Holy Bogusness

Well, it is– after all– Easter Week, and as surely as the spring flowers bloom at this time of the year, the exploitative, deceptive “religious documentaries” spring up on the History cable channels and “religious discoveries” dutifully appear on the covers of Time, Newsweek, and the US News & World Report.          

But of course the level of outrageous hucksterism has now begun to exceed the merely deceptive.  Thanks to computer-generated graphics and some charlatans and willing, stooge scholars who clamor to be on TV, these documentaries have succeeded in COMPLETELY IGNORING the archaeological consensus and in making fundamentalist hypotheses seem unarguably authentic through visual imagery.          

I mean, it’s absolutely outrageous what the History Channel, for instance, has done with its prime time spectacular “The Real Face of Jesus?” (naively shilled by Good Morning America and the Today Show).          

Examining the Shroud of Turin: The Real Face of Jesus follows a team of graphic experts as they use 3D technology to bring a holy relic known as the Shroud of Turin to life. Here, computer graphics artist Ray Downing consults with John Jackson of Colorado's Turin Shroud Center. (History Channel)


First of all, it is abundantly clear to all serious archaeologists that the Shroud of Turin is a 13th-14th-century forgery, part of the booming European medieval relics trade.  Only those who continue to be supported by the 21st-century pilgrimage-and-relics trade and those fundamentalists who believe that the resurrection of Jesus was accompanied by some kind of explosive nuclear emission that seared the linen will continue to believe unfailingly in its authenticity.          

Then you have the scientism.  In this documentary, you have a guiding “graphics expert” with an outrageous Donald Trump-style hairdo, who guides us through the steps whereby the image on the shroud is made to take on a 3D, photo-realistic quality through mathematical modeling and the extrapolation-by-software of facial pores, bloody wounds, and hair follicles. 

3D Rendering of the Image on the Shroud of Turin: Ray Downing and his associates used cutting-edge 3D software and tools to coax a 3D model out of a two-dimensional artifact. (History Channel)



My God, this is a dangerous delusion.  It’s a theological confabulation designed ONLY for profit by selling a miraculously life-like illusion to the Faithful.  It’s relic worship pure and simple.  High budget relic worship to be sure– much more expensive and technologically advanced than seeing an image of the Virgin Mary in the bark of a tree.   

This kind of high-tech antiquarian hokum just hammers another nail into the public understanding of what science and archaeology are all about. But of course belief in empirical evidence and confidence in human reason have already been quite thoroughly crucified in our tabloid TV society.

Heritage against Fundamentalism

Lord Knows that I have written and spoken out against rigid, literalist, essentialist historical interpretations of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament— not just as a matter of theology or philosophy– but as the result of serious archaeological and historical research.   

If archaeology is good for anything other than illustrating what we THINK we already know, it is an invaluable tool for documenting the changing social contexts and material culture in which every human innovation and cultural activity was formed.    


There is no difference whatsoever between Scientific Creationists (who twist every possible bit of empirical evidence to show that Darwin MAY be wrong and that the world COULD have been created in seven days 6000 years ago), with those fundamentalist biblical hardliners who INSIST that every single word of the Bible is inerrant, divinely inspired and that every historical story it contains is as reliable as a news report in the New York Times– no, sorry– the Fox News Network.    

This kind of literalistic thinking is an essential prop for the current theocratic and autocratic powers-that-be.  For they make their self-serving truths the basis of their earthly power to oppress, attack, denigrate, and sow fear as natural divine decrees.    

The archaeological and textual study of the origins of the world’s great religions can knock out that prop and let us see the evolution of the major, historical and text-based faiths in a clearer light.  Believe me, there is still a long way to go with the public understanding of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, but at least those that suggest more nuanced, less supernatural narratives of their origins are not automatically burned at the stake.    

It’s a promising development that the Qur’an could also be the focus of such study.  But the stakes are still extremely high in challenging the conventional fundamentalist wisdom.  The project described below originates in a western university.    

A ninth century leaf from a collection of illuminated fragments of the Koran (Qur’an) from the early Abbasid period and later, copied on parchment of a horizontal format, probably in the late 3rd AH / 9th CE, as well as possibly in the 5th AH / 11th CE centuries.

We are still waiting for a Muslim Spinoza.  But there is no question whatsoever that serious historical and archaeological study of Early Islamic History would be a good thing.    

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From the Boston Globe:    

The origins of a holy book

Using ancient texts, scholars have begun an audacious effort to unravel the story of the Koran. What will they find?

by Drake Bennett  – March 28, 2010    

Later this spring, a team of scholars at Germany’s Berlin-Brandenberg Academy of Sciences will complete the first phase of what will ultimately be an unprecedented, two-decade effort to throw light on the origins of the Koran.    

