, though you can watch a broadcast in Spanish here, which does have footage of the plant in question. This Jesus image hails from the northern city of Riohacha and has apparently brought the faithful out in droves. Local church officials have yet to confirm the sighting but the owner of the plant is convinced it is divine by virtue of how many people have witnessed Jesus on this leaf.

And that’s what so many of these occurrences are about, really: seeing is believing. Some may believe what they see is utter rubbish, delusional. But others see shapes and shadings that they find inspirational, poignant and life-affirming.

No matter where you stand on the issue, it cannot be denied that these events reveal humanity’s intimate connection with the image, which is perhaps the greatest lesson to take away from these stories. Just ask the folks in England, Wales, Poland, Canada, Argentina, Germany, Scotland, India, Italy, New Zealand, Nigeria, Philippines, Russia, Taiwan, Ukraine and, of course, the US (where California, Texas and Florida rule the roost for the greatest number of these stories). These phenomena are inescapable!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Is Toast More Important Than Politics?

Judging by this, some people would clearly prefer to think about toast over politics. Remember how last post I commented about the media’s propensity to sensationalize Jesus images and the US election? Well, it’s not only the media that’s in on it – though doubtless they have inspired the public. Above, a piece of toast currently being auctioned on eBay. Yes, that’s supposed to be Sarah Palin’s face. The seller writes: “You get this piece of toast with the image of Sarah Palin. Miraculous? You be the judge. Not sponsored by any political party.” According to this Reuters article, Palin memorabilia is all the rage on eBay these days.

A fan of this here blog tipped me off about this absurdity via TheDailyDairy.com.

The current bid on this item is $12,000! How much do you think people would pay for an Obama toast?

UPDATE: It seems that rogue bidders were responsible for raising the price on this item. So, after weeding them out, the toast sold for $31.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Chronicle of a Demise

Greetings. It’s been quiet on the Madonna of the Toast front. It would be better for all of us if the media stuck with trying to sensationalize the latest Jesus image, as opposed to how it is attempting to sensationalize more pressing issues, issues that deserve serious and sober reporting and consideration: the election, economy, health care, war(s).

And then, as if some apocalyptic convergence of all the big, scary, impossible ideas that propel those issues – election, economy, health care, war(s) – writer extraordinaire David Foster Wallace hanged himself. You’ve probably heard. If you’ve never read him, you should, a short story or an article. Worthwhile memorials at The Millions and McSweeney’s.

So, I’ve been thinking about writing and writers, America, not that different from normal I suppose, but over the last few days tinged by melancholy. But is has yielded something, after returning to a seldom-read collection of Tennessee Williams stories. There are some true gems, but the story I felt drawn to the other day was “Chronicle of a Demise,” the title an ode to my mood. Guess what? It’s a short story that could have been reported here, a perfect accompaniment to these random, and questionable, eBay objects: Jesus (or an ogre) on a wood panel, Mary on a candle. (Where’s the wick?)

The story’s first person narrator belongs to an Order, which has a Saint who spends her days on a cot, up on the roof of an apartment building. Her charge: she tends to the Order’s articles of faith. They are cataloged in an old Valentine’s Day heart-shaped candy box. The items “were collected at random, in subway stations and under the seats of trains, in gutters and alleys of many different towns, even by theft.” After inspection by the Saint, a new item was either put in the candy box or a “Possible” box. As any regular reader knows, articles of faith can be subjective.

The demise in question is that of the Saint’s and her growing misgivings about the Order’s behavior. The “purple tinfoil” and the “wad of peppermint gum that Hannibal Weems had picked up on the steps of an escalator in Gimbel’s department store” revealed the truth to the Saint: “Matter is not what matters!”

With five simple words, the Saint's epiphany conjoins the two poles of belief – religious devotion and agnosticism – as they come around from opposite directions and become the same. The deeply religious can say it, and believe it, knowing that the divine is all that matters, that this physical, temporal world is but a corridor, a threshold, to something greater, something that is part of the Master Plan. But the overly-educated post-modern cynic can say it, committed to just how unnecessary the day-to-day can be, and view it as the proof of an ontological truth: the impossibility of ultimate or complete knowledge.

