Monday, March 30, 2009

BBQ Mary

If there’s one thing people take as seriously as religion, it’s barbeque, especially in Texas if these articles from Texas Monthly and The New Yorker serve as indicators. So there is synchronicity to this Virgin Mary image discovered in Odessa on the lid of a grill.

Employees at Reliable Transport Auto Shop first noticed the form a few weeks ago, and since then a shrine has been erected and regular Sunday services have occurred. No word on what these folks had been grilling to create this Mary shape but according to this News West 9 story the employees believe it to be a divine visual manifestation. But they also “say it's up to individuals to judge for themselves.”

Monsignor James Bridges suggests, however, that it is not “authentic,” seeming to care very little about what others think. He asks: “What does it lead people to . . . Does it lead people to be better people? Does it lead people to be deeper in their faith? If all of these things lead to what I would call the agenda of Christ, that would put them in a position of being more believable.”

The word “agenda” always puts me off, and for a priest to use the word in the context of Jesus strikes me as rather absurd. To answer Bridges’s question, it does seem that this image has led "people to be deeper in faith,” hence the weekly services, the candles, rosaries, prayers and hymns.

Madonna of the Toast
stories whip people into action, from the media to the faithful to dissenters. As I write in the book: “Whether on the level of sacrosanct devotion or pop culture kitsch, these forms become as relevant as the world’s finest art because they compel people to react; the objects in this book, emblazoned with faces and symbols recognized the world over, have been appraised at stunningly high sums, been toured around the globe and have inspired people to travel, pray and steal.”

What say you, Monsignor?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Jesus Needed a Haircut

In Greenock, Scotland, according to this Greenock Telegraph report, Karim Babaa was having lunch on a bench when he noticed the face of Jesus on a garden wall. Formed by weathered stone and moss, the image was immediately recognizable to Babaa, a barber and a Muslim. Babbaa works at the Cutting Room (get it?) and when he showed his boss Alan Stocks the wall, he too agreed that it resembled Jesus.

Both men often relax in the garden, which sits between apartment blocks and Westburn Church, but neither of them had noticed the face until recently. Stocks cites the approach of Easter as a possible explanation. I prefer an explanation that factors in the amount of time Babaa and Stocks spend dealing with facial hair.

A local minister had this to say: “I’ve seen the image and, if it amuses people, then that’s fair enough. It all comes down to imagination.”

He’s right. It’s imagination that resulted in Babaa, originally from Tunisia, seeing the face in the first place: “This really looks like the face of Jesus. I’m a Muslim but I read lots of books and that is Jesus.”

Think he’s read Madonna of the Toast?

And speaking of imagination, this story has yielded two of the best captions I’ve read in a while – leave it to those UK tabloid writers:

“Christ-Moss Present” (Greenock Telegraph)

“It moss be him . . .” (The Scottish Sun)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Thoughts About News Covering the News of the News

Since being made public by Everything is Terrible, the video in the post below has received more than 140,000 views – in just over a week! Furthermore, said video was aired by one of the featured network affiliates that covered one of 2008’s Jesus sighting stories: news covering news of the news.

The tendency for media outlets to cover these stories comes full circle in the news covering news of the news, and it is within this cycle that the real power of these visual manifestations summons its bewildering cultural strength.

What we see is relative, right? Looking at a Jackson Pollock canvas, some see sheer genius, others quip that their child could make the same kind of chaotic mess and still others examine the tangle of lines and detect algorithmic patterns. How we interpret what we see is a direct result of what we have been taught, shown and exposed to during our lives. Various combinations of parents, friends, schools, religions, philosophies, television, movies, books and individual perspicacity influence our individual views. That’s why I’m so inclined to ask, What do you see? This is what matters because it is the collection of all our individual views that comprises this grander phenomenon, which is so acutely documented in the video montage.

Human beings share the need to explain what they see. That’s the function of language – to communicate internal thoughts externally. An intrinsic human trait, in this day and age of internet immediacy such explanations, whether on a blog or the news, swirl all around the world, are re-posted and re-appropriated, all in the name of explaining what someone sees, or claims to see.

