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.