The Shroud of Turin: New Developments


When I was a child, my first exposure to the Shroud of Turin was on an episode of “In Search Of…”, a weekly television program that featured a number of various popular mysteries including Bigfoot, the Amelia Earhart disappearance and the Bermuda Triangle, among others.  For this episode I sat enthralled as the show’s host, Leonard Nimoy, described how the shroud reportedly bore an image of the crucified Christ and that the image was thought to be caused by a huge transfer of energy at the moment of the Resurrection. I remember hurrying off to excitedly tell anyone who would listen all about the irrefutable facts I’d learned from the program.  Of course, what I eventually came to realize, after several increasingly disappointing conversations, was that “In Search Of” presented “irrefutable facts” (or omitted the refutable ones) in support of every mystery they featured; it was, of course, their bread and butter.  Sadly, such childhood epiphanies are often the lynch-pin for of a life of skepticism.

So it was with my hard-earned skepticism that I sat down to watch The History Channel’s presentation of “The Real Face of Jesus”- a documentary around a graphic artist’s attempts to use computer analysis of the shroud image to reconstruct a 3 dimensional model of what many believe to be the face of the risen Christ.  I almost didn’t take the time to watch, having decided long ago that the 1988 carbon-14 dating of the shroud’s material had proved definitively that it was an elaborate 12th century hoax.  By the end of this two-hour program, however, I was at least convinced enough by the science involved to no longer call myself a doubter.

One particularly curious phenomenon surrounding the shroud image is the absence of any particulates or saturation.  The image is so superficial it is only present on the outermost fiber of the cloth and there is no seep or saturation into deeper layers as there would be if a paint, a pigment or a dye were used.  What’s more, there are no particulates at the microscopic level that would be present using any one of these substances to create the image.

Regarding the carbon 14 dating, many members of the original STURP scientific research project have expressed concerns that the C-14 samples were taken from what was arguably the most contaminated portion of the cloth, and from what might not have been a part of the original cloth at all.  The shroud is made of linen; the sample was cotton.

In late 2011, experts at Italy’s National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Development concluded in a report, a portion of which is quoted below, that the purported burial cloth of Jesus Christ could not have been faked.

“The double image (front and back) of a scourged and crucified man, barely visible on the linen cloth of the Shroud of Turin has many physical and chemical characteristics that are so particular that the staining which is identical in all its facets, would be impossible to obtain today in a laboratory … This inability to repeat (and therefore falsify) the image on the Shroud makes it impossible to formulate a reliable hypothesis on how the impression was made”.

Many critics believe the light areas of the relic, particularly around the hair and beard, reflect a much older man and therefore cannot bear the likeness of the crucified Christ, who was by most estimations 33 or 34 years of age when he died.  However, light analysis of the shroud has been quite conclusive that the image is an obvious negative, something that even today’s scientists have been unable to recreate using modern methods, and therefore nearly impossible to fabricate by an 11th or 12th century artist creating a hoax with no knowledge of modern photographic properties.  The Italian scientists came to the conclusion that the  marks could only have been made by “a short and intense burst of VUV directional radiation.”

Like many other ancient mysteries, science will probably never have the capacity to prove exactly what the shroud is, but many modern scientists will easily tell you what it is not-  it isn’t, in any scientifically explainable sense, a work of art created as an elaborate hoax.

And, if it isn’t a hoax, the thought of what it might be sends shivers down my spine.

Posted in Christianity, Faith, God, History | 2 Comments

What Do We Do With Fred Phelps & The Westboro Clan?

I have really enjoyed the posts by Tim Ghali over at  He is extremely insightful and well-written and has an easy-going style that allows him to tackle some of the harder stuff without polarizing his readers or coming off as preachy.  I particularly like his recent article on arguably one of my least favorite subjects, the Westboro Baptist “Church”.  If you have stumbled across my blog, please be sure to stumble across his.  He’s not only a talented writer, he’s also an extremely gracious person.

