Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The Turin Shroud - The Face of Jesus?

Over the years, much has been made of this relic, the supposed burial cloth of Jesus of Nazareth which, according to one website, is “the single most studied artefact in human history” (Barrie M Schwortz).

Opinion has been since its supposed discovery in 544 CE, when an image seemingly created by supernatural means turned up in Edessa (now part of Turkey) and was later thought to be in Constantinople, although few historians believe this was the same image that came to be displayed in an airtight bulletproof case at the Cathedral of San Giovanni in 1998. During its 3 month exhibition and despite a strictly view-per-reservation policy, around 2.5 million visitors filed past it, some ecstatic or tearful, others merely curious to see the imprint of a man who supposedly met a violent death almost 2,000 years ago.

Measuring 14 feet 3 inches long by 3 feet 7 inches wide (463 x 110 cm) the shroud belonged to Geoffrois de Charny in the 14th century before coming into the hands of Louis, Duke of Savoy in 1453. It was then transferred to Chambery and was later taken to Turin by Emmanuel Philibert where it’s been ever since.

But is the haunting image really that of Jesus? In 1988, radiocarbon dating seemed to place the cloth in medieval times, yet ten years later, Pope John Paul 11 seemed convinced it was “the imprint left by the tortured body of the Crucified One.”

And now, there are fresh attempts to verify this relic. According to the Telegraph a couple of years ago, “a group of  Italian scientists conducted a series of advanced experiments which, they claim, show that the marks on the shroud – purportedly left by the imprint of Christ's body – could not possibly have been faked with technology that was available in the medieval period.” 

As a result, many theologians thought this was the actual face of Jesus. However, gospel accounts firmly contradict such a claim.  In his account of Jesus’ burial, the apostle John describes how, not one long sheet, but bandages were used to bind the body of Jesus with spices – a method of anointing still used by many Jews today. (John 19:39-42)

Later, the apostle Peter entered the (now empty) tomb and “viewed the bandages lying, also the cloth that had been upon his head not lying with the bandages but separately rolled up in one place.” (John 20: 6,7) Had there been a long winding sheet, would it not have been mentioned, especially if it bore the image of Jesus’ face?

So, whether the Turin Shroud is the result of some supernaturally superimposition or a clever con-trick by a clever technician, the evidence does not point to it being in any way sacred.

It’s also worth mentioning that the worship of relics, images, statues and other idols was and still is strictly forbidden under the Ten Commandments.

PS. Would like to add my own personal observation: As a perfect man, Jesus would have been extremely handsome – unlike this image. It’s also doubtful that he had long ‘hippy-style ‘hair, given that men in Israel general kept their hair short in line with Jewish law and tradition.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Kings, Queens and other rulers

       Although my trilogy, ‘The Runaway Children’, is just a story, it draws on what is perhaps the most commonly used plot of all time: World domination by a megalomaniac.  
       Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Mussolini – you’d need more than ten fingers and toes to name them all.
       Where did it all start, this determination by certain individuals to rule over everybody else? And while we're about it, why do we need human governments at all? A case in point, thanks to a hung parliament a couple of years ago, Belgium had no government for several months, yet nobody seemed to NOTICE. In fact, while the politicians tried to sort things out, the economy actually improved! 
       Belgium apart, has there ever been a period when humans could live freely, independently, tilling their own patch of paradise and feeding their families with no interference from anyone else? After all, wasn’t that the original plan when Adam was a lad?
       The oldest, most widespread form of human government is monarchy, (the Greek word mon’os meaning ‘alone,’ and ar-khe’ meaning ‘rule’) whereby a single individual is imbued with supreme authority as permanent head of state. If this is absolute, he or she becomes a majority of one whose word is law. As a governmental system, monarchies have been favourable viewed as a unifying force. One eminent teacher of medieval history, John H Mundy, explains,    “Because it transcended particular parties, the institution of monarchy was suited for large areas with diverse and conflicting regional interests.”* In those days, kings invariably conquered such areas by military means – so much so that, as another historian reflects, war was “commonly regarded as the first criterion of successful kingship.”
       This being the case, military genius Alexander the Great was an ideal candidate and the first of the Hellenistic kings to be viewed as a god, setting a precedent for the deification of kings and queens throughout the ages, and such perceived divinity persists to this day in one form or another. Conceited yes - yet, ironically, the very fact so many sovereigns have insisted on being viewed as gods, particularly during the Roman Empire, is a tacit admission that they really don’t have the RIGHT to rule their fellow men and women.
       The world has now seen every conceivable type of government – capitalism, communism, republicanism, democracy, theocracy and straightforward tyranny –none of which has succeeded in providing the peace, security and justice the human family craves. One notable exception was Solomon’s reign, which kept Israel peaceful and prosperous until the king’s latter years when he succumbed to some of the pagan practices of his 1,000 wives!
       Sadly, throughout history, it’s been the strong and the greedy who have commandeered the land; annexing pastures, woods and rivers, and forcing ‘common’ folk, or serfs, to look to man-made governments for their means of life as well as paying taxes for the privilege.
       Will it always be this way? Only time will tell.