The project, called the Corpus Coranicum, will be something that scholars of the Koran have long yearned for: a central repository of imagery, information, and analysis about the Muslim holy book. Modern research into Islam’s origin and early years has been hampered by the paucity and inaccessibility of ancient texts, and the reluctance of Muslim governments in places like Yemen to allow wide access to them.

But, drawing on some of the earliest Korans in existence — codices found in Istanbul, Cairo, Paris, and Morocco — the Corpus Coranicum will allow users to study for themselves images of thousands of pages of early Korans, texts that differ in small but potentially telling ways from the modern standard version. The project will also link passages in the text to analogous ones in the New Testament and Hebrew Bible, and offer an exhaustive critical    

commentary on the Koran’s language, structure, themes, and roots. The project’s creators are calling it the world’s first “critical edition” of the Koran, a resource that gathers historical evidence and scholarly literature into one searchable, cross-referenced whole.    

Critical editions — usually books rather than websites — are a commonplace in academia. University bookstores do a brisk business in critical editions of the world’s best-known literary works, from “The Iliad” to “Hamlet” to “Das Kapital.” As labor-saving devices for scholars and teaching aids for students, they can be invaluable. Presenting a novel or manifesto or play in its historical context helps readers to see the ways it was shaped by contemporaneous events and local attitudes, how it was built from the distinctive cultural building blocks at hand. Embedding a work in critical commentary — and critical editions often include essays that are sharply at odds with each other — gives readers a sense of the richness of possible readings of the text.    

But the form takes on a special significance with holy books, where millions of people order their lives in accordance to what they see as divine language. Standard versions like the King James Bible or the regularized Cairo Koran (the version, first printed in 1924, that most Muslims have today) help to unite the faithful in one common reading of their holy book. A critical edition, on the other hand, by its nature, highlights the contingency of a text’s creation and gives readers the tools to interpret it for themselves.    

Among Koranic scholars, there’s a great deal of excitement about the Corpus Coranicum, which will help them make better sense of a text that — despite the fact that millions regularly recite from it and live their lives according to its precepts — remains something of a historical and theological puzzle…    

For complete story, click here.    

No European Heritage Label for You!

The announcement of the “European Heritage Label” is, I believe, an ill-conceived exercise.  It is either a cynical tourist marketing campaign or the shaping of an entirely artificial pan-European identity (see my post of  March 10).  In either case it will show (once again) that meaningful heritage should be remembered, not dictated or made.

Heritage should help shape a productive future (which in Europe’s case is clearly multicultural), not fossilize or set in stone an idealized myth of a pure or homogenized past. 

But maybe the worst thing about that negative, exclusionary kind of “official” heritage is that it can also be used to delineate what is NOT mainstream, official, or legitimate.

The gathering reported below is, I know, populated by some of Europe’s nastiest racists and motivated by some of its most unpleasant, xenophobic attitudes.  But it does embody clearly– in its own way– the natural corollary to the European Heritage label:  namely, the establishment and publication of a proscribed UN-EUROPEAN HERITAGE LIST

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From Der Speigel Online:

03/26/2010 06:35 PM

Following in Switzerland’s Footsteps

International Right-Wingers Gather for EU-Wide Minaret Ban

By Charles Hawley in Berlin

Delegates from right-wing populist parties from across Europe are descending on Germany this weekend for a conference looking into the possibility of an EU-wide minaret ban. The hosts, an anti-Muslim German group, hope to use the gathering as a springboard to success in local elections.

What could be more European than a castle? The Continent is dotted with them, often menacingly perched on forested hilltops overlooking rivers or ancient trading routes — important bastions necessary for the defense of what developed into Europe’s long and rich cultural tradition.

These days, of course, European castles tend to be little more than bucolic tourist attractions. But it is perhaps no accident that a small palace in western Germany’s former industrial heart has been chosen to host a convention ostensibly aimed at defending European culture. The castle in question is the centuries-old Horst Palace, a Renaissance structure in the Ruhr Valley city of Gelsenkirchen. The gathering is called, pointedly, the Anti-Minaret Conference.

This Saturday, politicians representing right-wing conservative parties from across Europe will descend on the Horst Palace to discuss the dangers of Islam. Delegates from the Belgian nationalists Vlaams Belang will be there as will politicians from Geert Wilders’s Dutch Party for Freedom, Pia Kjaersgaard’s Danish People’s Party and the Front National of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Others from Sweden, Austria and Eastern Europe are also on the invite list.