What Do We Do With Fred Phelps & The Westboro Clan?.

Posted in Christianity, Faith, Spirituality | Leave a comment

From Angels Bending Near the Earth


Three years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Israel and Jordan for three weeks of study.  The things I experienced there can never adequately be put into words; but this week I’m reminded of a particular day that was especially profound for me.

We were visiting the ruins of the Herodium (pictured above) one of the several palaces of Herod the Great, built on the summit of a free-standing mountain about 6 miles south of Jerusalem, and 2 miles south of Bethlehem.  We drove to a parking area about halfway to the top and then hiked the rest of the way up.  When we reached the crest, we had a commanding view of the plains in all directions, as well as of the town of Bethlehem up on a rise to the north.  Looking out over the plains around us, our professor was explaining the concept of a “rain shadow”, a weather anomaly caused by the topography and prevailing wind patterns that accounted for the dry, arid landscape that dominated most of our view.

Then she pointed out one long, contrasting swath of green that descended down toward our location from the hills around Bethlehem, and explained that this was the one area historically unaffected by the rain shadow and would therefore have served as both farm and pastureland to the people of the area during the time of Herod’s reign- much as it still does today.

We stood looking for a moment, and were just about to climb down into the ruins of the palace itself, when something dawned on me.  I stopped our professor and asked “So…the pastureland below us would have been…” at which she smiled and finished my sentence saying “where the shepherds stood watching their flocks by night…yes.”  As I looked out again over that green plain ascending toward Bethlehem, I suddenly felt the tremendous weight of that place. I could see in my mind the heavenly host that had filled the very sky we now gazed out into- announcing to those unimportant shepherds that a Savior had been born- for them, and for the sake of all mankind.

It’s very hard to describe now but, despite all the doubts I’d had in the past, I knew in my heart at that moment that the stories I’d heard repeated since childhood were true. Suddenly it was the cynicism and arrogance with which so many, including myself, had approached the events surrounding the life of Christ that seemed superficial and without merit or meaning. The fact is, regardless of whatever heights of sophistication we humans feel we have achieved over the centuries, the Christmas story itself remains a thing of rare perfection- transcendent and unchanged.

As we move into Holy Week, my prayer for each of us is to be able to let go of the hurriedness, the commercialism, the frustration and maybe even the loneliness and depression, that so often accompany this time of the year; and to focus instead on the quiet beauty of the world’s first Christmas- perfect both in its simplicity and in the absolute hope it continues to offer to us and to our world.

God bless each of you.  I hope you have a beautiful Christmas!

Posted in Christianity, Christmastide, Faith, History, Spirituality | 2 Comments

The Next Christians- “On Being” with Krista Tippet

On Being- The Next Christians

This is a pretty fascinating discussion between Gabe Lyons, founder of “Q” and author of “Un-Christian” and Jim Daly, the new director of Focus on the Family.

I was particularly impressed with Jim Daly’s thoughtful and (at least for a network founded by James Dobson) inclusive stance on several issues.  Both men are intelligent and articulate and Krista Tippet is probably one of the best facilitators in the business. It’s definitely worth watching.

Posted in Apologetics, Christianity, Ecumenical Studies, Spirituality | Leave a comment

On “Handouts”

Homeless Christ


About five years ago, on a trip from my home in Knoxville, Tennessee to Nashville, I stopped off in the town of Cookeville, my halfway point, to grab some gas. It was freezing cold that night and as I stood huddled by the gas pump filling my tank, a scruffy looking gentleman came walking up to me and asked if I could spare some money to help he and his family get home to Oneida; about two hours east of where we were.

In my pocket I knew that I had several bills including a twenty, a couple of fives and a few singles.  I half-grudgingly fished around until I came out with the singles and handed them to the man. He took them eagerly, looked me in the eye and said “God bless you sir-thank you” and walked off. I saw him immediately approach another patron at the next row of pumps and thought cynically to myself “Wow what a racket. He probably sits out here all night and hits people up for money over and over, and by morning I’m sure he’s amassed a small fortune.”