I bet it would have been fun to sit with DFW, discussing Tennessee Williams, Jesus stains and the media.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

If Wine Can Be the Blood of Christ . . .

What does that make the grape? Answer: The Virgin Mary.

This past Friday, The Dallas Morning News reported that Becky Ginn of Arlington, Texas, discovered this image of the Virgin Mary on a rotting grape. Ginn, a 24-yeard-old makeup artist and devout Baptist, noticed the image just as she was about to throw out the bunch of grapes, all of them had gone bad.

In the brief article, Ginn comes off as serious about her faith, dubbing the event “pretty ironic.” She says: “I'm all for showing that God sometimes does have a sense of humor.” She is considering selling the grape on eBay, but proceeds will go to her church.

While some have been “energized” by the image on the grape, others have “questioned its authenticity.” Ginn denies having created the image: “I can Photoshop a zit off someone’s face . . . I can’t Photoshop the Virgin Mary onto a grape.”

But can she Photoshop this Virgin Mary image onto someone’s face?

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Off to the Movies

Before this past week, the last film I had seen in the theatre was Andrei Tarkovsky’s ecstatic masterpiece Anrdei Rublev. It was shown not too long ago at Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan one sunny Saturday afternoon – and it was packed. The other night, I ventured to a theatre just north of Union Square to see Henry Poole is Here. There were no more than 10 people in the audience.

If not for my obsession for navigating the cultural currents of the visual manifestations of religious and secular icons, I would have been reluctant to lighten my wallet by $11 to see this movie on the big screen. Truth be told, if not for Madonna of the Toast, I most likely would have never seen this movie. But, it had been put on my radar after debuting at the Sundance Film Festival. I even blogged about it back in February.

The reviews have been pretty negative (with notable exceptions, like Roger Ebert’s review), which isn’t surprising. The overly sentimental script and soundtrack drown the acting in a treacly tide of feel-good Hollywood schlock. I’m not going to be a spoiler, but nothing will surprise you about the movie’s narrative arc. Nonetheless, it is fascinating to me that the purported face of Jesus in discolored stucco serves as the hinge for all of the movie’s dramatic tension.

A synopsis: Henry Poole moves to California and buys a house. His nosy neighbors learn that he does not intend to be around for long. One of the neighbors sees the face of Jesus on the side of Poole’s house and then a number of “miracles” occur, which include a little girl speaking again after being mute for a year and the improvement of a young woman’s sight and, yes, the eventual discovery of true love. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before all of that, Poole unleashes cynical wrath on all of the people who see the face of Jesus in this stain. But the devout will have none of it and with every additional inexplicable event, Poole finds it more and more difficult to deny that “something” is happening related to the image. That’s pretty much it.

The story of the Jesus face in the movie plays out like any of the stories from the media that I post here, though aspects have been refined for the sake of Hollywood. Example: Esperanza, the nosy, Latina neighbor who speaks, presumably for the benefit of the English language audiences, an overly dainty English-Spanish patois. Now, based on the fact that the story takes place in California, I was amazed that there was no mention of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Esperanza – esperar means to wait or expect in Spanish – was basically called in out of central casting, and had this been a news item – in this part of the country, discovered by this woman (who in the movie brings in members of her church, all of whom speak Spanish) – it is most likely that they would speak of the Virgin, even in the context of a Jesus face. Furthermore, while the faithful do eventually line up to pray at Poole’s wall, the media never gets involved. In reality, the people active enough to organize a church fieldtrip to such a site would also make sure the local news knew about it. As we know, the local news loves a story like this, and the locals love to be a part of stories like this.

To most, these may seem like minor details, but by paying close attention to facts like these, a good writer can render a human story with all of life’s nuances and avoid creating a caricature. Unfortunately, the script achieved the latter and not the former. It’s hard to care about any of the characters for this reason, which is a shame since two actors accustomed to good writing – Cheryl Hines (who makes a strange real estate agent cameo) and Luke Wilson – were obviously just gunning for the paycheck on this one.

