Press Column Saturday 11 November 2000

The news that the face of Jesus has been seen in a plaster is easily misinterpreted; but this is not in fact a band aid, but the sort you decorate your house with: as they Daily Star’s headline writers had it "The Wall-mighty". "DIY nut Colin Cram’s house has become a shrine — after the image of Christ appeared as he plastered his kitchen wall.. Shocked Colin, 44, dropped his trowel as he stood back to admire his work -–and saw Jesus. He called in a local vicar, Fr Leonard Skinner, who thought the image looked just like the famous Turin Shroud — and he carried out a formal blessing."

Not only is the image a distant relative of the Turin Shroud, but Colin himself is a second cousin of the former Olympic runnet Steve Cram. The best thing about the story, though is the way the apparition has fitted into the family’s own belief system. Colin and his brother are believe the image is a message from beyond the grave from their mother. "We used to call her ‘the Witch’," he told the paper, "because she was psychic and known as a healer."

This is almost as delightful as Jemima Khan’s explanation of why she can’t be an anti-Semite, even though she thinks that the American media are biased towards Israel and said as much in an article for the Guardian. "I was brought up in a strongly Jewish family (though nominally an Anglican) and now I live as a Muslim in a Muslim country" she told the Sunday Telegraph. Incidentally, she’s right about the American media. Imagine how they would report a British army helicopter attack which killed two Belfast housewives along with an IRA man no one had heard of — yet when the Israelis kill two Palestinian women bystanders along with an al Fatah commander, the civilian deaths are relegated to collateral damage.

The row over last week’s tabloid story, the baby Maximus Lucius, rumbled on delightfully in the correspondence of the Times . The Bishop of Southwell’s chaplain wrote to argue in favour of a restrictive policy, saying that the problem was the parents’ reluctance to attend church, not the names: why, he knows of two children in Leicestershire called "Porsche" and "Cosworth". Must remember to ask what is the diocese’s policy on the fuel tax. Then there was a letter upholding the BCP policy of baptising anyone who lives within the parish; and finally a letter from an Orthodox priest, who made so pithily the point that there are seven saints named Maximus in his calendar that his letter was almost shorter than the heading at the top: "from the Very Reverend Protopresbyter Alban Barter." I suppose almost eny child at the font might be regarded as a proto-presbyter by a sufficient optimist.

But all of these stories pale into insignificance compared with the story for which this week will be remembered through ages yet to come. The trifling difficulties over the American election will be held up as a comic mirror of the tragic and significant moment when an Italian theologian excommunicated the hamburger; or at least they would, if he had actually done so. The story was devoured by all the Rome correspondent. They probably won’t have anything so juicy to get their teeth into until the Pope dies. Anything that can draw an official denial from a Monsignor as well as from McDonald’s Italia has got to be tasty theology.

At first sight the story looked like a re-run of Umberto Eco’s comparison of computer operating systems with religions, in which the DOS prompt stood for stern Protestant virtue, and the graphical interface of a Mac for the softer delights of Catholicism: Massimo Salani, a theologian from Pisa, said that the hamburger "is not Catholic. It completely negates the holiness of food." Further, the Big Mac "reflected the individualistic relationship between man ad God established by Luther." I am not quite sure that this is the chief sin of a McDonald’s hamburger. It’s not obviously virtuous nor even polite to share your spaghetti-eating experience with your neighbours, as any parent will agree. The objections to hamburgers are numerous, but to say that they promote fast food in a country that gave the world suppli al telegrafo and expresso coffee, is surely to miss the more important point that they taste completely disgusting.

As the coverage rolled through the papers, more serious aspects appeared. Mr Salani was merely trying to put a Catholc spin on a largely secular movement of protest agains the rapid spread of McDonalds across Italy: earlier in the month riot police had been called out to control a crown in Rome chanting "better a day of tortellini than 100 days of hamburgers" and similar revolutionary slogans. The trouble is that the Communists have placed themselves in the forefront of the protest, so left-wing Catholics have to have their own reasons for joining in. And that, in turn, leads to a solemn declaration from a monsignor that "One does not sin by eating a hamburger and french fries, But the way in which certain kinds of fast food are eaten should be re-examined. It’s a way which tends to reduce everything to nothing, and to eliminate conversation in the interests of speed, and to destroy the sense of the family."

It was left to La Stampa to point out that the real problem with Catholic doctrine is that it encourages fast families without the food to nourish them.

The most remarkable article of the week, however, was by Hywel Williams, on the Guardian’s op-ed page, in defence of Christianity. It was a really thorough, elegant, and long overdue attack on the orthodoxies of most Guardian writers on religion, which ended, "Christian apologetics has its shallow felicities:today’s bread and suffering explained smoothly away so jam may arrive on the providential morrow. But even at this complacent worst, Christians do not resemble the disfiguring fiction of English liberal fantasy — a substitute for knowledge and an opportunity for vulgar abuse." It will be interesting to see the response.

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