After I finished filling my tank I went inside to grab a cup of coffee and a candy bar to tide me over for the rest of the trip. When I was walking back to my car, I happened to notice the scruffy man now standing beside a beat up old station wagon, pumping gas into the tank. As I passed his car I glanced inside and saw a lady bundled up in the passenger seat and, lying across the back seat and covered by a blanket, slept a little girl of about eight or nine. The man finished pumping his gas quickly, having obviously not collected enough to fill up his tank and therefore probably facing a similar dilemma somewhere down the road.  He flashed a smile and gave me a quick wave, and as I watched him drive off toward the interstate, it suddenly occurred to me that I had just ignored a significant opportunity.

Had I chosen to give him the twenty dollar bill in my pocket rather than the two or three single bills I actually offered him, I could have completely changed the circumstances for that little family, at least for that night.  He might have been able to not only fill up his tank enough to get home but also buy a little something to eat for his wife and little girl. For that twenty dollar bill (that I undoubtedly spent on some unremarkable dinner the following night) I could have purchased that father some dignity.

And I didn’t.

As I drove off in the opposite direction that night, I remembered something that my father once told me many years ago. He had just offered a few dollars to a man down on Market Square who was obviously a beggar by trade, and after the man tottered off, I asked my father “How do you know he isn’t going to take the money that you just gave him for “lunch” and use it to buy liquor or drugs instead?” My father just smiled and said “Son, he may very well do just that, but what that man chooses to do with that money is now between himself and God. Whether I chose to offer him help when he asked me for it- well, that part was between ME and God.”

I humbly pray that God will always remind me that I need to help more, and more often, than my comfort level would dictate; and that I never again ignore an opportunity, as I so cynically did that night, to do something that is truly Good.

Posted in Charity, Christianity, God | 2 Comments

Thoughts On Hell, Sin, Grace, Works

I was raised by a United Methodist minister and so, while my father saw to it that theological matters were frequently the topic of discussion (and debate) within our home, the topic of hell rarely came up. Methodists are often known for their outspoken position on many subjects but hellfire and brimstone is not one of them.

Imagine my discomfort, then, when recently my eleven year old earnestly asked me for my thoughts on hell. I knew there was much more hanging in the balance of her question than I was equipped to answer on 30 seconds’ notice, and so I did the only prudent thing I could think of – I asked her for some time to think it over.

That night, I remembered the one time I decided to pigeon-hole my own father into an answer on the subject.  We were alone in a boat in the middle of a mountain lake, the day was beautiful and silent and I felt it was the perfect time to spring an ambush; and so I asked.  He obviously wasn’t expecting my question, but he just slowly exhaled through his teeth as he so often did when he thought deeply on something.  When he finally gave me his simple answer, I found it to be so quietly profound that it would shape my thinking on the subject for years to come.

He said he had no idea what hell is truly like; whether or not it actually resembles Dante’s vision of a lake of fire with capering demons tormenting dispossessed souls with pitchforks.  He said that to him hell was simply the awareness of, and the desire for, God while being completely and irredeemably separated from the presence of God.  He said that if that was indeed the nature of hell, there was really no need to threaten him with Dante’s eternal fire; the cold reality he imagined was, to him, far worse.

So in answer to my daughter’s inquiry, I sat down and began to sketch out my own vision of hell, or at least the mechanics involved, based on my emergent theology.  When I was finished, I found I had actually drawn up a fairly concise summary of the core of my beliefs, not just around hell, but also on the nature of sin, God’s relationship to mankind and my own (again, very simplistic) answer to the old “grace vs. works” conundrum.