Something else I found surprising was that this movie got accepted into the Sundance Film Festival. Having helped to launch careers of filmmakers like the Coen brothers, Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino, I’ve always considered the festival as one of some gravitas. I don’t know enough about today’s culture of films and distribution, but it is clear that there were enough people with funding who believed this film was worth making. And I guess that the Sundance powers that be deemed the movie worthy of being part of festival.

There’s no doubt that the American culture favors something it already knows over something completely new. With stories about Jesus and the Virgin Mary popping up in the unlikeliest of places considered commonplace on the nightly news, the idea of basing a film on such a story is not so surprising.

Another example of this American panache for reassuring regurgitation came at me during the pre-preview ads. Check out this hypnotically bizarre JCPenney Back to School ad for their “American Living” line:

I remember the middle school retreat where I first saw The Breakfast Club, back in the late 1980s. It was one of those mandatory weekend trips, the intention of which was to make us all awkwardly confront our budding pubescent selves (as if our changing bodies and attitudes didn’t already make it hard enough). I was amazed to be sitting in the same room with my teachers watching these teens talk about sex and smoke pot!

Now that clarion call for teenagers to assert their individuality has been muddled by this hokey reenactment, trading angst for branding (check out the pink Nirvana t-shirt). This is certainly not the first time such a tactic has been employed by marketers, though I’m not sure of the commercial’s target audience. Is it people my age who are supposed to let nostalgia steer them, with their children presumably, to the closest JCPenney? Do kids today watch The Breakfast Club? Is the ad meant to appeal to them?

The question of how to appeal to groups of people is complex, but it is a component of every facet of life, from economics and culture to politics. Both the JCPenney ad and Henry Poole is Here are derivative of already established trends. But are they meant to appeal to the people already aware of the trends or are they meant to broaden the audience? Of course, it’s a little bit of both. The bigger question then is, Why do these cultural reruns appeal to us as consumers (and I think in this instance religion and clothes are being consumed in a very similar manner)?

In the case of Henry Poole is Here, I sense that part of the objective was to mainstream these visual phenomena. Because the film falls flat, however, I think it is destined to be forgotten, unlike some of the real-life stories that have come through these parts. Although several visual and narrative threads exist in the stories I tell, one reason for my continued interest in relaying them to you is the very personal nature of each and every story. The movie tried to filter many stories into one, and in doing so lost the impact of intimacy.

So, if you’ve made it this far: Any thoughts?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

From Our Northern Neighbors

According to the Toronto Sun, “An uncanny likeness of the Virgin Mary formed into the bark of a Scarborough tree has left dumbfounded residents wondering if their neighbourhood has been divinely blessed.” Neighbor Christopher Moreau, a condo superintendent who had just cracked an after-work beer in his yard, was the first to spot the “uncanny likeness.” He assured the reporter that he is “not a wacko” and was indeed “stone-cold sober.”

The image has inspired people to cry and shake, though the owners of the property where the tree stands have refused to be identified or make a statement. While they may not be thrilled about the manifestation and the potential hordes of the faithful queuing to look and pray, Moreau’s mother-in-law just received news “that her lymph node cancer appears to have been cleared.”

Miraculous as that sounds, Neil McCarthy, a representative of the Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto, towed the church’s standard line about such occurrences: applauding any event that causes people to consider their faith, but refusing to “authenticate” it.

Probably no surprise to Moreau, who was raised Catholic but is not particularly devout because he “disagrees with the Catholic church's emphasis on collecting money from churchgoers – and [questions] why the Vatican is so rich when poverty is rampant.”

Good question. But, Moreau has an even better one: "Why do I need to go to church? . . . I feel that God has come to me."

That seems to be the sentiment in the just released film Henry Poole Is Here, which I'm aiming to see this week, even though it has been panned by just about everyone. No matter, I'm sure my Madonna of the Toast perspective will give me something to say about it different from the views of traditional film critics.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Jesus & Me and My Phone Make Three

Pensacola, Florida, resident Linda Square volunteers at Englewood Coin Laundry. According to this Pensacola News Journal article, in an effort to kill time during a recent shift, she pulled out her phone and “began scrolling through the substantial library of family photos stored on the device.” Amid all of the recognizable scenes and faces, a “dark and blurry” image caught her attention. She had no idea what it was. She looked closely at the image, created on July 25, and still didn’t recognize it. Then she turned the screen so it was horizontal. That’s when things got interesting.