Friday, 26 May 2017

Are you ruled by fate & superstition?

Sandy was on the motorway heading for Preston, Lancashire. Suddenly, she saw a single magpie flutter across her path. Desperate to spy a second magpie, she missed her junction and found herself on the road to Hull.

Bad luck? Had this inoffensive black and white bird, or ‘harbinger of doom’, really caused Sandy to veer off course? Or had she simply allowed herself to get distracted?

Every day, millions of people face similar situations. Walking under ladders, passing someone on the stairs, having recurring dreams and – a particular dread for actors -  whistling backstage are all viewed as potential hazards in the bad luck department. Sportsmen and women too are usually prone to lucky mascots and pre-performance rituals, and I’ve even known of people refusing to get out of bed if their horoscopes were unfavourable.

Of course, it’s easy to make light of superstition but for many lands it can be highly damaging, even dangerous. In India, AIDS is being spread by truck drivers who think sexual relations will keep them cool in hot weather. In other parts of the world, the birth of twins is viewed as a curse, sometimes causing parents to kill one – or even both - of them. And superstition can actually enslave whole communities, especially when combined with an overdeveloped fear of the dead.

Like Sandy, one  of my worst phobias was lone Magpies (“one for sorrow, two for joy” as the rhyme goes), but there were plenty more where that came from, such as breaking a mirror  ( 7 years’ bad luck!),  putting new shoes on a table (death within a year), opening umbrellas indoors and uncrossing knives (broken friendship)......so many  superstitions, in fact,  they were actually affecting my life and it was only through  research and applying simple logic that I eventually learned to cope with them in a rational way.

What’s the point if the future’s already written?

Omens, superstitions and predictions all have one thing in common - Fate, a philosophy which began with the original three Fates from Greek mythology, goddesses who spun the thread of life, decided how long it should be for each individual, and cut it at the predetermined time.

Despite its mythical roots, this belief is very widespread, pointing to inevitable (often adverse) outcomes for every event - outcomes that are totally inescapable because they’re determined either by God or by other supernatural forces. As a result, fatalists may have a laissez-faire view of life, displaying a lack of purpose and an unwillingness to make decisions.  After all, what’s the point if the future’s already written?

If there IS no point and if the future is truly controlled by unseen forces, then why do we visit doctors? Why do we try to live healthily? And why are there fewer fatalities for people who wear seat belts when setting off in cars? If you’re fated to be an X-Factor winner, why bother with singing lessons? If you’re meant to pass that exam, why bother swotting? And if the job’s destined to be yours, does it matter how you dress for the interview? 

According to astrologers, a person’s character can be determined by their horoscope, the precise positioning of the planets and signs of the zodiac at the time of birth. Despite many challenges to astrology over the years, belief for many in its abilities - not only to predict the future but also to influence human behaviour - is very deep-rooted. 