‘Symbols of Radical Islam’

The hosts are a relatively new group of German right-wing conservatives called Pro-NRW (an abbreviation of the German state North Rhine-Westphalia) and the goal of the conference is clear: to follow in Switzerland’s footsteps and ban minarets across Europe. And they want to use a provision of the European Union’s new Lisbon Treaty to do it.

“I don’t think that minarets are part of our heritage,” conference attendee Filip Dewinter, floor leader for Vlaams Belang in the Flemish parliament, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “They are symbols of radical Islam. The question is whether Islam is a religion like Protestantism and Catholicism and for me it is not. It is a political system, it is a way of life and it is one that is not compatible with ours.”

Pro-NRW and the other right-wing parties were galvanized when Swiss voters last November passed a ban on the construction of new minarets in the country. Since then, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which launched the referendum, have become the darlings of the European right. Indeed, the SVP has loaned their controversial campaign poster, which depicts missile-like minarets jutting out of a Swiss flag behind an ominous, niqab-wearing Muslim woman, to Pro-NRW for its campaign in Germany. And anti-minaret movements on the Swiss model have sprung up around Europe.

Dewinter has recently taken a closer look at whether a provision in the new Lisbon Treaty allowing for citizens’ initiatives could be used to push through a Europe-wide ban on the construction of minarets. On Saturday, delegates at the Anti-Minaret Conference will discuss whether to begin collecting the 1 million signatures such a path would require…

For full article, click here

Fighting over Gettysburg

Is this really a battle between heritage and commercialization– or just between competing touristic activities? Gettysburg is undoubtedly an American Shrine but it has also become a heavily marketed vacation destination.  And with wine-tasting, romantic getaways, golf courses, and a nearby theme park, will the memory of the fallen really be affected by a few slot machines? 

The larger question is not the limits of respectful historic battlefield preservation, but rather the disturbing fact that most of our heritage– battlefield and non-battlefield– has become just another attractively-themed entertainment alternative. 

Welcome to Gateway Gettysburg


From PennLive.com: 

With Gettysburg casino plan pending, historic preservation and economic development do battle


March 15, 2010, 12:41AM

Battle lines are being drawn again in Gettysburg. It’s economic development vs. historic preservation as philanthropist and former Conrail CEO David LeVan again tries to win a license for a casino on the outskirts of town. 

A casino proposal four years ago was unsuccessful, in part because of heavy community opposition. 

LeVan said he will submit a new proposal to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board by April 7. His new slots and table games parlor would be much smaller than his proposal in 2006. It would be in an existing building and would be farther from town and closer to the Maryland border, where many prospective casino patrons live. 

Tourists and Tourist shops in Gettysburg (Photo by Chris Knight, Patriot-News)


With pro-casino and no-casino camps disputing the most basic claims of the other, an undercurrent of division snakes through this historic area, which depends on more than a million visitors a year to its Civil War battlefield but which also has seen unemployment more than double in the last five years… 

For full story, click here.

Who Ever Said Heritage is About the Past? (Continued)

Smoke is seen as volunteers clear debris at the Kasubi Royal Tombs, destroyed by an inferno in the outskirts of Uganda’s capital Kampala, March 17, 2010. Credit: REUTERS/James Akena


From AFP 17 March:   

Uganda army deploys after fire destroys historic tombs

KAMPALA — Fire ravaged the UN-listed Kasubi tombs in Uganda and the army and police deployed across Kampala on Wednesday after protests by youths who claimed it was arson.   

Anti-riot units battled during the night to disperse young supporters of the Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II, traditional ruler of the Baganda, one of Uganda’s main tribes.   

The fire on Tuesday night destroyed much of the 128-year-old tombs just south of Kampala where four Baganda kings are buried.   

The tombs in straw-thatched buildings are revered by the Baganda people and are a major tourist attraction on the World Heritage List drawn up by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).   

President Yoweri Museveni is to inspect the damage on Wednesday, a source at his office said.   

“When the fire broke out, police were called in and got there in time but the fire brigade was obstructed by a hostile crowd, three trucks were damaged and a fireman injured,” Uganda’s police chief, Major General Kale Kayihura told AFP.   

“Faced with this hostility and in an effort to stop the fire from destroying the tombs, the officer fired some shots in the air to disperse the crowd but no one was hurt,” he added.   

Kayihura said the cause of the fire was still being investigated.   

Peter Mayiga, a spokesman for the Buganda Kingdom, whose people are concentrated in the south of Uganda and Kampala, described the fire as “an attack on Buganda”.   

Last year an attempt by the authorities to stop the Baganda king from visiting an area near Kampala sparked running battles in the streets of the capital. Police fired tear gas and live ammunition.   

