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I came across an interesting post that got me thinking about the implications of science.

c. 1767-68

The above painting is by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734 – 1797) and is titled “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump”. Here, Wright has captured a moment in history where enlightened civilization is beginning to understand how the natural universe works and how we can manipulate it to our own ends. Sir Isaac Newton (and others), who lived during the earlier part of the 18th century heralded in this new age of discovery and scientific research. Man’s relationship with nature was beginning to move away from that which could not be explained to that which will soon be understood and Wright’s painting gives us a glimpse into the birth of this new age.

Detail of An Experiment on a Bird in the Air PumpA hundred years previously the experiment in this painting may have seemed like magic (or worse, devilry) so the artist has tempered this demonstration with two clever juxtapositions. First, and most obvious, is the young girl who is upset that the bird has become the focus of a scientific demonstration. What is interesting is that hers’ is the only face we do not see clearly, she hides her tears with her hands. Is the artist telling us that science outweighs emotional attachments and that they should be hidden away shamefully? Or is Wright demonstrating the devastating loss this poor girl must feel by not showing her face to force us to empathize with her grief and thus lead us to believe we should find science dispassionate and ugly?

Detail of An Experiment on a Bird in the Air PumpNow observe the young boy at the far right of the painting. He is the only figure not part of the circle, your eye must seek him out at the edge of the composition. Notice that outside the window he is standing next to the only natural light source in the painting – the moon. For all of human history man could only see at night by the light of the moon; fear and evil lurked in the darkness of a moonless night. In the enlightened age, man had overcome this obstacle and his evenings could now be spent reading by candlelight or entertaining guests with a scientific demonstration.

Detail of An Experiment on a Bird in the Air PumpThe boy is also one of only two figures actually looking at the viewer; the old man carrying out the experiment is the other. The old man holds the fate of the bird in his hands. He is taller than any other figure in the circle and he seems to have an expression similar to that of a professor giving an instruction we must all understand. The young boy, on the other hand, holds the draw string to close the curtain, thus attempting to block the moon (a metaphor for the superstitious past) and is looking at us expectantly as if he is waiting to see if we will take the side of science and progress (the old man), or that of passion (the young girl). A choice must be made by the viewer because the artist has only presented the problem.

At stake in the painting is but a child’s bird and though I too would be as upset as the girl if someone did the same experiment on my dog, science has carried out far more upsetting observations which one could say rivals that of the crusades.

 

When the scientists at Los Alamos were ready to test the first nuclear device they actually took bets on the chances that the splitting of the atom would set the Earth’s atmosphere on fire. Though we now know that such an event is impossible, at the time there were serious concerns about that very possibility and yet the experiment was carried out anyway. For the sake of winning World War II, the US government was willing to put the fate of every living creature on this planet at grave risk.

A shoe-fitting fluoroscope

From the 1930’s to 1950’s a device known as the shoe-fitting fluoroscope could be found in many shoe stores. Customers could determine their exact shoe size by looking into the device and actually see the bone structure of their feet. The device emitted x-rays directly into people’s feet at rem rates hundreds of times higher than that allowed for nuclear power plant workers for an entire year! At the time there were scientists who had an idea of how harmful radiation could be but when faced with the devastation in Japan and the horrible side effects caused by radiation, scientists were able to study these effects on the mass population.

The shadow was all that remained of this Japanese victimRadiation burn victimThe initial victims of the nuclear age probably never knew what happened because they were vaporized instantly in a light so bright and hot all that remained of them were their shadows burnt onto walls. Those who survived suffered a much crueler fate. “For no apparent reason” the survivors “health began to fail. They lost appetite. Their hair fell out. Bluish spots appeared on their bodies. And then bleeding began from the ears, nose and mouth”. Doctors “gave their patients Vitamin A injections. The results were horrible. The flesh started rotting from the hole caused by the injection of the needle. And in every case the victim died”.

