Thursday, December 6, 2007

Jesus - With You Always

The creepiness of the "Jesus - With You Always" website is matched only by its sincerity. I remember a friend at college first introducing me to the page. Even as a Christian at the time, I felt vaguely unsettled. Showcasing 33 pencil renderings, the site has enjoyed immense popularity, boasting 2,447,073 hits at the time of this writing. The artist behind the drawings, Larry Van Pelt, was 50 when he was awoken one night with the distinct conviction that he must produce artwork depicting ordinary people doing ordinary work, and Jesus standing there beside them.

And so, without any artistic training, he set about to meet God's 10-year deadline. Van Pelt practiced sketching, took art lessons, and eventually created 20 drawings of people performing their everyday vocations and avocations. Then, he found a 33-year old (Jesus was allegedly 33 when he died - a numerological significance that may also explain the quantity of images currently on offer) model who looked the part, was willing to grow a beard, and - best of all - was a Christian! (Side note: this is indeed remarkable, as up until The Passion of the Christ, no major feature film Jesus was played by a Christian). So Van Pelt added Jesus to all of the images, and has continued on ever since, releasing new images and posting them to the website. He derived the title from Jesus' promise in Matthew 28:20, "Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world." It reminds me of a shirt I used to wear that, in the style of the Visa logo, said "JESUS - he's everywhere you want to be."

Artistically, the drawings generally have nice line quality, and look to be tracings from photographs. However, Jesus is often at the wrong scale (executive, juggler) or just disappearing awkwardly and suddenly, like he got cut in half (golfer, bodybuilder, jogger). One can't fault Van Pelt much for this, as he admittedly only became an artist to complete these drawings and, as I said from the start, there is definitely an endearing sincerity to the work he's done here.

What none of the drawings can avoid, however, is an all-pervading creepiness. I don't know about you, but the thought of Jesus standing around all the time is unnerving. In some drawings he's lending a helping hand to a professional, but you can't help but imagine that, if he bumped the person's arm, someone could end up getting hurt (dental assistant, welder, surgeon, construction). And even if he's invisible to begin with, I'd still want Jesus to stay in my peripheral vision, and not lurk behind me (forest ranger, trucker, expectant, student). At other times, his expression is unclear or just plain giddy (bodybuilder, guitarist). And a clown? In color?!? Clowns are scary enough without Jesus getting involved.

And if Jesus is with us always, one's imagination is quick to suggest the other times when Jesus might be watching. Is he there when you're on the toilet or getting dressed? What about other times that you normally expect to be alone, like when you're enjoying time with a sexual partner, or all by yourself? I imagine this might provide motivation not do anything sinful, but no one can help going to the bathroom. And it's poor motivation, anyway, to be moral just out of fear of being seen.

The further theological implications of this are clear. Where is Jesus, what is he doing, and what expression is on his face when a child is raped by a priest, when a bus goes off the road and kills four youth group members, or when an African already suffering from AIDS contracts a guinea worm infection? This is the standard problem of theodicy, but an ever-present Jesus makes the contrast all the more revolting. Does anyone else see the plot of a horror film shaping up here?

So don't think about it too hard: just enjoy the unintentional comedy, have a chuckle, and feel a slight shiver up your spine.

Update: Thanks to reader evilpoet for pointing me to the hilarious parody website What Would Jesus Do For A Klondike Bar? The captions had me cracking up.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Amazing Show!

I have another podcast to recommend: The Amazing Show, starring James Randi and brought to you by the folks at For those of you who do not know already about James Randi, he is the grand old man of Skepticism. Originally billed as "The Amazing Randi" when he performed as a magician and escape artist (at a recent Google lecture he jokingly referred to himself as only "mildly astonishing"), Randi began focusing his efforts over the years on debunking performers who claimed to have supernatural powers. An expert on how the human mind is deceived, Randi sees through such tricks, and has publicly debunked such flim-flammers as Uri Geller and Peter Popoff. Randi is also famous for offering a $1,000,000 challenge to anyone who can prove paranormal abilities under proper observing conditions.

The Amazing Show is a series of interviews in which Randi shares memories about past events and the people he has dealt with. He's lived a long, fruitful, and interesting life, and there is much of interest here. He talks about his interactions with the likes of Isaac Asimov, Richard Feynman, Johnny Carson, Steve Allen, Penn and Teller, and even Alice Cooper. I was particularly interested in his recollections of Steve Allen, as the Center For Inquiry in Hollywood where I'm involved houses the Steve Allen Theater, and I learned a lot about him reading Inventing Late Night.

I am happy to say that I met James Randi at the 2005 Skeptics Annual Conference (on Brain, Mind and Consciousness). We talked primarily about digital cameras. This isn't a flattering photo of either of us, but I'm proud of it and I'm glad to have met such a great mind.

14-Year-Old Jehovah's Witness Dies

Dennis Lindberg, suffering from leukemia at the age of 14, was given a crucial decision to make: receive a blood transfusion, or face near-certain death. For most of us, this would be a pretty easy choice - take the blood. But Dennis was a Jehovah's Witness, and for the majority of that religion's members, blood is a holy substance that is not to be transferred or taken in (for the scriptural support of this doctrine, read Wikipedia's take).

Let me state clearly that I am proud to live in a country where we afford people the religious freedom to make such decisions. And I don't mean that in some kind of Malthusian sense of, "Let the crazy people kill themselves." Nothing like that. Rather, beliefs should never be forced on anyone, or forcibly removed - it should be the right and responsibility of each individual to hear the arguments and make his own decision. As the Qur'an says, there should be no compulsion in religion.

The tougher question is, do we draw the line anywhere? What do we do when such a decision will lead to one's death, as in this case? Or when family members make the decision for children who are too young or adults who are unable to decide for themselves? It's a tricky situation, where religious freedom bumps up against commonly-shared, secular morals. We would all agree that if a religion demands child sacrifice, we should step in and save the children.

Whatever the answer, Dennis was 14, and probably old enough to understand the factors involved. The matter was brought before a judge, who said, "I don’t believe Dennis’ decision is the result of any coercion. He is mature and understands the consequences of his decision... I don’t think Dennis is trying to commit suicide. This isn’t something Dennis just came upon, and he believes with the transfusion he would be unclean and unworthy." A few hours after the decision was made to allow Dennis to refuse the transfusion, he died.

Read the original article at msnbc.