“This fire is very strange given what we (the Baganda) have been going through,” Mayiga said without giving details.   

Kayihura, reacting to Mayiga’s comments, said: “That is absolute falsehood. The government cannot be responsible for this fire.”   

The tombs were declared a World Heritage Site in 2001. As a spiritual symbol for the Baganda people, many go to the tombs for ritual ceremonies…   

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For more info on the Kasubi tombs, click here.   

Uganda has two other World Heritage sites, the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the Ruwenzori Mountains National Park. Both are “natural” properties.    

Much harder to make a political point with those…   


Cold War Nostalgia: Fast Food, Souvenirs, and Soviet Kitsch

I am becoming particularly fascinated by the material heritage of the Cold War:  missile silos, fallout shelters, space toys, and suburbia.  But look what’s happening to the epicenter and heritage icon of the post-World War II world in divided Berlin.   

American student visitors with Cold War era re-enactor at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin


From the AFP 14 March:   

You are now entering Checkpoint ‘McCharlie’

By Simon Sturdee   

BERLIN — Checkpoint Charlie, a world-famous symbol of the Cold War that until 1989 was the front line between two nuclear-armed superpowers, is getting its own McDonalds. For many, this is the final straw.   

Where once US and Soviet tanks faced off as the whole world held its breath, there are now actors posing as soldiers in American or Soviet uniforms stamping tourists’ passports or posing in photos — for a fee.   

And next to the replica “You are now entering the American sector” sign, souvenir shops and stalls sell chunks of the Berlin Wall and pieces of Cold War kitsch like toy “Trabi” cars and Soviet military hats.   

Other hot items include T-shirts showing Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s famous kiss with East German strongman Eric Honecker, a common sign of socialist solidarity that triggered ridicule in the West — and was later satirized in a mural on the Berlin Wall after it was breached in November 1989.   

Vernon Pike, a former US army colonel who used to command Checkpoint Charlie, was so incensed that he fired off an angry letter to the Berlin authorities in 2008, calling the transformation “an unacceptable spectacle”.   

This January an immense billboard advert by a clothes company went up featuring a young woman wearing the maker’s jeans — and flashing her top half to a security camera.   

There is already a Starbucks, and the “Golden Arches” logo will later this year adorn a building currently occupied by eateries including a sushi outlet, a kebab shop and a pizzeria, irreverently known as “Snackpoint Charlie”.   

“This is really a very strange place,” Simone Bernaert, 62, a retired and unimpressed university lecturer from Paris visiting Berlin, told AFP…   

For full article, click here.

The March of Heritage Folly Continues

No one should impugn the genuine emotional and spiritual attachment of Jews, Christians, an Muslims to Jerusalem’s monuments and heritage places.  But when heritage becomes a public zero-sum game between hostile communities, waged with raucous demonstrations and intentional muscle-flexing in a small, already-tense city, needless violence can be the only outcome.  

Are there no cool heads, no wise leaders who can stop this latest cycle of heritage-based hostility in Jerusalem?  

Jerusalem: Rebuilt Hurva Synagogue (white dome, above; al-Aqsa Mosque (silver dome, below). Detail of a photo by Berthold Werner


From Ynet News:  

Old City synagogue opened amid heightened tensions

After PA urges Muslims to barricade themselves in Al-Aqsa Mosque, hundreds of Jews take part in ceremony bringing new Torah scroll to restored shul in Jewish Quarter. ‘If this angers Obama, Netanyahu should choose a different partner,’ celebrator says.  

Shmulik Grossman

Published: 03.14.10, 20:38

Hundreds of people took part in a ceremony bringing a new Torah scroll into the restored Hurva Synagogue in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter on Sunday. The ceremony in east Jerusalem was held under heavy security after the Palestinian Authority joined the Islamic Movement in its calls for Muslims to flock to the al-Aqsa Mosque in response to extremist Jews’ plans to lay a cornerstone at the Temple Mount.  

Among the celebrators was Knesset Member Michael Ben-Ari (National Union), who criticized the prime minister, saying, “(Benjamin) Netanyahu, who crushed his own national backbone and is leading to the division of Jerusalem, should have come here to draw strength from Hurva’s restoration and display power instead of compromising Jerusalem’s unity.”  


Earlier Sunday, Hatem Abdel Kader, the Fatah official in charge of the Jerusalem portfolio, urged Palestinians in Jerusalem and Israel to declare their plans to travel to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City and barricade themselves there starting Monday.  

Meanwhile, police have declared they will not allow the Israeli rightists to go through with their plans to lay a cornerstone at the site.  

To read complete story, click here.