Other experiments were being carried out during the middle of the 20th century that were just as cruel. In Germany a man named Eduard Pernkopf was working on his “Atlas of Topographical and Applied Human Anatomy“, an atlas detailing human anatomy to a degree not seen since the similar works of Leonardo da Vinci. Though Pernkopf’s work was seen as a landmark for human biology, “speculation and indirect evidence have led to the conclusion that Pernkopf used the murdered bodies of men, women, and children from the Holocaust for his atlas of anatomy.” True, his work provided doctors with an invaluable tool with which to study the human body (and possibly help cure patients in the long run) but at what cost to those who died like lab rats?

There are countless other examples.

So is science, for lack of a better word, better than religion? Do the dispassionate observations of the scientist achieve a morality more acceptable than that of an Islamic suicide bomber? History is filled with rational, scientific minded persons who have lobbied for their discoveries to be utilized in an ethical manner. Einstein was asked to take part in the Manhattan Project and though he refused for moral reasons, he was intrigued by the research because it lay at the heart of his own interests in science. Einstein even believed America should harness the atom because he was afraid Germany might be doing so as well. Leonardo da Vinci made good money designing weapons of war for his own government. That list too goes on and on.

Religion, in theory anyway, attempts to see the universe through the lens of morality. Gods are invented to make sure people are being ethical even when nobody else is looking. Science, on the other hand is interested mainly in observation. The ethical dilemmas that arise because of those observations are dealt with later. Each individual scientist must consider his or her own morality against their ambitions. Ironically, it is often the scientist who is naive and allows people with strong religious tendencies to corrupt their work for war and murder but this is not always the case. The scientists at Los Alamos may have been more interested in discovering the mysteries of the atom then making bombs, but at the end of the day they still knew they were making bombs.

In closing, science is not free of the terrors that have been usually attributed to religion. Science may help us gain a keener insight into the actual workings of the universe, but science has done little to advance the human species enough to know how to use that information responsibly. Personally I do side with rational, scientific thinking but I also understand that knowledge without ethics and morality is dangerous and does not outweigh the possible benefits that may arise from that knowledge. Science is not without blame and scientists should hold science to the same critical standards that religious leaders should point at their own beliefs.

The 'eyeball of an A-bomb victim who got an atomic bomb cataract. There is opacity near the center of the eyeball.'

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One of the controversial Muhammad CartoonsI’m sure you have all heard about the controversy surrounding cartoons depicting the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. Sunni Muslims forbid images of Muhammad and though Shi’a Muslims do allow representations of Muhammad any depiction of him must be done with respect and dignity. Because of the Danish cartoons many Muslims were quite pissed off. In true religious insanity they wanted the heads of the cartoonists because of the disrespect done to Muhammad and because the images depicted Islam as violent.

So why does Islam get so touchy about images of Muhammad? Christianity seems perfectly fine with showing Jesus as black, white, Asian, young, old and pretty much anything else you can think of. Some of the most beautiful art ever made has featured Jesus yet Muhammad is strangely neglected in the world of art.

From the Qur’an
Shakir translation
Chapter 21 : Al-Anibiya (The Prophets)

021.052
When he said to his father and his people: What are these images to whose worship you cleave?

021.053
They said: We found our fathers worshiping them.

021.054
He said: Certainly you have been, (both) you and your fathers, in manifest error.

021.055
They said: Have you brought to us the truth, or are you one of the triflers?

021.056
He said: Nay! your Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth, Who brought them into existence, and I am of those who bear witness to this:

021.057
And, by Allah! I will certainly do something against your idols after you go away, turning back.

021.058
So he broke them into pieces, except the chief of them, that haply they may return to it.

The earliest surviving image of Muhammad made in 1315 and showing Muhammad re-dedicating the Black Stone at the Kaaba.

This passage from the Qur’an is talking about idolatry and is similar to the story of Moses on Mt. Sinai getting all worked about the golden calf. We have to dig a bit deeper to get at the real meat of the issue.