So here is a summary of my serendipitous discovery- my personal theology in a nutshell.  If someone stumbles across this post, is gracious enough to read it in its entirety and wants to take issue with any portion of it, please do so.  I am still (and always) learning, though I do I feel these points are scripturally based and not some “Oprah-fied” version of Christian thought.  Finally, while I reached all of these conclusions on my own, I know none of this is uncharted territory.  As in G.K. Chesterton’s analogy of the man who sets out to discover a new land and ends up “re-discovering” Europe a few miles from his own home, I know this has all been covered before, somewhere; but here goes-

1. Scripture tells me- and I believe- that God is perfect in his Goodness, and as such, does not dwell in the presence of sin.

2. God has created and ordained man to reflect both his nature and his will here on earth.  Christ himself made this clear.  Our true “human”-ness, that which is the better part of our nature,  is therefore also our “Godly”-ness.

3. Because of these two points a person cloaked in sin does not reflect the nature of God any more than a dingy, dust-covered mirror can reflect the morning sun. (C.S. Lewis has a great analogy along these lines but I can’t seem to find the quote right now.) Sin, for want of a better description, makes a person opaque. But more than just opaque, sin creates a barrier that precludes the very presence of God in the sinner’s own heart. God, in his perfectness, chooses not to abide in the presence of sin; we, as humans, are free to choose whether or not to allow sin to take root in our lives.

4. As humans we are to pray (converse with God) worship (experience God) and attempt right living (demonstrating God) in order to banish sin in our own lives and “polish” the spirit, therefore more fully reflecting God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.

5. Works, therefore, are merely part of right living as we assimilate into God’s nature. I believe we are saved by God’s Grace, but in that saving, we are expected to continuously define ourselves by doing God’s will in our world. In other words, as we are forgiven a huge debt through Grace, we should actually live as someone who has been forgiven a huge debt.  This outlook and practice is how the world should most clearly distinguish God’s people from others.

6. Heaven then becomes less of a reward, at least in the classic “carrot and stick” sense of the term, and more of a natural extension of one’s relationship with God and one’s continued refinement of the spirit. Someone might counter that this is “salvation through acts” but that is not actually the case, unless one is contrasting this way of life with the alternative of doing absolutely nothing and merely waiting for the kingdom of God.

7. Hell, therefore (and this is where I know I will run afoul of more fundamentalist viewpoints) is less a recompense and more of a logical conclusion to our own actions.  God has given us free will, and just as I have afforded my children free will, this means allowing us to live with consequence. When my children choose to break one of the rules my wife and I have set for them to live by, they know with no uncertainty what the consequence to that transgression will be. Though we may be angry or disappointed in their behavior, the consequence itself does not arise out of our anger or disappointment, but rather their own actions.  It is not retributive; it is simply cause and effect within the framework of our family.

So when one purposefully chooses to allow sin to dominate their life, they are simultaneously allowing God’s presence in their life to be diminished.  When God’s essence is irredeemably extinguished, either by personal rejection of God or by death in sin, that person simply no longer has a place in God’s kingdom.  God’s condemnation, therefore, comes from the framework of free will he has created in his universe, not from a vengeful spirit or personal retribution.  We walk ourselves into hell of our own accord because we have extinguished God from our lives.  To say otherwise is, to me, a refutation of Christ’s assertions that ours is a God of love.

8. Mankind is not perfect as God is, and therefore we are incapable, on our own, of adequately banishing sin to the point where we might reflect something as perfect as God.  Thereby the atonement arising from the sacrifice of Christ’s humanity, even within his own divinity, becomes the mechanism through which God and man can be reconciled.  God experienced life as a human; man experienced a human who represented what our true nature is intended to be.

So that is it; at least as of November 2012.  I’m a neophyte, both in writing like this and in my newly discovered faith. I don’t promote this blog yet because I don’t really feel I write well enough to ask people to read it.  However, if someone happens across it and wants to critique these thoughts I would be extremely grateful for any constructive input.