In the right part of the image she saw herself, and looking over her on the left side of the screen: Jesus, his face bearded, a white light over His head. Square has no recollection of taking the picture. She visited her local cell phone purveyor and asked if the company had sent her the image (which strikes me as a question you ask when you already know the answer). My guess is that the phone was in a pocket or bag and somehow got triggered to become a camera.

Do you think she was wearing this shirt when she went to the store?

Obviously, Square is proud of her discovery, finding it inspirational. She has been waiting to interview as a foster parent: "He is telling me to prepare for this . . . He's telling me to get myself together."

Of course, the best parts of this story are the t-shirt and cell phone. I understand why people like looking at photographs, whether as art or a way to remember, but I am shocked by the frequency at which I see an individual, mostly on trains and buses, but sometimes at bars, doing exactly what Square had been doing: killing time staring into a hand-held screen. The image is of such appeal to us that the easier it is to focus on it, the more we do. We have always turned to the image for meaning, as a way to understand experience, and now, too many people seem to favor the moment as memory, rather than experiencing it enough to let the moment pass before it has been memorialized.

In Square’s case, how the image came to be is another story, but her discovery of it was because she opted to look at old photos rather than stare at the tumbling colors in a dryer.

I wonder if she would stare at spinning clothes if her shirt, which says “Jesus & Me,” were in the load?

Do you think many people wear cell phone photographs on shirts?

(image from an instructables.com article about encoding data on clothing, business cards, etc.)

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Will the Real Cheesus Step Forward?

From Missouri, the Show Me State: Kelly Ramey reached into a bag of Cheetos and felt something unusual. She pulled out this Cheeto (above), thought it looked like Christ on the Cross and she and her husband started calling it Cheesus. Now it's news. You can watch the CBS report:

For those of you keeping score, this is not the first Cheesus. I wrote about the first one here. This is what it looked like:

If I had to choose the real Cheesus, my decision would be an easy one.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Another International Story

The image above is believed to be the Virgin Mary on the glass door of a home entertainment unit in Mangatarem, Pangasinan, Philippines, according to this ABS-CBN report. Yes, it’s been a globetrotting couple of posts lately. Better than its location, this image, along with a Jesus image on the opposite door of the same piece of furniture, has already been credited with curing a sore throat so severe that the afflicted woman in question had lost her ability to speak. While the family that owns the holy hutch has chosen to remain anonymous in the beady eyes of the media, neighbor Hilda Evangelista has praised the object’s healing wonders, crediting it for restoring her voice.

The article goes on to say that other neighbors have been showing up at the home to pray, but it doesn’t sound like the owners are so keen to have them around: “A member of the family noticed a ‘shadow-like’ image of a veiled woman while she was wiping the glass doors of their television rack. The family said they wiped the image over and over, but could not erase it.” Ha!

And, just to slake anyone’s concern that Americans have grown weary of such stories, here’s a Virgin Mary rust stain from a sink in Salinas, California, according to this KARE 11 report. Found by a plumber working on a drainage system as part of renovations for this soon-to-be restaurant, the owner thinks this sighting is fortuitous, so long as it is cleaned up before local health inspectors pay a visit.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Chew on That

According to this BBC report, a diner in Birnin Kebbi, Nigeria, saw “the Arabic word for God and the name of the prophet Muhammad” in beef gristle that had been boiled and then fried. Since first being discovered last week, thousands of people have visited the eatery to take a look, and Muslim scholars that frequent the joint claim the incident as proof that Islam is the world’s one and only true religion.

A blogger over at Epicurious.com has compiled a list of such foodie visual manifestations, most of which I have covered in the book or on this here blog. Having looked at lots of foodstuffs emblazoned with religious and secular iconography – pancakes, oatmeal, tomatoes, carrots, pretzels, potato chips, chocolate, etc., etc. – I’ve wondered about the wasted food.