From the Sahih Bukhari
Volume 9, Book 93, Number 648:

Narrated Abu Huraira:

I heard the Prophet saying, “Allah said, ‘Who are most unjust than those who try to create something like My creation? I challenge them to create even a smallest ant, a wheat grain or a barley grain.’ “

The Sahih Bukhari is known as a Hadith which is a written form of the oral traditions regarding discussions “relevant to the actions and customs of the Islamic prophet Muhammad”. These Hadith are used as tools to help Muslims gain a deeper insight into their faith. They are a supplement to the Qur’an on issues either not covered in that text or that may be open to interpretation because the teachings are not clear. These Hadith are considered cannocial but are not technically part of the Qur’an so there is plenty of room for disagreement which has led, in part, to the divide between Sunni and Shi’a Islam.

Putting aside the history lesson and any of the deep religious reasons for controlling (or forbidding) a “graven” image of Muhammad there is another benefit. Think about it this way – Miles Davis, Jim Morrison and Maynard James Keenan are all potent public figures who knew that people will want them even more if during a concert they turned their back to the audience. Anticipation motivates people and in some ways makes the presenter even more powerful because he remains something of a desired mystery.

15th century illustration in a copy of a manuscript by Al-Bîrûnî, depicting Muhammad preaching the Qur'an in Mecca.

In the movies of the 30’s and 40’s the screen would go dark when the characters were about to have sex and your imagination was left to fill in the blanks. This same method then turns Muhammad into a much more of a personal experience for those who believe in him because each believer is investing a bit of themselves into the experience. A Christian has plenty of images of Jesus with which to stare at but it becomes a less personal investment made by the viewer. Instead of a happy profile of Muhammad hanging on the wall on the other side of the room like Jesus, Muhammad is right there in your minds eye – a visualized manifestation created by the individual that is always present. He becomes not only a God from a holy text but also a God you have helped to create for yourself.

This close attachment to Muhammad may be why Muslims are so much more fervent about their faith than modern Christians. 1000 years ago Christian icons of Jesus were harsh and angry and motivated people to do terrible things (to Muslims ironically enough) but over time the image softened and so did the Christians. Islam, on the other hand has taken the opposite route. Before the 16th century images of Muhammad were more common but then artists began painting him with either a veil covering his face or even just as a glowing bright light.

Illustration portraying Muhammad preaching to his early followers. 15th century illustration kept in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.Muhammad at Mount Hira (16th century Ottoman illustration of the Siyer-i Nebi)Though many Muslims do allow Muhammad to be shown his image is tightly controlled because Islam understands the power their prophet can have over the faith. Since the Qur’an requires supplemental texts to clarify murky issues and with the deep divisions already present within the Islamic faith, keeping Muhammad on a tight leash keeps the faith from spiraling out of control because they are controlling its most important figure.

 

To conclude two days of posts I want to impress upon you that art can be a powerful tool even if many people may not know why or how. Since religion relies on faith in the unseen, the decisions made in depicting various important holy figures plays a large role in the lives of the believers and can literally alter the tenor of the faith. By controlling art, music, literature and other forms of human expression a religion can become a powerful vice with which to hold people inside of.

Islamic protesters in London denouncing the Danish cartoonsThough there are theists who believe they are well meaning in limiting the sorts of expression that should be publicly acceptable (banning books in high schools, denouncing rap music, etc), what is really going on is just plain and simple control over free will. Something seemingly as simple as a friendly picture of Jesus or a veiled image of Muhammad has a deeper meaning than just some fickle taste in art because it can literally change the world and they way people “choose” to see the world.

Nearly everyday I get junk mail from some church wanting me to attend a service, join a bible study or give money to them. The advertisements are usually pretty slick too; glossy paper, color images and bright, bold text proclaim eternal salvation through the glories of modern printing. One thing most of these fliers have in common is the face of Jesus staring back at me. He is usually represented benevolently with open arms and a ray of light behind him – very welcoming and non-threatening. Somehow I doubt this is the image Jesus would approve of if he had an agent since he was prone to more assertive measures to get his message across.