Yet is such faith backed up by evidence? As part of an A-level course in Psychology, students were given a horoscope that had supposedly been drawn up according to each individual’s date and time of birth. Most students agreed it was extremely accurate, only to find they’d all been given exactly the same character description! 

So what’s the harm? Well, convincing someone they have a certain nature, set of talents or even destiny can exert undue influence over his or her decisions for the future......almost as though a screenplay of their life has been written in advance by somebody else. Social workers and psychologists have highlighted how being typecast as, say, the black sheep of the family, the clever one, or the ditz can colour  youths’ development,  virtually obliging them to live up (or down) to their given role. 

Even worse, whether it comes via zodiac chart or family members, such prejudgement interferes with our most basic human right – free will. 

We may be born with certain traits, we can certainly be influenced by nurture, and circumstances we encounter throughout life will obviously affect us. But with free will, we have the right and the means to change ourselves. So be the person you want to be, choose the path you want to follow and never, ever let fate or superstition dictate yours – or your children’s -  life!

Monday, 22 May 2017

'Woman in Gold' and the Nazi regime

'Woman in Gold' by Gustav Klimt

Watched the ‘Woman in Gold’ recently, an evocative true account of a Jewish woman looking to reclaim the famous Klimt portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer. This painting, one of many treasures stolen by Nazis in 1930s Austria, later took pride of place at the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere in Vienna, where trustees were determined it should stay.

As the story unfolded, with flashbacks to the awful pre-war events, my blood boiled at the petty sadism and insatiable greed of Hitler’s regime, at seeing human beings stripped of their possessions along with their dignity.  For heavens' sake - what were ORDINARY people doing?! 

How easy it is to rage against barbaric Nazi practices from the relative comfort of one’s armchair 80 years later! Until a not-so-comfortable thought hit me. What if I’D lived in Germany or Austria during those critical times?  Would I have supported Hitler? Would I have been intimidated by his storm troopers, or believed the lying propaganda? Would I have turned a blind eye to the concentration camps and vicious persecution of minorities?

Sadly, many did; ordinary people who, but for the National Socialist Party, would have remained decent, peace-loving citizens. Christians with long-held loyalty to the Catholic Church. On July 20, 1933, a concordat between the Vatican and Nazi Germany was signed by Cardinal Pacelli (later Pope Pius XII). His co-signee was former chancellor and Papal Knight Franz von Papen who mustered support for Hitler from industrial barons.

For this act of patriotism, Hitler made von Papen vice-chancellor and used him to rally support from Germany’s Catholics. By the end of 1933 (proclaimed a Holy Year by Pope Pius XI) Vatican support was a major factor in Hitler’s push for world domination and swastikas hung from every cathedral.

A few brave priests and nuns denounced Nazi atrocities and were quickly silenced. Yet the Catholic Church as a whole gave active or tacit support to the regime, as did their followers.

Could such a situation happen again? This is a question that may never be answered but needs to be asked.

Fortunately, most of us have an innate sense of justice which fires us up against tyranny, oppression and cruelty of all kinds. But we must never forget how easily whole populations can be swayed. Given human fears and weaknesses, each and every one of us should look to ourselves, examine our hearts, and root out any prejudice or misplaced loyalty.



Saturday, 13 May 2017

What are Saints?

The canonisation of Mother Teresa and, more recently, the children of Fatima, seems as good a time as any to explore ‘sainthood’ – a privilege imbued by the Catholic Church on men and women of outstanding virtue.

According to the Tridentine profession of faith, these paragons, who now (it is believed) live with Jesus in heaven, are to be invoked as intercessors with God, while their relics and images are venerated.  One case in point is the big toe of St Peter’s statue in Rome’s Basilica. Next to the papal ring, it is arguably Christendom’s most ‘kissable’ item, with millions bowing down to press their lips against it as they make their petitions! This toe-curling practice has not only added a shine to Peter’s foot but has doubtless spread many a tummy-bug to hapless worshipers!