Thanks, Mark

Posted in Faith, God, Theology | 28 Comments

Some Thoughts on Science and God

“The impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance seems to me the chief argument for 
the existence of God.”   ~ Charles Darwin

I used to believe in the infallibility of science and the improbability of God.  This slowly gave way to a belief in the fallibility of science and the probability of God.

I now simply believe in God, and I view science, along with art and music and technology and reason, as one of His many gifts to mankind.  These are things, along with our capability for introspection and self-analysis, that set us apart from all other animals. Scripture tells us that we are “created in the image of God”. I have never believed, as some do, that this means we physically resemble God (or vice versa) but rather that we are a reflection, flawed as we are, of God’s nature.  Of the millions of species that currently inhabit the earth only man has been given the powers of discernment, of reason and of creation.  To me there is purpose in this.

Science is merely a quest to uncover the secrets of our universe; man’s very finite attempt to explore the infinite. Faith and science therefore have a great deal in common and are to me complimentary, rather than mutually exclusive, concepts.  One is man’s attempt to understand the natural order of things; the other to understand the supernatural order.

The problems arise when attempting to apply the methods we use to understand the natural order (which we still, admittedly, know very little about) to understand, or disprove, the supernatural.  I would liken it to trying to explain all the mysteries of the ocean by applying only those properties we can glean from a glass of seawater.

Believing in and benefiting from scientific advancement does not require a suspension of one’s faith, because the natural world is a lesser included concept within the supernatural order.  However using scientific methodology to explain and/or disprove God is an attempt to reduce all the limitless workings of the universe to our very limited practices and observations on or from the Earth.

The science of molecular theory involves our ability to study and predict the properties of our world at the molecular level.  We have created instruments that now allow us to interfere with nature at its most granular plane and we (rightfully) congratulate ourselves on our development of this technology and the science that arises from it.  However, atoms and particles and molecules have undeniably always been a part of the fabric of this world, yet they were never observed and therefore never proven to exist until well into the 20th century.  Again- they were always there, long before science “discovered” them.

One of my favorite quotes comes originally from Erasmus, but I learned of it via Carl Jung, the father of analytical psychiatry, who had it engraved upon both the doorway to his home and his headstone-

“Vocatus at que non Vocatus Deusadent”   ~”Bidden or Not Bidden, God is Present”

To that concept I would add “discovered or undiscovered, proven or unproven”.

To me, scientific and technological advancement reflect the highest achievement of the human mind; however, when I try to understand the infinite universe, at either a micro or macro level, only God can satisfy those questions for me.

And I am simply a Christian because when I try to understand the nature of God, only Christ can adequately answer those questions for me.

Posted in Apologetics, Christianity | 2 Comments

Evangelical Atheism

In reading blog commentaries posted by “evangelical atheists”- those that feel the need to attack faith, rather than just disavow themselves of it- I seem to always come away saddened and sometimes a bit infuriated. It amazes me how these folks, often so fond of touting their own intellect, repeatedly rely on the same stale “religion is divisive and responsible for all the world’s ills” sawhorse as the crux of their argumentation.

What they fail to realize, probably because “failing to realize” is frequently their stock in trade, is that so much of what is good in our society has been accomplished precisely because of faith. The abolition of slavery in Britain and later in the US; the children’s rights movement of the 19th century; women’s suffrage; the civil rights movement under Dr. King- all motivated at some fundamental level by courageous, committed (and yes, sane) Christians who desired to see God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

People of faith feed the poor, they clothe children, they organize relief from flood and famine. With all due respect, I’ve never seen an “Atheist Children’s Fund” or witnessed teams of atheists flooding a tornado-ravaged town with supplies, medical care and compassion. Yes, religion has been used as an excuse to mask self-serving and often vile behavior over the centuries; and even into modern society. Then again religion, even Christianity, is a man-made device and what convention of mankind hasn’t been exploited to these ends? Such exploitation was what my father, a United Methodist minister, frequently called “downstream” behavior because it does not taint the source. When infinite reality is left to be interpreted by finite minds, troubles will arise. However, this does not, in any way, diminish the greatness of the infinite. As C.S. Lewis says-

“A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.”