The authenticity of these images is often called into question, but never by the news (as I’ve blogged about before). Sometimes reporters will include a quotation from a bystander with a different opinion (Jane Doe sees Jesus, John Doe sees Charles Manson) but they never really track down the facts about how the image in question came to be. There is often speculation, but very rarely is anything proven.

Of course, proving that a divine hand caused an image to appear would be tough, but these stories – human interest stories – rely on what the individuals saw and what they told reporters, not what actually happened.

So what’s really happening? That’s the big question. There isn’t a definitive answer, but if you weed through enough of my older posts, I think some answers begin to take shape, though they might be as hard to decipher as some of the images. There is no doubt that technology and its acceleration plays a role. How else could the frequency of these sightings explained in light of reports of religion being less and less popular?

Technological advances also permit us to know more and more about the world (for better or worse) so as more and more about science is revealed, we tend to think that EVERYTHING can be explained, can be given meaning.

Take this recent story from The Scottish Sun about a woman who claims to see her dead father in this ultrasound. She claims that her father is holding the baby, a sign that he will always be with them, looking out for them. Yes, ultrasounds provide invaluable information about a baby’s natal development, but they also are yet another image for people to stare at and look for meaning that may or may not be there.

It is this speculative quality of these stories that draws people to them and the reason why the media never shies away from such stories, no matter how little news the news might contain.

Want to read more about this? There’s always the book!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Local News Pareidolia Montage

Everyone likes a video montage, right? An editor distills an entire year's worth of death, celebrity imbroglios, new movies, you name it. Thanks to Everything Is Terrible, we can now all enjoy this rundown of 2008's local news coverage of all things Madonna of the Toast! Some of these stories have graced this blog, but others haven't.

Which one is your favorite?

Friday, March 6, 2009

All the World's a Stage

Recently, I reported the conclusion of the saga that unfolded from the 2005 discovery of a Virgin Mary image under a highway in Chicago. The image drew jeers and cheers for years, until it was spray-painted with devil horns and then covered over by city officials. The image is now gone, but the story will live on, not only in a forum such as this, but on stage as well.

Playwright Tanya Saracho has penned Our Lady of the Underpass and it runs at Teatro Vista until the end of March. I haven’t seen or read the play, but this review from the Chicago Reader makes it sound like Saracho’s approach to the topic is very similar to Madonna of the Toast’s, in that they both leave the image in question up to the viewer: “It’s Saracho’s genius to keep questions of reality unresolved, to leave open the gap between an indisputable fact—a salt stain on a cement wall—and what human beings make of it: art, faith.”

Sounds like the Madonna of the Toast mantra: What do you see?

Apparently the play is a series of monologues that covers the range of attitudes about the image, from devout to derisory, which are separated by “clever choral recitations that bring to mind different types of prayer.”

This is not the first play inspired by these stories. Who remembers this post about The Jesus Hickey? While I can’t vouch for the quality of either play it does not surprise me that writers, visual artists, film directors and actors delve into these stories. If approached correctly, they can yield so much about human nature, and that’s the real power of these visual manifestations.

If anyone out there reading is in Chicago and happens to see the play, let me know what you think.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Colorful Stone

Sergio Romero of Pocatello, Idaho, took a trip to Las Vegas last year and traded an antique coin purse for the colorful stone pictured above. According to this KPVI story, back at home while polishing the new acquisition Romero discovered what he sees as the Virgin Mary in the asparagus-tip shaped blue of the stone. Said Romero: “I'm not a religious man. This has kind of turned me to looking into religion. As a matter of fact, I think I might even go to church this Sunday.”

I don’t see the shape, but the jade and blue are dazzling. That must have been some antique coin purse. Perhaps sometime soon Romero will be able to get the purse back, because no amount of newly discovered faith is going to keep him from selling this on eBay, which he plans to do within the next month.