In the southwest corner of Ohio, between Cincinnati and Dayton, there is an evangelical organization doing business as The Solid Rock Church. They have the kind of low but expansive building you would expect any self-respecting mega-church to have, but their real claim to notoriety has been, for several years now, a sixty-two foot statue of Jesus facing the highway. From this bare description, one might imagine a tall thin figure of stone like the one that stands over Rio de Janeiro – with its serene expression and open arms – a thing of some artistic merit if nothing else. If one imagined this, one would have probably been disappointed at the Solid Rock Church’s statue, which stood waist deep in the back of a large rectangular pond, and was made not of solid rock, but mainly of Styrofoam sprayed with fiberglass resin. Their Jesus didn’t embrace the world, but stood tilted back with its arms and head cast upward in a not-altogether-convincing gesture of submission and anguished piety. The less reverent people in the area referred the statue as the “Touchdown Jesus”.1 I myself usually referred to the thing as “Quicksand Jesus,” as it always looked to me like a man grasping for a hand to pull him out the muck at the bottom of the pond. A little south of the Solid Rock Church there is a huge flea market called Trader’s World. Trader’s World has a sign a bit taller that Solid Rock’s Christ, surmounted by a large horse made out of more-or-less the same materials, but rather better proportioned.
In any case, whatever the relative merits of the Solid Rock Church’s icon might have been, lightning struck it last night in a storm. Being constructed mostly of air and combustible plastic, it all but exploded into a quite impressive fireball which consumed itself before either Mary or the Apostles had a chance to shed a tear, and well before any of the local news people could point a camera at the event. Nothing remains of “Napalm Jesus” but a blackened steel armature. This armature looks like nothing in particular – perhaps Pablo Picasso’s impression of an oil derrick. To be frank, this is not of much aesthetic merit either, though it is at least a little less kitsch.
Following the event, the cameramen and reporters did show up. As one might expect, they pointed their cameras and microphones at the few stunned members of the congregation who had shown up too late save their plastic and fiberglass messiah. These people, all less than thirty and obviously dedicated to the church, expressed a uniform confusion about what the event might mean – which is to say, what was God trying to tell the Christians of America by smiting the image of his son? It did not seem to occur to any of them, reporters included, that the meaning of the event (if any) was that it just isn’t wise to build a tall, steel-framed structure covered in combustibles in the middle of a field. It did not mean that God was unaccountably angry, but merely that the things we do know about physics cannot be mitigated by any amount of prayer, belief or wishful thinking. The reporters nodded and smiled the fixed, neutral smiles that they are no doubt trained to smile. The members of the congregation, I assume, eventually went home – taking their impossible conundrum with them.
If I were a wag (which I am) and a newspaper editor (which I am not), I would have written an editorial today and headlined it “Zeus smites Jesus.” Well, that would solve the conundrum, wouldn’t it? Thunderbolts were Zeus’s gimmick, after all. Monotheism, even tripartite monotheism, makes an unnecessary mess of things like this. If there is only God and us, and God is angry, we must certainly be the cause. On the other hand, if we must have blind, irrational faith Polytheism would at least take us off the hook some of the time. After all, if Zeus burns Jesus’ statue, well, that’s a matter for Zeus and Jesus to work out on their own. We might happen be unfortunate enough to get in the way of their battles now and then, but at least we would be spared the narcissistic guilt of imagining the universe revolves around us. I am being silly, cynical, and intolerant of course. Reasonable, right-thinking people of good character erect half-million dollar idols out of fast-food-burger-box materials and consider them accidental auguries into the bargain. For this reason (and many others) I fully intend to remain a silly, cynical, intolerant skeptic – and may lightning strike me dead if I should falter.
1 For those of you who aren’t Americans, a “touchdown” is a scored goal in American football.