Judging by the image of this gristle, it seems best that no one ate this particular example. Of course, Nigeria is not America or France, or even South Africa for that matter. I like to eat, and have eaten in some pretty rustic places, like the slums of Nairobi and jungles of Malaysia, but I have never eaten a piece of meat, or gristle, that looks like this one.

Eating habits aside, a sighting like this really drives home the point how similar we humans really are, especially in our understanding of the world in the continuous, pixilated glare of images.

Monday, July 21, 2008

More Media Musing

What’s that I smell? Is it Madonna of the Toast burning? I don’t know what it is exactly, but something is in the air. I’ve been noticing more and more media outlets devoting time to the ideas behind the stories I’ve been relaying to you for a while now. Scroll down and see the last two, or just chew on this one from the venerable Financial Times.

The story puts into perspective sightings of the Virgin Mary in Lourdes, France, back in 1858. Writer Matthew Engel uses that sighting and the hordes of visitors who have since made the pilgrimage to Lourdes (a city with more hotel rooms, according to the article, than any other French city aside from Paris) to examine the city’s immense popularity as a Christian tourist trap in light of Christianity’s decline in popularity. Now, while a ghostly sighting of a holy figure is slightly out of the Madonna of the Toast image on an object realm, the two are certainly related, like cousins.

Jesus or the Virgin Mary are seen and people flock. It is the aftermath of a vision, whether seen by only one person or hundreds that gawk at a rock or telephone pole, that is the story. Engel really makes a great point on why people do flock, even as Christianity looses much of its congregation because of controversy and generational shifts:

The faithful have become almost as marginalised as the sick. Yet here piety is not freakish or eccentric. . . . Here their faith can be reaffirmed, whether or not they feel cured, whether or not they feel the presence of the Mother of God. This is not a place of ageing priests and tiny congregations, not a place where Catholicism feels emaciated, apologetic or irrelevant. Here it is the Church Triumphant. As it once was right across Europe.

Engel is spot-on with this assessment. I have a tendency to frame these stories with media and technology, making the religious aspect of them secondary (though I think the media does very much secularize the stories, which is part of my interest). This article firmly roots these occurrences back in their source and for that it is well worth the read.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

An Expected Pattern on the Swirling Chaos

Surprise, surprise, another hard to see image of Jesus has shown up, this time on a wooden utility pole in Alice, Texas, according to this KRIS report. Steven Newlan first noticed the face as he pulled into his driveway. The report informs us that the “image is best viewed from the right side of the pole.” I’ve been swiveling my head around, but this one is really a stretch. Maybe it’s my monitor, as plenty of people have been showing up at the corner of 6th and Dickey to take a gander and add to the shrine of flowers and candles. Clearly, there are multiple people who have seen this image, accepting it at face value (zing!).

One of my Madonna of the Toast mantras is What do you see? My interest in these phenomena is their very existence and how these events often stir up all sorts of media and cultural attention. For me, that’s the story. I’ve never been particularly interested in dissecting people’s personal beliefs. But, lots of folks do, especially scientists who seem to take it as a personal affront when someone dismisses the notion of evolution.

Recently, I found one such example in this book review of Karl Giberson’s Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution. I haven’t read the book and I know nothing of this blog outside of this article, which caught my attention because it provides a riled up scientist’s take on religious pareidolia:

Where the pious see the Virgin Mary in a pita, we look and see cooked bread, random mottling, and a credulous brain that matches an irregular pattern to a familiar expectation. I think we have the more accurate and useful explanation; if the religious think they have a better explanation, then they're welcome to propose it and subject it to critical evaluation. If it's just nebulous, airy-fairy "you've got to believe" or "you've got to respect our faith" B.S., then they can go get in line with the dowsers and UFOlogists and Bigfoot fans.

I don't think Giberson sees universal spiritual truths in the Madonna-in-a-pita phenomenon (but maybe he does; I'll have to read his book to find out), but he does believe in something equivalent. He is not a literalist looking for a bearded man in the sky described in the bible, but instead has this vague metaphorical notion that if he melts down the bible in the philosophical flux of his personal beliefs, he'll be able to extract something ethereal and true from its words — a beautiful, loving, personal god who thinks he is really, really important and wants to give him eternal life in a paradise. That's his Madonna-in-a-pita, his credulous imposition of an expected pattern on the swirling chaos of generations of ravings and noise and poetry that is the Christian faith.