Saints proliferate. There’s a saint for every occasion and activity you can think of. One of my favourites used to be St Genesius, patron saint of actors, lawyers, clowns, comedians, converts, dancers, musicians, printers, stenographers and victims of torture! A former thespian, he used the stage in ancient Rome to mock Christianity - until experiencing a sudden conversion mid-performance! I dare say many luvvies (who, with the possible exception of Ricky Gervais, are notoriously superstitious!) have ‘invoked’ Genesius’ help before that nerve-racking first night. Victims of torture indeed!

So why do we have saints? The answer lies with the Emperor Constantine, who supposedly converted to Christianity in the 4th century. With previous Roman Emperors having tried and failed to contain this vibrant new religion, Constantine used a subtler approach: He simply fused fusing Jesus’ pure teachings with Rome’s polluting pagan beliefs and practices.

Believing Jesus to be the only mediator between God and humans (1 Tim 2:5, Matt. 6:9; John 14:6, 14), genuine Christians never prayed through other  intercessors, nor does scripture allow prayer to be addressed to anyone except God Almighty to whom Jesus directed his own prayers, telling his followers to do the same.

Which left Constantine with a dilemma. If Christians worshiped and prayed to only one God - whom nobody could see - what would happen to the thousands of pagan gods? Were they to be made redundant? Would silversmiths and image makers lose their livelihoods? 

The solution was to re-invent Rome’s existing deities with Christians and market them as ‘Saints’. Foremost to undergo this marketing ploy was Apollo who, with his handsome features, gold halo and sun-god attributes, made a very acceptable Christ!  Jesus’ earthly mother Mary became a substitute for Juno, mother of the gods and wife of Jupiter. And there have been countless other deities now posing as saints under different names.


Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Can ageing be reversed? Why DO we grow old and die?

Trees outlive humans by hundreds of years 

Currently, ageing is a remorseless, unrelenting and inevitable process from which nobody seems able to escape. Yet finding a cure for this condition, maybe even for death itself, has been the ultimate goal for humans since time began. 

In ancient China, for example, Taoist priests led
 people to neglect their labour to search for “the elixir of life” or “fountain of youth”. Alchemists in medieval Europe and Arabia used noxious ingredients such as arsenic, sulphur and mercury to create their supposed life-preserving potions - though how long anyone actually lived after taking them is anybody’s guess! 

One African legend is that God send a chameleon to deliver immortality to mankind, but it moved so slowly that another lizard got there first and persuaded people to accept a message of death instead.

As far back as the 4th century BCE, the Greek philosopher Aristotle attempted to explain just why we die, concluding that life hinged on the human body’s ability to balance heat and cold, observing: “It is always to some lack of heat that death is due.” Another philosopher, Plato, taught that man has an immortal soul that survives the death of the body.

Today, little has changed and it isn’t just women who yearn to turn back the clock, nor is it just the rich who pay handsomely to have their bodies frozen via cyronics, hoping for a revival once a cure for their terminal condition has been discovered. Every day, dubious and sometimes highly unethical therapies are being lined up as the only way to achieve that everlastingly flawless complexion and perfectly toned muscles. One stomach-churning report by a national newspaper exposed the use of desiccated foetuses in tablet form which are thought to preserve youth.

Are ageing and death natural?

For many people, the idea of living forever seems too far-fetched, even absurd. But is it? If we were only meant to live for just three score years and ten (or longer if we have exceptional genes), why do we fear death so much? Why do people undergo painful and unpleasant treatment to defeat life-threatening disease, or grieve so much when a loved one dies? And, if old age is as natural as we’re led to believe, why do so many invest heavily in creams, fillers, and cosmetic surgery to hold back the years?

The sad fact is, even a tree can last ten times longer than we do - which seems an awful waste of our incredible brains, described by molecular biologist James Watson as “the most complex thing we have yet discovered in our universe.” Just as we learn how to use it, we're too old to care!