A few weeks ago I received an oversize, 4 page flier requesting my presence for a seminar titled “Israel and the Countdown to Armageddon”. The presenter, a smarmy looking young man named H.S. Rester was giving a free conference about Bible Prophecy and if I acted quickly I could receive a free DVD about other “Unfolding Revelations“. Basically this was to be another end times sermon designed to pick and choose fuzzy bits of the Bible to scare suburban soccer moms into religious submission. All in all, the advertising was exciting with F-18 fighter jets flying over Israel, troops carrying guns, a very D&D dragon, a lion with wings and a 666. On the back cover was something I did not expect, this:

Jesus?What? Who is this guy? Is that Jesus? Sure enough the Christian savior actually looks like he’s from the Middle East. Shocking! Needless to say I was surprised since most images of Jesus are far more, how should I put this, ethnically biased.

I live in the very suburban Front Range community of Fort Collins, Colorado and most everything I see is white-watered down to keep me feeling safe. Though we have a large Hispanic community, there is very little in the way of any real ethnic diversity so seeing a Middle-Eastern Jesus on my glossy, end of the world flier really sticks out.

Since 9/11 I would have imagined that portraying Jesus as being from the Middle East (which the Bible clearly says he is from) would be a bad PR move. Anything even remotely resembling the Middle East is considered scary these days in America. Terrorists are supposed to be from that part of the world, but not the Christian savior, right? But actually I was kind of glad that the people promoting the end of the world seminars were actually getting at least one bit of information right. For all their nonsense about the marks of beasts, four horseman and outrageous Biblical interpretation they at least moved a step closer to realizing their prophet was a Jew from Israel. Sure, the above image still leaves something to be desired in terms of accuracy but maybe the days of the Anglo-Saxon, Romanesque hippie are drawing to an end.

The white Jesus has always bothered me because I think Christians need to face facts and stop watering down their faith with friendly, nice guy pictures of Jesus holding lambs and smiling with his 12 buddies as happy children run behind him tossing palm leaves. How is anyone going to take a guy who looks like he travels with Phish supposed to be the same guy that’s going to judge all souls come time for the apocalypse? I thought religion was supposed to be serious business and not a feel good romp through the meadow.

In my opinion white Christians like to avoid the nasty side of their religion. They like to make it easy on themselves to continue believing. They want to feel righteous and to do so they strip away all the stuff that clearly states they are poor sinners who could quite easily go to hell for all eternity. White Christians want to feel good all the time without any of the guilt.

Scary Jesus?Here is a very early image of Jesus. This fresco was painted in Daphni, Greece around 1100 and it can be found in the Church of the Dormition of the Virgin. The title is “Christ Pantocrator” which in Greek means Christ the Almighty. Some familiar features are visible such as the beard, long hair and thin face. His expression, though, is far more foreign that when we are used to seeing. Here is a man to be reckoned with, his large eyes look away from the viewer as if he has more important things to worry about than just you. The hand he keeps on the bible is interesting in that it is twisted and seems ready to drop that bible to punch someone if need be. Jesus is not smiling either because he is serious business and he means it. Overall he looks kind of mean and frightening but I bet you would not want to piss him off either. He certainly lives up to the name of this work.

Kingly Jesus?This next image was done by Orcagna around 1354-57 and is titled “The Redeemer”. Here Jesus has been given a bit of a face lift to make him look somewhat more Italian since the artist was working in Florence, Italy. We still have the long hair and beard but now he is staring right at us and with his glowing crown he seems to be passing judgment on the viewer. He is still not smiling and his insensitive eyes make the viewer fear him somewhat like the above image but he at least looks like he could be related to any good Catholic Italian and thus he seems like an accessible savior who can be reasoned with. The title “The Redeemer” suggests as much anyway.

Friend Jesus?Sad Jesus? These two images (left & right) were both painted in the late 1400’s. The painting on the left is by Schongauer and is titled “Noli Me Tangere” (Christ With Mary Magdalen). The image on the right is by Geertgen Tot Sint Jans and is titled “Christ As The Man Of Sorrows”. Here both artists are appealing to our empathy. Gone are the angry, judgmental figures from 400 years earlier. The Jesus we are now seeing is frail and almost feminine and seems somewhat weak in the face of evil. Both paintings feature women who are reaching out towards him and instead of Jesus being an imposing, king like figure he is more of a friend who we can feel sorry for. Here is someone willing to die for all of human sin so that we don’t have to. He will take the pain away unselfishly so that you can go about your day without having to worry about all that yourself.