God has called us to something more than ourselves and something completely contrary to our own base natures. Faith in this calling has sustained soldiers in distant wars; it has awarded dignity and purpose to the disenfranchised; it has provided comfort to a grieving parent; it has given hope to the dying. To be an atheist is to live without these things and, some would believe, to live without grace. I pass no judgment on atheism or atheists; I’ve been there. However, I so often encounter those among that group who feel the need to consistently berate God as a fairy tale, brand faith as something silly and who consistently complain, aggressively and with arrogance, at having other people’s “close-minded beliefs” imposed upon them. This in turn compels me to ponder how it is that, in all their self-proclaimed wisdom, these evangelical atheists fail to see that particular irony in their own words.

Posted in Apologetics, Christianity | 2 Comments


Throughout my life I have often said, arrogantly, that while I am not necessarily a Christian I am “a spiritual person”.  I’ve never really devoted much thought to what I meant by “spiritual”; only that the title allowed me to lay an easy claim to piety without having to bother with the pesky accountability that accompanies true faith.

I have flitted back and forth between a number of belief systems in my life- atheism, agnosticism, Buddhism, free floating monotheism, universalism and a very loose rendering of protestant Christianity; all ultimately culminating in the spiritual equivalent of jogging in place for the last 25 years. If faith is a metaphorical mountain to be climbed- and I believe it is as wise an analogy as any- I have spent my entire adult life poking around base camp. I have never truly placed my foot upon that daunting route to the summit.

That said, in acknowledging all this time that I am “spiritual” I have, however unconsciously, drawn a line between myself and the atheists and agnostics and inadvertently joined the ranks of those who believe in something outside of themselves.

Of course, I now know I have a spirit. This revelation has not come from any wisdom I have accumulated over the years. I simply know it in the same way that I know I have a stomach when I am hungry. I know because I have felt a consistent sense of emptiness and longing which has permeated and ultimately affected every aspect of my life; even when all else was going so well.

However that same longing, while painful, also offers some sense of peace because the emptiness itself confirms that there should be something more; something spiritually nourishing and fulfilling and real and attainable- something that, while I have played around at faith my entire life, has always been there; simply waiting for me to come and discover it.

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The Mountain

“Faith is not a flower to be plucked; it is a mountain to be climbed.”

This is actually a variation on an old Buddhist saying about wisdom, but it could truly be said about anything worth having.

True faith requires devotion, discipline and, above all else, application. One may, at some pivotal moment in their life, come to fully accept a system of beliefs, be they Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. and from that point forward endeavor to live their life in response to those beliefs. However, true faith lies not in that initial moment of embarking but rather within one’s continued refinement of his/her understanding of those beliefs through study, practice and reflection.

A wedding is a golden moment in a couple’s lives, but within the context of a lifelong partnership, it lays at the bottom- not the top- of the hill. When the honeymoon is over, as most of us know, the real work truly begins. So it is with faith. Once you have decided, at least at some fundamental level, what you truly believe; the climb, the real work, begins in earnest.

For Christians, this means progressing beyond the bible stories we learned in Sunday School as children, and allowing our faith to mature through self-scholarship, experience and consistent reflection on the world around us; a world that each of us views through the variegated filters of our own understanding and experience.  Most importantly, it requires regular and intimate conversations with God.

I am completely aware of where I began. As faith journeys go, I truly started from the deepest of valleys.  That said, I also feel a strange sense of exhilaration as if there is some momentum either pushing me from behind or pulling me forward toward the unseen paths ahead.  I have given my way over to God, and I now look forward, in great anticipation, to the climb.

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