Superficially, looks matter too. One photographer who specialises in cosmetics and skin care products believes a model is over the hill at 17, as, by then, the complexion has lost its dewy glow!!

But were we actually meant to grow old? According to the Bible, the first human couple were designed to live indefinitely - and would have done had they not rebelled and become both spiritually and physically imperfect as a result. As it was, they still lived a great deal longer than their descendants today.* 

And science bears this out. Whereas, at one time gerontologists believed human bodies were programmed to grow, to reach their peak and then to rapidly decline into old age and, eventually, death, some experts of ageing have now modified that view, largely due to the miraculous way the human body functions. 

Biologist Jared Diamond, for example, noted how we “replace the cells lining our intestine once every few days, those lining the urinary bladder once every two months, and our red blood cells once every four months,” adding: “Nature is taking us apart and putting us back together every day.” 

This means that our physical bodies don’t really age at all but, according to one scientist: “In a year, approximately 98% of the atoms in us now will be replaced by other atoms that we take in through our air, food and drink.” 

And, as other experts admit they don’t know why ageing should occur, we have to wonder whether we really should live forever. In his book, Conquest of Death, Alvin Silverstein wrote of his desire to “unravel the essence of life” and to understand how a person ages.” He was convinced that one day there will be no more old people, “for the knowledge that will permit the conquest of death will also bring eternal youth.” 

* https://www.jw.org/en/bible-teachings/questions/why-do-people-die/#?insight[search_id]=97b41251-eb17-4668-8bd9-58e457362bb1&insight[search_result_index]=0

Recent scientific findings:

The Telomere and the Flatworm

Forget the Botox, cancel your facelift – according to researchers at Nottingham University, the Fountain of Youth may lie with the humble flatworm.

From just one member of this innocuous species, a team led by Molecular Biologist Dr Aziz Aboobaker have created over 20,000 worms which, when divided, simply grow back again - i.e. the head bit grows another tail while the tail portion grows a replacement head, producing two worms for the price of one. And the more they are cut up, the more parts there are to regenerate into complete new worms, each identical to the first, with bodies and organs that never seem to deteriorate.

As a result of his research, Molecular Biologist Dr Aziz Aboobaker believes flatworms are immortal thanks to telomeres which keep their cells dividing and renewing perpetually, unlike humans.

Telomerase research has now become one of the hottest fields in molecular biology, boosted by results from Dr Aboobaker’s recent study.  

Every cell contains a nucleus, a complex control centre, providing instructions for all the cell’s activities. This set code is stored in the chromosomes, a mix of protein and deoxyribonucleic acid, now commonly known as DNA. Although discovered in the 1860’s, DNA’s molecular structure was not fully understood until a century later when biologists began to realise its primary role – to convey genetic information.

At the tip of each chromosome is a short snippet of DNA called a telomere - from the Greek te’los (end) and me’ros (part).  Acting as a protective shield, rather like the plastic cap at the end of a shoelace, the telomere helps to stabilise the chromosome, preventing it from fraying, breaking or sticking. Unfortunately, most telomeres shrink grow shorter with each cell division until they wear away to mere stumps and no longer prove effective. Without the telomere’s protection, the cell stops dividing and begins to die due to the Hayflick Limit, a process discovered by Dr Leonard Hayflick in the 1960’s whereby cells appear to have a finite number of divisions – around 50 during its life span.  

Because of this phenomenon, human cells eventually shrink with age, resulting in our inevitable decay. Not so with flatworms. Their telomeres remain exactly the same, so cells keep on dividing at the same rate. As a result, Dr Aboobaker and colleague Dr Thomas Tan claim to have already isolated the ‘immortality’ gene and feel confident that it may one day help scientists to grow new organs and develop treatments to keep old age at bay. The implication is that if biologists could use telomerase to stop telomeres shortening during normal cell division, perhaps ageing could be halted or at least delayed. According to Geron Corporation News experiments with telomerase have already shown that normal human cells can be modified with “an infinite replicative capacity.”