Cryptic Jesus?In this detail of “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci (which was painted in the late 1400’s as well) we get more of the same. Recently much has been made about this painting and it’s supposed hidden meaning. True, the symbolism of the number three is used all through the painting (3 windows, triangles, apostles in groups of three all represent the trinity) but these meanings are usually lost on the casual viewer. Sure most people can “feel” this is an important work of art and may marvel at it’s beauty but the image of Jesus is surrounded by cryptic meanings that only scholars can ever really appreciate. Leonardo give us a Jesus that is all math and symbolism, his meaning is shrouded in mystery and code. Jesus moves further away from having any real, down to earth meaning for the common man and becomes just another Christian symbol.

As the ages pass the images of Jesus become less and less what he probably would have hoped to portray himself. Forgotten is any message he may have had because it has been replaced by artists who wanted to make him less threatening in hopes to bring in more converts to the churches commissioning their work. Jesus the friend of man, Jesus the nice guy, the good looking white man who will forgive you no matter what you do is what we have left all in the name of Public Relations.

 

Bored Jesus?

The above image is what remains of the guy. A portrait and profile of a white guy with a nice Romanesque nose and golden, flowing hair. He may be looking to heaven but I don’t think it’s because he is praying but rather because he is bored. In short, it’s a silly image.

Young black Jesus?Rasta Jesus?There have been attempts to put the meaning back in the art though. The image on the left paints Jesus as a sort of pissed off black man and that’s not too surprising since it was made in the 1960’s. The right image is from the Caribbean and both images are trying to engage the viewer. They both have an iconic quality similar to the famous icons you see in Russia in that they are both looking right at you, ready to take you on and judge you. Jesus may not have been a black man but the point is you can’t hide from this guy because he will find you.

So why am I so concerned about how Jesus is portrayed in art? Basically it’s because I’m sick of Christians who believe in Jesus as the savior yet have absolutely no idea how to deal with him. I find it hypocritical that Jesus is just watered down faith with no substance. White Christian Americans love to proclaim that Jesus will send you to hell for not believing in him as your personal savior when at the same time they strip away all meaning Jesus has just to make their lives more comfortable. Christians may say they believe in Jesus, but which one? What Jesus are they worshiping every Sunday (when the game isn’t on)?

Blood soaked Jesus poster from Central America Christ Syndrome Chocolate Jesus Hirst's Resurrection Indian Jesus
Dr. Jack Kevorkian The Arrival of 1095 H.R. Giger's Satan I Nexus II Jesus By Robert Craig at theartofrobertcraig.com
Serrano Andres

Photo credit AFP

Believed to have lived for 300 years, the birthday of the Hindu Guru Jai Shri Bawa Lal Dayal Ji Maharaj is celebrated across India during the Magh Month (usually between January and February). The young men in the photograph above are taking part in a fire breathing ritual in Amritsar. 2007 marked the 652nd anniversary of the guru’s birthday.

Saint Nicholas and the Buttnmandl and Krampus

The traditions related to St. Nicholas originated in France during the middle ages before spreading throughout Europe. Since then in Bavaria the running of the Buttnmandl and Krampus from door to door in the Berchtesgadener Land has been closely associated with ‘St. Nick’s’ visit – in fact, in the Berchtesgaden area you’ll never see one without the other.

Buttenmandl and Krampusse are costumes worn by young single men and consist of animal skins and fur masks with long red tongues adding to their frightening appearance. Attached to their backs are large cow-bells weighing up to 45 pounds used to make loud and frightening noises. They follow Saint Nicholas from house to house on December 5 and 6 each year to bring luck to the good and punish the idle. As they accompany Saint Nicholas, they will flick switches at the legs of young girls in a sign of fertility. Their mission is also to chase away evil spirits at the dark time of year (near the winter solstice) and to awaken Mother Nature slumbering deep under the hard frozen ground.