It is the very personal nature of these occurrences that appeals to me, but I found this passage to be a very concise gloss of why people do see these faces, no matter how hard it is to see them.

Monday, July 14, 2008

More Than a Swirl

Salt Lake City’s Hatch Family Chocolates has a bucket of spumoni with a Jesus face staring up, daring to be scooped, according to this KUTV 2 report. Or is it Shakespeare, or one of the Beatles? Steve Hatch chalks the image up to coincidence, but concedes: “You can find inspiration in whatever you look at, I guess."

Such is the case with this image, provided by my cousin:


Do you see it? It’s toast on Jesus -- brilliant!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

I'm Not the Only One Thinking About This Stuff

Straight out of Stockton, California: a Virgin of Guadalupe rock. Jamie Garcia had hit rock bottom (get it?), having lost his family because of his excessive drinking. While working construction, according to this CBS 13 report, Garcia found the rock pictured above and immediately felt that his life had changed. He quit his vices and grew closer with his wife and kids. Garcia believes the image to be that of the Virgin of Guadalupe with Juan Diego looking up at Her. Garcia goes on to say that he has been offered $80,000 for the rock, “but he refused, saying it’s priceless.” That’s something you say when you’re offered $100 for one of grandma’s old baubles, or you're mimicking one of those credit card commercials. If the story is true I guess credit (I'm on fire today with the wordplay, no?) has to be given to Garcia for not selling out.

If you’re a regular in these parts and have already read and re-read Madonna of the Toast you might be interested in this tongue-in-cheek perspective from the Contra Costa Times, which riffs on a Jesus ultrasound (different from the one I mentioned last post). Here’s an excerpt:

As I have two biological children, according to the last time I counted, I have some experience in trying to decipher ultrasound images. It's not easy. One minute you think you're looking at a little thumb, the next the doctor tells you that thumb is really a spleen. I once thought my daughter's ultrasound actually showed a squadron of Russian fighter planes attacking Dublin and tried to call the authorities. You just never know — it could happen.

Though seeing Jesus in there could be just as startling. I'm sure Mary and Joseph had the same reaction when they got their first three-dimensional ultrasound at Bethlehem Ultrasound and Donkey Feed.

Until next time . . .

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Jesus Ultrasound, Virgin Mary Breastfeeding

I don’t see it, but that’s not important, because according to this WESH 2 report, Joaquim Garcia sees the face of Jesus staring back at him from this ultrasound of his child. That’s pretty much the long and short of it – amazing what passes for news – but I couldn’t resist in light of the recent decision out of the Vatican reversing a trend that has been in motion since the 17th century: censoring portraits of the Virgin Mary breastfeeding. What was once seen as too carnal has now been condoned, according to the UK's Telegraph. As one advocate of the decision says: “The Virgin Mary who nurses her son Jesus is one of the most eloquent signs that the word of God truly and undoubtedly became flesh.”

Take that idea and splice it into the ultrasound tidbit and somewhere there’s a good metaphor for our contemporary cultural condition. Flesh becomes light a la Marshall McLuhan, maybe? Images mistaken for objects, like Plato once opined. Any other thoughts?

Friday, June 20, 2008

Freezer Burn is Better Than a Heart Attack

Well, the news has been quiet on the surprising iconography front – must be all the tomato salmonella scares (I’m just glad this isn’t happening at the peak of the tomato season). So, I’ve decided to take a stroll through the aisles of eBay. Look what I found:

That’s a fried clam and its owner believes it resembles Christ on the cross. The story goes like this: the battered bit was served up on a heap of other battered bits at a restaurant. The person usually just scarfs them down because they’re so small, but upon seeing this deep-fired shape, “stopped cold in [her/his] tracks.” That was over two years ago. Ever since, the morsel has been bestowing luck on its owner from the freezer. Like how she/he made a full and fast recovery after a quintuple bypass surgery (which was necessary because “all the major arteries were blocked to my heart”).