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

In this 'Post-Truth' world, how honest are you?

So 'Post-Truth' has been coined by Oxford Dictionaries, a term that pretty well sums up the world today.

How appropriate. And how very, very sad. 

When politicians, banks, newspaper chiefs, big businesses and even religious leaders can’t be trusted what chance is there for the rest of us? And, in the face of what must surely be the most corrupt, exploitative, money-obsessed period in human history, is honesty still the best policy? Is it actually possible to be 100% above board living in this woefully corrupt system?
On a personal level we all like to think we’re basically honest and truthful – but to what extent? Do we always fill in our tax details accurately, or do we ‘accidentally’ forget to include the occasional cash payment or perk. If we find a purse on the street, do we attempt to return it, or is it a case of ‘finders keepers’?
What often makes it hard to be honest is pressure from others.  One factory worker, for example, became extremely unpopular with his colleagues as, unlike them, he refused to take things easy when the manager wasn’t around.  Believing in the old adage, ‘a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay’,  he was determined to keep his side of the bargain and kept on working despite recriminations from his less industrious peers.
Equally honest was the financial director of a large corporation, a God-fearing man who could spot anomalies on an expense sheet from 50 metres away. So, naturally, after lunching with prospective clients at a star-rated restaurant, he was the obvious person to scrutinise the bill. One sweep of his eagle eye was all it took for him to see the mistake – the omission of a rather pricy bottle of wine which, to the horror of his fellow directors, he was at pains to point out. 
Was he a killjoy? Overly pedantic?  Depends how you view it. Getting away with a free bottle of plonk may be something of a coup for some folk, no matter if the hapless waiter lost his job.  But, would taking advantage of a simple human error have impressed the potential clients? And, let’s face it, what better qualification could there be for anyone in finance than sheer, straight-down-the-line, honest-to-goodness integrity? (Whether we see much of this virtue these days is another matter!)
Let’s look at the other side of the coin. For over a decade, an anaesthetist renowned for his pioneering pain relief fabricated research results which appeared in leading medical publications. But why compromise himself in this way?  According to a former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, greed is certainly a factor:  “When researchers are beholden to [pharmaceutical] companies for much of their income, there is an incredible tendency to get results that are favourable to the company.”
Meanwhile, students are acquiring extra-curricular practices to ‘big up’ their skills. As highlighted by The New York Times, it seems many students will compromise ethics to achieve ambitions, intending to “follow a strict code of values” afterwards. For example, science students in Germany were discovered bribing their teachers in order to be recognised as Doctors.
Poor role models also play a part. Talking to The New York Times recently one professor states that high school students may be losing their moral compass: “It’s probably better to say that their teachers and mentors and the rest of society never helped them construct and internalize a moral compass in the first place.”
If supposedly respected individuals from government ministers to bishops fail to set a good example, little wonder younger people regard the rules as there to be broken, as demonstrated in a recent study. Out of nearly 30,000 students, 98 per cent believed honesty to be vital in personal relationships. Yet 8 out of 10 students said they’d lied to their parents, while 64 per cent admitted having cheated in an exam.
Be honest
Are you as trustworthy as you think you are? Ask yourself these questions:
·        You find a valuable piece of jewellery left on a washbasin in a public convenience. Would you hand it in at a police station or keep for yourself?
·        The cash machine is paying out more money than requested. Would you return the cash to the bank and report it, or go back for seconds?
·        At work or school, do you help yourself to pens, notepads and other stationery items to use at home, or do you ask permission first?
·        The newsagent gives you too much change. Do you take it back, or congratulate yourself on making a profit?
·        You’re out of work and claiming benefit. Then someone offers you £50 ($100) to paint their living room. Do you declare this to the benefit people, or keep it quiet?
·        Your boss asks you to lie about a product or service. Do you tell the truth and risk losing your job, or do you do as you are told?
·        You need to write an essay for college and time is running out. Do you find a piece online to copy and paste, or do you write the essay yourself even if it isn’t up to usual standard.