Some might say that is was all the fried food that caused the condition, but this person is clearly in the rosy “glass half-full” camp when it comes to life.

If you buy this thing – and there is no reserve price so you can get it for a song – it will be delivered in dry ice, which is always kind of fun. I bet that this fried clam will spend the rest of its days in its freezer, jealous of all the frozen pizzas and Hot Pockets that get to warm up.

Friday, June 13, 2008

There's Always More on the Inside

Straight out of Kansas City, Missouri, we have this Virgin Mary rock. According to this KMBC 9 report, rock collector and jewelry maker Randy O’Kane found this stone while canoeing on an unnamed Missouri river. It was only upon splitting the stone that O’Kane discovered this recognizable form. Probably too big and heavy to make into a necklace, the stone may be on its way to eBay.

This is the first time that "The Show Me State" has come into play here in Madonna of the Toast land – although what had to be shown was hidden.

No word about what attracted O’Kane to the stone in the first place.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Paging Dr. Phillips

Just outside of Orlando, Florida, according to this Local 6 story, Jesus has been appearing every night on a tree, thanks to a streetlight’s shadow. Dr. Phillips resident Joe Lewis noticed the form one night and has seen it since. Lewis says that he is “not really hardcore religious” but the shape is something he couldn’t ignore.

Here’s his take on it: "The face forms where the knot is . . . Then, when you come down, there is texture. There are waves in the tree and that forms the knees and the feet. Then when the sun goes down, the street light that is right above the tree casts shadows across it and forms something that looks like Jesus."

Curious about the suburb’s name? Apparently, Philip Phillips revolutionized the production of orange juice, which resulted in him becoming a citrus barren. According to this, he was also a medical doctor, with a degree from Columbia University. He bought his first citrus farm in 1894, but a brutal 1895 freeze decimated what trees had existed. He left Florida, returning in 1897, when he began his empire. Seems like he was quite a philanthropist. His tombstone reads: "Under His Hand the Wilderness Bore Fruit."

What would Dr. Philip Phillips would have to say about this Jesus tree?

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Do You Want Paper or Plastic?

This story has it all: a giant corporation, deep faith, small-town America, a cell phone camera, an aspiring writer, questionable reporting.

John Wasendorf might just remind people that Lone Tree, Iowa (A TREEmendous place to live), is on the map, thanks to this Wal-Mart Virgin Mary/face of Jesus plastic bag. After returning home from shopping, according to this Press-Citizen report, Wasendorf put away the groceries and then tossed the bag. This was on April 13. The article reports: “Two days later, while resting on his couch, Wasendorf looked over at the bag and saw the religious figures.”

The article continues:

He said the house was warm the day he went shopping, so he opened the blinds. He said that the sunlight coming in though the windows helped create the image. He believes on the right it is almost the head-to-toe image of the Virgin Mary. To the left, he sees the face of Jesus.

Does this confuse you, too? If Wasendorf discovered the image two days after he went shopping, what does the weather on the day he went shopping matter?

Stranger still, the fact that the bag’s shape made such an impact on Wasendorf that he took the time to snap the photo with his cell phone, but then lost track of the bag: “The picture is all that remains. Wasendorf said he doesn’t really remember what happened to the bag, but guesses he or a friend ‘must have picked it up and thrown it away.’”

Wasendorf claims that visions have come to him since he was young. When he was 4-years-old, a Jesus statue spoke to him after his grandmother had taken him to a hospital chapel to pray for his mother, who was about to have gallbladder surgery. His dreams also are rife with religious symbolism, from figures dressed in white to a scroll with a poem written with gold lettering. Wasendorf also makes it a point to mention that he has been on the wagon since 1979.

According to the article, the photograph of the bag was shown to hundreds of people before it was shared with the media. Some people thought it was a plastic statue, others thought it had to have been manipulated by Wasendorf and some saw the figures.

Because his life has been filled with sights and visions that not everyone else can see, Wasendorf wants to write a book. Never one to thwart the dreams of others, I say, Write on, John, write on. As you engage the process, however, come up with a better story for what happened to the bag.